Juan Cole says he's not interested in being a court poet to Obama

Historians in the News

My Democratic Party colleague Taylor Marsh took exception to my Salon piece on Obama's decision to bomb Pakistan during his first week in office.

I always welcome vigorous debate and believe that arguing substance in public is essential to our attaining the ideals of a democratic republic. I value Taylor Marsh's perspective and we have often agreed in the past, when public opinion in this country was against us. I offer the following in the way of an an honest disagreement, and with full respect for my debating partner.

That said, I really must object to the way Marsh argued this case. First, one of her main concerns is that my analysis might give comfort to the Right insofar as it offers a critique of an Obama policy. She wrote"Talk about your wingnut New Years gift, presented on the wings of hyperbole." And ended,"Sean Hannity says thanks. Or who knows, maybe it's a gift." She said that such figures on the right have been talking about Obama being criticized by the antiwar Left and suggests that my column gave support to their talking point.

The notion that we should not say something critical of the policy of a Democratic president because it might give aid and comfort to the rightwing enemy is completely unacceptable. It is a form of regimentation, and equivalent to making dissent a sort of treason. We had enough of that the last 8 years (it used to be from different quarters that I was accused of traitorously succoring the enemy).

I am an analyst, and a truth-teller. I don't work for anyone except, in a vague way, the people of Michigan, who took it into their heads to hire me to tell them about the Middle East, and their charge to me is to call it as I see it. I serve no interest. I am a member of the Democratic Party, but I don't accept everything in the party platform, and I am not so partisan that I cannot admire politicians and principles of other parties, whether the Greens or (some) Republicans. I didn't agree to join the Communist Party, such that no dissent is allowed lest it benefit the reactionaries and revanchists.

So that dimension of her posting is objectionable and rejected. I don't care what people like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh say or think, and I certainly am not going to self-censor so as to avoid giving them ammunition. Hannity was put there by crackpot rightwing billionaire Rupert Murdoch for a purpose, and he will serve that purpose regardless of what we analysts say.

In a democratic republic, open dissent is valued.

Another rhetorical feature of Ms. Taylor's essay is to compare my column on the hellfire missiles rained down near Wana and Mir Ali to Bob Woodward's attempt to gossip on Chris Matthew's show about an alleged affair on the part of Caroline Kennedy. Matthews stopped him on the grounds that inadequate proof was being offered for the allegation.

My piece in Salon involved no gossip and all my points were backed by hyperlinked citations. I did not allege on shaky grounds or on the basis of a single source that the US military bombed Pakistan. It bombed Pakistan. It killed a whole family near Wana. There was a funeral:

"Thousands of tribesmen on Saturday attended the funeral prayers of the victims of Friday’s drone attacks in the North and South Waziristan Agencies. They condemned the killings and asked US President Barack Obama to spend the money on the welfare of the tribal people instead of killing them with sophisticated weapons. . . They claimed that all those killed in the attack were innocent and local villagers, who had nothing to do with militancy or Taliban."

So how is discussing this air strike and the reaction it evoked in the Pakistani public in any way like Woodward gossiping about Caroline Kennedy?

If it is being alleged that my column contained unsubstantiated speculation, then the details of that speculation should have been pointed to, and alternative information calling it into question should have been presented. Simply likening an analysis to gossip is insufficient to discredit it unless actual proof of false or shaky assertions is offered.

Among the few points at which Ms. Marsh engages with the substance of my argument is her comment,"Whether President Obama approved continuing these strikes or not, he did, the fundamentalists in Pakistan will continue their work to make an Islamic state independent of what the new American President does or does not do."

There are several things wrong with this assertion. It assumes that the"fundamentalists" in Pakistan are unchanging in their essence and that they are unpersuadable and cannot be reasoned with or negotiated with. But this is how the Jamaat-i Islami responded to Obama's inauguration speech:

"Jamaat-e-Islami welcomed a pledge from US President Barack Obama to seek a"new way forward" with the Muslim world after eight turbulent years at the White House."We welcome it very much," said Khurshid Ahmed, a senior leader in the Jamaat-i-Islami -- the main religious political party in Pakistan and an organiser of angry demonstrations against the US and Israel. Ahmed slammed outgoing US president George W. Bush, accusing him of"alienating the US and Americans from the Muslim world.""Obama has to face the real issues, go into the causes and work seriously for the abdication of Bush's policies," Ahmed told AFP."Unless he does that, mere words will not be sufficient."

