Juan Cole and the Diminished Pachyderm
February 28, 2010 § 3 Comments
by Stephen Sniegoski
Juan Cole, the respected scholar and university professor, performs an extremely valuable and courageous service in opposing US war policy in the Middle East. He dares to do what few of his peers are willing to do: present his views (most frequently on his weblog, “Informed Comment”) on current Middle East issues which necessarily touch the taboo topic of Israel and contradict the position of the Israel lobby. As a Middle East specialist, Cole is capable of writing very informative pieces on that region, which go into far greater depth than I have the expertise to do. It is certainly not in his view of the Middle East per se where I find flaws in his interpretation, but in his assessment of the United States policy, especially the role of the neoconservatives and the broader Israel Lobby, an area in which I have done considerable research (e.g. my book, “The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel”), and where my Ph.D. background in US diplomatic history would be of some relevance.
Although mentioning the role of some American Jews in regard to shaping American Middle East policy, Cole still tends to downplay it. The flawed elements in his thinking on this crucial area are especially encapsulated in his recent article, “The Decline of the Israeli Right and the Increasing Desperation of the ‘Anti-Semitism’ Charge.” An erroneous assessment of the problem militates against the achievement of a just resolution. Professor Cole’s views on the U.S. Middle East policy, if taken at face value, illustrate these problems. Cole is obviously a sincere opponent of US/Israel wars in the Middle East and of the American-supported Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, but since he is operating from within the constraints of present discourse — which assumes Jewish powerlessness and universalistic Jewish beneficence — his analysis, despite his expertise and honesty on the Middle East developments, has significant flaws.
To Cole, at least in his explicit writing, the culprits of the pro-war policy are on the Right — the acceptable demons of American liberals. This includes the Likudniks (and other parties of the Israeli Right), the neocons, and the American right, along with assorted oil people, the military-industrial complex, etc. But this rightist attitude, he maintains, is quite contrary to the liberal views of most Jews and is actually harmful to the real interests of Israel. Cole writes that the “divide between liberal Jewish Americans and the Israeli Right has lurked as an issue since the Likud Party first challenged Labor dominance in the late 1970s. It is now coming to a boiling point, even as Israel’s reputation in the world is sinking. As rightwing policies more visibly fail, the Likudniks are flailing around making fools of themselves by smearing critics of those policies as racists.” Cole continues along this vein: “The reactionary parties of Likud, Shas, and Yisrael Beitenu have nothing in common with the vast majority of Jewish Americans, who voted for Barack Obama and are generally more progressive than non-Jewish Americans. The establishment of a liberal Jewish lobby, J Street, which supports a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine side by side), is a manifestation of the increasing unease of progressive Jewish Americans with the policies and aggressive wars of rightwing Israeli governments. Jewish Americans have been key to the securing of many of our civil liberties in this country and a major voice for peace and for culture and the arts, and a thug like Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister surely makes many of them uneasy.”
While his writing here contains elements of the truth, it would seem that most national security policies pushed by the Israeli Right have substantial support from mainstream American Jewish organizations, which consist of numerous individuals who are considered liberals or progressives. And it should be added that the use of the anti-Semitic smear is nothing new, but a long-time staple of mainstream Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League. In May 2003, for example, the ADL’s national chairman, Abraham Foxman, wrote an essay, “Anti-Semitism, Pure and Simple,” hurling that lethal charge against those who saw the Jewish neoconservatives as being a significant factor in bringing about the US invasion of Iraq. Obviously, if a substantial proportion of politically-active, moneyed Jews were opposed to Israel’s oppressive policies, Congress would not act the way it does in supporting all of Israel’s policies — including the Gaza invasion– with near-unanimous votes.
Jews who support “progressive” measures in the US do not necessarily apply a comparable “progressive” universalist standard to Israel’s actions. Cole criticizes the smearing of Jimmy Carter as anti-Semitic by “the likes of Alan Dershowitz,” and it is quite obvious that the insignificant role that Carter was allowed to play in the 2008 Democratic Party Convention because of his critical views of the Israeli occupation had nothing to do with the Israeli or American Right but rather liberal Democrats’ desire for the votes and money from liberal American Jewry. Obviously, there were no votes or money to be had from right-wing Jewish pro-Israel conservatives who were going to support McCain with his gaggle of pro-Likudnik neocon advisors. In using Alan Dershowitz as an example, Cole is explicitly referring to an American Jew who justifies almost every oppressive move made by Israel but is, nonetheless, known as a liberal civil libertarian. Cole does the same when he lambastes “Leon Wieseltier’s unsubstantiated and shameful attack on Andrew Sullivan” for anti-Semitism; Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, is an American liberal in good standing. In short, the very examples that Cole chooses to provide serve to disprove his contention that Israel’s hard-line policies are opposed by progressive Jews. This is an oddity since Cole could have easily chosen right-wing American Jews to back up his point.
