The Treasure, the Strongbox, and the Crowbar

An interview with blogger and Middle East expert Juan Cole (Part 1)

| Mon Oct. 17, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

The man who starts my every on-line day is standing at the door. He's small-framed with short, wavy hair and fragile-looking specs. Nattily dressed in a dark suit and tie, he apologizes, as he enters, for being so formally togged out on a Sunday morning. As it happens, I'm but a pit stop on the way to an afternoon TV interview at the PBS program Great Decisions on one of his specialties, Iran.

This is, of course, Juan Cole. His website, Informed Comment, first came on line in April 2002, almost a year before the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. As he recalls his life back then, "I was just a Midwestern college professor. I taught my courses and wrote my articles about the Middle East. My interests were in religious institutions, religious movements, especially Shiite Islam and Sunni modernism. I knew where these movements came from. I knew the history of the Shiite clergy in Najaf back to the eighteenth century. And I had lived in the Middle East off and on for a significant period of time. When my blog began, it was little more than gardening for me, a small hobby on the side to put up a few thoughts every once in a while, initially read by fifty to a hundred people a day." Now, it is counted among the top hundred blogs at Technorati.com, a site which follows such things, and may be one of the more linked to blogs on Earth. American reporters trapped in hotels in Baghdad read it regularly for the latest news from Iraq. The secret of his success? "I type fast," he says with a sly smile. "Seventy words a minute."

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An "Army brat," with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu under his belt, a scholar who "can make something out of an Ottoman text," he teaches modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. He is exceedingly mild looking, mild-mannered, and quiet-spoken. Even his humor is hushed. He's ironic. The very name of his blog, he tells me, was meant as a quiet commentary on the "grandiose" blog titles people were then choosing back in 2002. And yet, as anyone who reads his blog knows, his mind is anything but mild. As a reasonable man increasingly appalled by the Bush administration and American policy in the Middle East, he can be, and often is, an impressively fierce essayist.

As he settles into an easy chair in my living room to await breakfast on a day when nature has once again dealt a horrific blow to humanity -- the Pakistani earthquake had just occurred -- he proceeds to tell me much I didn't know about the history and plate tectonics of the region. When asked a question, he pauses to formulate his response. It's rare in our world, but you can actually see him think. If you were a student with a penny of sense in your head, this is the man you would want for your professor. In fact, an hour and a half after our interview begins, as I click off my tape recorders, I feel I've only scratched the surface. There are reams of questions still to be asked -- perhaps on another day -- and the first Tomdispatch two-part interview to type up.

Tomdispatch: Do you sleep? This is a question your readers wonder about. Take October fourth. You put up four posts, time-stamped between six and six-thirty AM. By the time I'm up at seven you're always there.

Juan Cole: I'm a night owl. The way it works is this: The Arabic and Persian newspapers in the Middle East go up around ten or eleven PM our time, but they're the next day's newspapers. So basically it's like time travel. I get to see tomorrow's newspapers tonight.

TD: About the President's most recent global terror speech you wrote, "Mr. Bush, I don't recognize the world you paint." Could you start by laying out for us what's missing from our picture of Iraq -- not just Bush's picture, but the mainstream media's?

Cole: It's not just from Iraq. It's our picture of the world. The United States is a peculiarly insular society. Most people here haven't traveled very much and our mass media, all television news of any significance, is controlled by about five corporations. We have a tradition in the State Department and our press corps of preferring generalists and being suspicious of deep expertise as a form of bias. So a journalist covering Iraq, who knows the Middle East well and knows Arabic, might well be seen as someone too entangled with the region to be objective. The American way of ensuring objectivity is to parachute generalists into a situation and have them depend on local informants. The whole theory of it is wrong. The BBC, for example, wouldn't dream of having most of its Middle Eastern coverage done by people who don't know Arabic.

