The Difficulty Writing Iraqi History in the United States


Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is www.juancole.com.

Who are America's historians of modern Iraq? They exist, but you would not know it from the U.S. mass media. As a second war looms with Baghdad, one would have thought that journalists were besieging them for informed views of the country. Instead, they have remained virtually anonymous and unheard in the unfolding debates.

It is an index of America's longstanding anti-intellectualism that long hours of cable television news are filled with the views on Iraq of small town radio talk show hosts and retired colonels, but virtually no one who actually knows Arabic or has written substantially on the country appears on the small screen

Even the History News Network recently ran an allegation from Barry Rubin, an Israeli-based scholar, that there were no historians of Iraq in the U.S. Surely he must have meant to say that there were few scholars of the Baath period, since 1968. Although the numbers of books written about modern Iraq by American historians can be counted on the fingers of two hands, the field does exist and its practitioners are not obscure in the ranks of the Middle East Studies Association.

There are many reasons for this paucity. First, there are not very many historians of the Middle East in the US at all. About 328 tenured and tenure-track historians are members of the Middle East Studies Association of North America. Some of these MESA members reside abroad or are not Americans, and so should not be counted for my purposes here. On the other hand, some American Middle East scholars (especially medievalists) do not get around to renewing their MESA dues, so that this number is probably a fair guide to the situation. Most of these scholars know Arabic or another relevant language of the region. In contrast, there are 14,000 historians in the American Historical Association. The 300 or so academics I just mentioned have to cover everything from Muhammad to the present and from Morocco to Afghanistan in their teaching and research, so obviously coverage of some times and places is going to be shallow.

Historians depend on access to archives and documents in order to do their work. The Baath, a radical political party standing for secular Arab nationalism and socialism, has been hostile to the United States for most of the period since it took power in Baghdad in 1968. Since that date, American historians have not had access to the Iraqi archives. Within the history field, much prestige is attached to work in archives, and it is increasingly unacceptable to write Middle Eastern history primarily out of British and other colonial archives, as was common a generation ago. One would want to see Arabic and Ottoman Turkish documents. Further, simply as a practical matter, the ability to visit a country spurs interest in it, and lack of field work opportunities conversely tend to render it less visible and less attractive to researchers.

Other Arab countries competed successfully for the attention of US historians in this regard. The Egyptian archives are extremely rich and have been increasingly open for the study of the modern period up to about 1940. Arguably, Egypt has been the site of among the more important new historical writing by Americans on the Middle East. Despite poor diplomatic relations between the United States and Syria, American scholars have been able to conduct research in the Syrian archives in Damascus, especially in the area of social history.

Most departments have at most one line in modern Middle East history, and search committees tend to focus on what they consider central sorts of expertise when hiring. Scholars writing about Egypt and Syria, the "front-line states" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, have had more success than others in the job market, apparently because the American and European historians who do the hiring within the department feel they are most important. In contrast, a history dissertation on smaller and less politically central countries such as Yemen or Tunisia can easily become a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. Even specialists on the 20th century history of unarguably important countries such as Iran, Turkey, and Morocco often meet resistance when they go on the job market because of the privileging of the front-line Arab states. (Of all the major lines in modern Middle East history in the US, none is occupied by a specialist in the post-Ottoman twentieth century history of Turkey!) Iraq for some reason falls into that same category, and not all American-trained historians of that country who brought out books on it in the past two decades found employment in this country.

During the periods when the US is not actually at war with Iraq, the American public does not buy books about the country's history. Since it costs $40,000 to bring out an academic book, publishing books that do not sell is a shortcut to bankruptcy court. When I proposed a book about the making of modern Iraq to an editor at a major New York publishing house in 1993, he declined the project as "too risky." I took him to mean that if there were another war it might do well, but if there were not, it would be a $40,000 bomb. I applied for grants to get time off to do the project anyway, and none ever came through. So, I gave up on the survey project. My recent work on the modern history of Shi`ite Islam, Sacred Space and Holy War, treats Iraqi Shi`ism at some length, though.


Let us turn to historians who have written monographs on the country. Note that I am speaking of US-based historians and therefore am excluding important works by Iraqi and Egyptian historians, not to mention those based in Europe or Israel. Likewise, I will not cover work done by non-historians, whether political scientists or security analysts.

The grand old man of American history-writing about Iraq is Majid Khadduri (b. 1908 in Mosul), a distinguished emeritus professor at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Khadduri was in the Iraq delegation at the formation of the U.N. in 1945 and then became an academic at Johns Hopkins, where he taught for 30 years. Among his 29 books are a trilogy, Independent Iraq, Republican Iraq, and Socialist Iraq, published 1951-1978, chronicling the modern history of the country. As late as 1997 he co-authored a book on the Gulf War!

British-born Peter Sluglett, former director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utah, is among the foremost historians of Iraq now based in this country. His Britain in Iraq, 1914-1932 (London, 1976) is still among the better treatments of British imperialism in early twentieth century Iraq. The late Hanna Batatu of Georgetown University (where he taught 1982-1994) published The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, N.J., 1978), a massive investigation of the social origins of members of Iraq's Baath and Communist parties. Batatu, while teaching at the American University in Beirut, had lucked into a private collection of documents from the police archives in Baghdad, and put it to imaginative use. His work has had a powerful impact on all subsequent writing on modern Iraqi history.

