Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Juan Cole on Al-Qaeda and the 9/11: Mostly right about US domestic situation, mostly wrong about the Middle East
Juan Cole is notoriously sensitive about opposing views in the comments section of his blog. It was much less noticeable to me during the presidency of George W. Bush, whom Cole opposed than it is during the presidency of Barack Obama whom Cole supports. With Obama president, Cole is not far from just another jingoistic American, and not even the most fair. Other jingoistic Americans - Americans who are willing to bend any logical or moral principle in favor of their support for country - are usually more willing than Cole to expose their ideas to public scrutiny than Cole has been recently. At least on his own site.
Oh well. Other people have blogs. I have a blog. Over at RaceForIran.com , Flynt and Hillary Leverett have an unmoderated comments section. I'm told that Scott Lucas' Enduring America site has a comments section to which opposing views can easily be presented without alteration.
But if you read Cole's 9/11 article about the impact of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East and the US, you'll see that it's wrong in somewhat interesting ways. Cole presents the idea that Al-Qaeda's goal is to create a caliphate that, I guess, Bin Laden would rule. This is a very popular idea in the United States. I've only seen this idea presented by American supposed experts on Al-Qaeda. None of Bin Laden's interviews or statements, no statement of any kind from any member of Al-Qaeda, in fact no Muslim at all, as far as I've ever heard, has advocated creating the caliphate Cole talks about.
Now if someone digs up a statement that mentions a caliphate made by a Muslim in an aspirational tone, I'll stand corrected, but still, that is not a primary motivating factor or we'd read it a lot more than we have, which for me is never.
What motivated 9/11? A long term plan to build a caliphate, or the idea that the United States, from a long distance away, was killing Muslims and should suffer some consequence for that? The second seems a more obvious explanation, and is supported by Bin Laden's actual statements rather than what might be a fantasy in the minds of US-based researchers into Al-Qaeda.
(As a quick aside, here's a statement by Cole: "Had [the US] lifted the blockade on medicine and chlorine in Iraq, it would have forestalled charges of being implicated in the deaths of half a million children." Well, probably. Had the US not taken actions to kill hundreds of thousands of children and elderly in Iraq, then charges that the US took actions to kill hundred of thousands of children and elderly probably would have been "forestalled".)
The main error that pervades Cole's essay is this supposed caliphate motivation on the part of Al-Qaeda.
The second major error is that Cole speaks as if Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or any former pro-US dictatorship has been replaced by an accountable government. None have. I vigorously hope that they all will, but so far they have not. The efficacy of the Arab spring model for political change has not been demonstrated yet, and will not have been demonstrated until a government takes power that has defeated its opposition by getting more votes.
Every statement Cole makes about what the Arab spring has proven is so far false. I hope his statements become true as soon as possible. I hoped in February that they would have been proven true by now. But for now they are not true.
After that, he makes a lot of mistakes about the Middle East, but comparatively minor. He claims the student groups have been more important in the protest movements than the Islamists. None of the movements so far could have extracted promises of reform without both. Both were necessary, neither was sufficient. To say one was more important is inaccurate, but in a minor way.
He makes a weird claim that the Arab Spring proves that most Middle East publics have expressed a preference for parliamentary democracy instead of direct democracy. First, most Middle East publics, numerically, are still ruled by pro-US colonial dictators. Second, there is a consensus among political scientists, especially but not only in the West, that parliamentary systems are in many ways superior to the US' older model of government. This expert consensus has resulted in no public recently ever being given a choice between parliamentary and direct democracy. Third, even if Cole was right about this, which he isn't, this is the type of detail that still would hardly merit mention in any overview essay such as Cole's. I can't figure out what that's all about.
Cole also claims that there were no major Al-Qaeda attacks on the US post 9/11 because the first attacks were bait that accomplished their goal of causing the US reaction that occurred. That's just wrong. There were no later attacks because the US acted much more vigilantly to discover and break up potential attacks. Clearly Bin Laden did not have the ability to launch further major attacks on the US and refrained because the US had already invaded Iraq.
But where Cole is closer to right is the impact of 9/11 on the US. 9/11 unleashed forces in the United States that want the US itself to be a more tightly controlled and less politically free state. Barack Obama claimed, now obviously falsely, to oppose that tendency. Cole manages to criticize the actions of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to push the US in that direction without noting that Obama has expanded far more of their programs than he reduced.
Americans very rarely understand that freedom is a luxury and a by-product of wealth. Make Iran or Cuba two or three orders of magnitude more wealthy than their potential adversaries and either of them would likely be more politically free than the United States is. Both Iran and Cuba are ideologically inspired nations the way the US was in the late 1700s when its constitution was written and is far less today.
The personal freedoms afforded by the United States to its citizens come from its relative wealth and relative security from foreign intervention and not much more than that. Put either George Bush or Barack Obama where Cuba is, with a rich, hostile enemy to the north, and either will build far more ruthless dictatorships than Castro has, because neither, unlike Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Fidel Castro and Ruholluh Khomeini is motivated by a revolutionary vision of how good a state can be.
Related to the idea of the cost of the luxury of personal freedom, is the price to the US of Israel - the price of maintaining the string of colonial dictatorships necessary to fulfill the US' commitment that Israel will militarily dominate neighbors with far greater populations and economic resources. This cost was far higher on 9/12/01 than it was on 9/10/01. And continues to be much higher to this day.
Barack Obama, very disappointingly, in May claimed the US is still willing to pay any price. As the price goes up, we'll see where the US' commitment breaks. So far, Al-Qaeda has done far more than any other group or organization to raise the direct cost to the US of its commitment to Israel's ability to dominate its region. Iran comes second and the Arab Spring, so far, has not had any impact at all.
After Egyptian elections and a transfer of power that I vigorously hope to see, and that Obama (and Cole because of Cole's essentially blind loyalty to Obama) is much less enthusiastic about, possibly (hopefully for me) the relative impacts of the groups may change. So far it has not, and in a fundamental way Cole seems not to understand that.
Posted by Arnold Evans at 10:03 PM