Basically, the public is informed about things like the Middle East by generalist journalists who were in Southeast Asia or Russia last year, and by politicians and bureaucrats who were dealing with some other region last week. And then there's official Washington spin, and the punditocracy, the professional commentators, mainly in New York and Washington, who comment about the Middle East without necessarily knowing anything serious about it. Anybody who's lived in parts of the world under the microscope in Washington is usually astonished at how we represent them. You end up with an extremely persistent set of images that almost no actual information is able to make a dent in.

TD: Can you apply this to Iraq?

JC: The famous instance is the interview Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gave to National Public Radio in February before the Iraq War. He said words to the effect that Iraq will be a better friend to the United States than Saudi Arabia had been. It shows you he was intending to replace Saudi Arabia with Iraq as a pillar of the U.S. security establishment in the Middle East. Saudis are Wahabis and they have sensitivities about their holy cities, Mecca and Medina. Iraq, he said, is a Shia society. It's secular. He juxtaposed Shia and secular. And then he added, it doesn't have the problem of having holy cities. The Washington power elite that planned out the invasion appears to have thought that Iraq was a secular society, including the Shiites amongst them, and they seem to have been unaware of Najaf and Kabala as among the holiest shrine cities in the world of Islam.

It's not a matter of stupidity on Wolfowitz's part. It's a matter of being uninformed. Willfully uninformed. He just believed whatever people like [long-time Iraqi expatriate politician and corrupt banker, now vice-premier] Ahmed Chalabi told him about Iraq. He probably hadn't read as much as a whole book on Iraq's modern history. Well, Iraq wasn't a secular society.

TD: You wrote in April 2002, considering American dreams of a post-Saddam Iraq, "A democratically elected government and a friendly government are not necessarily going to be the same thing, at least in the long run." This is where we are now and it was obviously very knowable a year before the invasion.

JC: The International Institute at the University of Michigan asked me to write a pro-and-con piece about an Iraq war in January of 2003. Among the reasons I gave for not going to war were: a) if you overthrow the Baath regime and discredit secular Arab nationalism in Iraq, the Sunni Arab community may well gravitate toward more al-Qaeda types of identity; and b) if you invade Iraq and let loose popular politics, the Shiite Iraqis may well hook up with the Ayatollahs in Iran. These things were perfectly foreseeable. I think if you went back to the early 1990s and took a look at Dick Cheney's speeches, he voiced similar analyses.

TD: So what happened between then and March 2003, for Dick Cheney at least?

JC: I think Dick must have found motives for an Iraq war that overrode his earlier concerns. We don't have transparent governance and therefore we're not in a position to know exactly what our Vice President's motives were, but clearly he became convinced that, whatever the validity of his earlier concerns, they were outweighed by other considerations.

TD: And your guess on those considerations?

JC: My guess with regard to Cheney is that his experience in the energy sector and with Halliburton as CEO must have been influential in his thinking. For the corporate energy sector in the United States, Iraq must have been maddening. It was under those United Nations sanctions. It's a country that, with significant investment, might be able to rival Saudi Arabia as a producer of petroleum. Saudi Arabia can produce around 11 million barrels a day, if it really tries. Iraq before the war was producing almost 3 million barrels a day and, if its fields were explored and opened and exploited, it might be up to the Saudi level in twenty years. This could bring a lot of petroleum on the market. There would be opportunities for making money from refining. There might even be an opportunity, if you had a free-market regime in Iraq, for Western petroleum companies to go back to owning oil fields -- something they haven't been able to do since the 1970s in the Middle East when most of these fields were nationalized. All that potential in Iraq was locked up.

The petroleum industry, structurally, is a horrible industry because it depends on constantly making good finds and being able to get favorable contracts for developing them, so that one is constantly scrambling for the next field. To have an obvious source of petroleum and energy in Iraq locked up under sanctions, and this Arab socialist regime with the government controlling everything, it must have just driven people crazy.