Reeva Simon, associate director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, published Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Creation and Implementation of a Nationalist Ideology, in 1986 at Columbia University Press. In a sense, it builds on Sluglett's work to take political history forward into the 1930s. The only American attempt at a survey of modern Iraqi history is The Modern History of Iraq by Harvard-trained historian Phebe Marr (Boulder, Co., 1985). The author, an emerita scholar at the National Defense University and among the country's more important Iraq experts, depends mainly on Western sources for her treatment.

The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War caused some scholars to take up the history of Iraqi Shi`ism. Israeli-born Yitzhak Nakash of Brandeis published The Shi'is of Iraq at Princeton University Press in 1994. Based on a plethora of biographical dictionaries and good use of printed works and the British archives (including records stored at the National Indian Archives in Delhi), it was the first thoroughgoing treatment of Iraq's majority religious persuasion.

A banner year for the historiography of modern Iraq arrived in 1997. Three UCLA-trained historians brought out important books. Dina Rizk Khoury of George Washington University's history department published State and Provincial Society in the Ottoman empire : Mosul, 1540-1834, at Cambridge University Press. Mosul has generated a large amount of chronicle writing and biographical dictionaries, of which she took advantage to look at the evolution of social strata over time. The same year, her colleague Hala Fattah brought out The Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq, Arabia, and the Gulf, 1745-1900 (Albany, N.Y.). Fattah is the first to have looked at inter-regional trading networks in the Gulf region. Fattah is now at Jordan's Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies. Finally, Samira Haj, now at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, published The Making of Iraq, 1900-1963 : Capital, Power, and Ideology (Albany, N.Y.). Haj provides interesting new information on the impact of small manufacturers on Iraqi politics and development.

The history of Mosul was brought forward into the nineteenth century by Sarah D. Shields of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in her Mosul before Iraq: Like Bees Making Five-Sided Cells (Albany, N.Y., 2000). A social history attentive to the position of minorities, this book sheds light on provincial politics in a late Ottoman province. The most recent important work on modern Iraq is that of Georgetown-trained Abdullah Thabit, now teaching at York University in Canada, who published Merchants, Mamluks, and Murder : the Political Economy of Trade in Eighteenth-Century Basra (Albany, N.Y., 2001). As noted, Iraq is treated extensively in my Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam (London, 2002).


This survey of recent seminal books shows that a few American historians have found ways of overcoming the obstacles to writing modern Iraqi history. Sluglett and Simon depended especially on the British archives and Arabic memoirs in writing about the period up to World War II. Nakash innovated in investigating the vast corpus of Shi`ite printed works and biographical dictionaries. Printed works, chronicles and biographical dictionaries likewise underpin the works of Khoury, Fattah, and Shields. Khoury in particular has innovated in tracking down important manuscript resources for modern Iraqi history in Istanbul.

Unlike some scholars of Ottoman Syria, few American historians of Iraq have gotten into the Istanbul archives for the Ottoman period. On a site visit in 1999, I saw a large number of documents on Iraq listed in the Prime Minister's Archives in Istanbul, which have yet to be exploited by historians. (Knowledge of both Arabic and Ottoman Turkish is rare among American academics.) Likewise, the resources of the Maharashtra State Archives in India, housing documents from the Presidency of Bombay, are rich for the eighteenth and nineteenth century history of Iraq and the Gulf, but have been little tapped. In any case, writing about Iraq has in several instances not led to a tenure-track position in this country for American-trained historians.

No American historian has essayed a major work on Baathist Iraq, for which the sources would have to be propaganda-ridden Iraqi newspapers, expatriate memoirs with an axe to grind, Western news wire reports, and what documents the U.S. government has been willing to declassify. Given the limitations of these sources, it is no wonder that most scholars have devoted their energies to the Ottoman and British periods, for which more documentation exists, the biases of which are more easily dealt with because passions have cooled with the passage of centuries.

The extreme disconnect between the distinct worlds of Washington policy-making, mass media, and grassroots academia is well demonstrated by the small numbers and near-invisibility of the U.S. Iraq historians at this juncture in our country's history. Whether it is wise for the United States to get deeply involved in a region about which so few of us know anything serious, and whether it is wise for journalists to exclude the voices of those steeped in Iraq's history from the public debate, are both questions it would be well to ponder.

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John P Sullivan - 11/7/2004

if you want to talk my email is johninvp@msn.com so email if you want

John P Sullivan - 11/7/2004

i have a photo of us taken on saturday of us in his home taken by his daughter

John P Sullivan - 11/7/2004

i have a photo of us taken on saturday of us in his home taken by his daughter

John P Sullivan - 11/7/2004

Hi, i met him yesterday

Marlin Sharp - 8/31/2004

I knew Adnan in Honolulu Hawaii in 1969. Adnan was a good friend. He worked for Hawaii's WWWF at that time. I have been trying to reach him. Reciently I have found a phone number in a Honolulu directory but it had been disconnected June 2004. I will be flying to Honolulu on September 9th and try to find where he is living. Have you found any more information reciently?