The JI leader Qazi Husain Ahmad is old enough to remember admiring the United States back in the 1950s and 1960s for the stance it often took in favor of decolonization in the Third World. (The US typically only opposed decolonization if the liberation movement had been taken over by Communists). At least according to leaders such as Qazi Husain, he Jamaat-i Islami is not intrinsically anti-American, though some tensions between it and US policy do arise.

My point, moreover, was not about whether JI cadres will remain committed to their Islamization project. It was about the attitude to the JI of the Pakistani electorate over time. The Jamaat-i Islami has only occasionally performed well in Pakistani elections. Its high points were 1970, when it and two clerical parties collectively won 14% of seats in parliament; and 2002, when the Islamic Action Council of which it formed part won 17% at the federal level and actually took over the North-West Frontier Province and (in coalition) Baluchistan, the two provinces most crucial to Afghanistan security. This 2002 good showing by the fundamentalists was certainly a result of Pakistanis casting a protest vote against the US bombing and invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.

The Jamaat declined to participate in the Februay 2008 polls on the grounds that they were held under a corrupted judiciary, since Gen. Musharraf had dismissed the Supreme Court and replaced it with more pliable justices. (By the way, for the JI to defend the secular supreme court suggests that its political project is broader than just establishing an Islamic state).

The current political eclipse of the Jamaat is not written in stone. The Pakistani public does not usually vote fundamentalist, but some proportion of the electorate sometimes does, and anti-imperalism and Muslim nationalism are impetuses for it. Continued America airstrikes on Pakistani territory, which are extremely unpopular with the Pakistani public, could shift the electorate to the religious right over time. It happened in 2002, and could happen again. The airstrikes make the Pakistan Peoples Party government, secular and left of center, look wimpy and even like collaborators in the country's humiliation.

I lived in Pakistan off and on for a couple of years and know Hindi-Urdu and have followed Pakistani politics since 1981. I have authored academically on South Asian Islam. These things do not mean I am right, only that my views on what could happen are not uninformed and not based on mere armchair speculation.

Marsh writes,"In other words, unlike Bush, who made everything about Anything But What Clinton Did, Obama will approve airstrikes if they are warranted in Pakistan (or elsewhere), not stop them just because it was Bush policy."

What I was saying is that Obama cannot possibly have known, 4 days into his presidency, whether airstrikes on Pakistan are"warranted." I was saying that he should have called a time-out and heard Holbrooke's report first. He should have had formal face-to-face consultations with President Asaf Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, and perhaps with the opposition, such as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as well.

Bombing Pakistan unilaterally is illegal in international law where Pakistan has not attacked the United States or where there is no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing such an attack. Please see the Charter of the United Nations, to which the US is a signatory. If the US had a formal treaty with Pakistan, signed off by the legislatures of the two countries, that permitted hot pursuit of militants from Afghan territory, that would bestow a basic legality on it. But the only warrant for the US to shoot Hellfire missiles into Pakistan and kill Pakistani women and children along with militants, is the Bush Doctrine, which I want to be abolished and which I had understood Obama and his team to object to, as well. Contravening US treaty obligations and international law is a war crime.

Toward the end of the essay it is suggested that my column could be lumped in with the blogging of pacifists who oppose all military action. I supported the 2001-2002 US war in Afghanistan and am not a pacifist. I do, however, advocate an option for peace, which is that I believe peaceful means of addressing conflict should trump violent ones until it becomes clear that they simply are not working and that violence is necessary for self-protection.

The danger of Obama becoming mired down in Afghanistan and Pakistan is very real, and is obvious to anyone who knows the history of imperial interventions in the former. Warning Obama that he started out on a bad foot in Pakistan and suggesting that he take some time to consider charting his own, original course, is not injurious to Obama. Blind support for whatever he does is what would harm him.

I have been thrown out of organizations and even a whole country for refusing to toe a party line. Baathist Syria censored my news articles when I was working for a newspaper in Beirut. Theocratic Iran, where you have to follow the khatt-i Imami, the line of the Supreme Leader, once had me blackballed from an academic conference they helped fund. I object to party lines. I am not interested in being a court poet who spouts panegyrics. I am interested in being the academic equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson.

Read entire article at Juan Cole at Informed Comment, his blog

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Randll Reese Besch - 1/28/2009

One such identification of the mettle of a person is how they respond to crude attacks on their persona and their work. Juan Cole has shown his to be sterling and well thought out. Kudos to him for his response.