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Juan's world

A scholar of the Middle East on the tightrope we’re walking

MT photos: Doug Coombe
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Published 2/22/2006

Through his daily blog Informed Comment, Juan Cole has become "a must-read for those interested in the Middle East," as the online journal Slate put it. In turn, the University of Michigan professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history has also become a widely sought expert and commentator whose articles have appeared in such outlets as, The Nation, The Washington Post and The Boston Review. His blog entry for the morning of Feb. 15 was fairly typical, a compendium of commentary, summaries and links to articles from the Western and Arabic press — from Kurdish protests against cartoonists' portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad to maneuvers within Iraqi political alliances to complaints about deteriorating public services in the Iraqi city of al-Ramadi to a piece on the prospect of permanent U.S. military bases in that country. There was also a bit of Cole's gallows satire in "Ten ways Iraq is like Whittington," such as "Cheney gave Whittington a heart attack by shooting him in the heart. Cheney gave Iraqis a heart attack by having them bombed relentlessly."

Later that day, Cole sat down in a history department meeting room near his university office to explore the big picture of a troubled region.

Metro Times: Let's start with the Danish cartoons that have been at the forefront of the news recently. Is there something that Americans don't get about this issue?

Juan Cole: One way to explain to Americans the fervor aroused by the caricatures — and it's not right to call them cartoons, they are caricatures — is to think about it as a form of racism. In Western societies, taking away the ability of the church to suppress things was considered good and a cornerstone of our First Amendment rights and so forth. If you look at this as a matter of religious people demanding that people not say things, then, of course, one's first instinct is to side with the caricaturists. And, certainly, as a general principle, people should be free to express themselves on religious issues.

But if one looked upon it as a matter of racism, I think the American public could understand it better. If someone did a caricature of Martin Luther King as Steppin' Fetchit, do you really think that would pass without remark, that the cartoonist, that the editor, that the newspaper would face no public reprisals whatsoever?

Actually these caricatures were racist. There is a long tradition in modern Europe of thinking of Semites, which is how it was put, that they're irrational, violent people; that Aryans are calm, that they're the master race. We now think of that almost as though its a joke; it's in Mel Brooks' The Producers as a joke. It was taken very seriously in Europe.

When you make a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, and you show him with a large hooked nose, when you show him with a bomb in his turban, this is not something invented yesterday. These tropes of the violent, irrational, religious Semite go back to the 19th century, and they were implicated in the Holocaust as they were applied to European Jews, and as they were applied to the Arab world, which was mostly colonized by European powers. They were implicated in the actual massacres of people. The Algerians tried to get out from under French rule; something like a million of them were killed in the late '50s and early '60s by the French colonial apparatus. Americans typically don't study a lot of modern history outside that of the United States, and so they're not sensitive to what over 130 years of French colonialism in Algeria signifies to the Arab world.

MT: It's the amount of violence that people don't understand.

Cole: Each place where protests were held has its own background, its own reasons. I think fundamentalist Muslims use it against the moderate Muslims. On the other hand, some of the more pro-Western forces have whipped this up to establish their bona fides; they might be cracking down on the fundamentalist Muslims politically while making a big deal out of defending the Prophet Muhammad from Danish caricaturists. There is a certain amount of cynicism involved. I don't think there has been that much violence. There's been some, and unfortunately a few people have been killed in these demonstrations. But most of the dead have been killed by police. ...

MT: But Danish embassies have been burned.

Cole: When you talk about violence, people tend not to see their own violence. How many Americans are even aware that there were race riots in Cincinnati not so long ago? We have lots of violence in this country, including mob violence. We don't think about it, because it's not marked for us. Other people's violence is marked as, you know, those people did it; if we do it, it's not noticed so much.

MT: Is part of the problem that the American public doesn't see the multifaceted forces at work?

Cole: Yeah, I think the American public generally doesn't make a big distinction between Muslims and Arabs, even though we know that Arabs are a minority of Muslims. There are 1.3 billion Muslims, there are something like 250 to 300 million Arabs depending on how you count. I often hear on American television: "Arab countries like Iran." Iran is not an Arab country. Arabic is a language, and people either speak it or they don't. Islam is a religion, and you can have Islam no matter what language you speak. The American people may have difficulty making these distinctions and understanding exactly what's going on.

