by Joshua H. Liberatore
If there’s one book on public affairs and foreign policy that every American should read as soon as possible, it is Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World. Cole’s name will be familiar to anyone who has been listening to or reading responsible reporting on the Middle East since September 11, 2001. An established professor of history at the University of Michigan, Cole also maintains a daily weblog on Middle East issues called “Informed Comment,” offers a regular column on Salon.com, and appears often as a guest commentator on NPR, PBS, and even some mainstream radio and television networks. “Informed Comment” is probably the most literally titled news source on the Internet; it offers nothing less than an essential education on Middle East affairs, not just for Americans who blithely assume all Arabs are Muslim or all Muslims are Arab, but for serious consumers craving direct, unvarnished news from those sore spots in our imperial adventures. Often relying on his own translations from Arabic-language media, Cole provides insightful glosses on what’s happening in the Middle East and what people on the ground are saying about it.
That same breadth and energy characterize his latest book-length meditation, which constitutes an erudite and clear-sighted handbook for how the West, but in particular the U.S., should “deal” with the Muslim world, not as a monolithic, medieval, irrational society but as a nuanced and reasonable culture that we cannot afford to trifle with paternalistically. Cole examines the most critical areas where U.S. foreign policy has blundered, where America has failed to be the engaged leader it must and could be in securing a more peaceful and prosperous dialogue with Muslim-majority nations: Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan. In each chapter, he debunks the prevailing myths and stumbling blocks that keep American lawmakers and the public at large from first understanding and then actually achieving a better way forward. But there is not only educated complaint in these pages. Professor Cole also offers actionable suggestions for improved relations with the Muslim world and basically spells out a step-by-step program by which the Obama administration can make real progress there.
Any brief summary of Cole’s explications and solutions would likely trivialize the complexity and gravity of the concerns he undertakes, but a few examples will suffice in demonstrating the compelling logic and intelligence of Engaging the Muslim World. In the case of Iraq, President Obama has inherited a most unholy albatross, a conflagration which has nevertheless empowered and legitimized its Shiite neighbor Iran. The sooner the U.S. withdraws its forces from Iraq and allows the elected government to work out its own problems, the better for all concerned, but most of all the Iraqis. As long as U.S. military might provides both political cover and security backup for Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, risky short-term governing serves mainly to alienate minority Sunnis and prevents real compromise and power-sharing. Similarly, as Israel’s chief enabler, the U.S. government is serving neither ordinary Israelis nor the long-suffering Palestinians by continuing its reactionary and knee-jerk support for the Zionist project, often under considerable pressure from right-wing lobbies such as AIPAC. The quicker U.S. “diplomacy” is able to encourage Israel – cutting off loan guarantees and military aid to a country with $14,000 per capita income – peace with its Arab neighbors, and a one-state solution for its non-Jewish population, will become an existential necessity.
Similarly, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Obama administration too often clings to old – and according to Cole, discredited – scripts of surging troops and leveraging military aid as the best way to prop up feeble civilian governments. Here too there are practical solutions. Cole’s review of polling data from Pakistan is particularly illuminating: bolstering schools and medical facilities would be a more cost-effective and humane way of winning hearts and minds than Predator drone attacks on Pushtun warlords. How do we know this? The Pakistanis themselves are saying it. In Afghanistan, overzealous counternarcotic raids that scorch poppy fields without brokering profitable and sustainable agricultural alternatives only embitters the already desperate rural poor. Cole is not naive, however. Solutions to these foreign policy disasters are complicated and require considerable patience and political will. Recognizing the errors of received wisdom and cultural prejudice within U.S. foreign policy is the first step toward forging a more responsible future.