As Israel expands air strikes on Lebanon, an estimated 250,000 Iraqi Shias have gathered in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City for a rally in support of Hezbollah. Meanwhile, the top US general in Iraq is warning Iraq could soon descend into civil war. University of Michigan Middle East scholar Juan Cole joins us with his analysis. [includes rush transcript]
Israel’s aerial attack on the suburbs of Beirut is intensifying. On Thursday Israel dropped leaflets on the suburbs of Lebanon’s capital warning residents to flee their homes ahead of a massive bombardment. Earlier today Israeli warplanes bombed three bridges linking Beirut to northern Lebanon.
On Thursday Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah threatened to strike the Israeli capital of Tel Aviv if Israel continued to bomb Beirut. A high-ranking Israeli official responded by saying that if Tel Aviv is hit, Israel will destroy all of Lebanon’s infrastructure.
Meanwhile the situation in Iraq also continues to worsen. On Thursday, the top US commander in the Middle East, General John Abizaid, admitted that Iraq could move toward a civil war.
And today hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims are streaming into the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City to take part in what’s been called a million man march. The protest was called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to show support for Hezbollah.
Juan Cole is a leading expert on the Middle East. He runs a "":http://www.juancole.compopular blog at juancole.com and is also a professor at the University of Michigan — he joins us now from Michigan. Welcome to Democracy Now.
- Juan Cole. Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. On his website "Informed Comment"
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole is a leading expert on the Middle East. He runs a popular blog at [ juancole.com] and is also a professor at the University of Michigan. He joins us now from Ann Arbor. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JUAN COLE: Thank you very much, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, actually, why don’t we start with the protests in Iraq in Sadr City that are protesting Israel’s bombing of Lebanon?
JUAN COLE: Well, Iraq turns out to be a majority Shiite country, and most of the Shiite Iraqis have repeatedly voted for fairly hard-line fundamentalist religious parties. Since Hezbollah is cut from very much the same cloth, it’s not surprising that very large numbers of Iraqi Shiites support their co-religionists in Lebanon.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about, right now, the latest hours in Beirut, the packets that have been dropped, the leaflets that have been dropped on Beirut, calling on residents to leave?
JUAN COLE: Well, the Israeli bombing campaign is only tangentially aimed at hurting Hezbollah. That’s a guerrilla organization. They’ve gone underground. It’s very unlikely that the Israelis can do further harm to them at this point by merely bombing unknown sites. The Israelis are systemically destroying the Lebanese infrastructure. They are hitting bridges. They are continuing to hit roads. They are degrading the ability of the Lebanese to connect with one another. And they are, frankly, putting pressure on the rest of the Lebanese to turn on Hezbollah and to try to control it on behalf of the Israelis.
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the effect of this? How are people in Lebanon responding to Hezbollah?
JUAN COLE: Well, from opinion polling that’s been published, it appears to be the case that there’s been, on the whole and by and large, a large spike of approval for Hezbollah and support for it, even among the Christian minority, which has gone to 55% support of Hezbollah. So it seems to be the case that the political aim of the Israeli bombing campaign is failing, and so far it doesn’t seem to have disabled Hezbollah militarily either.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, I wanted to ask you about Rumsfeld’s testimony yesterday in the Senate. This is what the Defense Secretary had to say. We’ll go to that after break. We’re talking to Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is " Informed Comment," where he provides daily roundup of news and events in the Middle East. We’ll come back to him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest is Professor of Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, Juan Cole, as we talk about what’s happening in Iraq, as we talk about what’s happening in Lebanon. This is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld yesterday.
DONALD RUMSFELD: If we left Iraq prematurely, as the terrorists demand, the enemy would tell us to leave Afghanistan and then withdraw from the Middle East. And if we left the Middle East, they would order us and all those who don’t share their militant ideology to leave what they call the occupied Muslim lands, from Spain to the Philippines. And then we would face not only the evil ideology of these violent extremists, but an enemy that will have grown accustomed to succeeding in telling free people everywhere what to do.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, first of all, if he means by "we" the U.S. Pentagon, what are they doing in Spain and the Philippines anyway? But the fact is, this is just a domino kind of thinking from the 1960s, which was fairly ridiculous at the time when applied to communism and has become completely ridiculous when applied to al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is a small network of maybe 5,000 terrorists spread around 60 countries. They’re not going to take over the Philippines and Spain if we withdraw from Iraq. That’s ridiculous. Every time Rumsfeld opens his mouth, I just wonder what dimension this man is coming from.
AMY GOODMAN: And Hillary Rodham Clinton calling for his resignation?
JUAN COLE: Well, I mean, people much closer to the Pentagon than she have called for his resignation repeatedly, high generals who are now retired. I mean, anyone can look at the conduct of the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and conclude that whoever is in charge is either incompetent or a fool, or both.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, you have written a piece called "A Ceasefire Call in Lebanon Bush Can’t Ignore." Talk about who’s making the call.
