July 17, 2014

Lines In The Sand

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today's Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don't those political maps?
SykesPicot

Guest List

Juan Cole, academic, blogger and tireless watcher of the Middle East — his new book is called The New Arabs: How The Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East.

Seyla Benhabib, the Yale political scientist and a philosopher of borders and cosmopolitanism.

Labib Nasir, a Palestinian reporter for Reuters who covered the Arab Spring from North Africa.

The borders that divide up our modern world hinge, sometimes, on decisions that have stopped making sense. The Middle East is still suffering from unhealed wounds resulting from the boundaries established a hundred years ago in secret by two men, Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, that carved the former Ottoman empire into today’s Middle East. As geopolitics changes around the world, why don’t those political maps?

 

Read More

• Our friend Stephen Kinzer launched the conversation this week in The Boston Globe, writing on the flexibility of human borders and the news from Iraq and Syria;

• Juan Cole says the Arab Spring dream, apparently lost in fighting across borders and crackdowns within them, isn’t dead yet in The Los Angeles Times;

• John Judis and Nick Danforth have already playing out one side of the debate this week.

In The New Republic, Judis makes an argument we’ve seen many times since 2003: that the Middle East as a colonial creation, is coming undone. Danforth’s response, in the Atlantic, sees that line of thought as dangerously out-of-focus. The real disaster, he writes, was “the truly pernicious policy of divide-and-rule that the French and British used to sustain their power… The militarization of these ethnic and religious identities, rather than the failure of perfectly placed state borders to alleviate tension between them, explains much of violence in the Middle East today.

6a00d83451c45669e201310f934adf970c-550wi

• There’s another geo-controversy brewing around our guest Juan Cole’s mapping of shrinking Palestinian territory since 1948. Cole sees the maps as proof that the hardcore Israeli leadership has no plans to stop settling the West Bank or to accept anything short of a unified Israel. The Netanyahu government confirmed some of those fears this week, with a snub to Biden and a declaration of intent, off the radar of the American media.

• Frank Jacobs, geographer of the odd, took on the borders separating Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan in his fine Times blog, “Borderlines”.

• Finally, glimpses of hope on the horizon: the president of Iraqi Kurdistan visits Ankara this week, seeking to ease some of his nation’s tense history with the Turks. And Haaretz asks for a revolution in Israeli culture as a step toward attacking the crisis at its roots in hearts and minds.

Podcast • December 14, 2007

Juan Cole: from Bonaparte to Bush

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to ...

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to organize that province, he wrote with unusual candor, “The Turks can only be led by the greatest severity. Every day I cut off five or six heads in the streets of Cairo. We had to manage them up to the present in such a way as to erase that reputation for terror that preceded us. Today, on the contrary, it is necessary to take a tone that will cause them to obey, and to obey, for them, is to fear.” He meant by “Turks” all Muslims, of course.

Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , pages 104-5.

The resonances and repetitions in history never come as much of a surprise. The shocking part is just that we so studiously ignore the pattern in what we’re doing, and the warnings.

The indispensable blogger-scholar on Iraq, Juan Cole of Michigan, had the idea of rethinking Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the mid-nineties when it seemed a nicely academic project. On completion today after five years of the war in Iraq, Cole’s historical reconstruction, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , reads like the map of folly we never consulted, an ugly walk through history we were determined not to know.

Whimsical arrogance in a war of choice is the start of the links. When General Bonaparte (then 28!) gathered his expeditionary force at Toulon in May, 1798, not even his war minister knew where Napoleon was headed — for a round-about attack on England, perhaps, or eastward somehow to disrupt England’s commerce with India. Napoleon’s version of “Bring ’em on!” was the promise to his troops about the slave soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, the mamluk. “A few days after we arrive,” Napoleon vowed, “they will no longer exist.”

