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Juan Cole: Taken to Task by Martin Kramer (Again)

Historians in the News




Martin Kramer, at his blog (7-9-05):

For a trained historian, even in Middle Eastern studies, Juan Cole is scandalously incompetent when it comes to cause and effect. Here's his latest gaffe, made in the context of the London bombings:

According to the September 11 Commission report, al-Qaeda conceived 9/11 in some large part as a punishment on the US for supporting Ariel Sharon's iron fist policies toward the Palestinians. Bin Laden had wanted to move the operation up in response to Sharon's threatening visit to the Temple Mount, and again in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad argued in each case that the operation just was not ready.
Did Cole read the same 9/11 report as the rest of us? There's not a single passage in the 9/11 report mentioning Sharon's (or Israel's) policies, and I challenge him to produce one. Cole just made it up. And in point of fact, the report's narrative definitively contradicts him.

The report makes it clear that 9/11 was conceived well before Sharon became prime minister of Israel in March 2001. Chapter 5, section 2 (p. 153) says the following, based on the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Muhammad (KSM), the 9/11 mastermind:
According to KSM, he started to think about attacking the United States after [Ramzi] Yousef returned to Pakistan following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.... He maintains that he and Yousef...speculated about striking the World Trade Center and CIA headquarters as early as 1995.
The idea was fully hatched by early 1999 (p. 154):
KSM acknowledges formally joining al Qaeda in late 1998 or 1999, and states that soon afterward Bin Ladin also made the decision to support his proposal to attack the United States using commercial airplanes as weapons.... Bin Ladin summoned KSM to Kandahar in March or April 1999 to tell him that al Qaeda would support his proposal. The plot was now referred to within al Qaeda as the "planes operation."

The election of Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister in May 1999 didn't put a crimp in the planning. To the contrary: preparations proceeded apace, and Bin Laden pushed even harder for the operation, which wasn't quite ready. Bin Laden did so again after Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount. But that visit took place on September 28, 2000, when Sharon was leader of the opposition. He only became prime minister five months later.

In short, the 9/11 operation could hardly have been "conceived" as a response to U.S. support for Sharon's "iron fist policies." It was conceived, its operatives were selected, and it was put in motion, long before Sharon took the helm.

And what of Cole's claim that Bin Laden wanted to launch the attacks "in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless"? The Jenin operation took place in April 2002, seven months after 9/11. Apparently, in the bizarre universe of the Colesque, Sharon's horrid deeds are always at fault for 9/11, even if he committed them after the event. (Hat tip to the vigilant readers of Tony Badran's latest Cole-smashing post.)

Cole has been summoned by certain media to pronounce on the motives of Al-Qaeda in striking London. He hasn't got a clue. He can't keep the basic chronology of the 9/11 plot straight, and he doesn't have any notion of overall Middle Eastern chronology, which means he regularly mangles cause and effect. Reason? Bias trumps facts. If historians could be disbarred, Cole would have lost his license long ago. Instead, the Middle East Studies Association has elected him its president. So much for scholarly standards.

Addendum: Experienced Cole-watchers know that when he makes a mistake, he just goes back and tidies up his postings. So he's purged the Jenin reference. Instead, he writes that Bin Laden wanted to move up the operation "in response to Sharon's crackdown in spring of 2001." That's not what the 9/11 report says. It says Bin Laden may have considered speeding up the operation to coincide with a planned Sharon visit to the White House (p. 250).

Knowing Cole's habits, I saved the original posting. It's here. (And at the time of this posting, Google's cache still records the original version.) The doctored version is here. Blogger etiquette demands that substantive errors be fixed by adding or posting an explicit correction. Cole exempts himself, as he must, given the gross inaccuracies that plague his weblog. So you quote him at your peril: his words might change under your feet. Here, for example, is a poor Cole admirer from Pakistan who quoted Cole Sahib's Jenin revelation. I don't have the heart to notify him that his hero got it wrong. (See Jenin update below.)

Further reading: See my Cole archive, where I revisit some of Cole's wackier interpretations of Al-Qaeda. See especially the entry entitled "Dial 911-COLE," which unearths his comparison of the 9/11 perpetrators to the Applegate people--UFO nuts. A year after 9/11, he dismissed Al-Qaeda as "an odd assortment of crackpots, petty thieves, obsessed graduate students, would-be mercenaries, and eccentric millionnaires." No wonder Cole has had so much trouble digesting the 9/11 report.

Update: An intermediary wrote to Cole to bring his attention to his flawed representation of the 9/11 report. Cole's response: "T.P. points out by email that I should have said that the 9/11 Commission concluded that the timing of 9/11 was attributable to Sharon, not that the operation was largely conceived in response to him. This is correct; one writes blogs in haste and my phrasing was insufficiently careful." Actually, this isn't correct either: the 9/11 commission found that operational readiness determined the timing of 9/11. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad rebuffed Bin Laden's attempts to move it up.

Cole goes on to say that it is still "my conviction based on intensive study of Bin Laden, Zawahiri and Khalid Shaikh Muhammad" that they saw 9/11 as "punishment for the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem." I think it's much deeper than that, based on my own "intensive study," but that's neither here nor there. The fact is that the 9/11 report doesn't make or endorse Cole's argument. And now that we know Cole works in haste, thus misreading a plain English text, what should we think of his hasty translations (renditions?) of Arabic? Take them with a grain of salt, or just bring along the entire salt shaker.

Jenin? No word on that one. (See Jenin update below.)

Update: "Another American," a diarist at Daily Kos, is working to persuade readers that this critique deserves serious consideration. He's running into some stiff opposition from militant (and occasionally obscene) Cole addicts. Have a peek.

Jenin Update: The "Pakistani admirer" who quoted Cole's Jenin claim has cropped up in Tony Badran's comments, with this: "I contacted Cole regarding his slip-up, and he said simply that it was a slip of the keyboard, which was, I must add, an odd defense." Oh, it's not odd. Maybe it's one of those wireless keyboards, and a transmission from a UFO (you know, flown by the Qaeda-Applegate people) interfered with his computer, and just slipped that Jenin reference in. I think that's a better explanation than the time warp thesis--i.e., that in a parallel universe, Jenin did happen before 9/11. After all, we have entered the Cole-mine, where the usual laws of physics are suspended, and magical things become commonplace.

Another update: Cole now announces his editorial "policy," which will be news to readers of his weblog (who still haven't been told about the Jenin fix). "I post late at night and sometimes am sleepy and make mistakes. My readers are my editors and correct me. If the corrections come the same morning, I make them directly to the text, as a 'second edition.' If the posting has been up a few days, I put a footnote when making a correction. That is, I consider the text correctable for the first day or so. That is my editorial policy. Like it or lump it." Got it? For the "first day or so," an entry is just a draft! But wait a minute... don't most people read the entry on the "first day or so"? Isn't that when it's most likely to get quoted? And what if a reader doesn't want to be Cole's editor? (I've got my own stuff to edit, thank you.) So here's my policy and it's simple: you broke it, it's yours; you post it, it's yours. Like it or lump it.

Updated again! Believe it or not, Cole has repeated the offense: the "sleepy" explanation has been purged from his site! Here is the original entry (which I saved, of course), and here is the purged version. (He also cut a nasty personal attack on me, which I'll treat separately.) Well, he can keep deleting. I'll keep storing.


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