I think it has been a long time since Americans felt oppressed by foreign countries in the political sphere, but it's not so hard to understand these things if you think about it economically, for instance. In the mid-'80s we had an incident here in Detroit where a Chinese man was killed because autoworkers identified him as Japanese and were angry about the advances the Japanese auto industry was making in the United States; there was kind of a nativist rejection of the foreign economic impact on their lives. They were getting fired and laid off. That kind of anger that was demonstrated toward that Chinese man who was killed by Detroit autoworkers is behind a lot of what's going on now in the Muslim world. The Muslim world is economically dominated by the West, and people are always having their lives rearranged economically by Western concerns.

The United States has decided it doesn't like Arab socialism, and so Iraq should be privatized. Iraqis didn't decide that, the United States has decided that, and it is being dictated to them at the point of a gun. If you look at it from that kind of point of view — where there has been substantial resentment in the United States at illegal immigration, at the impact on the U.S. economy of sharp trading practices by other countries and so forth — then maybe you could better understand the kinds of resentments that are out there, which I don't think is mostly even about religion. Religion is part of it, but I think it's mostly a form of anti-colonialism.

MT: You have been labeled an apologist for radical Islam by some critics. What is your response to that?

Cole: I do lot of consulting in D.C. with counterterrorism people about how to get rid of al-Qaida, so I don't think it's plausible that I'm an apologist for Muslim extremism. I spend a good deal of my career trying to understand it and trying to defeat it. So, I think it's a sleazeball kind of rhetorical tactic, and I don't think it actually has any purchase.

MT: Overall, how would you grade the U.S. media’s coverage of what’s going on in the Middle East?

Cole: U.S. print reporters suffer from structural disadvantages. The U.S. newspaper industry has decided that mostly they don’t want people specializing, so people are forced to be generalists. There are relatively few specialists. Occasionally someone will take some sabbaticals and they’ll get to be an expert on some particular field, but on the whole if you’re a reporter in the field you’re in Argentina one week and Thailand the next and back in the United States. How in the world would you ever master all the things that would be necessary to report from the inside on all these situations? I think it’s a mistake the way the thing is structured. I think each newspaper should have a few specialists. The BBC does it that way. Both in the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war, there were BBC reporters on the ground who spoke Persian or Arabic as the situation demanded. By contrast, we have very few Arabic speakers in the U.S. press corps in Iraq. Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Iraq. He’s an Arabic speaker, and he was able to get stories by virtue of his linguistic expertise that other people weren’t able to get. The reporters themselves are brave people and intrepid, and they’re out there trying to get the stories they can get using the tools they have available, the translators and English-speaking contacts in government and so forth. I depend heavily on the insights they bring back from the field at the risk of their lives. So I don’t mean to criticize them at all. But I think they are put in an unreasonable situation.

The State Department suffers from the same syndrome. People are parachuted in for a two years and moved around and relatively few become really fluent in a difficult language. There’s a system that produces that situation. …

I think there’s something very wrong in the way the Americans report the world and the way the Americans make decisions about the world. They are often isolated and kind of in a bubble when they do these things, and it’s dangerous. We’re a great power, we’re a hyper-power now, and to have us blundering around not understanding the world in which we live is very dangerous.

There’s a lot of criticism of the media, but the way the media is used is the objectionable thing. I think it is outrageous that Fox Cable News is allowed to run that operation the way it runs it. It is a highly ideological, explicitly ideological operation, and it is polluting the information environment. You have anchors who attack guests for simply stating the facts; you’ve got anchors who show an attitude to spin stories in a particular way. Frankly, I think in the 1960s the FCC would have closed it down. It’s an index of how corrupt our governmental institutions have become, that the FCC lets this go on. Of course, part of the argument for the FCC regulating these things was that broadcasting was through the air and it’s therefore public and the public has an interest. Now that you’ve gone to cable for so much of it, there is an argument that the public doesn’t really have a right to regulate it, that the cable companies may provide us with whatever they want to provide us with, and that we have no choice in the matter. I think that the information environment in the United States is polluted, and I think it’s very difficult to find out from the mainstream media what’s really happening in the world.