Aloha, Marlin

Jack Off - 11/11/2003

me 2 yeer old. my dady hate u.

Abdul-Ilah - 6/30/2003

Dear sirs,
I'd be grateful if u u send me names of sources about the a.m subject as i'm working on a reasearch about the emergence of iraqi parties and movements whether they are political or religious..etc., their founders , dates of foundation and their roles in the political history of iraq.

thanks in advance

scott - 4/7/2003

Looking for some help,
I am interested in any articles
and or personal stories,photo's
Etc... of the American-Iraqi
professional wrestler Adnan Alkaissy
from Iraq. He was the Iraqi Heavyweight
Wrestling champion in the 1950s. Mr. Alkaissy
went to the US to attend college and returned
to Iraq in the late 1960s. The Iraqi Government
held huge wrestling shows all over the country
for several years after. We will be interested
anything from that period about Mr. Alkaissy.
Thank You in Advance
Aloha Scooter

Derek Catsam - 2/4/2003

(Bill -- You might want to read my last paragraph first.)

So you're annoyed by Mandela's rhetorical flourish? Not much of an argument of substance there. What we did in bolstering Pinochet was as horrible as anything the communists might have done there. You are so blinded by anticommunism that you are unwilling to recognize atrocities that the US bolstered and supported that this argument can't really go much further than we've taken it. You're justifying Pinochet. Unreal.

You wrote:

Bill, can you stop? Seriously, can you help yourself? Your namecalling and misrepresentation is almost pathological, Bellislian, even. I can't remember the last time that I called you a right-wing anything -- for you, labels replace complexity sometimes, which is too bad, because for all of your unwarranted condescension I sometimes learn things from you. "Atrocity" means lots of things to me, I am not nor have I ever justified communism broadly though I have differentiated between communist regimes (and communism that did not have a regime). Atrocity to me is Jim Crow, it is Slavery, it is wiping out the Native American populations, it is apartheid South Africa, it is Ian Smith's Rhodesia, it is Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. In short, it is possible to be both outraged and not reductionist or simplistic, breaking it down to a communism/capitalism approach, or for that matter a US good/critics bad approach. I'll put my beliefs in bold for you, just so that you get the point: TOTALITARIAN REGIMES ARE AN UNMITIGATED DISASTER, and that transcends the left-right divide. Keep in mind that the Communist Party is part of the ruling coalition in a South Africa that is doing remarkably well right now given the forty lost years of apartheid. The third free democratic election in that country is coming up, it is a free market capitalist nation, the wealthiest in all of Africa with remarkable potential for growth and development.

You wrote:

You are claiming moral parallels here. You have not yet shown how Mandela said or did anything racist. What is the "racist" example that has you all up in arms and claiming that Bush would have an equal right to be offended as Mandela, who spent forty-plus years fighting the most racially abhorrent regime in the world? I do not deny that black racism exists (and never have -- there you go again, building up straw men) but what I am saying is that Mandela is inured to such fatuous accusations given his life and history.

You wrote:

Again Bill, where do you get your scholarly authority to decide who or what is worth a history book? You are giving parallelism to Ian Smith and Mugabe -- the latter is a thug and a murderer and is about a thousand times better than Ian Smith and his rapacious, racist, illegitimate regime. Mugabe's first elections were never in question -- that he stole elections after that and acted murderously is exactly why I condemn what has become of Zimbabwe, but once again, Ian Smith had no claims. Zero. None. The worst tragedy is that the legitimate opposition leader in Zim is today on trial on trumped up charges of treason, a man who may well represent Zim's best hope. But once again, I see no moral parallelism, no moral equivalence, between imperialism/colonialism and even the worst black mismanagement in Africa. You speak in absolutes about communism and capitalism, I'll certainly speak in equally strong absolutes about imperialism and liberation.

And by the way, you have not clarified for me when it is ok to criticize American foreign policy without losing my citizenship rights or my claim to patriotism. If a Democrat takes office in 2005, though, I'll assume that it'll be my time to claim the mantel of 100% Americanism? Shall the two of us have a transitional ceremony? The South African example seemed to work well. Maybe we'll do it over a beer. At this point, I need one.

The worst thing is, all this verbiage, by now you and I are the only ones reading it, and this is several hundred words worth of effort that could have gone into my book. Oh well. Can't we both just go kick sand in Gus Moner's face or something? No Mas. Let's at least get into another pissing match over one of the new articles -- we've probably reached endgame, we aren't going to agree, and someone out there has probably thrown fresh blood in the water.

