Juan Cole spoke here last night, courtesy of War News Radio, and I was fortunate enough to have dinner with him as well.

I thought his talk was terrifically clear, informative and useful, basically a great demonstration of what a classroom lecture can be, a skillful balancing of performance and substance. Cole sparks a lot of reaction among bloggers: some use him as the source of first and last resort for authoritative statements about what is happening in Iraq; others regard him as the incarnation of the demonic expert, scheming to insert his authority into the flow of events, distorting what he knows for instrumental ends.

At the least, I find both reactions tedious because they don’t seem to understand the useful ordinariness of what Cole is doing: he’s providing a model of how scholars could and should engage the world. You want the Ivan Tribbles of academic to understand how blogging helps academia, then Cole is a perfect one-stop shopping trip. What he does isn’t a substitute for his scholarship, but it makes his scholarly knowledge useful, even if you disagree with it. I get tired of the churlish spirit that seems to demand that the only experts worth having are the ones who happen to accord with one’s own views. I’d rather see most academics rise to the standard of public accessibility that Cole charts out as a basic attribute of their professionalism, and then worry about whose knowledge is most authoritative after we get to that point.

It’s a measure of how often more sensible, pragmatic voices are driven out of conversations among bloggers that the more ordinary reality of Cole’s (and other expert) contributions to the public sphere gets sidelined. He’s a guy who knows a great many useful things about the modern political history of Iran and Iraq and has the scholarly discipline to organize what he knows in various ways, coupled with an ability and will to clearly communicate what he knows, something that not that many academics do or want to do. His knowledge is anything but infallible, and judging from both dinner conversation and his talk, he’s not at all defensive or obscurantist about the limits and shortcomings of what he knows. Not the least because he’s a historian by training, and like many of us, is far more comfortable taking a detached view of what can and cannot be done to shape the present, and of the typical long-term time frame involved in positive transformations of the world.

Cole knows less about subjects outside his specialized knowledge, and I found some of his speculations in these areas more dubious, such as his reading of the primary motivations of the Bush Administration in Iraq (the dismantling of state ownership of the oil sector in the Arab world). And even within his specialization, of course, he has his pet readings and theories about what has happened and what will happen that collide squarely with the understandings of other specialists with equal experience in the region. What of it? That’s the challenge to any educated, critical-thinking person: read, read, read, listen, listen, listen, and then read and listen some more. Gain information, gain perspective, use the tools you’ve got and if you need other tools, go get them. It’s not that hard to get to a point where you’re able to make useful (and measured) judgements about the relative value of any assertion about what has happened and what will happen.

One thing that Cole does contend, and I think he’s right to contend, is that many of the people who shaped the early American occupation of Iraq knew almost nothing about the political or social history of the place they were occupying, and more importantly, didn’t care to know. For some, like Paul Wolfowitz, I think that was in an odd way a principled position. Wolfowitz appears to operate with a conception of social change (as do some Straussians) in which the specificity of any given society’s history is far less important than a relatively universal human plasticity and adaptability to basic applications of political power, e.g., that if you liberate people from authoritarianism, they will universally conform to a kind of lowest-common denominator liberalism. For all that Francis Fukuyama has broken with some of his intellectual allies on Iraq, this is a position you could derive from his earlier writings if you wanted to, that the geist of world history is moving us inexorably towards liberal democracy.

There are other voices out there, among bloggers and otherwise, who would contend for other reasons that all or most statements of expertise about Iraq would have been and remain suspect guides for future action, that we should trust instead to what we already know commonsensically and collectively, to the wisdom of crowds or the native capacities of a critical-thinking intellect. I raised the specter of Kremlinology in talking with Cole, so I’m not totally averse to this kind of skepticism about expertise. When cause-and-effect are veiled behind opaque institutions and general practices of secrecy and deception that make opacity a virtue, it’s hard to translate even deep knowledge of history and events into a confident reading of the consequences of any given course of action. That goes not just for experts but even for people living the history we’re all expertly trying to read: I don’t believe Grand Ayatollah Sistani or anyone else close to some source of social power in Iraq has the capacity to transparently understand what is likely to happen if they do one thing or another, or what some other actor is likely to do next, or even what their own motives and interests are. We understand others poorly, no matter whom we are, and ourselves only a little better. Power does not invariably get what power wants; power may not even know what power needs.

A position that says there’s nothing to be gained by knowing the history that Cole knows, that it would have made no difference for American planners to understand the history of Shi’a Islam, or the political history of the Dawa Party, or the internal architecture of Hussein’s Ba’athist state, or any number of other topics, strikes me as an acutely self-defeating position, a cutting off of the nose to spite one’s face. The general contradictions of trying to liberate people through occupying them, of trying to create a universal liberalism from above without being able to operate from inside a society from its underpinnings, those contradictions no amount of knowledge could surmount. On the other hand any number of specific procedural misfires and misunderstandings could have been avoided (and could still be avoided), and some of those have had concrete consequences in terms of lives lost, opportunities squandered, objectives unmet. Moreover, that knowledge would have allowed a different and more modest set of expectations about the aims of the war.