We almost never hear good reporting about important countries like China or India except when there’s a disaster or an election or a change of government of some sort, and that’s wrong. We should be having regular updates about what’s going on with the computer industry in India, what’s going on with the steel industry in China. I never see anything about that in television. The print reporters in the business pages will sometimes do those types of stories, but relatively few of them either.

MT: And the ramification of that is, as a whole, we’re not in a position to fairly evaluate whatever it is any particular administration is trying to feed us?

Cole: Yes. Basically, the way the information environment is set up in the United States, the president and his cabinet members and his close advisors set the tone for the news. And much of the media, frankly, is obsequious to that agenda. The Bush administration is famous for just cutting people off and just denying them access if they report things they don’t want reported. So, if you are a Washington reporter and your livelihood depends on access, then that’s a pretty powerful threat, and the White House knows that. I think some of the best analysis of Washington policy is done people like Paul Krugman of The New York Times, who’s an economist who lives in Princeton and doesn’t know any of those people. But he sees the policy statements that are made and the policy initiatives that are undertaken and he analyzes them as an academic economist. He can see what’s going on, and he’s not influenced by the spin.

MT: Do you think the U.S. media conveys to us what's going on in Iraq?

Cole: I think that most Americans have no idea what a hellhole Iraq really is at this moment. Baghdad is being starved for fuel and electricity. A fourth of the country lives there. It's the capital. That's not a good situation. In about half of the country there's substantial insecurity, bombs going off, assassinations. It's not everywhere all the time. It's every once in a while in some places. But, over time, it disrupts things. It disrupts the economy; it disrupts people's lives. It makes people more nervous about even going out. I think most Americans just can't imagine that situation. And they're not being given a contextual account of how it's happening in Iraq. I did a piece in September of 2004 where I imagined what the United States would be like if it were like Iraq. That was probably the most popular thing I've ever written.

[Excerpt: "Violence killed 300 Iraqis last week, the equivalent proportionately of 3,300 Americans. What if 3,300 Americans had died in car bombings, grenade and rocket attacks, machine gun spray, and aerial bombardment in the last week? That is a number greater than the deaths on September 11, and if America were Iraq, it would be an ongoing, weekly or monthly toll."]

By mapping those events onto the United States, I made it legible to a lot of people. I don't think it should be so hard for our media to do that, but I've never seen them do it, or very seldom.

MT: We got into this war with this neoconservative blueprint that we would quickly take Iraq, democratize it and move on through the region. Do you see a clear philosophy guiding what the administration is doing at this point?

Cole: No. I think they get up in the morning and they face a set of situations in Iraq and they try to develop policies to deal with those situations, and they get up the next day and there's a new set of situations and they develop policies to deal with those. I think it's reactive. I think it's ad hoc. I don't think there's a big picture. I think they're hoping that they can ultimately muddle through, that things will settle down enough so that they can get out of it with some dignity. I think it's probably a forlorn hope.

In many ways it's over with, it's lost. I hear from my contacts who talk to military people on the ground there, and they say it's over with. If your counterinsurgency operation is about winning hearts and minds, that's finished. In polls of Sunni Arabs, 80 percent say it's legitimate to kill Americans. A larger percentage of Sunni Arabs say that now than the year before, or the year before that. As an enterprise, the Bush administration has admitted it's not going to seek any more money for reconstruction. The vast infrastructure is very bad, and there is some danger of all of the structural improvements made by U.S. firms or the U.S. government in Iraq since the war being lost or degraded, either by sabotage from the guerrillas or because material and techniques were used that the Iraqis just aren't familiar with and so won't be able to keep up afterward. So the whole thing is going south pretty fast.

MT: Some argue that our presence inflames and unifies the insurgency and the best scenario would be for the U.S. to get out as quickly as possible.