Bill Heuisler - 2/4/2003

The definition of atrocity - the term used by Mandela to describe the U.S. - has far more to do with criminal activity than foreign policy. Atrocity is descriptive. Atrocity cannot be used dispassionately, but is always pejorative. He used the term as a hatchet. The United States does not deserve such terms.
Your response:
"Let's see; bolstering Pinochet? Overthrowing democratically elected governments (eg Nicaragua) Supporting dictatorial regimes throughout the Cold War as long as they were not socialist? Unless you are saying that the US has NEVER committed any atrocities..."
Had you brought up Wounded Knee or the Moro War there would be meeting of minds, but Pinochet vs Allende was Army vs Communist and ultimately the United States vs Communists. In Nicaragua the Carter Administration stood by while a group of pro-Castro Communists subverted a Democratic revolution, joined the Soviet Bloc and armed Communist insurgencies in Guatamala and El Salvador. The U.S. responded. Communism kills. Historically speaking, Communism is an unmitigated human disaster.

So, to you and other Leftist denny-sons of Academe, "Atrocity" has come to mean "frustrating Communist aims". Think about that; don't you feel silly now?

Mandela called President Bush a racist, using a racialist argument he knew to be inflammatory. Were W to reverse this argument you and your friends would wax hysterical. Is it absurd to call a black racist? Are only whites racist? Your slip is showing, Derek. You might very well be indulging in the ultimate racism - the condescending American Liberal - that blacks cannot be held to the same high standards as other humans.

We are, as usual at cross-purposes, inhabiting parallel social and ideological paradigms, condemned to react never proact and hoot through the fog like ships passing in the night. Iraq is not worth a history book, Mesopotamia or Persia has been. Zimbabwe is an immmense human accident caused as much by do-gooders like you as by Imperialists like me. The Second Marine Division could probably do more to save countless Iraqi and Bantu(?)lives than all the Annans in the world, but you would never admit such an outrageously incorrect truism.

Attempts to appear intelligent often become clumsy, so my use of any explicative hermeneutics would probably seem pathetic to someone so lofty. You've exposed my importunate floundering; you're "extremely wicked and cruel" and I feel so damned silly.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 2/4/2003

You wrote:

First off, I am not certain how many times I have to write about Mugabe's atrocities before you believe that I am appalled by him. I am also appalled by Hitler, Stalin, and Idi Amin, and would find all of them worthy of study. I'm not gilding anything, but here is a man who was a hero to many for many years, and whose turn toward monstrosity has shown change over time. Since people have written longer-than-thirty page books about Zimbabwe, that argument falls apart. Furthermore, does this mean that you think that American histories of the 60s, 70s and 80s are invalid since they only stretch back 30-40-50 years? The continuity between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe certainly means that there is enough basis in the past to write a contemporary history of his administration. Once again -- we're having an historical argument about something you are then saying does not warrant historical investigation, all the while ignoring the dozens of books, good books, written by talented, conscienscious historians. You are not the final arbiter of what is worthy of scholarly study.

You wrote:

I love how you point out my double negative to score a cheap point one post after you misspell the word "denizens" and just after a couple of weeks in which you misspell not just my but also other people's names. Let's assume that these posts avoid the standard editorial publishing process and that on the whole, we both have reasonable felicity with the English language. What atrocities? Let's see; bolstering Pinochet? Overthrowing democratically elected governments (eg Nicaragua) Supporting dictatorial regimes throughout the Cold War as long as they were not socialist? Unless you are saying that the US has NEVER committed any atrocities, look back on my post, and I think I was clear in saying that while I may disagree with Mandela, unlike you, I don't feel the need to excoriate and character assassinate him. You called him a racist. This is, prima facie, absurd. Mandela spent his life fighting for Freedom, fighting for multiracial democracy, doing more for nonracialism than perhaps anyone in history. You blanch when anyone alludes to you as a racist. You then have the audacity to call Mandela one? As for the AIDS budget, you can pretend all you want that the AIDS epidemic spreading throughout the world will not ever effect the US, and that there is no self-interest involved in what we are doing, and that the price of our aid is silence on the part of leaders. I, for one do not think that should be the case. If you are willing to watch millions die as a consequence of your unwillingness to allow criticism of the US, I am afraid that says more about you than it does about me, Mandela, or, for that matter, Bush.

You wrote:

Yes, silly, given where we have not spoken out or acted (maintain a clearly ineffective boycott of Cuba -- a boycott that really seems to be working wonders to eradicate the ills of which you speak, eh?) against much bigger atrocities. I'd gladly have given up all of our opposition to Cuba for Clinton to have stepped in and done something about Rwanda. We both know that nations have to pick our fights -- why this one against Cuba as opposed to much more substantial ones elsewhere, especially when normalization might be just what it takes to be able to make things better there -- some might say that this forty year exercise, crossing party lines, has been a failure.