JUAN COLE: Well, the ceasefire has been called for by virtually everybody, the entire Muslim world, most of Europe, the Pope and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Sistani is the leader, the spiritual leader of not only the Iraqi Shiite community, but of most of the Shiites who live outside of Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere. So for the United States now to oppose Sistani on the ceasefire call deeply endangers the U.S. troops and the British troops that are in Iraq. They are already facing a determined and fairly successful guerrilla movement among the Sunni Arab population. If the majority Shiites now become militantly anti-American and begin attacking the troops, they can cut off fuel to them, they can hit them, causing casualties. It can much worsen our already very bad situation.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play for you a clip of an interview we’re going to play after we talk to you with Mohamad Bazzi, _Newsday_’s Middle East Bureau Chief. He’s based in Beirut. I asked him whether he thought the Lebanese government could fall.
MOHAMAD BAZZI: I think there is a possibility. I’ve also heard that — I’ve heard some talk that the Lebanese government might actually resign, almost as a way to embarrass the United States even further, because this Lebanese government, most of its members, the majority is backed by the U.S., and the Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is someone who was an ally of Rafik Hariri, and so he had ties to the West that way, and the U.S. was very happy that he was chosen as prime minister. And there is some talk that they might resign as a way to embarrass the U.S., and there is also — they are in a pretty good position at this point. A lot of people were impressed by how they’ve handled this, especially in the past week or so, and especially after Qana on Sunday, where they really drew the line and told Rice not to visit Beirut and where they said we’re not going to negotiate over anything at this point until there’s a ceasefire.
AMY GOODMAN: Newsday reporter Mohamad Bazzi, speaking to us from Lebanon. Juan Cole, your response?
JUAN COLE: Well, you know, all of the political progress that has been made in Lebanon in the past year and a half has now been undone. The country is in ruins. Over $2 billion have been done to its economy. The government is increasingly unable to assert itself. I mean, if you knock out all of the major roads and bridges, then how can the government get government bureaucrats and military out, and aid workers and so forth out to where they’re needed? Basically, Lebanon is being crippled, and so it really doesn’t matter whether the government falls or not, because the government is not able to function under these conditions. Lebanon is being paralyzed as a civilized society. It’s being reduced to rubble. And so, they can resign or they can not resign, but the fact is the country cannot any longer function.
Israel has destroyed a country here. It was a beautiful country. It was a country with a great deal of potential, and it was finally coming back together after a 20-year civil war, in which Israel itself had played a very sinister role. So for it now to come again and destroy the country under the pretext of fighting Hezbollah, which consists — fighting Hezbollah has been a very small part of what they have been doing, is a war crime. I mean, the Israelis are guilty, quite frankly, of numerous war crimes, and that’s the reason Tony Blair won’t say that their response has been indiscriminate — or has been disproportionate, because disproportionate attacks are war crimes in international law.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, what are the aims of the players here, of Hezbollah, of Israel, of the United States? And what role is Iran and Syria playing?
JUAN COLE: Well, Hezbollah is mainly a localistic movement. It’s a movement that represents the roughly 1.5 million Shiites that live in the south of Lebanon, many of them poor, sharecroppers, tobacco sharecroppers or slum dwellers in cities like Tyre or Southern Beirut, and so it’s a movement of the poor. It’s a movement that grew up — you know, we never heard anything about the dangers of the Lebanese Shiites back in the 1960s or back in the 1940s. They have been radicalized, and they have moved to support for Hezbollah, because of a long struggle, an 18-year struggle, to get the Israelis out of Lebanese territory. The Israelis occupied Southern Lebanon all that time and quite brutally, and Hezbollah represents the aspirations for freedom from occupation and for a better life for the Shiites of Southern Lebanon.
Yes, it has foreign backers. It has backers in Syria and Iran, but then that’s the way Lebanon works. The Maronite Catholics are backed by France and the United States. The Sunni Lebanese are backed by Saudi Arabia. The objectionable thing to Hezbollah is that it is a paramilitary organization. It’s not formally part of the government, although it is represented in the government, but it has 5,000 fighters and all of these rockets, most of them fairly small with a range of about three to four miles.
AMY GOODMAN: And the United States?
JUAN COLE: Well, the United States wants to destroy Hezbollah. It has an old grudge with it, because Hezbollah did hit U.S. targets back in the 1980s, and it is seen by the conservatives in the Bush administration as a cat’s paw of Iran. They don’t pay attention to its local Lebanese context, and they don’t see Israel’s repeated invasions and attacks on Lebanon as having provoked this response. And it’s likely that a lot of what’s being done in Lebanon is a demonstration project. It’s an attempt to scare Iran into ceasing its own nuclear enrichment program, which the Iranians maintain is for civilian purposes, but which the West suspects may lead to an Iranian nuclear bomb. So it is said that the Israelis and the hawks in the United States want the Iranians to look at Beirut and think, "Well, gee, that could happen to Tehran if we don’t come aboard."
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan. We’re speaking to him at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor studios. I wanted to ask about media coverage here. We did a whole panel on it yesterday — you’re reading media all over the world as you put together your column, "Informed Comment" — about overall media coverage, how people are coming to understand this conflict in the United States. And, for example, one of CNN’S chief anchors, Wolf Blitzer, has just returned from Jerusalem, who in the 1970s was an AIPAC lobbyist. What effect do you think that has on the coverage?
JUAN COLE: Well, I have to defend Wolf Blitzer. I mean, everybody has a past somewhere, but he is one of the very few powerful news people in the United States that actually puts Middle Easterners on the screen and lets them speak for themselves. Almost nobody else does that, and so I am sure he has his own point of view on things, but I think he generally plays a positive role in allowing a greater variety of voices to be heard from the region, precisely because he does know the region well.
With regard to general coverage, of course, you know, there is something peculiar about the United States. Its media, its corporate media are very rightwing, and the American public seems to put up with what is, generally speaking, pretty poor news coverage. There are relatively few bureaus left around the world. Most American news reporting from the Middle East is done from Israel, and so it’s very skewed. It’s pro-Israeli, of course, in a way that the news gathering in virtually any other country in the world besides Israel is not.
On the other hand, because Lebanon was a cosmopolitan country that was highly interlinked with the rest of the world, I think the Israelis have been surprised by the degree to which they have been unable to hide from the world the worst consequences of their bombing raids, and I think the Israelis have not been able to keep the world from knowing what’s happening in Lebanon, in a way that they generally do succeed in Gaza and the West Bank.
And by the way, the situation in Gaza, where the Israelis knocked out the major power plant and where they have made repeated incursions, air raids, tank incursions and so forth against Palestinians, which there’s been high rates of death of Palestinian civilians, all of this has gone under the radar, because the world is focused on Lebanon, which is a much more accessible story still than the West Bank and Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, I wanted to move from the Middle East to academia here at home, connected to the Middle East, and that is your being rejected by Yale University, though it looked like you were the top candidate to be a professor there. And I wanted to read to you from the Wall Street Journal from April and get your response. It says, "Meanwhile, Yale faces a new challenge in the next few days. The university may hire Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, to fill a new spot as a Professor of Contemporary Middle East Studies." It says, "Cole’s appointment would be problematic on several fronts: first, his scholarship is largely on 19th century Middle East, not on contemporary issues." Then it quotes Michael Rubin, a Yale graduate and editor of the Middle East Quarterly, saying "He’s abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary. Mr. Cole’s postings at his blog, 'Informed Comment,' appear to be a far cry from scholarship. They feature highly polemical writing and dubious conspiracy theories," the article says, and then goes on to say, "In justifying all the time he spends on his blog, Mr. Cole told the Yale Herald that when you become a public intellectual, it has the effect of dragging you into a lot of mud. Mr. Cole has done his share of splattering," the article says. "He calls Israel the most dangerous regime in the Middle East. That ties in with his recurring theme that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee effectively controls Congress and much of U.S. foreign policy." That from the Wall Street Journal in April. Can you respond to all of it and what happened to your attempt to become a professor at Yale?
JUAN COLE: Well, first of all, I never applied for a job at Yale. Some people at Yale asked if they could look at me for a senior appointment. I said, "Look all you want." So that’s up to them. Senior professors are like baseball players. You’re being looked at by other teams all the time. If it doesn’t result in an offer, then nobody takes it seriously. Some neo-con journalists have tried to make this a big scandal. Who knows what their hiring process is like, what things they were looking for? I think it’s a tempest in a teapot.
With regard to the press attacks on myself, of course, John Fund just made up those quotes that he attributed to me. I never said anything like that Israel is the most dangerous regime in the Middle East. It’s a lie. And all kinds of lies are told about my stances all the time, despite the fact that everything that I’ve said about these issues can be keyword searched on Google, and you can see the actual quote fairly easily. Instead a concateny of lies has been put together and attributed to me.
And, well, you know, this comes with the territory. I don’t care. You know, Thomas Jefferson and all of our predecessors, as American intellectuals, had been maligned and their characters impugned and all kinds of lies told about them. It’s part of being an American. We have a First Amendment. We have freedom of speech. If John Fund wants to tell lies about me, let him tell lies. I don’t care. If people want to believe them, let them believe them. I don’t care about that either.
The fact is that John Fund came on television and said that he thought it had been a big mistake not to support the coming to power in the early 1990s of the Islamic Salvation Front. Part of the Islamic Salvation Front was Ahmed Ressam, who later attempted to bomb LAX. So John Fund has a big problem, it seems to me, with his stances. If he wants to attribute these kinds of sentiments to other people, he should explain why he takes these stances himself. And why does the Wall Street Journal support someone who can’t get his facts right and who supports the Islamic Salvation Front coming to power in Algeria? So, you know, it’s a rough and ready world out there. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t come into the kitchen.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole, I want to thank you very much for joining us, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. His website is " Informed Comment," where he provides a daily roundup of news and events in the Middle East, and we will link to it at democracynow.org, joining us from Ann Arbor.