Juan Cole’s noble enterprise

Professor Juan Cole, the blogging sensation, is at it again, claiming that he objected to the “terrible idea” of the Iraq war back in 2002 and 2003. Proof? “I can produce witnesses to my having said that if the UN Security Council did not authorize the war, I would protest it.” This new posting echoes one that Cole made last November, when he claimed to have “said repeatedly in 2002 and early 2003” that “it was a bad idea to invade Iraq.” Apparently it’s important to Cole, who’s an anti-war icon, to demonstrate that he opposed war from the get-go.

Tony Badran responded last autumn with a devastating posting, comprised of various quotes from Cole’s own weblog. Here are some of them. Cole, before the war (February 11, 2003): “I am an Arabist and happen to know something serious about Baathist Iraq, which paralyzes me from opposing a war for regime change in that country.” Cole, start of the war (March 19, 2003): “I remain convinced that, for all the concerns one might have about the aftermath, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the murderous Baath regime from power will be worth the sacrifices that are about to be made on all sides.” Cole, after the war (July 30, 2003): “I refused to come out against the war. I was against the way the war was pursued the innuendo, the exaggerations, the arrogant unilateralism. But I could not bring myself to be against the removal of that genocidal regime from power.” Some “terrible idea.”

But since Professor Cole still needs help with his memory, let me add this quote to the litany (April 1, 2003):

I hold on to the belief that the Baath regime in Iraq has been virtually genocidal (no one talks about the fate of the Marsh Arabs) and that having it removed cannot in the end be a bad thing. That’s what I tell anxious parents of our troops over there; it is a noble enterprise to remove the Baath, even if so many other justifications for the war are crumbling.

You’ve got the mise-en-scene? The much-titled expert reassures anxious parents of service personnel that their sons and daughters are risking their lives in a “noble enterprise.” Now read this passage, which Cole wrote over a year later (April 23, 2004):

I would not have been willing to risk my own life to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power. And, I would certainly not have been willing to see my son risk his.

So apparently the “noble enterprise” wasn’t that noble, at least in retrospect. For it’s only in retrospect that Cole came to see the “noble enterprise” as a “terrible idea.” Only in retrospect did a war to depose Saddam look to him like a “bad idea,” since at the time he thought it “cannot in the end be a bad thing.” When war began, he thought it would be “worth the sacrifices.” Only in retrospect did he decide it wasn’t even worth the risks.

Cole shows neither courage nor integrity in fudging his past position. While he flays others for selective memory and shifting their rationales, he commits precisely the same offenses. Would it damage his ego or his reputation for punditry to admit that the “noble enterprise” didn’t turn out quite like he expected? What’s he afraid of? After all, he wasn’t regarded as any great expert on Iraq going into the war. Even a true expert, Peter Sluglett, has admitted he overestimated U.S. chances of getting Iraq right: “Perhaps I was naive.” Why does Cole, an Iraq novice in comparison, insist on his own prescience?

Finally, there’s Cole’s claim that he was going to “protest” the war if it didn’t get a U.N. Security Council resolution. He says he’s got witnesses. Well, they’d better be good, because here is Cole on the record (February 4, 2003):

My own knowledge of the horrors Saddam has perpetrated makes it impossible for me to stand against the coming war, however worried I am about its aftermath. World order is not served by unilateral military action, to which I do object. But world order, human rights and international law are likewise not served by allowing a genocidal monster to remain in power.

That sounds like an overwhelming moral case for unilateral action, with apologies to the UN.

So that’s Juan Cole—the historian who can’t even get his own history straight. His “noble enterprise” belongs to the same category as President Bush’s “mission accomplished,” with this difference: President Bush may have been sincere. With Cole, you never know.