You wrote:

What on God's earth are you talking about? I am a committed American citizen who loves this country as much as you, who has chosen as my profession to try to teach American (and to a lesser but not insignificant degree African)history to students who otherwise might not get much of a good dose of it. But I happen to be critical of some of our foreign policy. And I think that my kids will someday adopt a "social paradigm" (Bill, you never struck me as much of a jargon guy -- I hope this was a careless slip and not some sign that you're going to be lecturing me on hermeneutics or the postmodern term. To put it another way, as Krusty the Clown once said on the Simpsons, "'Paradigm?' "proactive?' Aren't these just words that dumb people use to make themselves sound smart.") that will reflect what we have, but better. Ours is not a perfect country, even if it is the "best" in the world (whatever that means), and while I love it, I think it can be better.
By the way -- why is it ok to condemn some policies of Clinton and Carter but not of a President with whom you are more sympathetic? were you less of a patriot in the years 1977-1981 and 1993-2001, or is patriotism what you define it as? If, after all, patriotism is fixed, than aren't you being rather , oh, what was your phrase, "moral(ly)-equivalen(t)"?

Bill Heuisler - 2/3/2003

The difference is two hundred twenty seven years (the U.S.)versus twenty three years (Zimbabwe). Your history book would stretch to thirty pages detailing how your "capitalist" Mugabe put agrarian reform, concentration camps and political murder into open practice while seizing all power, refusing opposition and starving his opponents. Stalin would be proud of Mugabe. You should stop trying to gild a monster.

Mandela said the U.S. is the foremost danger in the world and accused W of racism. You defend his right to speak (which has never been in question) use a double-negative about America using atrocities in foreign policy and continue your stance of moral-equivalency. What atrocities? Where? What is your purpose? Does standing above the fray and criticizing your country make you feel superior? W offered 31 Billion dollars to fight AIDS in Africa - equal or greater than our total foreign aid budget. Nelson Mandela insults him and the American people. Perhaps many Americans share my disgust and will convince congress not to send this racist ingrate any more of our money.

Speaking of AIDS, you say, "I think Castro is ruthless, though I think our worrying about him these days is a bit silly." Silly, Derek? Is it silly to starve sick men to death? Suddenly your moral equivalence, your aloof hauteur, is unmasked as either ideological myopia or lack of facts. My guess is the former.
Fidel imprisons homosexuals and AIDS patients and starves them to death. Fidel has more political prisoners on the Isle of Pines and throughout his vast prison system per-capita than any other country in the world. Fidel lives like a wealthy prince while more than half of his people are undernourished on an island that was once a bread-basket and had the highest average income and GNP in the Caribbean, Central America and South America (excepting Chile and Argentina). Silly?
Defend Mandela and Castro, normalize Mugabe, castigate the U.S., but in the dark of night when you're staring at the ceiling, ask yourself which social paradigm your children will inherit. Then imagine if, God forbid, the better angels of this sorrowful world are eventually overwhelmed by apathetic despair and entropy. Imagine, and ask yourself why you didn't choose.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 2/2/2003

Bill, Bill, Bill --
First off, you have still not made a compelling case for why study of Zimbabwe from 1980 to the present is illegitimate. Second, it is simple historical fact that Mugabe shifted from Marxism upon ascension to the leadership of Zimbabwe -- that is part of the reason why Zim was seen as a model African nation -- he preached socialism to the masses but maintained an essentially free market economy throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Anyone who has been to Vic Falls knows that market capitalism is alive and well in Zim, as it is (or was -- Zim in the last few years has changed dramatically, obviously) in all of the cities. What he is doing now hardly shows any sort of consistent ideology, Marxist, socialist, capitalist or otherwise -- the very fact that we can disagree about this indicates that there is a case for the history of Zim since 1980.
That Zim was Rhodesia/Southern Rhodesia does not mean that there is no continuity. First off, African peoples, that is, the original inhabitants, always used the name "Zimbabwe," thus the establishment of ZAPU -- the Zimbabwean African People's Union in 1961. Your argument would be the equivalent of saying that there is no continuity between the United States and what went before it, and therefore that study of the period that encompasses the Colonial period and the Revolution would be impossible or irrelevent. Of course the country changed its name, but most of the actors remained the same with the transition to majority rule. (Well, not any longer -- but that too is an historical circumstance worth examining).

Actually, Mandela never thanked the US profusely for "bringing liberation," (appropriating that phrase would be a distortion of context and meaning) but rather for what many Americans did to help, as well as the US's role in helping to deal with the negotiations -- which nonetheless were predominantly the responsibility of the partipants, the Nat's and the ANC coalition. Plus, one might take into account that Mandela was being gracious -- why would he not say nice things? The historical reality was that the US role was minimal at best for the overwhelming period of the resistance, and that the brunt of the credit should go to the resistance within South Africa and in exile. Mandela has been very clear in his writing and speaking where he believes the responsibility should go, but yes, what role the US did play, he clearly appreciates.
The 1980s goal of "Making South Africa ungovernable" revealed that while Mkonto we Sizwe knew they could never win against the SADF, SAP and Security Forces, they also would never be fully defeated. Both sides understood this, which is a huge part of why both parties eventually ended up at the bargaining table.
I am not certain that I would agree to Mandela's assertion -- though let's not pretend that America has not carried out its share of atrocities in foreign policy. But I'll defend Mandela's right to make his stance against this war known. There are those who believe that the sanctions, for example, represent atrocities. I, for one, think that if they are atrocities it is because Saddam is allowing his people to starve, but it is also clear that we could end them.
As for the "denizens of academe," whatever that phrase means (as if my world is somehow less real than yours, my opinions somehow less legitimate), I have yet to see a time when I have been what can reasonably be called anti-American on this list. I am critical of some of America's policies, foreign and domestic, which is not just my right, but also my responsibility as someone who loves my country as much as you do yours. on Libya and Cuba, I am quite certain you'll never agree, but I will reiterate: I think Castro is ruthless, though I think our worrying about him these days is a bit silly. I think Khaddafi (pick your spelling) was a lot more dangerous earlier than he is now, and that we were justified in taking some action against him. But I can also understand the South African liberation view -- Libya and Cuba supported freedom in South Africa for a long, long time when American policy was at best ambivalent, at worst obstructionist. Thus we (US and SA policy apparatus) have different perspectives on, say. Libya. Why would Mandela not feel a great deal of loyalty to these countries that supported him? Is his support (almost all rhetorical by the way --paying lip service to an ally, without providing substantial real economic or military support) for those countries any less excusable than some of the alliances we've made in the past? It's not always a Manechean world -- sometimes there are shades of gray. All I am saying with this incidence is that just because we chose to demonize castro for forty years does not necessarily mean that every single other nation state should follow suit.