And you never knew when the sanctions might slip and Iraq might crank back up its production. If you're in the petroleum industry, what you'd like is have a ten-year timeline for what the future's going to look like. What if Iraq was able to produce 5 million barrels a day? That would have an impact on prices. It would have an impact on the plans you might like to make. But you couldn't predict that. It was completely unknowable.

So Iraq was like a treasure in a strongbox. You knew exactly where it was; you knew what the treasure was; but you couldn't get at it. The obvious thing to do was to take a crowbar and strike off the strongbox lock. My suspicion is that, for someone like Cheney, such considerations had a lot to do with his support for an Iraq war -- and he was willing to take a chance on the rest of it, including the Shiites.

TD: The rest which he, unlike many of the others in the administration, already knew?

JC: Oh, he knew it very well. Among all those people who planned out this war, Cheney and [Secretary of State Colin] Powell were knowledgeable about the situation on the ground in Iraq.

TD: What do you make then of the rest of them, their motivations?

JC: When we as historians get access to all the documents and can figure out how this thing was planned and who supported it, I think we'll find that the Bush administration was a coalition of various forces and each part of the coalition had its own reasons for wanting to fight this war. The group most explored has been the neoconservatives, but I suspect they will bulk less large in our final estimation of the promotion of the war. They weren't in command positions for the most part. They were in positions to make an argument. They may also have been fall guys. When things started going bad, more stuff got leaked about what they had been saying than about others.

I suspect it will come out that George W. Bush had wanted an Iraq War since he was governor of Texas -- "to take out Saddam," as he said. The various reasons he might have wanted this are undoubtedly complex. He had connections to the energy sector and so would be influenced by Cheney's kind of thinking, but there was a personal family vendetta too. You know, George Bush senior expected Saddam to fall after the Gulf War. By his own admission, he was very surprised when Saddam survived. I think he expected the Iraqi officer corps to -- quote unquote -- do the right thing, which tells you something about the American WASP elite, what their expectations are about politics. When someone fails miserably, they expect the rest of the elite to step in and remove the person. It didn't happen in Iraq and I think that was a blow to Bush family prestige. It may have been important for W to vindicate the family in that regard.

There were probably many motivations for the war, but the degree to which Bush himself has been a central, policy-making player somehow gets elided in American discourse. It's not as if he's a leaf blown by the wind. When the Bush presidency is finally examined from the primary documents, a lot of the things that are attributed to the number three man at the Pentagon may actually turn out to have been Bush's idea from the beginning, and something he pushed hard for.

His personal style is to play it by ear. He doesn't have patience for a lot of details. In Texas, he was used to calling together the Republican and Democratic state representatives to work out deals about this or that as they came up. That's his background as a policymaker, but the world is not like the Texas legislature. It's not a chummy club in which you can find compromises and go forward. The world is a much more complex and vicious place, and there are often incommensurate issues for which there is no acceptable compromise. Trying to run the world the way you run Texas is a big mistake.

As a set of organizations, the U.S. government has actually had a lot of experience in post-conflict situations. Bosnia. Kosovo. This is what a lot of people in the State Department and the Pentagon have been doing for the last twenty years. There are functional experts who may not know Bosnian or Arabic, but know about the need for policing after a war or about the need for sanitation and garbage collection. These people were giving advice about Iraq. I know for a fact that they were. But they were simply ignored in the actual event. Somehow, the civilians in the Department of Defense sidelined all those experts and so the U.S. military was given no instructions about how to put Iraq back on its feet after the war.

TD: Just to return to your strongbox image, the lock was busted in March of 2003. Now, two and half years later, I'd like you to take us on a little tour of Iraq as best you understand the situation there.

JC: Okay, let's start from north to south. Three of Iraq's 18 provinces were heavily Kurdish and formed a confederacy called Kurdistan under the [post-Gulf War I Anglo-American] no-fly zone. They were a kind of mini-state with a regional parliament and prime minister. The U.S. military never had much of a presence in the far north. The city of Kirkuk was actually taken during the war by Kurdish fighters with close U.S. air support -- rather as [in 2001] many cities in Northern Afghanistan had been taken by the Northern Alliance. So the northern part of Iraq looked much more like the Afghanistan War.