“J Street” represents those Jews supposedly most critical of Israel’s policies and does not encompass all liberal Jews, many of whom remain committed to AIPAC. But how different is J Street from AIPAC? J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, castigates as anti-Semitic Mearsheimer and Walt’s portrayal of a powerful Israel Lobby. Ben-Ami also rejects the UN-sponsored Goldstone report’s critical depiction of Israeli war crimes in the December 2008-January 2009 incursion into Gaza-a report that was endorsed by the overwhelming majority of countries of the world. Ben-Ami, however, was less severe here than Dershowitz, who referred to Richard J. Goldstone, the UN report’s author, as a “moser”-a Jewish traitor-who deserves to be killed by loyal Jews. (The late Yitzhak Rabin was branded a “moser” by leading Israeli rabbis before his assassination by a Jewish extremist.)
Regarding the “two state solution,” J Street specifically talks about incorporating the major West Bank Jewish settlements into Israel, instead of having Israel return to its 1967 borders. In short, there is no evidence that J Street is willing to support any type of Palestinian state that differs in any significant way from what Israeli governments have proposed in the past, which essentially is a non-viable state that is, understandably, completely unacceptable to the Palestinian people. It should also be observed that J Street differs but slightly from AIPAC on Iran. If diplomacy and UN sanctions fail to bring concessions, J Street advocates the strong sanctions advocated by Congress, which could likely serve as a step toward war.
Now Cole essentially rejects all the aforementioned positions that the liberal J Streeters explicitly support. Yet he wants to believe, or pretends to believe, that they are on his side. (There are organizations of Jews who seriously oppose Israel and America’s war policies in the Middle East, such as the American Council on Judaism, but individuals in this category are not politically powerful and are ignored by the mainstream media.)
It is not my intention to be negative toward Professor Cole who in the context of other major critics of US Middle East war policy is actually quite hard-hitting. He provides significant elements of truth that others ignore. For example, Cole is quite willing to point out that it was the neocons together with the Israel Likudniks who played a role in leading the US to war on Iraq, a crucial fact which some anti-war luminaries on the Left, such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, are loath to acknowledge. Cole even points out the critical significance of the neocons’ presenting their war agenda, intended to enhance Israeli interests, to the Israeli government and later working to implement it when ensconced in the Bush administration. About this, Cole writes: “This Iraq strategy, which intended to stop the Rabin peace process and prevent the return of Gaza and the West Bank to the Palestinians for their state, was laid out by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and other Neoconservatives in a white paper for Bibi Netanyahu in 1996. Many of the authors were subsequently put in high office by Bush-Cheney and pushed for an American war on Iraq with dirty tricks and false propaganda in 2002-2003. They included Canadian gadfly journalist David Frum, who authored Bush’s 2002 ‘Axis of Evil’ speech in consultation with Perle.” Now to point out that some of the neocons successfully persuaded the US to go to war to aid the interests of a foreign country is a very strong charge, and the specifics cited by Cole make this activity more serious and more obvious than anything alleged about Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, Owen Lattimore, or any other presumed agent of Stalin, who as far as I know were never accused of making actual open contact with the unlamented Soviet dictator.
However, after making this serious, but true, statement, Cole, so as to avoid violating the taboo about Jewish influence and power, explicitly denies the primary role for the neocons in bringing about the war on Iraq. He writes: “The mostly Jewish Neoconservatives were only one faction in the Bush-Cheney coalition that wanted regime change in Baghdad, which included the Christian Right, Big Oil, and the military-industrial complex. However influential, they were not ‘in control’ and most Jewish Americans opposed their ideas and policies.” In reality, however, while the neocons did not represent a majority of American Jews, they were certainly the driving force for war. It was their war agenda and they promoted and implemented it through their bogus war propaganda. The other groups cited by Cole were, at most, simply supporters of the war. The Christian Right, for example, definitely provided support for the war once it became an issue, boosting poll numbers in the pro-war direction, but it would be hard to name one Christian Rightist who played a role in developing and disseminating the Middle East war agenda before it reached the national spotlight, and then promoted and implemented it from within the Bush administration, whereas the number of neocons involved at these key levels was legion.
