And now, back to The Juan Cole Show. Cole and his media celebrity have provided us all with a richly entertaining spectacle, and I for one am grateful. The Cole show has been well worth watching, because Prof. Cole's prominence as a go-to source for lazy reporters writing about Iraq is symptomatic of problems with two important institutions: Middle East Studies and journalism. I mean, Cole sets himself up as a transcendent expert on a country he's never in his life seen, and because he can dress up his sour, demonstrably ignorant, and often irresponsible views in academic robes, he soon becomes a sought-after source.
Let's take a quick glance at a now-completed chapter in Cole's intellectual adventure: his bizarre history with the subject of Zarqawi. There are two major themes to note. The first is that Zarqawi might not have existed, and the second was that if he did exist, he wasn't really al-Qaeda.
As recently as last fall, Cole was uncertain that there was a Zarqawi. He wrote, "Personally, I'm not sure Zarqawi exists, so I'd be reluctant to send a thousand Marines after him."
Cole wasn't the only one who doubted whether Zarqawi existed. He shared this belief with fringe conspiracy loons who saw Zarqawi as a persona created by the U.S. propaganda machine. To this school, Zarqawi was the necessary villain who justified a large military presence and, according to the theory, allowed the U.S. to steal Iraq's oil and otherwise engage in nefarious imperial aggression. Cole is, of course, prone to conspiratorial speculation, especially conspiracies that may be targeting him. But we won't go there today.
Cole was sometimes willing to entertain the possibility of a Zarqawi, but mostly to draw a line between such a "Zarqawi" and al-Qaeda. "There is no evidence that al-Zarqawi is al-Qaeda in the strict sense of having pledged fealty to Bin Laden and having carried out a terrorist mission for him. But he was an 'Arab Afghan' and had tenuous ties to Bin Laden's group."
This sort of learned distinction is a specialty of Cole's; it presumably demonstrates what's so "informed" about his commentary. But it's just crap. In a tape aired on Al Jazeera yesterday, no less than al-Qaeda's second banana, Dr. Zawahiri, offered blessings to Zarqawi. The Washington Post today has a story in which several analysts provide a useful contrast to Cole's take:
"Until he was killed Wednesday by U.S. forces, the Jordanian-born guerrilla served as Osama bin Laden's proxy in Iraq, attracting hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters under the al-Qaeda banner." The story does add that "Zarqawi had grown into a strategic headache for al-Qaeda's founders by demonstrating an independent streak often at odds with their goals," bit that's a distinction that emerges from real-world knowledge and experience, not from somebody's Ann Arbor-based butt. Indeed, the Post's roundup includes the suggestion that not only was Zarqawi al-Qaeda, but that in terms of operational visibility, al-Qaeda had pretty much become Zarqawi. With him gone, global jihad may pass from groups associated with bin Laden to groups of Saudis, Algerians, and Egyptians who have nothing to do with him.
In the wake of the news that Zarqawi had been killed, something that everybody on all sides agreed was accurate, Cole seem to have decided that previous to his death, Zarqawi must have existed after all. To mark this epiphany, the professor wrote this week that it didn't matter. "There is no evidence of operational links between his Salafi Jihadis in Iraq and the real al-Qaeda; it was just a sort of branding that suited everyone, including the US. Official US spokesmen have all along over-estimated his importance. Leaders are significant and not always easily replaced. But Zarqawi has in my view has been less important than local Iraqi leaders and groups. I don't expect the guerrilla war to subside any time soon."
Yeah, yeah. And I don't expect Cole's steady blast of nonsense to subside any time soon, either. In his Saturday post, for example, he cites Azzaman, an Iraqi paper that has a number of stories related to Zarqawi's killing. Azzaman goes on in some detail about the raids against thugs that followed the killing of Zarqawi. It describes the celebrations throughout the country of people thrilled to see this killer of civilians dead. But what does Cole focus on?
He picks one tiny report of some mosques in Anbar that read the prayer of the dead for Zarqawi. That report might be true. We don't know whether the locals were upset to see Zarqawi die. It's possible in Anbar. Maybe they were bullied by jihadi thugs to pray for Zarqawi. It doesn't matter either way. The point is that Cole typically distorted the Iraq story. By focusing on this event, he paints a portrait of a people in mourning. The Iraqis loved the man who wasn't there.