Bill Heuisler - 2/2/2003

Derek, Your work in S. Africa is known to me, but the bulk of your your "historical scholarly study" involving Zimbabwe was of Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia wasn't it? The Sabean stone ruins have been called Zimbabwe for at least a century, but a country of that name did not exist until a few years ago. Belaboring the point has become tiresome. Your insistance there is something worth study in Mugabe's asylum, insisting on his conversion to market capitalism and insisting there has been an historical Zimbabwe is not only wrong on its face but fatuous.

Now something closer to the bone:
Just a couple of years ago Nelson Mandela thanked the U.S. quite profusely for bringing liberation to his people. Do you remember?
Now he accuses us of "atrocities". No details. No justification. But you say he's earned that right. How has he earned the right to lie about our country? Does the color of Mandela's skin or his years in prison bestow some verbal or moral license? Is the man not required to speak the truth? How can Derek Catsam defend people who ally themselves with the likes of Cuba and Libya and not bother defending his own free Democratic country? Derek, you, and other comfortable denisons of Academe seem always ready to listen to infinite reason - as long as the subject is not your own country.
Tiresome is not a sufficient word. Contemptible maybe.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 2/1/2003

Well, Martin Meredith's recent book on Zimbabwe under Mugabe saeems to refute the idea that Zim has no recent history worth studying. There are lots of people studying modern Zim now -- who is anyone to say that it is not worth studying? Most newspaper coverage of Zim and much of the rest of Africa ranges from nonexistent to pretty bad in most cases, and certainly as one who studies Africa, I've gotten a great deal more from historical scholarly study than from the newspapers.

"Wars of liberation? Give it a rest." What does that mean? I can't write as I feel because it goes against your idfeology? As bad as Mugabe is, Ian Smith was far worse, far more vicious, far more oppressive. Mugabe is no longer a marcxist, and has not been since virtually the day he took over when he quickly went from the rhetoric of marxism to the realities of embracing free market "reform." Whatever his problems, and they are leguion, it would be facile and historically barren to claim that the problem is Marxism.

Westermn pressure could have done better than Mandela? Perhaps the most admired leader on the global staqge? Mandela shakes his fist at the US when he feels it needs to be shaken -- he has that right; he's certainly earned it. As for American pressure causing the changes in South Africa, well, that is a pretty simplistic and ahistorical reading of things. The US government and its policy of Constructive Engagement served to bolster apartheid and Reagan vetoes the Comprehensive Apartheid act before that veto was overridden and many in South Africa had by then already acknowledged that there was going to have to be reform -- unfortunately PW Botha could not see the writing on the wall and he gave the ill-timed "Rubicon speech" that did serve to finally convince most of the west that indeed, constructive engagement was a chimera. In the meantime, countries like Libya and Cuba opposed apartheid with everything they had, and while we have legitimate reasons to oppose those countries, South Africa's leadership in the ANC has equally good reasons to maintain loyalty to them. On top of all of this, the ANC armed resistance was far more effective than you apparently think, as (unintentionally) was the government's barbaric responses. It was the armed struggle that fueled the government to implem,ent the States of Emergency from 1984 on, and clearly this changed the whole nature of the conflict.

My sense is that you must have been accused of supporting apartheid in the past, because my post said no such thing, did not allude to such a thing, and it never crossed my mind. The fact is, though, that if only for its support of the ANC and other liberation organizations, and for its own fight against white-minority dominance, Zimbabwe's recent history does merit studying. because you have no interest in doing so, I am not certain what presumptive right you have to claim that such study is illegitimate.

Gus Moner - 2/1/2003

Perhaps Mr. Huisler should consider that the people that now inhabit what we now know as Iraq, assume all that history, no matter what name they give their state. So, the idea of no Iraq before 1932 is but a western invention. It may be comfortable to think that Iraq practically does not exist because of it, however those people are the descendants of all the ones Mr Huisler mentioned and they feel a part of that history and the nation that ensued from it. It’s difficult to understand a 6,000 year history and its legacy when yours is but 275 years.

