Interview with Juan Cole by Ricky Martínez
(These are the English notes of the interview rearranged in pyramid form; they were translated and published in a different sequence in Spanish at La Prensa of Panama City). Many thanks to Mr. Martinez for a wide-ranging conversation!
Syria is different in so many ways… first of all, it’s not clear that a majority of Syrians necessarily want the government gone of at least that they would prefer the rebel forces to the government. Syria is a much more diverse country than Libya, in Syria you have 10-14% Christians, another 10-14% Shiites, and you have a large sector of urban, middle-class, relatively secular Sunni Muslims, and together they could easily form the majority of the country. And while they may not like the more authoritarian aspects of the Ba’ath government, they might prefer a secular government to a religious one. Many of the rebels, as things have developed, are invested in a Muslim Brotherhood, or even some of them have affiliated themselves with Al Qaeda. So I don’t think the moral clarity is apparent in Syria in the way that it was in Libya.
Secondarily, there is no UNSC authorization for the use of force in Syria, and I would have opposed a Libyan intervention if the UN hadn’t authorized one. I think international law is very important, I think the one thing that was wrong with Bush’s invasion of Iraq was that there was no UNSC authorization. If you undertake a military operation at a large scale in the Middle East without the support of the world, then it’s probably doomed to failure.
So there’s no authorization –Russia and China don’t want an intervention— and then Syria’s geography is not like Libya’s, the tanks are not out on desert roads, they are inside the cities, you couldn’t take out the artillery and the tanks without risking hitting apartment buildings with these large bombs and killing a lot of innocent civilians.
So, for all kinds of reasons I don’t think that an intervention in Syria is wise. I deeply regret the daily massive loss of life, and I wish there were a way for the international community to stop this carnage, but I feel helpless, I just don’t see a way.
RM: You were speaking about the importance of international law. Do you really think it’s possible to control the anarchy that exists at a supranational level?
JC: Historians who study the development of international of law and international treaties are not typically cynical. They find that even when there’s reluctance to abide by international law, that it’s claims are often consequential. Even though governments routinely disregard it or break it, international law still has a lot of weight in world affairs, and you can tell this because even the governments that do contravene it, deny that they have done so, they’re embarrassed about it, they get pressured… I’m not entirely sure that without international pressure, without the weight of international law, that the apartheid regime in South Africa could have been made to fall. And I think that the fact that George W. Bush went to Iraq without international law on his side meant that a lot of countries –France and Germany— were unwilling to help him, and he lost a lot of international support, and that was one of the reasons why he failed.
I understand why there would be cynicism about international law because it is often disregarded. But I think it often also has weight, and over time forms a point of pressure that does have consequences.
RM: The whole world is talking about the NSA scandal. How bad is it? Should we be worried?
JC: Well yes, I’m worried! I’m alarmed… of course, this is not in fact a new revelation, we’ve known about this for some time. Government surveillance is a problem, it violates basic norms of democracy when it is carried out without a warrant, without evidence of laws been broken.
On the other hand, they can’t actually surveil everybody. It’s impossible to monitor everyone. Technically, this information that they’re gathering is not that they’re watching you or me –- well, they might’ve been watching me —- but most people are not singled out for surveillance. It’s data mining, they’re looking for macro patterns, for certain kinds of connections, but the thing that displeases me it’s not that they’re spying on everybody at the time, it’s that the potential for abuse it great. And I don’t believe there’s probably sufficient oversight to forestall abuse. So, if a politician has a friend in the NSA and wanted the reputation of his rival to be destroyed by illegal surveillance, I think that’s something that can happen, and if it can happen it probably will happen. So that’s what I’m worried about, the politics of reputation coming out of this destruction of the whole idea of privacy.
RM: You wrote in Engaging the Muslim World that the world is facing the twin crisis of energy scarcity and climate change. How do you see the world reacting to them?
JC: As I suggested several years ago, solar energy is the only real, ultimate solution to these two crisis. The world is still growing population-wise, more and more people in Africa and Asia and the rest of the world are aspiring to a modern life rather than a village, agricultural one, and all of this makes the demand for more energy burgeon. Hydrocarbons simply could not possibly provide the kind of energy that is going to be demanded even over the next 50 years. Moreover, hydrocarbons cause very dangerous climate change which could destabilize our climate and our world.
My policy prescription would be to have a global massive program of solar installations. Solar panels have now come down in price to where they are competitive with hydrocarbons. They can be supplemented by wind and geothermal. But my frustration is that I see this change over to solar energy as urgent, as something we should try to do over the next 10 years, and most governments that pay any attention to the issue talk about having 50% renewable energy by 2050. To prevent debilitating climate change that’s way too late.
I have to say one of the reasons for which governments and the public are dragging their feet on this issue is that so much of our economy and our lives are wrought up with hydrocarbons that those companies employ a lot of people and have a lot of political clout, so they obfuscate the issue, they try to cast doubts on the by now quite solid findings of the climate scientists, or they try to drag their feet with regard to the policy, but if more governments in the world put in feed-in- tariffs and gave incentives for the installation of solar panels, and made it a priority to get this change over to renewable energy as quickly as possible we could avoid the worst outcomes that are facing us. If we go on like we are, we will have probably a 3-4 foot sea level rise in this century. Countries like Egypt and Bangladesh could be flooded. Storms in the Caribbean could become more frequent and more powerful –warm water feeds these hurricanes. You could have long storms and not short ones…
We’re playing with fire here, we really are in danger of inflicting massive damage on our world. And as I said, I’m frustrated that this danger, which is undebatable scientifically, is not being given the urgency that is requisite by most countries of the world.
RM: What’s going on with the US right now? [Some talk about it having become a totalitarian society.]
JC: I wouldn’t call it a totalitarian society just because I think there are still multiple powers and I think there’s still a place for popular mobilization. It’s certainly the case that about half of the American economy is dominated by about 2000 corporations, and that much government policy and legislation is dictated and very heavily influenced by those 2000 corporations.
But it should be remembered that often the corporations themselves have disputes, and that’s an opportunity for the public to leverage one against the other. A lot of the corporations and the US government were not very happy about the rise of the internet, especially what is called ‘net neutrality’. As things now stand, the way the internet is designed, anyone in the world who is on the internet has equal access to my blog, they have the same access to it, for the same price, that they have to corporate sites. Many of the corporations wanted to have the internet scaled so that it was easy and inexpensive to reach corporate sites, but difficult and expensive to reach an individual site like my own. So there was an attack on the principle of net neutrality. And Google and other internet companies that are quite large and powerful, and who depend on net neutrality for their profits, intervened on this debate and so saved net neutrality.
I just gave that as an example where corporate interests are not universal among the corporations, there are fights amongst them, and the internet activists –the bloggers and so forth— were able to rally and get Google on our side, so at least for the moment we have fought off this threat to net neutrality. And net neutrality in turn is what allows movements like the Tahrir Square in Egypt, or what’s going on in Turkey today… social media allows people to know about the protests because the official media were intimidated into not reporting it.
So, I don’t want to be overly optimistic, because these corporate interests are very powerful, and they do have disproportionate weight in government deliberations and legislation, but I also don’t want to give up hope, and I think individuals, the public, NGOs, civil society, still are diverse enough and in the aggregate have a great deal of power and it can find ways to find allies, at some point maybe with the corporations for certain kinds of political work which are of progressive nature, so a little bit more optimistic, I think.
RM: As a historian, do you see between the post-Cold War world and the post-9/11 world in terms of protest movements?