Cole: I think the big U.S. footprint in Iraq is counterproductive, and I think we should get our ground troops out of there. But I don't think there should be a complete and rapid disengagement with nothing to replace us. I think there should be a United Nations command in Iraq, and that the United Nations should be a vehicle for getting maybe some Arab League troops in there. The guerrilla movement sees itself as fighting two enemies. One is the foreign troops, the Americans and so forth who have overthrown the Baath Party and demoted the Sunni Arab elite to the lowest of the low in that country and have promoted what they see as Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords to power. This is not acceptable to the Sunni Arabs, so they want the U.S. out. But they also want those Shiite ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords out. And, were the United States not there, were there no foreign military forces to be there, then they certainly would go after them.

The Sunni Arabs can punch above their weight. People assume because they are 20-some percent of the population then they could easily be overwhelmed by the others. But they were the equivalent of the Harvard MBAs, the West Point graduates, the hardened war veterans; they are the ones who know tactics, military strategy. If Americans just up and left altogether, I think the Sunni Arabs would take the new government out and shoot it, and wrest the few tanks that were left in the country away from the government and use them against it.

I don't agree that the presence of the United States is the only problem. I think it is a problem, especially the tactic of search-and-destroy, which hasn't worked as counterinsurgency. It has produced more anti-American feeling rather than less. But I don't think it is the only problem. I think there's also a severe competition for resources and for power among these groups that have organized themselves on ethnic bases, on religious bases; and if the Americans just up and left, there's a good chance they would fall to fighting one another.

MT: You're talking about a civil war?

Cole: You have a civil war now. It's an unconventional civil war. When you have 22 people show up in the streets in the morning with bullets behind their ears, it's a civil war. They were captured and killed by a local militia. The militia can't do it openly during the day, or we would scramble AC-130s and take them out.

In the absence of any outside military force, I think the possibility of an all-out conventional civil war would be high, and I'm not saying that the Sunni Arabs would necessarily win it, but they think they can win it.

MT: So the only alternative you see is to somehow internationalize the foreign presence?

Cole: It would be very difficult, but I advocate a Cambodia-type solution for Iraq. Cambodia went into substantial chaos when the United States involved it in the Vietnam War, and there was a genocide by the Khmer Rouge, and the Vietnamese actually came in and occupied Cambodia. But as they left, the United Nations took it over in the late '80s and early '90s, and the United Nations nursed it back to having elections and some form of legitimate government. The United Nations operation in Cambodia was not perfect, but I think it was a relative success. Iraq would be a much bigger project, much more difficult to pull off. For one thing, the Khmer Rouge had been marginalized by the time the United Nations arrived in Cambodia, so there wasn't an active guerrilla force that was very violent and capable any longer. In Iraq, the Sunni guerrilla movement has tens of thousands of fighters, and they are not mollified. But I think the United Nations might have a legitimacy in Iraq that the United States just can't aspire to. It's one thing to take orders from the world — the United Nations Security Council — it's another thing to take orders from George W. Bush; the former case doesn't raise the anti-colonial hackles in exactly the same way.

And then there are a lot of countries that might have an interest in Iraq not falling apart and the Persian Gulf not falling apart and the price of petroleum not quadrupling.

MT: Do you see discussions like that going on in the foreign policy establishment?

Cole: Yes. Well, the Arab press reported that when Dick Cheney went to Cairo a couple weeks ago he was exploring the possibility of Egyptian troops for Iraq. He was told in no uncertain terms that it would have to be under an international umbrella and not under a U.S. command. If it were going to happen at all, the United Nations, the Arab League would have to get involved in this thing, and, you know, up until the present, the Bush administration has been very eager to exclude the United Nations from Iraq. In some ways the United States' unwillingness even to provide the United Nations with proper security led to the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad and the death of UN envoy Sergio de Mello. The determination to exclude the United Nations has been very unfortunate, and it has left the U.S. public to shoulder the burden in blood and treasure, when in fact the whole world has an interest in it. I think in the end, the best solution would be to internationalize it and put the United Nations military command in — and not a peacekeeping force that can't shoot back, but a peace-enforcing force.