Bill Heuisler - 1/31/2003

Sorry, Derek.
You wrote liberation "struggle" and I read "War".
The bit about combat is obviously overdone and my excuse is haste, hubris and chutzpah. (alliteration intended)
As for the comments on the Mandelas, Mugabe and mistaken choices, my opinions remain the same, although I'm not sure what - or who - would have been viable alternatives.
Bill Heuisler

Bill Heuisler - 1/31/2003

The original point: "Iraq" had no "history" until after 1932.
Zimbabwe, Uzbekstan etc. had no real identity until recently. These lands had been either subsumed into larger entities many years ago or had changed radically in name and shape fairly recently. Histories of Rhodesia and South Africa have been written (Preller, Theal, Becker, Campbell, Cory, Moffat, Walker, Selous, Le Soeur, Hone etc.) and many excellent novels explore the last 130 years (Cloete and Smith to name a few) but Zimbabwe has no modern history worthy of clinical discussion that is not covered daily in the newspapers. Is the point too fine? Perhaps, but so is Cole's patronizing lecture and errant conclusion.

Wars of liberation? Give it a rest. First - and don't start accusing me of defending apartheid - both Zimbabwe and, to a lesser degree, South Afrika would have been far better off without your so-called "Wars". Mandela and Mugabe achieved power, not through combat, but politically, because of pressure from the United States and Great Britain. Where we went wrong was in caving to quasi-Socialist Big Men (as you call them so aptly) who led Communist-style groups prior to takeover. Nelson Mandela's clenched fist and insults to the United States are still shimmering in yesterday's airwaves as I write this. Winnie, of course, is less than unmentionable.
Mugabe is simply a Marxist thug. We should have known better.
And Western pressure could have done much better than these two, but we evidently labored under the impression that their being in opposition to white rule was enough. Too bad. Many Africans are doomed to die because "Liberation" rhetoric resounded so well to uneducated masses and sold so well to liberal elites in the West. But give up this pretentious rhetoric, you are better and smarter than that - and Che Guevara is dead after all.
Anyhow, "Zimbabwe" wasn't a political reality until recently.
Bill Heuisler

Derek Catsam - 1/31/2003

There are a number of good historical works on Zimbabwe by historians American and otherwise. I'm a bit mystified by your last line -- why should there not be histories of the countries you mentioned? Surely the story of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe is not only a remarkable one, but is also an important one. Surely there are important lessons to be learned both from Zim's liberation struggle and from the subsequent morass in which the country finds itself as the result of its megalomaniacal leader. Surely the country's proximity to South Africa and its role in the liberation struggle is one worth knowing.

Bill Heuisler - 1/29/2003

Professor Juan Cole asks about the difficulty of writing Iraqi history in the U.S. as though Modern Americans were either too provincial or too biased to do so properly.

Professor Cole there was no history of Iraq before 1932.

The land now called Iraq was Sumerian around 4000 BC; Semite Akkadian around 2340; back to Sumerian about 2125 and then Assyrians, Babylonians, Cassites, Mitanni, Assyrians again, Chaldeans, Medes and Persians all took their turns settling and building and farming the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates. Iskander Al Akhbar took the area for Macedonia and his successors lost it again to the Persians. In 634 AD Arabs began a Muslim Empire that eventually stretched from China to the Atlantic Ocean. Mongols interrupted under Hulagu and again under Lame Timur, but then this unlucky land became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Brits occupied Baghdad in 1917 and the Hashemite Arabs laid claim for a brief time, but Iraq never became a country until 1932.
Thirty years later Baathist thugs took over and Iraqi "history" descended to the dungeons of repression and ignorance.

Professor Cole, There are a multitude of histories about that mythic crossroad of humanity - from the Old Testament to histories of Persia and the Ottoman Empire. But Iraq? What is there to write about a country less than 75 years old clamped under National Socialism more exclusive than Hitler's Germany.

You say, "Whether it is wise for the United States to get deeply involved in a region about which so few of us know anything serious..."
This is sophistry. Scholars all over the world know what and who we are dealing with in Modern Iraq. There is no mystery.

But of course you exclude non-historians and the military.
You apparently choose a fanciful battlefield to joust for Left Wing exaltation: set up a subject, assume a self inflating, but "ethnically-correct" position from which to attack Western scholarship and then you ask a chimerical question.

Hell, Professor, there probably isn't a decent U.S. history of Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Yemen, or Albania either. That doesn't mean there should be.
Bill Heuisler

A Concerned Scholar - 1/29/2003

Oh, yes. I noticed another typo. "your" should be "you're." With the older comment page on this site, one was able to view comments before submitting them. Sorry they changed it. But it wouldn't have helped with a Beinin "trillion dollar mistake." You still have to know how to count.

