March 31, 2015
Truthdig Radio: Osama bin Laden and Nuclear Meltdown
Posted on Mar 16, 2011
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig. I’m Peter Scheer, here with Kasia Anderson and …
Kasia Anderson: Hello.
Peter Scheer: … somewhere lurking in the background, Josh Scheer. And we’re joined by Juan Cole. He is a Middle East scholar who is fluent in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi. His Informed Comment blog is read by all informed people, and his Truthdig column appears every other Tuesday. Juan, thanks for being with us.
Juan Cole: It’s my pleasure.
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Peter Scheer: I want to ask you about your column this week, which is called “People Power vs. Washington.” And you refute the claim advanced by some neoconservatives in light of the Arab uprisings that President [George W.] Bush’s foreign policy somehow worked after all, and the invasion of Iraq unleashed this torrent of Democratic feeling as it was meant to, or as they claimed it was meant to, at a certain point. Can you just summarize that view for us?
Juan Cole: Well, sure. The problem with that claim is that it’s all magical thinking. It’s not … there’s no causal link or evidence put forward, and indeed, you know, the whole discourse of the Bush administration was kind of one long episode of magical thinking. So let me just do a thought experiment: If opening up Iraq, overthrowing Saddam Hussein, starting parliamentary elections in Iraq were to have an impact on the region, what would that look like? Well, wouldn’t it come in the aftermath of the events? Wouldn’t it come in 2004, 2005, 2006? Whereas if we look at the region in that period, ah! Most people were afraid of Iraq, were afraid of what was happening there, with regard to sectarian fighting and foreign occupation. So finally, in 2011, we get some movement in Tunisia and Egypt, masses in the streets demanding democracy. Well, if Iraq were important to them as a model, wouldn’t they say so? Wouldn’t there be columns, wouldn’t there be tweets that said “Oh,” you know, “they accomplished this in Baghdad; we can do it here.” But there were none. None. Nobody instanced Iraq as a model. In fact, where I saw Iraq mentioned in the Twitter feed for Tunisia or Egypt was people saying “Be careful, guys. We don’t want to have happen here what happened in Iraq.”
Peter Scheer: And in fact, as you point out in your column, there’s some uprising, there’s some protest in Iraq now that’s going largely unreported.
Juan Cole: Well, that’s another thing, that if Iraq were this big success story and the shining beacon on the hill that’s inspiring other people, then why is it subject to the same kinds of mass demonstrations, criticisms of secret police, authoritarian governments, corrupt elections—as are going on in the other countries? That is to say, even the Iraqis, or a very large number of Iraqis, don’t seem to see what they’ve got as a success story.
Kasia Anderson: Hi, Juan. I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about … if there’s any evidence that the right wing is drawing from to substantiate this claim that Iraq is somehow, you know, an inspiration for other countries in the Middle East. Are they citing any particular sources, or are they just kind of gesturing at what’s happening as evidence?
Juan Cole: Yeah, they’re just gesturing. They don’t … they never have had any evidence about the Middle East. I mean, almost everything anybody among the neoconservatives has said about the Middle East is wrong and often just fantastic. I mean, unconnected to reality in a way that makes an informed person laugh.
Josh Scheer: Hey Juan, this is Josh. I was wondering what the U.S. role should be now with what’s going on in the Middle East.
Juan Cole: Well, you know, the U.S. has intervened quite a lot in that region, and often to bad effect. So, as everybody knows, the U.S. overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953, ever since has been harping on “why don’t those Iranians have democracy.” In the Middle East, people are very touchy about foreign intervention. They’ve had a lot of it. The American public doesn’t get taught in high school about the history of colonialism, so we don’t tend to know that the French were in Algeria from 1830 to 1962, or that the French took Tunisia in 1881, or that the British took Egypt in 1882. So we’re not aware of the way in which white Christian people have been in those countries making the laws, telling people what to do; and nobody wants them back. So I think the U.S. should avoid being heavy-handed. It should give what help it can to progressive forces, but I’d hate to see it take these movements as a pretext for imperial intervention.
Josh Scheer: Could there be some way of protecting the people who are getting killed, or … you know, with the protesters and things like that, or would that be too much intervention?