How do you say “fubar” in French? Napoleon had provided heavy woolen uniforms, and no water canteens, for troops who were prostrated by heat and thirst, and killed themselves in substantial numbers. They were also confronted and killed by an “insurgency” that kept building toward the Cairo revolt in late October, 1798 — a broad uprising with a “nativist dimension,” of merchants and guildsmen, Bedouin and peasants from the Cairo hinterlands. The French response was a draconian spectacle of mass executions, in the spirit of Napoleon’s order: “Burn that village. Make a terrifying example of it.”

By then, however, Britain’s Admiral Nelson, in alliance with the Ottomans, had destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile. French forces in Egypt were cut off (eventually to be ferried home on English ships) and the mission was effectively doomed. Not that the cheering ever stopped, or the pretense of a mission civilisatrice, a project of liberty and modernity constructing a “French Republic of Egypt,” was ever abandoned by those who believed it in the first place. Cole’s history quotes a familiar-sounding Captain Say in Napoleon’s engineering corps: “The people of Egypt were most wretched,” Say wrote. “How will they not cherish the liberty that we are bringing them?”

Napoleon in Egypt and George Bush in Iraq were book-end fiascos, Juan Cole argues in our conversation — for neatly opposite reasons. Napoleon was too early in Egypt — before the Ottoman sick-man was ripe for dismemberment, before European arms could overwhelm native resistance; but in fact he set the course of French imperial expansion in North Africa and also Southeast Asia. George Bush hit Iraq too late, Cole says, long after bullying colonialism’s day was done.

That’s the historian’s Two Centuries in Review. Juan Cole, the impassioned real-time observer of Iraq, also gives us a Five Years in Review, on the war, and a Surge in Review, on 2007.

January 2, 2006

Juan Cole: Iraq in 2006

Is the US project in Iraq “all over but the shouting” when the Bush administration decides not to extend reconstruction funding — as reported in the Washington Post today? Can we foresee the shape of ...

Is the US project in Iraq “all over but the shouting” when the Bush administration decides not to extend reconstruction funding — as reported in the Washington Post today?

Can we foresee the shape of a new Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad — Iraq’s third in three years — reflecting the democratic hopes of December’s voters?

Do we really know who in our Pentagon, State Department and White House are calling the crucial shots on troop levels and US investments in Iraq?

The indispensable Juan Cole of the University of Michigan and the Informed Comment blog is our guest tonight to start Calendar Year Four of the war in Iraq.

Juan Cole is a lifelong student of the languages and religious cultures of the Middle East. His critical reading of the Arab press and multitudinous public and scholarly sources every day of this war is surely one of the great blessings of the Web era and the Web spirit in journalism: a tough-minded, independent, faithful commentary from one who makes some controversial calls and takes the heat for them, but never strikes a personal or nasty tone. If there’s a writer on Iraq who lives up to the prophetic standard of I. F. Stone’s Weekly on Vietnam, I think it might well be Juan Cole. One of his readers has suggested that the CIA should simply be dismantled so that the world could rely instead on Juan Cole. But of course he is too free and incisive a spirit for any institution, including our commercial media.

Cole’s summing-up at the end of 2005 is not quite as witheringly cold as Simon Jenkins’s review in the Times of London of “the self-delusion, vainglory, ineptitude and cruelty of this venture.”

But one way to prepare your own questions — and to feel Juan Cole’s range and tone — is to scan his review of the US agenda and his ten fearless forecasts for 2006.

Juan Cole

Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan

Blogger, Informed Comment

Nir Rosen

Fellow, The New America Foundation

Journalist specializing in the Middle East (articles available here)

December 6, 2005

To Iran, Like Nixon to China?

Late in our show What John Murtha Wrought, Chris asked the question “What would your ideal President do now in Iraq?” Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, suggested that Bush, ...
What am I doing here?

What am I doing here?

Late in our show What John Murtha Wrought, Chris asked the question “What would your ideal President do now in Iraq?” Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, suggested that Bush, like Nixon to China, approach Iran.