The curious thing about Cole’s account of the occupation so far, if you listen carefully, is that it’s potentially very positive about the occupation, not that he says it as such. You can come away from his recounting recognizing that whether it meant to or not, the United States actually did liberate some Iraqi communities, did make it possible for them to achieve democratic self-determination. It’s just that at least some of that was achieved in spite of rather than because of specific on-the-ground decisions by Paul Bremer and the people around him, and that the end result of democratic self-determination, at least in southern Iraq, may be a state that looks less like Morocco and more like Iran. Cole put it drily at one point near the end of his talk (I’m paraphrasing here): “Americans continue to be surprised that many Muslims are not scared of Islam”. Modernity and liberalism are capacious, not specific: any given human society in the 21st Century can be both modern and liberal and yet depart significantly in its cultural, political and institutional character from some other society with equal claim to exemplify modern liberalism. You can argue (potentially vehemently) against the choices that other people (or your own people) make democratically, but being committed to democracy as a form means accepting those choices once the dust settles and the arguments have all been made. You can always gloat later when your arguments–and your knowledge–were disregarded by democratically-elected leaders and their supporters who think that the coin of expertise is so debased as to be worthless, that their own intellects equip them with such superior intrinsic insight as to trump all knowledge, or that their ideological fervor is a substitute for empirical substance.

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5 Responses to Knowing

  1. hektor.bim says:

    I agree with you that Juan Cole is preforming a useful service, but I actually think he is knowledgeable only about certain things in Iran and Iraq. He’s obviously an expert on Shiism, but I don’t think he actually knows much about the Kurds or Turkey. This produces odd gaps in his commentary, and at least as far as I can tell, makes him oddly pro-Arab and anti-Kurdish in his discussions. Referring to Iraq as an Arab country is like referring to the US in the 1980s as a “white country”, and at least for non-Arabs in Iraq, just about as offensive. All his policy prescriptions seem focused on shutting down Kurdish power in Iraq, and I can’t understand the motivation, which makes me very wary of him.

    There’s also the problem of his unreliability. He has made very clear and direct statements about things like the London bombings that turned out to be completely wrong. I don’t think I can trust his textual readings of things like the Zarqawi letter because of that.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree with the point about Kurds: it was a funny thing this semester to listen to Brendan O’Leary, who is intensely Kurd-centric, and then Cole, who is Shi’a-centric, in their readings of Iraq. Very much the “blind men describing the elephant” syndrome, or kid-with-hammer who sees everything as a nail.

    The unreliability issue is one where I think I would just disagree with him about the tone and frequency with which experts should make pronouncements about events (past and future). Even for public-oriented scholars and experts, I’d rather err on the side of qualifying such readings with a judicious sense of other possibilities, other readings, and with an explicit attention to the tentativeness of one’s own sourcing. I think Cole is simply way more confident than I would be if I were asked to read the tea leaves about any given country in Africa, and I think that confidence is itself sometimes a source of error or misfire. It’s why I raised the problem of Kremlinology, of a host of experts who confidently built enormous edifices from incredibly slender reeds: I think Cole is guilty of that at times (like many people concerned with the Middle East).

  3. Modernity and liberalism are capacious, not specific: any given human society in the 21st Century can be both modern and liberal and yet depart significantly in its cultural, political and institutional character from some other society with equal claim to exemplify modern liberalism.

    Yes, take a look at Japan for instance. Where Iraq is concerned, though, the real question is whether all social-religious systems are compatible with modernity and liberalism, even if the social order happens to be periodically endorsed by the popular vote. Looking at Iran, Algeria in the early 1990s or even northern Nigeria today, the answer to me seems to be a definite “no”.

    As for Juan Cole, I’d be a lot less bothered by what he had to say if he were more willing to qualify his knowledge as you suggest, and if most of those who read him weren’t so ready to take his every word as the gospel truth. As Hektor Bim points out, there are simply far too many occasions on which Cole substitutes his biases for objective statements of fact, and this is true not just of the plight of Kurds but also where Israel and American foreign policy are concerned. At times Cole seems willing to entertain almost any conspiracy theory if it can somehow implicate AIPAC or Mossad in some way, no matter how preposterous the theory may be (take his suspicions about the true identities of Hariri’s assassins for instance).

  4. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    I think there is a very uncomfortable tension in your final paragraph, between liberalism and democracy. Today, a “Kill all the Jews” ballot initiative would pass with an overwhelming majority in nearly any country in the Middle East — and that can hardly be considered liberal. This is a general problem, not a specific one, of course. I doubt there were majorities favoring equal treatment of blacks in the US even fifty years ago. Or for that matter, consider the schizophrenic state of Turkey and its Kurdish question.

    But right now, today, it certainly presents the American government with an extremely difficult problem. Due to existing ethnic tensions, a democratic government in Iraq is likely to drive people to vote for ethnic parties, which reduces political competition and lets the parties become corrupt, which leads to increased ethnic tension in a vicious cycle. But failing to institute a democratic government is naked imperialism, which has its own fatal problems — our imperial consuls would not have to answer to the people they rule, and they would be judged by the powers back in the US, not in Iraq.

  5. akotsko says:

    What if the election is rigged, though? I mean, I assume we would still gloat, but anything else?

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