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Six Questions for Juan Cole, Author of Engaging the Muslim World


Juan Cole is one of the nation’s leading historians focusing on the Middle East. Over the past decade he has emerged as a commentator on Middle East policy and a reliable source for new ideas that may enable the United States to pursue its foreign policy objectives more effectively in the region. For millions, his frequent posts at the Informed Comment blog provide a daily update on press accounts from the Islamic world, often including translations from Arabic- and Farsi-language sources in close-to-real time. His new book, Engaging the Muslim World, will be published on March 17.

1. What are the three biggest misperceptions Americans have about the global Islamic community?


One: If you watch American television, you see the most extreme charges against Muslims set forth by pundits. Some allege that Muslims are inherently violent and commanded by scripture to attack infidels. In fact, the Quran forbids murder and commands Muslims to make peace with people who seek peace with them. The “infidels” whom the Quran urges the faithful to combat were the militant pagans of ancient Mecca, who had aggressively attacked the Muslims and were trying to kill them all. The Quran praises the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels as full of “guidance and light,” celebrates the children of Israel, and says that Christians are closest in love to Muslims. Of course, some Muslims are bigoted and manage to ignore those parts of their scripture, but it is not the case that the religion is essentially militant. I’ve gone with Americans to the Middle East, and after a few days they typically come and confess to me that they are amazed at how nice the people are, how kind and generous to foreigners, and how little they resemble U.S. media stereotypes.

Two: Many Americans seem to view the Muslim world as the new Soviet Union, as a relatively monolithic and uniformly hostile bloc of nations. This point of view seems to me oddly detached from reality. Turkey is a NATO ally, and Washington has designated Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Pakistan as non-NATO allies. Other governments of Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen have offered the U.S. intelligence, security, and/or military cooperation of a high order. Aside from Europe, there is probably no other culture area on the globe where the United States has as many formal and informal allies. The only countries the United States has relatively severe differences with among nearly fifty Muslim-majority states are Syria, Iran, and the Sudan, and that sort of thing changes over time.

Three: Americans underestimate how beloved American culture is in the Muslim world. U.S. films, television programs, music, Internet programming, and politics are matters of huge public interest, especially among youth. All the polling shows that “they” do not “hate our way of life” at all. Rather, there is enormous interest in democracy, more individual freedoms, and in free market reforms. Muslim publics report deep dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy on Israel/Palestine, on Iraq and Afghanistan, and they say they dislike what they see as Hollywood sexual values. But the American dream is wildly popular, even (or especially) in Iran.

2. It is common to see the relationship between the North Atlantic world of Europe and North America on one hand and the Islamic world on the other framed in terms of energy policy—the conflict between the consumers and the producers. You suggest that this has driven the relationship since the middle twentieth century at least, and that it’s fundamentally unhealthy. Given the power of these economic facts, what’s the way to a more healthy and productive relationship?

In the Cold War, the U.S. blithely overthrew democratically elected governments in Syria and Iran to ensure Western European access to inexpensive petroleum, considered by elites in Washington, D.C., to be key to free market economic growth and to defeating the Communist bloc. Iran in particular never forgave the United States for this heavy-handed intervention. Going forward, the temptation to conduct further oil wars will be severe. Once the world economy recovers, demand will spiral up, and the discovery of new fields is unlikely to keep pace with that new demand, especially that of China, India, and other rising Asian powers with large populations.

But let us just allow market forces to operate, and put away the guns of mercantilism. If petroleum prices rise and there are shortages, that will be an impetus to develop mass transit, electric automobiles, and alternative sources of energy. Hydrocarbons as fuel are a dead end, and we need to move away from them as quickly as possible. The impact of burning them for energy on global climate is increasingly disastrous. But there is no quick fix here, and by 2050 we will be lucky to get a third of our energy from alternative sources. Solar energy is the only source that holds out hope of truly resolving the world’s energy problems. We need to cooperate with wealthy oil states such as the United Arab Emirates, who are, ironically, exploring the possibility of zero-carbon cities.

3. The mainstay of U.S. politics in the Middle East in recent years has been the relationship with Israel, but a secondary pillar has been the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. The appointment of Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, to head the National Intelligence Council is being portrayed as a tilt in favor of the Saudi relationship. What do you make of Freeman’s appointment and the vehement opposition it has drawn?

Freeman is a man of vast experience, both in the Middle East and East Asia, and he is a realist with excellent practical judgment, so having him in charge of the writing of the National Intelligence Estimates would be a great thing. It would be a shame if his clear-eyed view of the impact of Israeli expansionism on U.S. security should itself become an obstacle to his appointment, because of the influence of the Israel lobbies. But he will not be making policy with regard to Saudi Arabia. That task will fall to Hillary Clinton at the State Department and ultimately to Barack Obama.