MT: You link today to a piece by Tom Englehardt about permanent bases being built in Iraq. Is it a fallacy to be talking about a pullout?

Cole: Oh, I think the U.S. policy establishment wanted a permanent base in Iraq. Wanting to do that and being able to do that are not the same thing. In my view, the day the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the Shiite spiritual leader, wakes up and gives a fatwa of "no foreign troops in Iraq," those bases are toast. He hasn't given that fatwa because I think he knows that for all of his dislike of being militarily occupied by a foreign power, they are doing something about peacekeeping. However, he may change his mind about that. There have been rumors that he might give such a fatwa.

MT: Do you think the establishment of those bases was the primary reason we went into Iraq?

Cole: I don't think there was any particular reason that we went into Iraq that is the primary one. I think it is what social philosophers might call over-determined where there are lots of reasons for something to happen and they overlap with one another.

MT: Would there be any U.S. troops in the Middle East if it weren't for our dependence on Middle Eastern oil?

Cole: Most people don't understand the structure of the world energy market, or the petroleum market in particular. Some 83 million barrels a day or so — it fluctuates — of petroleum are produced in the world. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels a day, about a fourth of the total — although it has only about 6 percent of the population. It produces, I believe, 5 1/2 itself — uses all that and imports the rest of the 20. Two-thirds of the proven petroleum reserves in the world are in the Persian Gulf region. If you don't have the Persian Gulf production — Kuwait and Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia — then you really would have to think about walking to work.

The whole transportation system of the industrialized democracies of Europe and the United States depends heavily on petroleum.

Decisions have been made along the line to push petroleum on the economy. For instance rail is more energy efficient, and yet it requires a big investment in infrastructure and probably some public subsidy, and the public has been unwilling to subsidize it.

On the other hand, the trucking industry, which depends entirely on petroleum also, requires a big public subsidy, which is hidden from us. You travel on the interstate highways every summer, and they're all torn up and people are fixing them. Why do they need to be fixed every summer? It's not because of the winter snow and the salt and things like that; it's because trucks are really heavy and they tear up these highways. Cars don't nearly to the same extent.

So all the money that the public pays to repair the interstate highway system every summer, and the states pay to rebuild their own state highways, really is a hidden subsidy to the trucking industry. If we spent the same kind of money on the rails, we'd use much less petroleum, we'd be less beholden to foreign powers, and we'd all be much better off. There is something odd about the U.S. psychology when it comes to this, but I think we will be forced by rising petroleum prices to rethink this system eventually.

MT: But there's a danger because prices can go up very quickly because of instability, but infrastructure can't be built quickly.

Cole: There is a problem, and I don't think people have any idea how much of a tightrope we're walking in the Gulf region. If Iraq did go to a conventional civil war; if it drew Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey into it; if you have generalized guerrilla war among countries; and if they started hitting pipelines the way they're hitting pipelines in Iraq, you could really send the world into another Great Depression.

MT: We were going to ask you about the worst-case scenario.

Cole: That's the worst-case scenario. The three of us standing in a breadline.

MT: And what do you think is the likelihood that could occur?

Cole: I would give it 5 percent. I don't think it's a high probability. It's out there as a possibility.

MT: And what do you think is the best-case scenario

Cole: The best-case scenario is that Iraq ends up being somewhat like Lebanon was. The Lebanese had a civil war between 1975 and 1989, and in 1989 the Saudis and others intervened and brought the big Lebanese politicians to a place called Taef in Saudi Arabia, and they hammered out a new accord, a new power-sharing arrangement among the various communities of Lebanon. From that point forward, they decided to disarm their communal militias and re-establish the Lebanese central government and its army.

It hasn't been a smooth road. Between 1975 and 1989 we think on the order of 90,000 people were killed in that civil war. It was very bad. They used big artillery pieces and tanks against one another; there was ethnic cleansing, communal violence. I don't think the violence in Iraq is going to end anytime soon. I expect it to go on for a good decade, and the question is at the end of that decade are Iraqis so tired of all this that they put pressure on their political leaders to make a settlement and come back together?

