Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 48-49

New York City and Tri-State News

At Rutgers, Juan Cole Reviews “Wrong Turns in the War on Terror”

By Jane Adas

Prof. Juan Cole at Rutgers University (Staff Photo J. Adas).

JUAN COLE, professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, gave a public lecture on “Wrong Turns in the War on Terror” at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey on Feb. 27. His talk was part of a year-long project at The Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis entitled: “Planetary Perspectives: Thinking about world history in an era of globalization.”

While Cole does not deny that terrorism is a problem, he argues that the U.S. has addressed it in the worst way possible, and not only during the Bush II administration. During the Cold War, Cole explained, the Reagan administration abandoned containment and adopted the more aggressive policy of rollback to destroy the Soviet Union and its Third World clients. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Saudis developed private paramilitary forces—at Washington’s insistence and with generous U.S. funding. To help them raise additional funds, the Saudis turned to “the unusually pious son” of a prominent businessman. Osama bin Laden returned to Jiddah after the Afghan war, but kept his data base of volunteers and donors. That data base, Cole noted ironically, is the literal meaning of “al-Qaeda.”

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, bin Laden offered to use his base to get Saddam out, but, again under pressure from Washington, the Saudis opted instead to allow U.S. troops to be stationed in their country. This, Cole said, enraged bin Laden, who decided that the U.S., like the Soviets, was a neo-imperial power. He went to Afghanistan, whose ruling Taliban Cole characterized as clients rather than hosts of al-Qaeda, and launched attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa and, in Yemen, on the USS Cole. These attacks Professor Cole described as blowback of the Reagan administration’s devotion to paramilitaries and rollback.

After 9/11, Cole asserted, the U.S. had no choice but to go to war in Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda training camps. When bin Laden and Mullah Omar seemed to be trapped in Tora Bora, however, the U.S. military, rather than going in themselves, sent in Afghan tribes who, Cole suggested, had too much respect for bin Laden to finish the job. He also thought it possible that, even at that early stage, U.S. military resources already were being diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq.

In Cole’s opinion, al-Qaeda is a criminal cartel that is more into power than money. Therefore, he said, capturing al-Qaeda requires police work rather than a war. Instead, however, the U.S. got rid of the Taliban and re-empowered the war lords, making it likely, he predicted, that al-Qaeda will come back funded by drug money.

It also is important to understand how the Muslim world feels about al-Qaeda, Cole emphasized. In secular Turkey and as far away as Indonesia, he pointed out, bin Laden is more popular than George W. Bush. Cole identified the cause as anger about Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians. Muslims everywhere are concerned by Israel’s creeping colonization that accelerated throughout the peace process, he said, but this anger is dismissed by U.S. policy-makers and not understood by the American public. After 9/11, Cole argued, the U.S. should have put more energy into solving the Israel/Palestinian problem. Instead Bush decided to unleash Ariel Sharon, saying “a little chaos can be a good thing.” Now the Israeli-Palestinian issue is a prime recruitment tool for extremists.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the many mistakes that ensued, such as disbanding the Iraqi army and the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib, are further pretexts for global anti-U.S. activity, Cole maintained. Not only have none of the pre-invasion excuses about weapons of mass destruction stood up, he pointed out, but neither do the more recent ones, such as saving Muslim countries. Cole concluded by stating what should be obvious: that the majority of Muslims are not afraid of Islam.

The Israel Forum Asks “What Now?”

“What Happens Now? Israel and the Palestinians after Gaza, Sharon, and Hamas” was the title of a March 9 panel discussion sponsored by The Israel Forum at New York University. As Tony Judt, professor of European Studies at NYU, explained, The Israel Forum was founded in 1945 to create an open public space for political discussion free of any overheated or controversial style.

Many contemporary conflicts, Judt pointed out, have competing narratives of suffering and legitimacy, often connected with claims to land. What is different about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, he noted, is that the fears and claims of the Jewish diaspora in North America are echoed and magnified in the policies of the superpower. According to Judt, who is British, no other conflict has the same domestic import—the debate is more heated and distorted in the U.S. than in Europe or even in Israel. As an example, he cited the Gaza pullout, during which the American, but not the European, media focused almost exclusively on a few distinctive photos of women and children being evicted, and which were presented in such a way as to evoke the Warsaw ghetto. Judt considered this a shockingly improper, even pornographic, use of images to stir up emotions—an approach he found uniquely American.

Gideon Levy, editorialist and commentator for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, noted that for two-thirds of its existence Israel has been an occupying power—and its occupation becomes more brutal with each passing day. No one can claim any more that the occupation is temporary, he said, or simply a negotiating card until peace is reached. Levy described the Israeli public as apathetic and indifferent, in a coma, like its prime minister, and not wanting to know about the terrible tragedy taking place half an hour away from their homes: not only the killing, uprooting and demolishing, but also the day-after-day humiliations. None of us, he said, knows what it is like to be a Palestinian under occupation. After years of reporting from the West Bank, Levy said he has come to the conclusion that Palestinians are the most patient, tolerant people in the world. Not the worst terrorist acts justify what Israelis are doing to Palestinians, he emphasized.

He has long wondered, Levy added, why young, well-educated Israelis who would volunteer for earthquake relief in Turkey change so terribly when they are in uniform in the occupied territories. Then, he said, a year ago at a checkpoint he suddenly understood that it is about the environment. There is nothing human about a checkpoint, he noted: no water, no toilet, only dust. He realized, he said, that Israelis are teaching their young people to believe that Palestinians are not quite human.

Regarding the Hamas electoral victory, Levy wondered why Western observers were so surprised that a people dissatisfied with its leadership voted for change. The Israeli and American attitude, he said, seemed to be, “how dare they not vote for Bush and Sharon?” Israel refused to speak to Arafat because he was too strong, Levy pointed out, then refused to speak to Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) because he was too weak. Israel now has no need to justify not speaking to Hamas, Levy said, but warned that pushing Hamas and the Palestinians to the brink would be the worst possible mistake.

Citing Israel’s separation barrier and the Gaza withdrawal as the major events of recent years, Levy pointed out that both were unilateral Israeli actions that totally ignored the Palestinians. It is difficult to be optimistic, he added, when there is no symmetry between occupier and occupied. Levy considered as extremely unlikely two possible scenarios for getting out of the present situation: courageous Israeli leadership and a U.S. president devoted to peace in the region. If either were to occur, he argued, the occupation could end within months. Instead, he said, he foresees another cycle of bloodshed. Levy explained that he refuses to address the question of whether there would be peace if Israel were to end its occupation, emphasizing instead that the occupation is illegal, corrupts Israeli society, tortures the Palestinian people, and should end without conditions.

Journalist Christopher Hitchens moved straight to disagreements, contending that what has prevented the two-state solution is religion, which has put a civilized solution out of reach. Hitchens accused Muslims of plotting a return of the Caliphate, and Christians eager for Armageddon of supporting the Jews as the rope supports the hanging man. Hamas, Hitchens said, “intends to kill you and destroy civilization.”

NYU professor Elias Khoury, author of Gate of the Sun, remarked how sad it is that people like Gideon Levy are marginalized. Hamas won not because of religion, Khoury maintained, but because the peace process failed. Observing that Hamas speaks the same uncompromising language that Israel has always spoken, Khoury added that Israel, being very strong and subject to no international pressure due to Washington’s born-again policy, has no need to make concessions. Khoury concluded by describing the essence of the struggle in the words of Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, who said during Israel’s 2002 siege of Ramallah: “If we are weak, even if we are stupid and not always rational, this does not give you the right to kill us.” 


Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.

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