Even more can be said against any Big Oil role, the rationale for which has never been even spelled out in a consistent fashion. Some proponents of this view claim that Big Oil wanted to gain control of Iraqi oil, while others maintain just the opposite, that Big Oil wanted to eliminate this supply in order to raise oil prices. As philosopher of science Karl Popper commonsensically pointed out, any theory that cannot be falsified by empirical evidence is ipso facto invalid. Furthermore, the proponents of the Big Oil argument are loath to point out any alleged Big Oil person not intimately connected with the neocons-such as Cheney-who was significant in pushing for war. However, the cronies of the elder Bush, such as Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, who have been traditionally tied to Big Oil, were cool towards or opposed to the attack on Iraq. And, of course, prior to 9/11 when the neocons were promoting a war on Iraq, Big Oil was trying to eliminate the sanctions on Iraq.
Regarding the military-industrial complex, this argument could presumably be trotted out for any war since large sums of money are always spent as a result of war. But why was Iraq targeted? Why not just have a war scare with Russia or China since war scares always bolster military expenditures? Moreover, not every major war industry actually benefited from the Iraq War since expenditures on some sophisticated weapons systems were reduced as defense money was shifted to more mundane military needs for the occupation. Actual evidence showing that a consensus of major defense industries was pushing for the war on Iraq before the build-up for war occurred is not available, as far as I know. Further, the military brass were rather hesitant to launch a war (and significant retired military leaders took even a dimmer view); they consequently came in for strong criticism from neocons such as Richard Perle.
None of what I have said is intended to imply that the neocons singlehandedly brought the United States to war. They initiated and promoted the war agenda but they needed supporters for the war’s implementation. And they could not have attracted the popular support they did had not the 9/11 terrorism created a climate of hate and fear of Middle Easterners which allowed their war propaganda to flourish and take root.
While Cole accepts the fact that the neocons and Likudniks planned for and promoted the war on Iraq, he maintains that this policy has been an utter failure, writing: “Meanwhile, the main strategy of the Israeli and Jewish-American Right to preserve Israeli capacity to continue the colonization and to act belligerently in the region had been the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. That stratagem has failed, as I argued in Salon. The Shiite fundamentalists who have taken over Baghdad are pro-Hizbullah and pro-Palestinian. . . . Moreover, Baghdad has ceased helping contain Iran for the Sunni Arab world and the West, and is now a close ally of Tehran. The prospect of a well-armed, 250,000-man Iraqi army now being reconstituted, and riddled with agents of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, must be a matter of consternation for Israelis. Only Jordan separates them from Iraq, now an outpost of the Shiite religious parties allied with Khamenei. The Neoconservatives, such as Richard Perle, David Frum, Paul Wolfowitz, Irving Lewis Libby, Michael Rubin, Douglas Feith, John Bolton, Larry Franklin and others thus not only shot themselves in the foot, but they shot Israel in the chest.”
The failure of this strategy is hardly evident. The neocon agenda assumed that Iran would be the next target after Iraq. Due to opposition in the US, largely from the traditional American foreign policy establishment and various economic interests (and those who held this viewpoint within the Bush and Obama administrations), the attack on Iran has not yet materialized, despite the pro-war efforts of the broader Israel lobby (which transcends the neocons) and Israel itself. However, the US is certainly edging closer to war on Iran-and Professor Cole seems to see such a war as a definite possibility in his writings on his “Informed Consent” weblog.
Regarding the current situation in Iraq, although the Shiites are in charge, the country is not a unified pro-Iranian state, with resistance from the Sunnis resurfacing-giving definite indications of a possible civil war. Moreover, Israel has gained strong influence in quasi-independent Kurdistan. In short, what has emerged in the once anti-Israel, unified country of Iraq is an ethnically fragmented state, just as the Likudnik planners of the strategy had foreseen, with one element being strongly influenced by Israel. Iraq’s army will likely be preoccupied with maintaining domestic order, or engaged in internecine struggles, and will not have the time nor capability to threaten the IDF. In short, I would judge the Iraq part of the neocon/Likudnik war agenda to have been close to a total success as it achieved the expected ends.
