Politics & Policy

Cole V. Goldberg

Juan Cole has made his intellectual insecurity clear.

Juan Cole claims to be a major scholar. He is a tenured professor at the University of Michigan and the president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association. You wouldn’t expect such a guy to be so thin-skinned and intellectually insecure. But that’s the only conclusion I can draw from his tantrum this weekend. He insists that I’m a nobody, a “maroon,” and, of course, an extreme right-wing warmonger. Yawn. All of this sturm and drang was the result of a one-paragraph substantive criticism of his position. I quoted him fairly and accurately, which he does not deny and which is a courtesy he does not return. His response contained a great deal of name-calling and chest-puffing about his C.V. He didn’t have the courtesy or courage to even link to my answer to his screed.

Cole seems particularly keen on reminding people that he speaks Arabic (although he doesn’t speak Arabic well enough to, well, speak it). Indeed, he seems generally keen on “proving” how smart he is. What’s striking about this is that most serious scholars are more interested in showing, not telling. And the irony that I’m taking the higher road in our exchanges has not been lost on some people.

The Iraqi Threat

Professor Cole did call attention to comments I made on CNN from prior to the war in which I gave credence to the idea that Saddam might one day get nuclear weapons. Guilty as charged, though his interpretation of my meaning is wildly tendentious as I noted. Of course, I was hardly alone on this point. As Kenneth Pollack wrote in the January 2004 Atlantic:

U.S. government analysts were not alone in these views. In the late spring of 2002 I participated in a Washington meeting about Iraqi WMD. Those present included nearly twenty former inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the force established in 1991 to oversee the elimination of WMD in Iraq. One of the senior people put a question to the group: Did anyone in the room doubt that Iraq was currently operating a secret centrifuge plant? No one did. Three people added that they believed Iraq was also operating a secret calutron plant (a facility for separating uranium isotopes).

Other nations’ intelligence services were similarly aligned with U.S. views. Somewhat remarkably, given how adamantly Germany would oppose the war, the German Federal Intelligence Service held the bleakest view of all, arguing that Iraq might be able to build a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel, Russia, Britain, China, and even France held positions similar to that of the United States; France’s President Jacques Chirac told Time magazine last February, “There is a problem–the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right…in having decided Iraq should be disarmed.” In sum, no one doubted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Cole then writes, “Iraq never has been as close as two decades from having nuclear weapons.” As I understand it, this is just not true. After the first Gulf War U.N. inspectors were dismayed to discover how advanced Saddam’s program was. Pollack again:

Prior to 1991 the intelligence communities in the United States and elsewhere believed that Iraq was at least five, and probably closer to ten, years away from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Of course, after the war we learned that in 1991 Iraq had been only six to twenty-four months away from having a workable nuclear weapon.

Juan Cole, Warmonger

Of course, even if Cole is right, it’s not as relevant as he thinks, since the salient issue was not what the reality was, but whether the U.S. could take the chance that people like Cole were wrong. Cole is very comfortable, it seems, relying on the goodwill of America’s enemies. I am grateful George W. Bush isn’t.

Oh, and by the way, for all of Cole’s insistence that I’m a warmonger and his claims that he is on record in January of 2003 saying Iraq wasn’t a threat, you might get the impression he was against the war.

Not so much.

The next month he wrote: “I am an Arabist and happen to know something serious about Baathist Iraq, which paralyzes me from opposing a war for regime change in that country (Milosevic did not kill nearly as many people). If it is true that Chirac thinks the Baath party can be reformed from without, he is simply wrong.” And the month after that: “I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides.” And so on.

Those Iranian Elections

But, again, all of this is a sideshow. On the substance of my criticism of him, Cole cherry-picked a single issue to respond to–the democratic nature of the Iranian elections–and then distorted it. In my original column, I had criticized Cole for saying that the Iranian elections in 1997 were “much more democratic” than the Iraqi elections last week. I did not write that they were not democratic at all. Cole either deliberately ignored this point or was not a careful enough reader to catch it. Regardless, after a long and hysterically un-scholarly tirade, he made a fairly cogent case for the democratic nature of the elections in Iran. In the spirit of good faith and intellectual honesty, I responded that he made a “pretty good case” on that point though it smelled fishy to me. But I didn’t agree that the Iranian elections were “much more democratic” as he had insisted.