Saudi Arabia is a special challenge for the United States. Its oil resources are the largest in the world, and its good will is indispensable to an industrialized country. It is too rich to ignore. It is too friendly to the United States to snub. It is too authoritarian and fundamentalist to embrace without qualification. It is too influential to sideline. Saudi Arabia has emerged as a diplomatic leader in the region, playing an important if understated role in Lebanon, Palestine, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in negotiations with Iran. Although its diplomacy is often of the checkbook variety, the same thing could after all be said of the United States. Despite American trepidation about its hard line Wahhabi Islam, Saudi Arabia’s positions have generally aligned with those of Washington.

There is some good news. Saudi Arabia’s public and its elites have since 2002 taken the threat of terrorism increasingly seriously, once Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula began targeting Riyadh and Jidda. The kingdom has held municipal elections, and plans to move toward an elected parliament. The king just appointed the first woman minister and dismissed the head of the morals police for abuses. But Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, its rigid form of Islam, its abysmal human rights situation, its gender apartheid toward women, and its role in spreading narrow-mindedness and xenophobia, require steady behind-the-scenes pressure from the U.S. More, not fewer, educational exchanges are desirable.

4. You say that constructive, measured withdrawal of troops from Iraq is the only way forward. Barack Obama is putting the United States on a 19-month course to withdrawal, but he’s also saying this is only a draw-down from military operations and suggesting that there may be a long-term military presence behind enormous fortified military installations. Grade the Obama plan.

I give Obama an “A” on his Iraq policy speech. It seemed to me to hit all the right notes. He thanked the U.S. troops for their valiant efforts and sacrifices. He pledged to abide by the express wishes of the Iraqi parliament. He tried to reassure U.S. allies in the Gulf, who are worried that in the wake of a precipitate U.S. withdrawal, Iraq might collapse and that the resulting conflagration might engulf them.

I don’t entirely agree with the above characterization of Obama’s Iraq plan, however. He did not suggest that there may be a long-term U.S. military presence behind fortified military installations in Iraq. He said firmly and clearly that he would withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011, in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement passed by the Iraqi parliament last fall. I am not sure why his forthright declaration to this effect has been missed by so many observers.

It is true that he hedged a little on adherence to a strict timetable, but that is only common sense. If all hell broke loose in Mosul, with guerrillas fighting off the Iraqi Army and then beginning a massacre of the Kurdish or Christian population in the thousands, would the U.S. public really want Obama just to shrug and let it happen? If so, then why the demand for intervention in the Sudan to stop massacres there? As for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to train and equip the new Iraqi Army, would that not be the only way to ensure that U.S. soldiers did not have to intervene to stop scenarios like the one I suggested at Mosul, above? The Iraqi military has demonstrated impressive new capabilities and esprit de corps in facing down the Mahdi Army in the past year, and that gives hope that the U.S. could honorably leave Iraq without fearing a security collapse in that country in the aftermath.

I understand the public anxiety that somehow Obama will renege on his pledge to get out of Iraq altogether, and it is important that we hold his feet to the fire on this issue, since the military-industrial complex will attempt to push him to remain. But nothing in his speech justified a conviction that he is already backtracking. After years of outright prevarication and fantastic policy pronouncements on Iraq by the previous administration, this frank and realistic speech struck me as a breath of fresh air.

5. The Obama plan for Afghanistan involves a substantial ramp-up of the U.S. presence coupled with what seems a more aggressive posture against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province—as shown by the now routine reports of attacks using predator drones. You previously criticized Bush’s policies in the area as being short-sighted with respect to both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Is the Obama plan an improvement?

Under Bush, Afghanistan and Pakistan suffered from neglect. Under Obama they may suffer from a surfeit of attention. To tell you the truth, I cannot understand what the mission is in Afghanistan any more. It is not to fight Al Qaeda there. I haven’t seen anything about U.S. troops engaging or capturing “Arab Afghans” for years. It appears that the U.S. and NATO are just trying to shore up the government of Hamid Karzai, which only controls thirty percent of the country. And what do we expect? That someday rural Pashtun Muslims will wake up and say, “I don’t mind foreign troops patrolling my country, I’m happy to be ruled by Tajiks and Hazara Shiites, and I’m not that interested in living by Islamic law anymore”? President Obama has spoken about fighting defeating the “Taliban,” but there seem to be four or five distinct groups now being called that, only one of them is Mulla Omar’s “Old Taliban.” And, I have a distinct sense of dread that some of the Pashtuns attacking NATO checkpoints are just disgruntled poppy farmers whose crops we burned down.