If they do that, then it won't have been a pleasant experience and a lot of people are going to die, but it won't be millions, and it won't throw the entire region and maybe the world into catastrophe. So that's really the best I can realistically hope for — years of instability followed by a political settlement.

MT: That's with the UN presiding over a good decade of bloodshed before it stabilizes.

Cole: That's it.

MT: And between the worst-case scenario and the best-case scenario, is there something that you see as the most probable?

Cole: Well, I've outlined the case where you have a regional guerrilla war and widespread pipeline sabotage, or you could have an internal Iraq war that doesn't spill so much onto its neighbors, that would be a middle case. But that the whole thing comes together and everyone is full of peace and love within two years and the Iraqi military is established in such a way that it's able to restore order in the country within two years — that just doesn't seem possible to me.

MT: You have a situation where the powers in control of both Iran and Iraq are bound by the Shia branch of Islam. Does that confluence pose particular danger for the United States?

Cole: Danger is too harsh a word, but it seems very likely that the Shiite Iraqis in the south will dominate the Iraqi government for the foreseeable future, and the Shiites of Iraq are far more likely to ally geopolitically with Tehran than with Riyadh, Saudia Arabia, and I think the Shiites of Iraq and the Shiites of Iran see themselves as offering strategic depth. Both of them have problems with the Wahabis — the hardline Muslims of Saudi Arabia — and there have been conflicts also with Salafists, these are revivalist muslims in Jordan. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister of the first elected Iraqi government, went to Iran in the summer of 2005 and got it on famously with the Iranian regime, and they promised aid. I don’t think it endangers the United States, per se, but it is a huge setback for Washington.

MT: You wrote about the Top 10 myths about al-Qaida perpetuated by the Bush administration. No. 1 was that the administration vastly overestimates the size, sweep and importance of al-Qaida. How large and dangerous do you see it to be?

Cole: It's a difficult balance to strike. Al-Qaida is dangerous. It's demonstrated that it's extremely dangerous. Its members would like to hit the United States again, and it's not impossible that they'll find a way to do it. I don't mean to detract from the danger of the organization, but it's the danger presented by a small cult-like group. It's not the danger of a state as the Soviet Union was; it's not the danger of a worldwide mass movement. I don't think there are more than a few thousand members of al-Qaida, however you can figure it, in the world. So it's dangerous the way the Baader Meinhof Gang was dangerous back in the '60s and '70s or the Japanese Red Army. It's a small radical terrorist group. It had more advantages than those had in that it had managed to co-opt Afghanistan, a whole country, through the Taliban, but that's over with. So I perceive the U.S. government, the Bush administration in particular, to position al-Qaida as such a supreme threat that we should throw an extra $100 billion to the Pentagon over it and we should get rid of our social services and give up the Fourth Amendment and rearrange our whole society over it. I think that, frankly, is counterproductive and disproportionate to the actual size and nature of the threat.

The fact is the average American is much more likely to die from a lightning strike or falling in a bathtub than from being killed by a terrorist. It's psychologically a much more damaging risk to have a fair number of people blown up than to have random people across the country struck and killed by lightning. But it's not the kind of threat that should make us eager to give up the liberties in our Constitution or to give up domestic programs that are important for the lives of ordinary Americans or to give up our ability to handle crises like New Orleans and so forth.

In my view. the U.S. government, if it were really worried about al-Qaida, shouldn't have been invading Iraq. Iraq didn't have anything to do with al-Qaida. If we had spent the kind of money were spending in Iraq on fighting al-Qaida, it would have been got 10 times over. Now we're going to end up spending a trillion, 2 trillion dollars on the Iraq misadventure. I don't know what we've spent fighting al-Qaida, but it's been a relatively small amount. That tells me something — that the Bush administration is far more interested in reconfiguring Iraq than it is in fighting al-Qaida. And yet the rhetoric is all about the war on terror and al-Qaida.