In a follow-up, Cole selectively quoted me so as to make it seem that I admitted I was wrong, in effect pocketing a good-faith concession and then deliberately misrepresenting what I said. I did not admit I was wrong but he went on about how I should have known the facts before I wrote my initial column. “He is openly admitting that he speaks without having the slightest idea what he is talking about!” Cole exclaimed. This was transparently shabby and dishonest on his part. I made no such concession and he made no effort to address my objections or the objections of others I linked to.

Again, since I am apparently the only one in this exchange concerned with the substance, I will make my case. Basically, I still think it is absurd to say that the elections in Iran were “much more democratic” than the ones in Iraq. The nature of the regime in Iran was never open for debate in 1997 in any meaningful way. As Michael Ledeen noted when Cole first put forward the Iranian elections as a model:

When [Cole] says: “(the Iraqi election) is not a model for anything, and would not willingly be imitated by anyone else in the region. The 1997 elections in Iran were much more democratic…” he has really disqualified himself from being taken seriously. The 2005 Iraqi elections were wide open. Anyone could form a party and run. The 1997 elections in Iran were a sham. The government decided who could run. The guy who “won,” Khatami, was “cleared” by the mullahs after they had purged more than three hundred other candidates.

The fact that President Khatami was in fact incapable of implementing any meaningful change to the regime illustrates what a sham that election was. Inherent to democracy is the notion that an elected official actually has the power and authority to act on the things he or she promises to do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that an elected official must do what he promised to do for a system to be democratic. By that standard no nation in the world is democratic. Rather, there must be a good-faith understanding that votes can be translated into action. If it turns out that politicians are merely kabuki dancers for the public’s amusement and that all significant decision-making authority resides in some star chamber of mullahs, that isn’t democratic.

Also, since Cole keeps his ear to the ground on such things, he surely knows that many Iranians believe the elections were a sham. Are they to be discounted? The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that dissatisfaction with Iranian regime reaches 90 percent–presumably quite a few of these people think the 1997 elections didn’t turn out as democratic as they hoped never mind as democratic as the Iraqi elections last week. Another good sign that the Iraqi elections were more democratic is that the Iraqi election has–I’m told–rattled officials in Riyadh, Damascus, and Cairo. Iran’s 1997 elections were greeted with little more than a yawn. Indeed, just last week there were pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt.

Let me appeal to one more expert. In 2004 a noted Middle East scholar observed that the “free and fair” elections being demanded by Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani posed an “implicit challenge to the hard liners in Iran.” Sistani’s belief, the expert continued “that legitimate government must reflect the will of the sovereign people echoes Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Jefferson, and promises a sea change in Middle Eastern politics.” The scholar lamented that the United States still appeared intent on “stage-managing” the elections a year ago. Overstating things a bit, this professor believed that if the Coalition Provisional Authority didn’t go along with Sistani’s plan it would make the Iraqi elections no more democratic that the Iranian ones where “the clerical Guardianship Council has excluded thousands of candidates from running, including sitting members of parliament” giving the Iranian system “more of the form than the substance of democracy.”

“Iraqis must feel that the procedures that produce their interim government, even if not perfect, are as fair and democratic as possible under the circumstances,” he concluded. “Should the United States disappoint them, it could give democracy a bad name and hurt not only the stability of Iraq but the fortunes of reform in Iran.”

As we all know, President Bush gave into Sistani’s demand and agreed to Sistani’s “free and fair” elections. You would think this would have pleased the above scholar. Alas, it didn’t, because the above scholar was Juan Cole himself writing in 2004. Funny how Cole once believed that if Sistani got his way Iraq would be much more democratic than Iran. But once that actually happened Cole suddenly said the opposite. It seems to me that Cole decides whether something is wise or unwise based upon whether it is bad or good for Bush. If it’s good, it must be unwise and vice versa.

Perhaps I’m misreading Cole’s own words. Perhaps I’m wrong about the Iranian system being as undemocratic as Cole described just one year ago. Maybe Cole has good arguments on his side. I just don’t know because he hasn’t offered any.


He did, however, read my mind. He writes:

The reason Mr. Goldberg is alarmed that I pointed this obvious fact out is that he wants to kill thousands of Iranians and thousands of US troops in a war of aggression on Iran. If the American public knows that there is a lively struggle between hardliners and conservatives in Iran, and that an American intervention there would be a huge disaster and would forestall the natural evolution of Iran away from Khomeinism, then they might not support Mr. Goldberg’s monstrous warmongering.