As for Pakistan, the demand that the government exert control over the Federally Administered Tribal Areas is frankly daft. I’ve been through that territory. You might as well demand that we exert control over all the rattlesnakes in New Mexico. And the conviction that the security of the U.S. mainland depends on the urban Pakistani government regimenting those rural clansmen makes no sense to me. Rugged areas where the government is weak are obviously possible havens for terrorists, but they also typically lack the infrastructure to enable major operations to be conducted directly from such territories. We’d be better off working with Pakistan to put in better airport security and computer tracking of people flying in and out. The Pakistani military has been fighting hard in Bajaur, one of the tribal agencies, against the Pakistani Taliban since August. They have had some success, but displaced 300,000 Pashtuns from their homes. That is going to settle the Pashtuns down?

6. Neoconservatives don’t seem to have lost their voice or their preoccupation with Iran and the Iranian nuclear program—as shown by John Bolton’s joking reference to Iran making a nuclear wasteland out of Chicago at the recent CPAC meetings. But you argue that there may be a way to engage Iran with less violence and bellicose rhetoric and more support for America’s natural allies in the Iranian population. What’s your policy prescription for President Obama, and what are the odds that Dennis Ross will accept it?

Never have so few been initially so powerful, in the event so wrong, and ultimately so discredited as the Neoconservatives. Why anyone would ever again pay the slightest attention to anything they say mystifies me. And I think the real onus is on Dennis Ross to demonstrate that he can be an honest broker.

The U.S. relationship with Iran is the most perilous area of U.S. foreign policy going forward. But there are actually only two bilateral issues between Washington and Tehran that put that relationship on the front burner. They comprise, first, Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment program, which the U.S. fears could veer toward dual use and result in a nuclear weapon. Second, Iran’s rejectionist stance toward U.S. ally Israel, and its support for the Lebanese Hezbollah and, allegedly, for Hamas in Gaza, are highly objectionable to the United States. I really don’t think there is any other really burning issue. Iran’s human rights policies are abominable, but not obviously worse than those of Vietnam, with which the U.S. has established good relations, or than those of Saudi Arabia, with which Washington is actively allied.


The nightmare is that relations deteriorate to the point where there is a war. Iran is over three times the size of France. It is three times more populous than Iraq. Conquering and occupying it would break America. A war with Iran could also cause dwindling U.S. troop contingents in Iraq to be cut off by Shiite militants and besieged. The entire NATO force in Afghanistan risks being trapped in that country if Iran mobilizes regional forces to isolate them in that craggy, landlocked country.

So since, to my mind at least, a war on Iran is unthinkable, the alternative is negotiations. I argue that we have to be realistic about what the Iranian elites they say they want. They say they do not want a nuclear bomb, but do want the ability to enrich uranium to run domestic nuclear reactors for energy. They already use half the petroleum they produce every day, and their economy and population are growing at such a rate that Iran may have no petroleum for export in the relatively near future. They say they are afraid that at that point, they will lose their independence and the U.S. will impose another puppet government upon them. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 assessed that the Iranians are not doing weapons-related research and that they do not have a nuclear weapons program. So it is at least plausible that they really are driven by a desire for energy independence, which should not be so hard for the U.S. public to understand.

In fact, they would be much better off if they gave up their enrichment activities and obtained an end to U.S. and United Nations economic boycotts, so that their enormous natural gas reserves could be developed. Moreover, their only real hope of energy independence in long term is solar, so that is where they should put their research energies.

If, as some suggest, the Iranians are engaged in enrichment because they want the appearance, at least, of being able to fend off a U.S. attack, then obviously one way to get them to close the program down is to give them credible guarantees against such an assault. That might have to be a multilateral undertaking, involving NATO, Russia and China. Congress needs to stop devoting millions every year to overthrowing the government in Tehran. Do Americans even know that we are doing that?

As for the Iranian involvement in the Levant, it is the Israelis who give the ayatollahs that opening and they could easily close it off. If they just gave back the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a Camp David-style peace treaty with Damascus, and gave back the Shebaa Farms occupied territory and made peace with Lebanon, they would deny Hezbollah its pretext for remaining armed and remove a key Hezbollah patron, Syria, from the equation. If they stopped blockading and half-starving the Gazans, ceased colonizing the West Bank and granted the Palestinians a state, Sunni, Christian, and secular Palestinians would not want or need Iranian money and arms.

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