Annotations on the Cole kerfuffle

I don’t care to get involved in the kerfuffle going on about the catfight between Juan Cole of Informed Comment, professor of Middle Eastern studies at University of Michigan and prospective head of the department of Middle Eastern studies at Yale and newspaper columnist Christopher Hitchens. James Joyner has a good description of the back-and-forth. I said my piece on Professor Cole some time ago: I don’t hold him in the reverence that some in the blogosphere do, nor do I despise him as others do. I do think he’s bootstrapping which, as James Joyner pointed out, is an occupational hazard for a public intellectual. It saddens me to see people of obvious talent and ability squandering their gifts on petty squabbling and malice. That goes both for Professor Cole and Christopher Hitchens.

There continue to be several extremely interesting discussions going on in the blogosphere relating to the tiff. For example, if you haven’t already taken a glance at it, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the debate between dueling Iranian translators in the comments thread of this post at Winds of Change. Obviously, where you sit depends on where you stand.

What really moved me to write this post was this post at Dean’s World. The conversation there has gone somewhat far afield and the observations I wanted to make were sufficiently discursive that I decided to turn them into a post of their own.

One of the commenters in that thread notes:

Actions have consequences. The fact is that we decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam (an evil dictator) without thinking through what the consequences of that action would be. Now you and other people are trying to convince us we should bomb Iran without thinking through or understanding the consequences.

Inaction has consequences, too, and this is a point that too many people are missing, apparently believing that passivity innoculates them against culpability. The Hamlet-like inability to act was the problem of Jimmy Carter as president and it was Bill Clinton’s problem, too. That certainly hasn’t been Bush’s problem and it’s why, although in 100 years both Carter and Clinton will be footnotes—caretaker mediocrities, Bush will either be held to be the “worst President ever” as some of his opponents have held or another Lincoln, as some of his supporters apparently believe. Maybe both.

Patience is, indeed, a virtue but sometimes a little action at the right time will accomplish what requires an enormous effort later.

Dean comments:

When a country started experimenting with democracy for the first time, the Soviets would insinuate communists into the election under the rubric of mild-mannered “socialism.” These were quite often actual members of the KGB (as was the case, for example, with Ho Chi Minh)

This has now been documented in the case of Mossadegh in Iran by the Mitrokhin archives. That’s not an irrelevancy: the overthrow of Mossadegh, which I’ve written about at length, was the first link in the chain of events that brought us to the precipice on which we now stand. Not that Mossadegh, himself, was a KGB agent but that the KGB was heavily involved in Mossadegh’s government would now seem to be beyond dispute.

The irony, actually, is quite delicious. The United States has never had, even at the height of its influence in Iran, more than one or two CIA agents there and they frequently were pretty ineffective The Soviets, on the other hand, had significant numbers of very highly-placed and influential KGB agents there who were quite effective in shaping events. And, yet, we’re “the Great Satan”. The Russians must have better publicists.

Another commenter writes:

All I’d like to know, Mike, is if the misdeeds of the US 50 years ago relieve us of ever using our forces morally, then shit, who in the world DOES have the moral authority to do ANYTHING ?

Moral authority is irrelevant. It’s the Spiderman rule: with great power comes great responsibility. We either act or we don’t act. The search for moral purity is futile because every action or inaction has complex consequences over which we have little control and of which our action or inaction requires we take ownership. The best that we can do is muddle through.

8 comments… add one
  • kreiz Link

    This is a great damn post, especially for those of us who labor under the misconception that we can’t make a mistake if we don’t act. More often than not, inaction is simply fear disguised as wisdom.

  • J Thomas Link

    On the other side of it, there are only so many things you can do in a given time before you run out of hands and attention-span.

    When you waste your time doing the wrong thing then you limit your ability to do something better. When you fail to do something good you just might wind up doing something almost as good.

    Simplifying it, we can only do the top N items on our priority list. And it’s easy to get the order mixed up so that the wrong items wind up below the cutoff point. When I think of it that way the action/inaction dichotomy disappears.

    What should be our top priority?

    Avoiding global thermonuclear war should be up there somewhere, but it isn’t clear how much that involves doing stuff to prevent it versus avoiding stuff to promote it.

    Homeland security is important. We’ve demonstrated to the world that our security is mostly ineffective and that anybody who wants to hurt us badly can do so. And instead of hardening our vulnerable sites, which would be expensive, instead we have mostly concentrated on trying to eliminate one set of possible attackers. Of course that’s worth doing in principle, but we can hardly eliminate everybody who might want to attack us. We desperately need to either spend whatever it takes to improve security at all our domestic weak points, or else work very hard to make friends and not enemies. Or both.