TD: Air support, the CIA, and tribal peoples, this had been a basic style of American warfare since Laos in the 1960s.

JC: Yes, that's how Kosovo was fought. That's how Afghanistan was fought too, but it was especially significant here because the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, which took Kirkuk, then formed the police force for that contested city whose population includes Turkmen, Arabs, and Kurds. The Kurds are probably close to half now. A lot of them had been expelled by Saddam, but they're coming back in large numbers. From all accounts I've been able to get from people on the ground, the three provinces that are heavily Kurdish are doing very well.

TD: And are unoccupied?

JC: There aren't many American troops there. Behind the scenes there have been some battles between the Kurdish forces and the Americans from time to time, some bombing of Kurdish positions when the Americans feel they're going too far, getting out of hand. But those have not been reported publicly. I've heard about them from people in Iraq. By and large, though, Kurdistan has not been occupied by the United States and economically seems to be doing very well. There's low unemployment and a lot of construction work.

On the other hand, the province of Kirkuk is potentially a powder keg. It could explode in a way that might have unfortunate consequences for all of Iraq and the region. Oil fields are around Kirkuk and the Kurds want those fields and the city for their Kurdistan federation. The Turkmen, traditionally dominant in the area but recently overwhelmed by the Kurds, resist this idea, and the Arabs Saddam settled up there are not happy about it either. The Kurds would get their way under ordinary circumstances, but the Turkmen are supported by Turkey; and northern Iraq is a mirror image of Turkey itself where the Kurds are a minority and the Turks a majority. If a kind of communal war broke out -- and there is a lot of terrorism, people are assassinated almost every day -- it would inflame passions of a regional sort. So one worries about Kirkuk.

And then you come to the Sunni Arab center. It's not true by the way that the problems in Iraq are only in four provinces. I figure, including Baghdad, about half of Iraqis live in the troubled parts of the country. The seven or eight provinces especially affected are in a condition of unconventional, low-intensity war. People who haven't lived in such a situation find it difficult to imagine what it's like, because the tendency in any reporting is to focus on the specific violent events that occur. But you're talking about an area in which maybe 12 million people live and most of them get up every day, go about their business, and don't encounter any violence. If you were living in Mosul, most days you might not see any violence with your own eyes. On the other hand, quite often there would be machine-gun fire in the distance. From time to time, there would be the sound of a bomb going off. This is how it is in Baghdad. This is why it's so wrong for Western reporters to parachute into Iraq, often embedded in U.S. military forces, and say, well, I saw the markets bustling and things seemed to be going on just fine. It's the constant drumbeat of violence over time that produces insecurity and fear, that affects investment, the circulation of money, the ability to employ people, people's willingness to send their children to school. This is something that's not visible to the naked eye.

So, in the center of the country, there's no guarantee of security. Basically, the Sunni Arab guerrilla movement wants to destabilize Iraq, force the U.S. military to withdraw, and, once it's gotten rid of them, hopes it can kill the politicians of the new government and make a coup. It's a classic guerrilla strategy used in Algeria and elsewhere.

TD: And what of the ongoing destruction of the country's infrastructure?

JC: The guerrilla movement destroys infrastructure deliberately. Electricity facilities, petroleum pipelines, rail transport. And it deliberately baits the U.S. military in the cities, basing its fighters in civilian neighborhoods in hopes that a riposte will cause damage, because Iraqis, even urban ones, are organized by clan. Clan vendettas are still an important part of people's sense of honor. So when the American military kills an Iraqi, I figure they've made enemies of five siblings and twenty-five first cousins who feel honor-bound to get revenge. The Sunni Arab guerrilla movement has taken advantage of that sense of clan honor gradually to turn the population against the United States. Many more Sunni Arabs are die-hard opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq now than was the case a year ago, and there were more a year ago than the year before that.

