Juan Cole: The New Head of the Middle East Studies Association

Historians in the News

Editor's Note: Click here to read Juan Cole's response to this article.

Jonathan Calt Harris, at frontpagemag.com (12-7-04):

[Jonathan Calt Harris, a writer for Campus Watch, lives in Illinois.]

Professional organizations choose their leaders as much for their symbolism as for organizational ability. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is the foremost professional organization representing academics working on this region. Once a bastion of respectable scholars, the organization has fallen on hard times, becoming today a hive of academic opposition of America, Israel, and, in the larger sense, rationalism itself.

It was Stanford University's Joel Beinin, president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in 2002, who famously articulated the group's post-9/11 osterich mentality by praising "great wisdom" of his colleagues for avoiding the study of terrorism. Coupled with entire panels of anti-Israel "scholars" and special sessions on "American imperialism," and the three-day event can look more like an Arab political rally than a conference of specialists.

But the organization out-did itself when, in November 2004, it elected Juan Cole as its next president. Cole has a string of impressive titles, being a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and author of a weblog focusing on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He emerged in 2003 as a Middle East expert for the media (The New York Times,[1] Washington Post,[2] National Public Radio)[3] and for influential leftist bloggers such as Josh Marshall, Brad Delong, or Mark A. R. Kleinman.[4]

But what the academics validated – and the major media are drawing on – is one strange professor. Cole's view is shaped by his fundamental belief in a conspiracy of Jewish "neo-conservatives" that largely runs U.S. policy toward the Middle East. His recurrent theme is that a nebulous ‘pro-Likud' cabal controls the U.S. government from a small number of key positions in the Executive Branch. He never names the leaders or organizations behind this fabulously clever and utterly secret conspiracy but vaguely associates it with AIPAC, MEMRI, and any prominent Jew in the Bush administration.

Here are some examples.

· "The Neocons wanted to knock down Saddam, Khamenei and al-Asad in hopes that those countries would be so weakened and preoccupied with internal power struggles that Sharon would have an unimpeded opportunity to pursue his dreams of Greater Israel."[5]

· "It may be that the powerful Likudniks inside the US government are deliberately engineering a diplomatic rift in NATO, so as to ensure that Paris and Moscow cannot position themselves to influence Washington's position (usually supine) toward Sharon's excesses."[6]

· Paul Wolfowitz' attitude to NATO allies is "so gratuitous and immature that one can only guess something else lay behind it," that something being a wish to create bad blood between the U.S. government and states that are, in Cole terms "no longer a knee-jerk supporter of Israeli militarism and expansionism."[7]

The ‘normal' level of conspiracy thinking, associated with Lyndon Larouche on the right or Noam Chomsky on the left, is barely adequate to contain Cole's frantic theorizing. When Karen Kwiatkowsky, a retired US Air Force Lt. Colonel critical of US policy in Iraq, analyzed the war aims of the Neocon network, Cole berated her for not pointing to a Jewish conspiracy. "I am surprised she left out what surely was the Neocons' major concern, which is that Iraq, Iran and Syria stood in the way of Ariel Sharon's continued theft of Arab land in the Occupied territories and potentially elsewhere."[8]

Cole's odd ideas do not stop there. He does not blink at presenting such howlers as: "Much of the Arab world has a formal peace treaty with Israel,"[9] and "Chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction."[10] The latter in particular would come as news to the tens of thousands who suffered death and disfigurement thanks to such weapons during the almost decade-long Iran-Iraq War.

Ignoring facts that even CBS accepted, Cole states that "Saddam Hussein never gave any real support to the Palestinian cause, and he did not pay suicide bombers to blow themselves up."[11] And even if he did, Cole insists, "Supporting orphans is, in any case, not the same as funding terrorism."[12] One must wonder whether making orphans is terrorism in Cole's eyes.

Cole is capable of dangerous sophistry regarding his own chosen subject of study: "Are there Muslims who are fascists? Sure. But there is no Islamic fascism, since "Islam" has to do with the highest ideals of the religion."[13] (That one needs to be read several times to take in its full stupidity.) He applies a particularly brazen double standard, decrying the term "Islamo-fascist" as "thoroughly abhorrent" and a form of bigotry, even as he routinely brands Zionism as "racist"[14] and "fascist."[15]

He also exhibits a conceited disdain for Americans: when a February 2004 poll revealed that 51% of Americans believed Iraq had WMD's at the start of the war, Cole succinctly responded that "Half the American public is terminally stupid."[16]

So why have so many media outlets turned to such as obviously perverse source? Seeing half the American public as beneath contempt may explain in part why Cole resonates with liberal media, even as they try in vain to understand the presidential election results. Perhaps also because Cole's anti-Israel rhetoric is accompanied by anti-Bush tirades.