Iran, intransigently nuclear-bound and newly lippy about Israel, is not going to go away, and it does not seem, so far, to have been put off by our democracy-building project in Iraq. Some are suggesting (see our show Steven Vincent, Basra and Iran) that the war in Iraq has allowed Iran to do precisely what it always wanted to do: make real its natural inclinations toward the Iraqi Shiite majority.

But that majority is the anchor of our own policy in Iraq. So is the friend of our friend our friend? Even if that friend-of-a-friend is a member of the axis of evil? Then, on November 29, Juan Cole noted some ideological drift:

US ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad is going to start direct talks with the Iranians. Say what? Wasn’t Scott Ritter saying only last winter that a Bush military attack on Iran was in the offing? What has changed?

Juan Cole, Khalilzad to talk to Iranians Monday, Informed Comment

Iran is oil-rich and ancient, and its power and influence in the Middle East aren’t going to evaporate just because we dislike them. Are the realists winning? Are we about to start talking to Iran? Is this a good idea?

Gary Sick

Served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan.Principal White House aide on Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.Author, All Fall Down: America’s Fateful Encounter with Iran and October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan.

Reza Aslan

Scholar of religion.Author, No god but God.Born in Tehran; now lives in California.

Ali Banuazizi

Professor of psychology and codirector of the Program in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Boston College, where he also teaches a course on the history of modern Iran.

July 5, 2005

Juan Cole

Maybe the closest thing you and I will see to a daily box score on Iraq comes out around dawn every day from the Middle East historian Juan Cole at the University of Michigan. President ...

Maybe the closest thing you and I will see to a daily box score on Iraq comes out around dawn every day from the Middle East historian Juan Cole at the University of Michigan. President Bush probably gets a tidier morning rundown from the CIA and NSC. For the rest of us, trying to make sense of car bombs and assassinations, religious politics, oil prices, the many doomsday scenarios and the heat in Baghdad, there’s Juan Cole and his faithful blog “Informed Comment.??? Will the GIs be in Iraq for a decade of nation-building? Would a United Nations peacekeeping force be more effective training Iraqis? Juan Cole gets into all the arguments, but he’s an explainer not a firebrand. He was an American army brat in Muslim East Africa when he came of age in the 1960’s, then mastered Arabic and got hooked on modern Islam. On Open Source: The war diaries of an historian.

Juan Cole, Informed Comment

From his CV
Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the History Department of the University of Michigan.

Has written extensively about modern Islamic movements in Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia.

Bibliography

[over ISDN from The University of Michigan]
Chris on Juan Cole
I count Juan Cole’s “Informed Comment” on the Iraq war among the major blessings of the daily Web. It’s a faithful scorecard of the carbombs and firefights these days; an expert catalog of Iraqi politics; and a thoughtful sorting of the political arguments and “memes” in the American commentary. All issued modestly enough, and with seldom a break, from a professional historian of the Middle East and Islam at the University of Michigan. It turns out that Juan Cole was an US Army brat whose teenage brain came of age when his father was serving in Eritrea in East Africa. He’s been studying religion — particularly Shiite Islam — ever since: as an undergratuate at Northwestern, later at the American University in Cairo, the American University in Beirut, at UCLA and in India. I read comprehensively informed blog almost everyday for a sane summing up. He is an explainer, not a controversialist, though of course people try to politicize the scorekeeper. From the start (early 2003 for me) Juan Cole’s been able to keep two ideas in his head at once–to wit: the monstrosity of Saddam Hussein and the dreadful prospects of an imperial American remedy. At a dinner party full of shouters, he’s the man you’d want to be sitting next to (tonight at 7) for grim honesty about the situation in Iraq today.

George Packer

Staff Writer, The New Yorker

Finalist, Michael Kelly Award

[on the phone from New York]
Chris on George Packer
George Packer is a decoder, trying to figure out how this country works and, most recently, what’s actually happening in Iraq. He’s a counter, tonight, to Juan Cole’s academic breadth daily list of incidents; a novelist taking shots at George Bush’s breezy big picture witht lines like — from last year in The New Yorker “War, unlike budget forecasts and campaign coverage, is quite merciless with falsehood.”