A Concerned Scholar - 1/29/2003

Sorry about the apostrophe 's', but do you really think a typo in a posting is as serious an error as confusing 100 billion dollars with 1 trillion dollars in trying to demonize American support for Israel? And a "mistake" of that dimension didn't take place in an comment but in an on-line course supposedly based on the best information available. Also, as Kramer makes clear, such a massive error speaks to a serious underlying distortion of economic, social and political realities in the Middle East that any fair minded scholar in the field would find disturbing, to say the least.

But, of course, any criticism of MESA is "McCarthyite," and any scholarly critic is a "racist." And scholars like Kramer and especially Pipes, who deign to criticize the orthodoxies of MESA should be shunned and shouted down, as their critics have done countless times and as you are doing by calling them "racist." To take a leaf out of Samuel Johnson, calling somebody a "racist" in this day and age is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

And as far as McCarthyism and academic freedom is concerned, just yesterday Pipes had to be protected by a large police force against a mob of Palestinian supporters who wanted to prevent him from speaking at York University in Toronto, Canada. Please, if you will, refer us to one incident where Cole or Beinin have been personally abused when they wanted to speak at a university or prevented from expressing their views in public? But this has happened to Pipes many times. And also, please, tell us whether MESA has ever issued a statement denouncing these attempts to silence Pipes. When, I wonder, have Cole and Beinin spoken out against these abuses of his right to speak on campus? Yet, they complain bitterly about his website.

And the reason why I thought Beinin's problems with simple arithmetic were relevant to an an article on scholarship about Iraq is that I think it testifies to the state of MESA dominated Middle East studies. When a recent past president of that organization can so distort a simple calculation about how much American aid has gone to Israel, it should make any thinking citizen wonder what other distortions such "eminent" scholars are capable of in their writings about the Middle East. But, of course, reading your post it's clear you don't do a lot of thinking on these and other issues. But others should.

A concerned citizen - 1/29/2003

Dear Concerned 'Scholar' (who obviously can't do English language based on your grammar and punctuation here)

Does smearing Joel Beinin here with one of Kramer's pieces (which has a particular right-wing racist agenda to push and which cannot be verified and which is so obviously the result of McCarthyite MESA-baiting, borrowing your own eloquent formulation) have any relevance WHATSOEVER to the Cole piece on IRAQ? Or is your geography as good as your English and thus you are conflating Iraq with Israel/Palestine?

A Concerned Scholar - 1/28/2003

For those concerned about the current state of Middle East scholarship, this recent item from Martin Kramer's website about one of MESA's most recent past president's inability to do simple arithmetic should give one pause. I hope Prof. Cole hasn't taken any economic lessons on the Middle East from Prof. Beinin, or included some of his calculations in his own writings about the region. But what's 100 billion dollars here or 100 billion dollars there, when your pushing a particular leftist agenda.

Beinin: Math-challenged 
Friday, January 24, 2003. Math Quiz at Stanford.

Joel Beinin, the Stanford history professor and immediate past president of the Middle East Studies Association, offers an on-line course on the Arab-Israeli conflict, for an e-learning consortium run by Stanford, Yale, and Oxford. In the introduction to the ninth lecture of the fall semester, he told his students that American aid to Israel since its establishment had come to one trillion dollars—a fantastic sum, at least ten times the actual figure. One student, a Yale alumnus named Jonathan Leffell, wrote to Beinin to ask just how he arrived at the trillion-dollar figure. A bristling Beinin added up the aid. “That's $100 billion or $1 trillion,” he concluded triumphantly. “Since the math wasn't so hard,” he chided the e-student, “you might ask yourself what it was that prevented you from seeing this.”

Incredibly, Joel Beinin, Stanford’s expert on all matters related to Israel, U.S. policy in the Middle East, and regional political economy, didn’t know that a trillion dollars is $1,000 billion. He thought it was $100 billion. Well, he knows what a trillion is now, thanks to Mr. Leffell. (Leffell suggested to Beinin that he ponder “how you could have made this mistake, which is one of an order of magnitude, in the first place.”)

Beinin apologized, but did no pondering. To the contrary: “Israel has received far more in U.S. aid than any other country in the world.” But this isn’t the point. Far more interesting is what must have gone through Professor Beinin’s mind whenever he heard a trillion or a hundred billion.

For example, the annual U.S. budget is about two trillion dollars. Did he imagine that Israel had gotten something like half of that vast sum over its lifetime? The aggregate GDP of the Arab states is a bit more than $500 billion, a figure every serious student of the Middle East should know, especially since it was highlighted in the Arab Human Development Report. It’s a GDP just under Spain's. But if Professor Beinin thought the Arab GDP was five trillion—well, that’s about half the GDP of the United States.
I could go on, and the mind boggles at the possible permutations, but the bottom line is this: until a few months ago, Joel Beinin could not possibly have had any sense of the relative scale of the U.S. economy, the world economy, or the Middle East’s economy. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for an earlier generation of Marxist political economists. You didn’t agree with them, but at least you had one thing in common: the ability to count.

As for the content of Beinin’s course, I hear it was a model of bias, but that’s not surprising. If you’re curious, take it yourself. It’s being offered again, beginning February 18.