The bottom line is clear: Our vital interests in Afghanistan are limited and military victory is not the key to achieving them. On the contrary, waging a lengthy counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan may well do more to aid Taliban recruiting than to dismantle the group, help spread conflict further into Pakistan, unify radical groups that might otherwise be quarreling amongst themselves, threaten the long-term health of the U.S. economy, and prevent the U.S. government from turning its full attention to other pressing problems. -- Afghanistan Study Group

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Engaging the Muslim World

By Juan Cole. Palgrave MacMillan. 2009.

The publishers were kind enough to send us a copy and ask us to review Juan Cole's new book here. I thought I would wait until president Obama made his long-scheduled trip to the Middle East and gave his highly anticipated Cairo speech, to make the discussion as timely as possible. Prof. Cole is probably best known to the general public as the blogger who writes Informed Comment (which we have always linked in our sidebar), but he is of course Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan and one of the few prominent U.S. commentators on the Middle East who actually speaks Arabic and has truly deep knowledge of the region.

Cole begins by identifying an urgent problem. Two thirds of Americans, he tells us, are willing to tell a pollster that they have some prejudice against Muslims, and almost half doubt the loyalty of Muslim Americans to their country. At the same time, people in the Middle East distrust the motives of the United States and believe the U.S. does not respect them. As Cole writes in his introduction of the "terrorism experts" who have become a fixture on cable TV, along with many politicians and Christian right leaders, their message is that "Muslims are a menace to the West unless they are subdued and dominated." With the United States squandering its blood and treasure in military occupations of two Muslim countries, and the public preoccupied with the threat, however exaggerated, of Islamic terrorism, our political discourse and public policy have become ensnared in a narrative of conflict which is consuming our attention and draining our capacity to solve our many other urgent problems.

The book is structured as a series of drill-downs into four regional histories -- Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab heartland; Iraq; Pakistan and Afghanistan; and Iran -- framed by two introductory chapters. The first chapter is about the real issue that underlies U.S. and Western policies toward the Middle East, which is, of course, that black goo under the sand. It is fair to say that the issues which dominate our discourse about the Muslim world are mostly just distraction, framing and spin. The United States would have little interest in the region, and certainly no occupying armies, if not for our insatiable demand for petroleum and the geologic accident that puts most of the earth's irreplaceable supply in Islamic lands.

The second chapter initiates a major project of the book, which is to equip readers to distinguish the many strands of ideology and political activism in the various Islamic cultural and national domains. One of the greatest sins of American punditry is the conflation of the very small and nearly feckless factions within Islam that directly threaten violence against the U.S. or U.S. interests with any and every form of religious, ideological or national assertiveness within the vast tapestry of Islam.

We may have no personal sympathy, for example, for the social doctrines of Islamic fundamentalists, but the vast majority of them are nonviolent and have not the slightest inclination to associate with terrorists. Muslim religious radicalism certainly has political manifestations (as does Christian fundamentalism in the United States), but it is obviously mostly directed at the governments of its own adherents and is not inherently any particular business of the United States. Cole's narrative essentially constructs a complicated Venn diagram, with circles representing various strains of religious ideology; secular political ideology; identity politics based on nationality, ethnicity, religiosity; and strategic and tactical alternatives. Somewhere in this vast fabric of overlapping and interlocking circles is a tiny area of intersection where religious and nationalist fervor, carefully nurtured grievance, and moral depravity produce a violent cult that sets out to kill innocent people, including Americans.

Some of the people inside the other circles constitute a problem for their local governments, legitimately or illegitimately. For example, Cole tells the story of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Although the Brotherhood is still routinely depicted as a terrorist movement in the United States, in fact it gave up violence a long time ago and is now a peaceful political party. The problem of the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan is not the simplistic story of religious fanatics threatening the civil order, as it is ordinarily portrayed in the United States. The Taliban movement draws strength from Pashtun nationalism, as Pashtos feel somewhat besieged in both Pakistan and Afghanistan; from economic distress and inequality; and from the corruption and fecklessness of existing governments.

However unattractive Taliban rule may appear to Christian or secular Americans, the only reason the Taliban are in conflict with the United States is because we have chosen to confront them. It is true that the confrontation originated with Mullah Omar's decision to harbor Al Qaeda, which in turn imported hostility to the United States into Afghanistan, a hostility which ultimately originated in the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and its alliance with the Saudi monarchy. The offensive U.S. presence, in turn, was entirely motivated by our addiction to petroleum.

In disentangling the U.S. history with Iran, Cole also takes us to Lebanon. And of course, he provides a devastating deconstruction of the illegal war of aggression against Iraq.

This volume will be of immense value to Americans who truly wish to understand the nature and extent of any Islamist threat to U.S. interests; to gain an appreciation of the diversity of Islam and the nations and cultural traditions in which it is prominent; and to discover paths toward trust and mutual regard. Cole is wise enough to include, as a central prescription, breaking our addiction to petroleum as well as our addiction to inflammatory rhetoric and egocentric views of the world. Perhaps Barack Obama is already trying to follow this advice.

There is, however, one shortcoming in the book, which I am tempted to attribute to a failure of nerve. The Israel-Palestine problem comes up frequently, but only because it is an irritant to relations between the U.S. and Muslims everywhere. It does become clear in the course of these largely peripheral references that Cole thinks the Palestinians have gotten a very bad deal indeed and that the U.S. has indulged much unacceptable behavior by Israel toward its captive population. However, he does not give us any systematic history or analysis of Israel and Palestine, despite the centrality of the conflict. Readers will not come away with the same well-informed perspective on this critical issue that they will on the subjects Cole has chosen to feature.

Zionist zealots have already succeeded in blocking Cole from a job at Yale. I hesitate to speculate that he is tired of that fight. Perhaps his next book will offer his insights, to which I for one would certainly look forward.

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