The U.S. has used bombing of civilian neighborhoods on a massive scale because the alternative is to send its forces in to fight close, hand-to-hand combat in alleyways in Iraq's cities and that would be extremely costly of U.S. soldiers' lives. It certainly would have turned the American public against the war really quickly.

TD: When the Bush administration was getting ready to launch its invasion, this was the great professed fear, the subject of a hundred predictive articles -- being trapped in house-to-house urban warfare in the back streets of Baghdad, which is more or less where we are now.

JC: It didn't happen in the course of the actual war because Saddam always mistrusted the military. He wasn't a military man himself; he was a failed law student and he would not allow the military into the capital. He made them stay outside, essentially to be massacred by the U.S. But the people who went underground from the Baath party and are mainly running the guerrilla movement have decided to use this tactic of basing themselves in cities. And it has succeeded. Even a city like Fallujah -- the United States destroyed two-thirds of its buildings, emptied the city for a long time, and has been very careful about allowing people back in -- is not secure. Every day there are mortar and bomb attacks against U.S. forces in that area. So it's certainly not the case that the U.S. has made any friends in Fallujah.

TD: In a recent post, you wrote of Baghdad: "Bush has turned one of the world's greatest cities into a cesspool with no order, little authority, and few services."

JC: That's the image I get from people who are there and also visiting Arab journalists.

TD: If you go back to the neocons and their prewar vision, the world out there on the peripheries was a jungle world of failed states to which we were going to bring order. Isn't that what Iraq has become today?

JC: Iraq is a failed state at the moment.

TD: Now just to continue the tour south?

JC: The south is largely Shiite. Most of the areas have gradually been taken over, as far as I can tell, by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Supreme Council was a coalition of fundamentalist Shiite religious parties who fled Saddam's repression in 1980, based themselves in Teheran, received the patronage of Ayatollah Khomeini, and conducted essentially terrorist raids on Baath targets in Iraq from Iranian soil. They would come into Iraq through Basra, through the marshes, through Baquba in the east, and so gained supporters in those areas.

After the fall of Saddam, the Supreme Council came back from Iran. Its leadership settled into Najaf and Basra. Their people would go out from the cities to small towns and villages and open political offices. They were very good grass-roots campaigners. It's not exactly clear to me how they pulled it off, but they won nine provinces in the January 30th elections.

The problem with the Shiite south was: After the war, the U.S. asked its coalition partners to garrison the south. These were small forces -- Spanish, Italian, Ukrainian, Dutch, Polish -- and often not very well integrated. So the south was this patchwork of multinational forces, and there were only eight or nine thousand British troops for Basra, which was a city of over a million, and Maysan, another half million. Local security was provided, if at all, by neighborhood militias, and who was going to run those militias? The local Shiite religious political parties. Not surprisingly, when the elections came, they won. So now it's the Sadr movement and the Supreme Council that run Basra. It's Khomeini and Khomeini's stepson. Of course, liquor and video stores have been closed, and girls are being forced to veil, and the militias patrol the streets. Since their parties took over the civil government, they're now being admitted to the police force.

So that's how Basra's being run -- by religious political parties the U.S. essentially helped put into power by having these elections that everybody in America was so excited about last January 30th. The elections were taken by most Americans as a political victory for Bush, but they didn't seem to pay any attention to who was actually winning them on the ground in places like Basra. Now the British have a big problem. Their 8,000 troops have to deal with security forces and police heavily infiltrated by the paramilitaries of these groups. Of course, there have been increasing conflicts. And I'll tell you, in the long run, I don't think the British are going to win this one.

[Coming next: Part 2 of Juan Cole's interview, which focuses on the question of an American military withdrawal from Iraq among other subjects.]

Copyright 2005 Tomdispatch

This piece first appeared at Tomdispatch.com.

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