Scared silent: Juan Cole refuses to respond

Posted: May 25, 2006 12:05 AM

“We don’t give a rat’s ass what Ahmadinejad thinks about European history or what pissant speech the little s**t gives.”

Pop quiz: Which historian and noted scholar of the contemporary Middle East wrote these words?

What, you think no historian, let alone a top academic in his field, could have written this?  Think again.  OK, there’s actually a good case to be made that he’s not in the “top” of his field—but some obviously feel that he is.  Yale is about to hire him.

The eloquent wordsmith in question is University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, who is better known as a prolific blogger.  His rant on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was part of his “response” to writer Chris Hitchens’ attacks earlier this month.  As the quotes suggest, his supposed response didn’t really qualify as one.

It started with an explanation of why he wouldn’t refute his critics, after which he baselessly slandered Hitchens as either having been drunk or having utilized a ghostwriter.  Finally, his meandering blog post evolved into an attempt at re-creating a Vietnam-era anti-war chant, which contained the infantile remark above.

This probably helps explain why he didn’t respond to my column; he’s just no good at it.

Cole has tried two different tacks in the past when confronted with his own incompetence: 1) digging in his heels and defending himself, and 2) smearing in lieu of debating.  Neither approach has yielded pretty results.

Back in 2004, Cole wrote in an column that the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) “is funded to the tune of $60 million a year.”  His source?  In an interview with this journalist, Cole said someone—whose name he couldn’t remember—told him.  At least give him credit for this much: he stuck by his nameless friend, even after the number was debunked by hard evidence.

When shown that the public disclosure forms (required of all U.S. nonprofits) filed by MEMRI listed a budget of less than $2 million, Cole was adamant that the $60 million figure was correct.  His public reiteration was unequivocal: “I deny that I have misstated their funding.”  In an e-mail, he explained his reasoning: “I think they are getting very substantial in-kind donations of labor and services in Israel, possibly from Israeli military intelligence.”

Asked about this incident last week, Cole finally admitted, “I was wrong.”

After failing so miserably at defending himself, Cole shifted tactics.  Peeved that National Review Online columnist Jonah Goldberg (briefly) challenged his assessment that the 1997 Iranian elections—in which the mullahs had disqualified 234 out of 238 candidates for prime minister—were more democratic and transparent than the 2005 Iraqi balloting, Cole called his critic “a fearmonger, a warmonger, and a demagogue.”  Not content to leave it at simple playground name-calling, Cole opined that Goldberg’s motivation for criticizing him in the first place was because “he wants to kill thousands of Iranians and thousands of US troops in a war of aggression on Iran.”

Goldberg was not the sole target of Cole’s wrath.  Other notable examples are Hitchens and highly respected historian Martin Kramer.  Cole initially castigated Kramer, insinuating he was controlled by “Israeli intelligence.”  But he soon found that he was fighting a losing battle.  Even his normally slavish sycophants at left-wing Daily Kos pointed out that his ad hominem dismissal of Kramer was insufficient. 

Which brings us to his new “third way.”  In a post entitled “Responses to Critics: Open Thread,” he neither references my name nor provides a link for his readers to judge for themselves.  Heck, he doesn’t even mention that any specific critique had just been published.  He simply bemoans the “cottage industry” of attacks against him by the “US Right” (sic), then dismissing the entirety of them as “National Enquirer type pieces.”

But Cole was, in fact, itching to defend himself.  His obvious problem is that he really couldn’t.  The vote among Yale’s history professors was that close, and Cole did write everything he was alleged to have written.  He did, however, find what he considered a crack of daylight: the idea that he might have been wrong to claim, “Chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction.”

In our hour-long phone conversation on Friday (which occurred after the original column had been submitted), Cole strongly defended the chemical weapons comment.  He stated emphatically, “I’ve seen many generals who have said the same thing.”  Cole added, “I’ve seen many high-level military personnel come on [TV] and say that chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction.” 

Naturally, I asked him to provide me one such example.  He couldn’t.  I asked him to provide the name of just one general.  He couldn’t.  I asked him to at least name the news outlet where a general, any general, made such an assertion.  He couldn’t.

The best substantiation Cole could muster was a think tank policy analyst who said in an NPR interview that it was “somewhat debatable” whether chemical weapons should be classified as WMD.  Yet even that is deceiving, as the context was whether chemical weapons were “tactical” or “strategic.”

With that extremely shaky foundation, Cole claimed he was vindicated.  He even added that his rather out-there position is “not in fact controversial,” meaning that it is not even in dispute that chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction.

So to recap, Cole rebuts critics by: 1) stubbornly sticking to an obviously incorrect position, 2) lashing out with scathing personal attacks, or 3) pretending he is above responding, but then doing so ham-handedly.

And Yale is poised to hire him.