Across the Bay

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Engineer Cole

In a comment to a reader the other day, I quoted the following passage from a piece by Robert Fisk

"We journalists are students of human folly. Palestine, Iraq, the Gulf, Persia; for more than a hundred years, our Western meddling in the Middle East falls under that label "folly". A "foolish ... and expensive undertaking that ends in disaster" is how one dictionary defines this. I suspect it also contains an unhealthy mix of vanity and hubris."

I said that this is the prism through which people like Fisk (Third-Worldists, Post-Colonialists, Nativists, Arabists, etc.) see the "West-East" relationship (just read Said or Khalidi). It completely dictates how they see and interpret events.

All that is in play with Juan Cole, with the addition of severe anti-Bushism. It's such an ideological thing with Cole, that it goes well beyond any sense of rationality. So, when Cole is writing a concise history of Lebanon, he's really not concerned with Lebanon. He's concerned with Bush. As Fouad Ajami once wrote, this is an old genre. A writer would be writing about Persia, but in his mind he's thinking about Paris. So it comes as no surprise that Cole's ill-informed "Lebanese history for dummies" was actually enveloped by two references to Bush and his policy. That alone should've made it clear to the reader that what you are about to read is not about Lebanon, it's about Bush, and about Cole's antithetical view.

These types see American policy in the ME (including Israel of course) as the root of all the ills of that region. By so doing (as I pointed out with Seale and others), they turn the people of the region into passive tools to be viewed either with pity or (if they "collaborate") angry scorn and contempt. The actual homegrown diseases are totally left out. To give you a perfect example, I'll quote what Cole said about the "illiberal age" in the ME, which I dealt with in my post "The Cole Man" below:

The Maronites erected a police state, with much power in the Dueuxieme [sic] Bureau or secret police. Since Washington had already overthrown the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, and is said to have helped install the Baath in power in Iraq, it may well be that the Illiberal Age in the Middle East.

It doesn't take a genius to realize that the Maronites aren't really the point here. They are just the tag-alongs. Collateral damage. Objects of contempt because they sided with the "imperialist forces." They get shrapnel from a shell aimed at the US. The real point here is to lay the entire failure and disastrous history of an entire region at the feet of the US. From Iran to Iraq to Lebanon. Left out is any reference to Nasserism, Pan-Arabism, and any sense of regional politics and complexities. No evaluation of the ideological struggle that was going on. No reference to the Cold War. Nothing. All you get is that the US interfered in Iran and took down a democratically elected Mosaddeg. Then "helped install" the Iraqi Baath, then also interfered in the "engineering" of elections in Lebanon, and the ensuing president, Fouad Chehab (like the "fascist Maronite" that he is) then set up the dark reign of a police state.

The point? Bush's talk about democracy is bogus. It matters little that Bush had nothing to do with anything in the fifties! That is all swept under the rug of "Washington" and now Washington is Bush. This is not only a naive and faulty view of history, it's also a static and ideological view of "Washington." That's the "Washington" of the Arab nationalists. That's the evil US. But, as we'll see, the entire discourse of these types is, in fact, fully Arab nationalist.

Cole continues this charge in a recent post. The headline:

[T]he CIA engineered the 1957 Lebanese elections (and so helped to provoke the mini-civil war of 1958)

Did you get that? The US, again, "foolishly" (to quote Fisk again), or better, nefariously, intervened in poor Lebanon's affairs, by "engineering" elections. The inevitable result of the evil US interference? Civil war.

This, my friends, is not history. This is ideological discourse. This is, to the tee, the rhetoric used not just by Arabist professors like Khalidi, this is the discourse you hear in the speeches of the region's tyrants.

A historical note would have mentioned Nasser (and what role the US had in helping him, and why that is not viewed with the same scorn), Pan-Arabism (and how Nasser was himself interfering in the affairs of other neighboring states, encouraging coups against pro-Western leaders, and bombing Yemen), the Eisenhower Doctrine, the Cold War. Nope. You're not getting any "Informed Comment" here. All you're getting here is how the US stood in the way of the "authentic voice of the Arabs," Arab nationalism, and how some contemptible Lebanese Christians actually wanted to be allied with the US as opposed to "their Arab brother" Nasser (although you'll see that Chehab wasn't the US candidate of choice, he was Nasser's!).

If you really want to know more about this, read Miles Copeland's The Game of Nations. Copeland notes that it wasn't the CIA who gave "modest campaign contributions" to a few pro-Western candidates. It was the Embassy in Beirut. Copeland explains what he means by "modest": "modest in the sense that they were of about the same amounts that the British, French, Soviet and Egyptian embassies were contributing to their respective candidates." (p. 226).

I.e., since Lebanon was the scene of a "game of nations" (cf. Farid el-Khazen's domestic, regional, and international layers) during the Cold War, you had both a regional manipulation by the aggressive Nasser regime as well as an international US-Soviet showdown. None of this factors in Cole's assessment. Why? Because, essentially, he's an Arab nationalist, or sees things through that prism.