Juan Cole: I don’t know how you would do that. That is to say, the kinds of deaths we’re seeing among the protesters in, say, Yemen or Bahrain, which are among the worst episodes, you know … you would have a couple of people killed yesterday, you would have a few wounded; sometimes a lot of people wounded. But when the United States occupied Iraq—when it had 150,000 troops in the country, and they were doing regular military patrols—there were still a lot of people being killed. So what makes us think that, if the U.S. could occupy Iraq and still not be able to prevent … and in some instances there were 3,000 civilians dying a month under U.S. rule in Iraq. If we can’t … if U.S. troops can’t stop that when they’re in occupation, then how would they stop it from the outside? And I think this impulse to intervene is noble in some ways, because of course some of what the protesters want is very much in accordance with our values. But the practicalities, the diplomatic practicalities of it and the military practicalities of it, are something that people should give a lot of attention to before they go rushing in.
Kasia Anderson: Since you are fluent in these regional languages, are you seeing stories on blogs or on papers online and things like that, that are not really, obviously … probably not getting across the ocean to English-language papers and outlets? What do you see going on online, if anything?
Juan Cole: Well, there’s a lot of missed stories here. I think the really central role in Egypt of labor unions, both blue-collar and white-collar, are entering Tunisia as well, to these protests. That among the big demands being made was that the government allow people to form unions at will, allow them to engage in collective bargaining. That element, which was so central in Tunisia and Egypt, got very little reporting in the American press; and certainly on mass media, I don’t think it was even mentioned. And it doesn’t fit with the emphases of American corporate news, which has stopped covering most labor actions in the United States. So that’s a missed story. And all the talk about Egypt or Tunisia was, you know, the danger of Muslim fundamentalism and so forth, whereas the fundamentalists had very little to do with those revolts. They were very much labor revolts, youth revolts; the emphases were what we would think of as secular.
Peter Scheer: You write in your column, “Their ideals are far closer to FDR’s New Deal than to W.’s white tie society.” I thought that was an interesting point about the collective bargaining. …
Juan Cole: Yeah. Well, you know, when Bush went into Iraq they tried to abolish the public sector in Iraq, which was like 80 percent of the economy. And they did a lot of damage, as Rajiv Chandrasekaran showed in his book, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City.” Whereas, you know, if you ask Egyptians in polling “what’s the government good for,” 80 percent of them say it’s to take care of people. So where these guys’ heads are at is completely different from the Bush administration. And my reference to the “white tie society” was that scene in Michael Moore’s movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” in which Bush is addressing a soiree of billionaires and they’re in white tie, which we don’t see so much on television, and he’s saying that those are his constituents. So that’s not what’s going on in the Middle East.
Peter Scheer: Speaking of things that we’re not seeing, you talk in your piece about developments in Algeria, Oman, Morocco, and the protests in Iraq that we’ve heard less about. You know, can you just touch on some of those, since we’ve heard so much about Tunisia, Egypt, Libya?
Juan Cole: All right. Well, of course, thousands of people in the street is dramatic footage, and you can understand why television would favor it. But a lot of things are going on in the region that would be difficult to capture with a camera, but which are nevertheless very important. So there’s a lot of side effects of these protests, changes that are being made by governments that are pre-emptive in hopes of forestalling a big movement against them. They’re changing the face of the region. So in Morocco, you have had, since independence in 1956, its independence from France, you’ve had a fairly strong, if not absolute, monarchy. There have in recent years been parliamentary elections; you’ve got a parliament, but it’s curbed by the … power. And darned if the king hasn’t just announced that he’s going to allow the prime minister to be elected from parliament, which is how it usually happens in parliamentary regimes, rather than be appointed by himself. And he’s going to devolve some real powers on the prime minister away from himself.
So it’s not as though the king is becoming a figurehead; I think he’ll still be an important political player, but he’s taking firm strides towards becoming a constitutional monarch. And if this idea catches hold, if it’s a success in Morocco, if it spreads to, say, Jordan, and other Arab publics in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are making similar demands, this is very important as a model. In Algeria, since the civil war began after the abrogated elections in 1991, there’s been a state of emergency. So these … such as they are, that are mentioned in the constitution, have been set aside. So the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, had put to the parliament a measure to abolish the state of emergency, and on Sunday that passed. So these are very important steps towards and opening up of civil rights and more democratic governments in the region.
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