I think the American right has long managed to throw resources to its clients and to scare the American people into giving up some of their rights by looking to external threats like the Soviet Union, communism and now al-Qaida and international terrorism. It always exaggerates the real magnitude of the threat, and the U.S. public seems to be easily scared, easily intimidated into forfeiting its birthright, which is the liberties of the U.S. Constitution, and I think we should push back.

MT: Do you see al-Qaida evolving?

Cole: Al-Qaida as a discrete organization is finished. Its command and control has been very substantially degraded, and what's been happening in the past few years has been the rise of al-Qaida wannabes, copycat organizations that take the name the way you might have a local restaurant that makes hamburgers and suddenly it's a Burger King or McDonald's — it'll buy a franchise name. In the same way, you have some local group in Morocco or in Western Europe which has its own uses for wanting to bomb something and will announce that it's al-Qaida in Morocco or al-Qaida in Iraq or whatever. It doesn't have any operational relation to the original al-Qaida. This is a disturbing development because very small groups are very hard to surveil and hard to monitor; they haven't typically been infiltrated because they were unknown by local security forces. So they can make some strikes like the Madrid train bombings and the London underground bombing that psychologically can have a big impact. That's been the major development, the way the organization has become even more asymmetrical and has morphed into these scattered wannabe copycat organizations.

MT: What about the claim that the great threat today is a kind of Islamo-fascism and al-Qaida is at the heart of that?

Cole: Well, I object to the term Islamo-fascism because Islam is a religion and it shouldn't be associated with a secular, destructive Western political ideology. Certainly al-Qaida and kindred groups are highly authoritarian and they envision a society that is extremely repressive and they are dangerous and violent people who would like to impose that vision on others and I am glad to associate myself with the fight against them. But they must be kept in perspective.

The radical groups are different than the fundamentalist groups. But the Muslim desire for a Muslim emphasis in politics — which some people call political Islam — appears to me as analogous to the American Christian right, and there is a difference between the American Christian right and the Timothy McVeighs and so forth. The radical extremist groups are a relatively small phenomenon; they are not important everywhere, and the idea that the Muslim world is full of fascist regimes is just not true.

Lets’ talk about the middle East and its relation with the United States. We’ll start on the Atlantic relation with Morocco. Could you have a regime which is more friendly to the United States: warm diplomatic relations, military cooperation, good trade ties. Morocco doesn’t have the profile of an enemy of the United States. Algeria fought a civil war against political Islam, and Islam lost, and the Algerian government as it’s now constituted could be more friendly to the United States. Tunisia, it’s embarrassing how friendly President Ben Ali is to the United States. Even Libya has come in from the cold. Egypt: a non-NATO ally; we do joint military exercises together; we give them $2 billion a year. Jordan, that’s really embarrassing, how obsequious Jordan is to the United States. Iraq, now a pro-American government. Saudi Arabia, a warm ally. The Persian Gulf monarchies. Yemen, an ally. Turkey, a NATO ally. Pakistan, an ally. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia. Kyrgyzstan has given us bases. Tajikistan, an ally. Afghanistan an ally, Kazakhstan — warm relations. These people who imagine this enemy out there should explain to me where it is. I can’t find it.

I find the Muslim world full of regimes that range from being extremely friendly to just fairly friendly — the two exceptions being Syria and Iran. Even there, after Sept. 11, 2001, Syria was perfectly willing to join in the war against terror. It was the United States' decision to break off relations and try to push over that regime.

To tell you the truth I think it's like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the curtain is lifted. I think that much of the war on terror is an illusion. I think what you've really got is 4,000 or 5,000 jihadis that you should be tracking down through local cooperation and Interpol and the FBI, on the one hand. And you've got the Sunni Arab guerrillas of Iraq who are sore that we overthrew the Baath government on the other hand. And you have some tensions with Syria and Iran. But I don't see how this makes for a coherent enemy. I think Washington misses the Cold War, and the great tragedy is that the Muslims are just not going to be providing the analogy. We can talk as though they do, but they don't, and eventually this whole smoke-and-mirrors thing is going to collapse.

W. Kim Heron is Metro Times managing editor. Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Send comments to or call 313-202-8011.

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