Bush's domestic policies are "Draconian," and he "has rampaged around the world alienating allies and ignoring vital conflicts."[17] Anything Bush does Cole abominates. He dismisses the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, for example, as "public relations and manipulation of journalists."[18] The Bush administration came into the White House "obsessed with Iraq" while Clinton "tried and tried hard" to get Bin Laden.[19] Cole is forgiving to some, but certainly not to others.

Cole's proclamations reveal an all too-typical mindset for a Middle East specialist. He is blindly anti-Israel to the point of being an antisemitic conspiracy theorist, an apologist for radical Islam, and someone who despises American public opinion. And try as he does to discount allegations of bias in academia, his stunningly crude conclusions accepts the point: "someone who has academic skills but is a Republican would just have enormous opportunities and could easily become a multi-millionnaire. In contrast, academics on the Left would not be welcome in corporate boardrooms."[20]

MESA's anti-American and anti-Israel bias is well known, making Cole's selection aptly symbolic of a profession in crisis. But that the media turns to the strange mental world Juan Cole inhabits, a world filled with false facts, distortions, and sophism, with Jewish conspiracies and contempt for the American people, is a serious problem.


[1] The New York Times, Cited 114 times in a 30 day period, notably in 'Lawrence Of Arabia' Redux by Frank Rich, Arts & Leisure Section, Sunday April 14, 2004 issue, http://www.nytimes.com/.
[2] Washington Post, Quoted May 2, 2004, April 10, 2004, etc http://www.washingtonpost.com/.
[3] National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/
[4] Brad Delong's Semi-Daily Journal, http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2004_archives/000027.html
[5] "Kwiatkowski on the Neoconservative coup at the Pentagon", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 02/01/2004-02/29/2004, posted, 08:56:05 AM, Monday, February 23, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_02_01_juancole_archive.html#107752296558090480.
[6] "Wolfowitz Throws Tantrum at France, Germany, Russia, and Canada: The Failure of Emotional Intelligence", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 12/01/2004-12/31/2004, posted, 8:38:10 AM, Friday, December 12, 2003, http://www.juancole.com/2003_12_01_juancole_archive.html#107121469040903099
[7] "Wolfowitz Throws Tantrum at France, Germany, Russia, and Canada: The Failure of Emotional Intelligence", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 12/01/2004-12/31/2004, posted, 8:38:10 AM, Friday, December 12, 2003, http://www.juancole.com/2003_12_01_juancole_archive.html#107121469040903099
[8] "Kwiatkowski on the Neoconservative coup at the Pentagon", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 02/01/2004-02/29/2004, posted, 08:56:05 AM, Monday, February 23, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_02_01_juancole_archive.html#107752296558090480.
[9] "Reply to Yglesias", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 02/01/2004-02/29/2004, posted, 08:56:05 AM, Tuesday, February 03, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_02_01_juancole_archive.html#107579821269071212
[10] "No WMD. Nada. Bubkes.", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 01/01/2004-01/31/2004, posted, 07:30:18 AM, Friday, January 09, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_01_01_juancole_archive.html#107362981816050962
[11] "Arguing with Bush", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 04/01/2004-04/30/2004, posted, 07:30:34 AM, Wednesday, April 14, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_04_01_juancole_archive.html#108192862382575758
[12] Ibid.
[13] "The Passion of Christ in the World Religions", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 02/01/2004-02/29/2004, posted, 09:45:35 AM, Thursday, February 26, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_02_01_juancole_archive.html#107778513556398947
[14] "200,000 Israeli Fascists Demand Colonization of Gaza", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 07/01/2004-07/31/2004, posted, 07:08:33 AM, Monday, July 26, 2004,http://www.juancole.com/2004_07_01_juancole_archive.html#109082345965499075
[15] Juan Cole, Informed Comment 03/01/2003-03/31/2003, posted, 08:46:04 AM, Wednesday, March 21, 2003, http://www.juancole.com/2003_03_01_juancole_archive.html#91111573
[16] "About Half the American Public is Terminally Stupid", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 02/01/2004-02/29/2004, posted 09:03:49 AM, Tuesday, February 24, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_02_01_juancole_archive.html#107760982966050756
[17] "Bush Says Edwards Lacks Experience", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 07/01/2004-07/31/2004, posted, 6:11:14 PM, Thursday, July 8, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_07_01_juancole_archive.html#108932580567821673
[18] "Bremer Flees Iraq Two Days Early", Juan Cole, Informed Comment 06/01/2004-06/30/2004, posted, 02:02:46 PM, Monday, June 28, 2004, http://www.juancole.com/2004_06_01_juancole_archive.html#108843853517271330
[19] "September 11 Report Due Today," Juan Cole, Informed Comment, Thursday, July 22, 2004, posted 7/22/2004. 10:13:44 AM, http://www.juancole.com/2004_07_01_juancole_archive.html#109050676416130353
[20] "Shock of the Week: Liberals in Liberal Arts," Juan Cole, Informed Comment, Sunday, November 28, 2004, posted 05:00:06 PM, http://www.juancole.com/2004/11/shock-of-week liberals-in-liberal-arts.html

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