    But I think for our central priority we need to find cheap alternate energy. Energy looks like a major limiting factor for us. Without cheap energy we run into a whole lot of limits. With it, those limits are relaxed. We can do more toward our other goals, almost all our other goals.

    What are our other limilting factors? The most important one, more important than energy, is stupidity. That’s our biggest limiting factor. But I doubt we can do much about that one.

  • I agree with most of what you’ve written, J Thomas. My point is that we’re damned if we do and we’re damned if we don’t. All we can do is make the most of the opportunities and resources we have.

    For the last 2,500 years or so quite some number of people have suggested that the scarcest resource is caring. Most people just don’t care.  Or at least don’t care enough.

  • Well as it stands one thing is certain the Islamic Republic is a brutal regime and it must be changed with a transparent, accountable democratic secular regime. How this is going to come about should be with the less amount of bloodshed on any side. If possible with civil disobedience then yes go ahead, if not try with sanctions if not with force. But inaction not an option.

  • I agree with that assessment completely, Joseph. As I’ve written elsewhere the opposition of the Russians and Chinese to any measures whatever against the regime puzzles me since the failure to undertake non-violent measures against the regime is the course of action most likely to result in violent measures being required.

  • J Thomas Link

    Joseph Salomonsen, I strongly disagree.

    You say iran is brutal and so we must do whatever it takes — including extreme brutality — to correct them.

    But what about china? Aren’t they at least as brutal? To their own people, and to subject peoples like the tibetans, and also to whatever americans or british etc that fall into their hands. Iran has a start at democracy, china does not at all. Iran is brutal to perhaps 70 million people, china is brutal to over a billion. Iran might get a nuke eventually, china has hundreds of nukes right now. Iran might get a working delivery system, china has it now.

    In most ways china is worse than iran. How come we don’t say the chinese government must be replaced with a transparent, accountable democratic regime? Obviously, because we can’t do it.

    I hope you agree that we have no obligation to go to war with russia and china because of their less-than-democratic brutal governments. So how much obligation do we have for iran?

    Consider this one little fact. If we start a war to replace the iranian regime, we will be doing it with money we borrow from china.

    That gets in my way a whole lot. Sure, I agree with the idea in principle. As christians it’s our duty whenever we see anybody doing the wrong thing, to force them to do the right thing or else. It’s a moral failing for christians to allow any evil anywhere in the world to go unopposed. If a christian kills someone who is doing evil, he helps to save the evil-doer’s soul by preventing him from continuing to pile up more evil. Sure, I agreewith you in principle, all good christians do. But something just makes me uneasy about going deeply into debt to evil regimes so we can bomb other regimes that aren’t quite as evil as the ones we’re going into hock to. Some little nagging doubt about that leaves me real, real, uneasy.

    Now here’s another concern. Iran had a democracy in 1950 or so, and the CIA stopped it. Sometimes we tell the story that the iranian prime minister was really a KGB agent and the russians were about to overthrow the iranian democracy. But either way, iranians weren’t ready to protect their democracy. They lived under the Shah. An iranian friend told me this story: Once iran had a wrestler who won the Olympics. He was very popular, he was a symbol of iranian pride etc. So the king had him killed. (My friend automatically translated Shah as king.) Nobody would say in public that the king had him killed, but everybody knew it. And the reason was that he was too popular. The king could not allow anybody to be more popular than himself.

    I said, “But he was a wrestler, not a politician!” And my friend answered, “It doesn’t matter. Anybody popular or even well-known was a threat.”.

    And then I remembered an old greek story. Somebody asks a tyrant how he governs. He shows them a wheat field and tells them he cuts down every stalk of wheat that stands out above the rest. I don’t remember whether the king who told the story was a persian king or a spartan one, but it’s a very old story. Iranians have understood how antidemocratic forces work, they’ve understood that for thousands of years, but understanding wasn’t enough.

    So OK, they lost their democracy to the Shah, and then they had the chance to get it back and they partly lost it to the mullahs. If we come in guns blazing and kill a bunch of iranians to give them democracy, any reason to think they won’t just lose it again? “No slave was ever freed, unless he freed himself.” When enough iranians are ready to die for democracy, not even the CIA and KGB together can stop them. And when they aren’t dedicated for themselves, what good is it for us to take casualties to hand it to them?

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