That is why he attacked me.

Uh…help me out here. I attacked Cole to keep him from tipping off the American people about the struggle between “hardliners and conservatives” in Iran? (Did he really mean to say “hardliners and conservatives”–thatsounds like a super-lively debate.) I want to kill thousands of Americans and Iranians in an aggressive war? Someone draw me a diagram. Where does Cole get this stuff? Does he just make it up? This is the only column I’ve written specifically on Iran. Could someone show me the part where I lay out my monstrous warmongering agenda?

Last time I checked, scholars looked for this thing called “evidence.”


Instead of offering any of that silly stuff he did post one e-mail from a reader supporting his position (that I am an awful person). This was fairly shabby too since I know he’s received many thoughtful letters from readers–on all sides of the issue. But Cole instead chose to publish this one email the upshot of which called me a coward for not being in “the kill zone” as a supporter of the war. In short, he was calling me a chicken hawk.

Now, I don’t take the chicken-hawk charge very seriously because it has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the arguments for or against war. But if you want to read one of the many times I’ve addressed the issue, you can read this. Or check out the late Michael Kelly’s take. And here’s Christopher Hitchens.

I admire and respect the military more than I could possibly express. They deserve our gratitude and support. I think–and hope!–that message has come through in my writings. But if not having served makes me a poor messenger in some peoples’ eyes there’s really nothing I can do or say that will change that. But how much do these people really want the message to depend on the messenger? If only military veterans or active-duty personnel can legitimately express political opinions in favor of the use of force–the logical upshot of this whole chicken-hawk argument–then Cole & Co. are the real militarists, if not fascists. Are the liberals who supported Clinton’s war in Bosnia chicken hawks too? And if they are, does that mean that war was wrong?

Anyway, to sum up the substance of our own spat one more time: He predicted that these elections would be a disaster. After they weren’t he dismissed the Iraqi election system as if it was especially flawed or undemocratic even though he seemed to support that system a year ago. Moreover, he deliberately concealed the fact such systems are used widely around the world including in South Africa in 1994. Does he think Nelson Mandela was undemocratically elected? He won’t say. He oddly dismissed the election as being more like a “referendum” as if referendums are somehow alien to democracy. This is even more odd when you consider this election wasn’t seen as a referendum on a bond for a sewage-treatment plant, but a referendum on Iraqi democracy itself. He suggests I’m a gruesome human being for supporting the war even though he pretty much did too. While dodging the issues he claims I’m unqualified to address the issues because I don’t have his credentials. This is simply an extension of the chicken-hawk logic. Without the right paperwork, my ideas cannot be sound. Period.

The Great Debate

This is either lost on Cole or it’s a deliberate tactic stemming from his intellectual insecurity. Indeed, it’s hardly as if no Arabic-speaking academics agree with me. Presumably he’s attacking me and challenging me to a debate instead of them because he thinks he can bully me with his “I speak Arabic” schtick. Though if I’m the “maroon” he claims I am then you’d think I’d be beneath such an esteemed scholar. You’d think he’d be more eager to debate Fouad Ajami, Adeed Dawisha, Patrick Clawson, Michael Rubin, or Martin Kramer. That I’d like to see.

But hey, yeah, sure. If he’s afraid of fighting in his own division, I’ll step up. Obviously, his challenge to debate “Middle East issues” as he puts it, is another instance of his bad faith. As I’ve conceded more than once now, he knows more about the Middle East. And, frankly, he seems like precisely the kind of boarding-school rector with a God complex who’d try to win by subjecting me to a withering quiz about how many Shiite clerics I can name or how the Aswan dam was funded.

This raises the central point he is trying bury: The fundamental issue I raised in my column was not about the extent of his knowledge but the quality of his judgment. And on that question I am hardly alone in thinking that Cole’s judgment is often laughable (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and … oh you get the point).

If he wants to have a debate about the role of public intellectuals during wartime, President Bush’s foreign policy, whether or not the Iraq war was justified, etc., I’m in. I understand he’ll be in town later this year for some Middle East Studies confab. I’m sure he can find a room with a couple microphones and some chairs. If he does, I’ll be there. But if he thinks we’re going to debate his no-doubt-seminal paper, “Marking Boundaries, Marking Time: The Iranian Past and the Construction of the Self by Qajar Thinkers,” he should think again. I hereby concede that I am unqualified to discuss the Qajar thinkers–or any other Qajars.


The Latest