Now Cole might regard the entire neocon/Likudnik plan to destabilize Iraq and to do the same to Iran (and ultimately to all of Israel’s Middle East enemies) to be mistaken. But there is a definite rationale for this neocon/Likudnik approach-not only to eliminate Israel’s external enemies but, by so doing, also eliminate the existential Palestinian demographic threat, since the Palestinian resistance depends upon the material and moral support provided by Israel’s external enemies. Although, like all plans, the neocon/Likudnik plan is not guaranteed success, it is not apparent that Cole, or any outsider, would have a better understanding of the situation than the neocons and the government of Israel, who devote far more time and effort trying to determine what policy is best for the Jewish state.
As I was getting to the end of Cole’s article, I began to wonder if I was missing something. Was Cole providing a hidden message between the lines, as writers have been wont to do in situations where censorship exists? A few things just didn’t add up. Why would Cole say the problem is restricted to Likudniks, whom good progressive Jews supposedly repudiate, and then cite as examples progressive Jews such as Dershowitz and Wieseltier? And then he moved on to a real zinger. When criticizing pro-Zionist neocon David Frum, who happens to have been born and raised in Canada, Cole writes: “But I will complain about David Frum’s dual loyalties. I am very suspicious of a rightwing Stephen Harper-style Canadian becoming so influential in the United States. I like my Canadians in their normal, sane estate. I fear he may be influencing my country in directions that benefit rightwing Canadian politicians and war industries in Ottawa.” Yes, of course, “Canadian” David Frum, author of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, is obviously trying to influence American foreign policy for the benefit of “rightwing Canadian politicians” to help well-known “war industries” in Ottawa. Such dual loyalty is obviously disturbing. This would be a good gag for Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, if Stewart were willing to go out this far from PC.
And digging beyond the obvious, Frum is actually not much of a conservative; in fact, he maintains that conservatives need to modernize and not be so fixated on such outdated things as the Constitution. Right or wrong, this position, needless to say, is about the polar opposite of American conservatism, though it fits in with the thrust of neoconservatism, as well as much of modern liberalism. Frum also illustrates his divergence from American conservatism in his Time Magazine article (Feb. 15, 2010) entitled “Republicans Must Embrace the Vital Center,” which trashes the hard-line conservatism of CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference) whose attendees had the audacity to give the most votes in their presidential poll to Ron Paul, who happens to oppose the wars in the Middle East. Frum writes: “The time has come to restore the center to the center-right coalition. Maybe it’s even time to start a new convention so the centrists can meet face to face at least once a year, just as their conservative colleagues do.
Before becoming an American citizen, newcomer Frum, in his 2003 article “Unpatriotic Conservatives: A war against America,” condemned as anti-American those individuals who had labored in the conservative vineyard for decades, such as Pat Buchanan, because they now dared to oppose the war in Iraq. It is apparent that Frum’s conservatism is not attuned to what has passed in the US as conservatism; rather, his “conservatism” is neoconservatism which has as its litmus test an Israel First foreign policy (in contrast to the traditional conservative penchant for “America First.”) As an aside, I must add that, in a sense, I agree with those who hotly dispute the charge of “dual loyalty” when applied to individuals such as Frum: it would seem apparent that his national loyalty is entirely singular.
So I don’t really know what to say. Is Professor Cole prevented by ideological blinders from seeing full reality on this subject? Or does he realize that he can’t present the entire truth directly because of the taboo nature of not-so-free modern-day America? Does he believe that in order to get an anti-war message across he must cover up the full truth by spouting obvious falsehoods and contradictions, which will be spotted as such by those in the know, but which serve to protect him from the lethal charge of anti-Semitism, and enable him to be followed by a vast number of PC liberals who would eschew the entire truth about this taboo subject? Certainly, his approach enables him to effectively disseminate his anti-war message to a much larger audience than would be the case if he provided the unadulterated truth in a direct fashion.. Maybe we need some neocon Straussians to ferret out Professor Cole’s hidden meaning, if there is any; it’s certainly beyond my ken.
- Dr. Stephen Sniegoski is the author of The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel.