Sullivan On Cole Andrew Sullivan

Sullivan on Cole

Andrew Sullivan quoted some of my weblog on why things went wrong in Iraq, admitting I had some good points even if I was being too negative for his taste. Then he cited the following from my blog:

“So it wasn’t a catastrophic success that caused the problem. It was that Iraq was being run at the upper levels by a handful of screw-ups who had all sorts of ulterior motives, and at least sometimes did not have the best interests of the country at heart. And Bush is the one who put them in charge.”

He misread my reference to “the country” as “the United States.” I don’t think I was being that oblique. If I had been talking about the U.S., I would have said “this country” or something. My reference was obviously to Iraq. I was saying that the CPA sometimes adopted policies that were good for the CPA and probably bad for Iraq.

Print is inherently ambiguous as a medium of communication, so it is not surprising that I was misread. But perhaps it is also telling that Sullivan leaped to this conclusion. For most Britishers and Americans, the Iraq misadventure is all about them (i.e. about the UK and the US). The Iraqis quite frequently get lost in the mix. As someone who lived 10 years in the Muslim world and speaks Arabic, I am interested in what the Iraq policy of the Bush administration means for Iraqis and for the region as a whole. So far, the picture is very mixed, with advances in civil liberties (mainly of a theoretical sort) but enormous setbacks in the realm of security (mainly of a practical sort). The American infatuation with small government and privatization of everything is not shared by Iraqis (there is good recent opinion polling on this, by the way). They think a government is there to take care of them. So Bremer’s fixation on Polish style shock therapy was a very poor match for the country he ruled, and by May 2004 the favorability rating among Iraqis of his administration was 12%.

Sullivan goes on to say that the “far-left” “Middle East academic elite” lacks influence on US policy debates because it is “shrill.”

I mean, sure, I situate myself on the left side of the aisle, but “far left”? What could that mean? Isn’t it just name-calling?

As for having an influence on policy debates, I doubt that is possible for an academic. Policy is made by policy-makers, and usually by a fairly small high-up group of them. Experienced ambassadors with twenty years in the Arab world often can’t get their cables read in Washington. Last November at the Middle East Studies Association meeting in Anchorage, a career State Department employee stood up and described how he and his colleagues had been locked out of key debates by the Neocons, who called meetings and set agendas in such a way as to freeze out debate. It is widely recognized that at key points Colin Powell has been defeated on policy, and he is the Secretary of State. So some professor off scribbling on campus just isn’t going to have much influence. While such influence is sometimes ascribed to academics like Bernard Lewis, I think it is rather the case that he is adopted by politicians like Dick Cheney because he lends an academic justification to policies Cheney has already decided on.

As for me, I’m just trying to understand our world. If the understanding I attain is found useful by others, I am gratified, and I think understanding is a prerequisite for making good policy. I fear a lot of policy has been being made by people who are simply uninterested in understanding, and who have all sorts of ulterior motives for trying to shove a policy down the world’s throat regardless of the realities of the situation. That is how we got the Iraq debacle.

Real understanding requires that an analyst be unafraid to go wherever the evidence leads, be unafraid to step on toes or offend. Risking being perceived as “shrill” on occasion, in other words, is essential to the enterprise.

The other thing I insist on is trying to build a global civil society. Civil society means we have to be willing to dialogue with others, with whom we disagree. Professional diplomats know this, and do it all the time, otherwise they would never accomplish anything (the rest of the world doesn’t look very much like the U.S. politically). Likewise, in the Senate, cooperation and friendship across party lines has until recently been quite common, though perhaps the situation is worse now that ever before. There are many Republican politicians whom I deeply admire as people and as public servants, including, e.g., Senator Richard Lugar. So, it always makes a lot of my readers angry when I say things like this, but I really have to congratulate Andrew Sullivan for his coverage of Zell Miller’s disgraceful and profoundly dishonest keynote speech at the Republican National Convention.