So why does Cole have a problem if everyone was involved in backing their own candidates? That's precisely the point. He doesn't! If a Nasser-backed candidate had ran uncontested, he wouldn't have even mentioned this episode! But because the US backed someone else, it's detestable, and Cole immediately lays blame for the civil war on the US! Again, Arab nationalism comes out smelling like a rose. After all, it's the "native" voice!

But Copeland shows us more precisely how Cole actually not only adopts the Arabist worldview, he also echoes its discourse! Writes Copeland:

[T]he Egyptian General Intelligence Agency team in Beirut somehow managed to parlay the information it had acquired on our contributions into convincing "evidence" that the CIA had rigged the elections. But to both sides, this was all fair game. (p. 226, emphasis added.)

Does the highlighted part ring a bell? That was the Egyptian propaganda line! So, basically, Cole is a bellhorn for Arabist propaganda and little else (remember how ITM called him on endorsing the Baathist revisionist history of Fallujah. Guess what Cole did back then. He accused them -- you got it -- of being CIA agents!).

But Cole is not only driven by Arab nationalist ideology, he's also driven by ignorance. He never once tells you that Fouad Chehab was Nasser's candidate of choice! Copeland does:

[I]f the solution were entirely up to him [Nasser], he would make General Shehab President and Rashid Karami Prime Minister. (p. 237)

So, in fact, Chehab wasn't the US-backed candidate! So the US, despite all the "engineering" and the pouring of "CIA money" didn't get its candidate. Nasser did, through bullying, outsmarting hapless US officials, like Robert Murphy (the same kind as Leverett and Quandt), pouring money, and ultimately, terrorism, by arming gangsters (through the Syrian border). Nasser wanted to topple the leaders of Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. He got two out of three, with King Hussein the only survivor.

Anyway, read Copeland for more. The point is that in the end, Cole's history is nothing more than an uncritical endorsement of the Nasserist discourse, plain and simple. It's an ideological, pseudo-moralistic, singular chain of causality that inevitably leads to a condemnation of the US. It's history as morality fable. The moral: the US interferes, bad things happen.

A friend of mine put it best:

The Arabism that almost all regimes in the Arab world pay lipservice to is also the dominant interpretation of history that American professors of Middle East Studies ascribe to. Whether they realize it or not, they are, almost to a professor, crypto-Arab nationalists.
In fact, on more issues than just US and Israel they have a perspective that legitimates the tyrants, because it mirrors the worldview presented in the dictators' speeches. In fact, the academics end up taking the dictators' words far more seriously than the average Arab on the street in the Middle East. Thus you find, time and again, these weird moments when the professors behave just like the dictators.
The professor's job is to weigh rival interpretations of history. But instead we have professors who busy themselves uncovering plots, identifying and destroying imperialist sympathizers, and, importantly, screaming "Uncle Tom" whenever an Arab (Fouad Ajami, Kanan Makiya) refuses to toe the line.

Let me give you an example of how these types mirror the concerns and speeches of the dictators. I quoted Patrick Seale the other day:

Syria has certain vital interests in Lebanon. It cannot allow its neighbor to conclude a separate peace with Israel until its own claims have been addressed, notably the recovery of the Golan Heights seized by Israel in 1967. Nor can Syria allow Lebanon to become a base for hostile operations against it.

Now read what Bashar said in his speech yesterday:

I tell them (Lebanese) a new May 17 (agreement) is looming on the horizon. Get ready for a battle to scuttle it as you did two decades ago.

Of course, no one in Lebanon (including Aoun!) is saying that we're going to sign a peace deal with Israel! Everyone knows that we will have to wait till Syria does. All we want, as Jumblat said, is to go back to the armistice agreement. I.e. shut down the Lebanese front so that Lebanon doesn't have to bear the brunt of the follies of Arabist ideology.

Or take the repugnant As'ad "Angry Hair" AbuKhalil for instance:

It is good that Martha Stewart was released from jail. The story pushed away the silly coverage of Lebanon's developments. I cannot believe how much coverage the US media are giving to Lebanon and demonstrations in Beirut.

Compare that with this line from Asad's speech:

"If TV cameras were to zoom out [from their vantage point on Martyrs' Square in Beirut, they would show that] no one else was there."

Similar to the Baathophile Seale, what were the only parts of Asad's speech highlighted by Cole?

Asad foresees no new negotiations soon with Israel over Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Syrian territory, the Golan Heights. Asad said that he was ready to negotiate, but that the Israelis had made it clear that they were not.

Asad warned the Lebanese that they were about to be pressured to make a separate peace with Israel.

That, dear readers, is the Arabist vantage point in a nutshell. That is also to say, Cole and his likes in a nutshell.

PS: The title loses much in translation! Those familiar with Egyptian Arabic might find the term "bash mouhandiss" far more apt, and perhaps even funny! That was the intent!