Juan Cole is a prominent and prolific commentator on international affairs. A professor at the University of Michigan, he has written a number of highly acclaimed books on the Middle East and South Asia. But it is through his blog, Informed Comment, that Cole has made himself well heard. Launched in 2002, it has acquired a large following. He has become a frequent guest on television and radio and is published regularly in a range of media outlets.
Cole’s prominence and outspokenness has also attracted some undesired attention. The Bush Administration spied on Cole. And Yale University denied him an appointment even after he had been approved by its history and sociology departments. I met Cole at his office on campus in Ann Arbor. We talked about a range of issues. (This is an excerpt. The full version is published in the September issue of The Progressive magazine.)
AP: What are your thoughts on the Obama Administration’s policy toward the Middle East and South Asia?
Cole: The problem with the Obama Administration is that it really hasn’t had a consistent policy. Just to give you an example: When the Houthi rebels came into Sana’a last September and upset the applecart in Yemen in a major way, they were viewed by Saudi Arabia, a neighbor of Yemen, as proxies of Iran. So the Saudis started their bombing campaign. John Kerry came out and said that we support this campaign and that we’re providing logistical support to it. There have been a lot of noncombatant deaths, including women and children. So, Kerry then came out and said, “We’re disturbed.” Which is it, guys? Are you supporting the campaign or not?
AP: What’s your reaction to the Iran nuclear agreement and the GOP’s response?
Cole: The Iran deal is a breakthrough in nonproliferation and in diplomatic solutions to conflict. It will end debilitating sanctions on Iran that have imposed genuine hardship on ordinary people. It is not clear whether the American Right, openly eager for a war instead, can derail it in Washington. But that is sort of irrelevant, since the rest of the world will likely ignore any continued U.S. sanctions and eagerly seek business deals in Tehran.
AP: The violence between the Shias and the Sunnis, the adherents of the two major branches of Islam, is like nothing we’ve experienced in the modern era. What accounts for this?
Cole: It hasn’t always been the case that politics has been organized around the Sunni-Shia divide. There’s a kind of journalistic trope that they’re fighting like this for 1,400 years. That’s not true. In a place like Syria, where people are talking about Sunni-Shiite battles, it only looks like that from 30,000 feet. If you get down on the ground, it’s not about sectarianism. The demonstrations that kicked off the struggle in 2011 were about farmers not having enough water for their crops because of drought, or they were unemployment protests or youth protests. When the regime fired tank shells into peaceful protests and put snipers on roofs who shot people down, then the rebellious youth picked up a gun and went to war. When you go to war, things polarize. People didn’t start out that way.
AP: What’s your take on ISIS or ISIL?
Cole: These kinds of radical cults grow up only when central authority has collapsed. The ending of the conflict and the restoration of central rule will cause them to be gotten rid off.
In Iraq, the rise of ISIL has to do with the unfair nature of the regime that the Americans set up. The most religious right among the Shiites came to power. Then they fired the Sunnis. So, of course, the Sunnis turned to resistance, both against the Americans and the Shiite government. The government was bombing them or using hard-line Shiite militias to fight them. So when ISIL came to them and said we can rescue you from the Shiites, they were receptive.
AP: And U.S. military action cannot solve the problem?
Cole: In the end, the Iraqis have to get their act together. The rollback can’t happen without two developments. The Iraqi Army has to get a better esprit de corps. And the Baghdad government has to find a way to reach out and incorporate the Sunnis.
AP: What about in Syria?
Cole: In Syria, it’s a mess because the regime took this genocidal path and has completely alienated a third to a half of the country, mainly the Sunni Arab areas. That’s driven a polarization. Al Qaeda and ISIL have emerged as the two main guerrilla groups fighting the regime. This is a huge dilemma. You can’t support the Baath regime in Syria. That’s a regime of mass murderers. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want ISIL to sweep into Damascus the way they swept into Mosul. There’s no side here for the Americans.
AP: Why is distrust of Islam and Muslims so high right now in this country, and how do you counter that?
Cole: Rightwing politics in America depends on the establishment of social hierarchies: rich people over poor people, white people over minorities. In the past, they used to have a problem of getting working-class people to vote for this ideology. One of the ways they did that was to scare them with communism. With the fall of the Soviet Union, that bogeyman evaporated.
People on the right were upset: How do you get working-class people to support an agenda that benefits big corporations? Well, you could scare them with race, and the resurgence of racism is partly a result. And then you can scare them with menacing foreigners, and that’s been a favorite tactic, as well. This is quite clear on Rupert Murdoch’s media, such as Fox News. It is quite cynical. The Muslim-American community needs to offset these tendencies by speaking out more. If the Muslim-American community wants to develop a voice, they have to have a public presence, including elected officials and journalists and academics who are considered to have standing to speak in public and who can counter the very dangerous lies that are being told about them.
AP: What do you make of the current crop of presidential candidates’ Middle East policies?
Cole: All the Republican candidates, with the exception of Rand Paul, have articulated a much more interventionist policy. Their rationale is that we aren’t intervening enough. Whether the world will look the same to them once they get into office, I can't tell.
Hillary Clinton is also more of a hawk than Obama. The signs so far are that we’re in for more intense engagement in the Middle East than under Obama.
AP: What’s your advice for progressives?
Cole: The American political system is so arranged that there’s a progressive majority in the United States that’s put in a minority box. Working locally may be more fruitful.
Just to give an example: If, from the grassroots, from the municipal and county level, we can kick-start a renewable energy revolution in the United States, in ten years, all that Middle East gas and oil may not be all that important. This would have a major effect on our foreign policy. If you can democratize our energy—make it renewable, make it more local—then the forces in the corporate world and in the U.S. government that are tied to oil and gas distribution around the world will have less grounds for caring for those kinds of geopolitical interventions. So, that’s my advice: Go local, go green.
Amitabh Pal is the managing editor of The Progressive and the author of “Islam” Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today.