Burning Cole

Burning Cole

Politics trumped academic integrity when a neocon network torpedoed the appointment of Mideast scholar and blogger Juan Cole to a faculty position at Yale.


Neoconservatism is an elite calling. It thrives in think tanks, not union halls; its proponents want most of all to influence the powerful. No wonder Ivy League labels have always been important to neocons. This fixation on intellectual prestige explains the recent neocon uprising over the possibility that Juan Cole, scholar and blogger, would become a Yale professor. It was one thing for Cole to hold forth from the University of Michigan, where he has been a professor for twenty years. But Yale would provide “honor” and “imprimatur,” says Scott Johnson, a right-wing blogger. “That’s a huge thing, to have them bless all his rantings on that blog.”

On June 2 Johnson broke the story (on powerlineblog.com) that Yale’s Senior Appointments Committee had the day before rejected Cole after three other Yale committees had signed off on him. By then a process that usually takes place behind closed doors had become thoroughly politicized by the right. “I’m saddened and distressed by the news,” John Merriman, a Yale history professor, said of the rejection. “I love this place. But I haven’t seen something like this happen at Yale before. In this case, academic integrity clearly has been trumped by politics.”

The controversy erupted this spring after two campus periodicals reported that Cole was under consideration by Yale for a joint appointment in sociology and history. In an article in the Yale Herald, Campus Watch, a pro-Israel group that monitors scholars’ statements about the Middle East, was quoted as saying that Cole lacked a “penetrating mind,” and suggesting that Yale was “in danger of sacrificing academic credibility in exchange for the attention” Cole would generate. Alex Joffe, then the director of Campus Watch, told me Cole “has a conspiratorial bent…he tends to see the Mossad and the Likud under his bed.” For its part, the Yale Daily News twice featured attacks on Cole by former Bush Administration aide Michael Rubin, a Yale PhD associated with Campus Watch and the American Enterprise Institute. In an op-ed Rubin wrote, “Early in his career, Cole did serious academic work on the 19th century Middle East…. He has since abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary.”

Academics dispute this. They say that Yale was drawn to Cole by top-rank scholarly achievement. He is president of the Middle East Studies Association, speaks Arabic and Persian, and has published several books on Egyptian and Shiite history. “We were impressed with Cole’s scholarly work, and a wide set of letters showed that he is also highly regarded by other scholars in the field,” says political science professor Frances Rosenbluth, a member of the Yale search committee that chose Cole. Zachary Lockman, an NYU Middle Eastern studies professor, says, “It’s fair to say he is probably among the leading historians of the modern Middle East in this country.” Joshua Landis, a professor at University of Oklahoma, describes Cole as “top notch.”

“He was the wunderkind of Middle East Studies in the 1980s and 1990s,” Landis says. “He can be strident on his blog, which is one reason it is the premier Middle East blog…. [But] Juan Cole has done something that no other Middle East academic has done since Bernard Lewis, who is 90 years old: He has become a household word. He has educated a nation. For the last thirty years every academic search for a professor of Middle East history at an Ivy League university has elicited the same complaint: ‘There are no longer any Bernard Lewises. Where do you find someone really big with expertise on many subjects who is at home in both the ivory tower and inside the Beltway?’ Today, Juan Cole is that academic.”

Of course, Cole is on the left, while Lewis is a neoconservative. And it is hard to separate Cole’s scholarly reputation from his Internet fame. Cole started his blog, Informed Comment, a few months after September 11. He quickly became the leading left blogger on terrorism and the Middle East, delivering every day, often by translating from Arabic newspapers. He could discuss the pros and cons of, say, an invasion of Iraq with complete authority. Here, for instance, are some of his writings in the lead-up to war: “The Persian Gulf is the site of two-thirds of the proven petroleum reserves in the world. Yet the countries along its littoral have no means of providing security to themselves…. The two exceptions here are Iran and Iraq…. Iraq did so badly in the Iran-Iraq war, however, that it left itself without credibility as security provider in the region. It also was left deeply in debt.” A US invasion “will inevitably be seen in the Arab world as a neo-colonial war…. The final defeat of the Baath Party will be seen as a defeat of its ideals, which include secularism, improved rights for women and high modernism. Arabs in despair of these projects are likely to turn to radical Islam as an alternative outlet for their frustrations.”

At times, his voice rose.

“The idea that terrorists willing to commit suicide will be afraid of the US after it invades Iraq is just a misreading of human nature,” he wrote in 2003. “If the US really wanted to stop terrorism, it would invade the West Bank and Gaza and liberate the Palestinians to have their own state and self-respect.”

Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has always been important in Cole’s reading of the Middle East. Naturally, Israel is central to neocons, too. Michael Rubin accused Cole of missing the good news from Iraq and of being anti-Semitic. That charge was soon taken up in the Wall Street Journal and in the New York Sun. “Why would Yale ever want to hire a professor best known for disparaging the participation of prominent American Jews in government?” wrote two Sun authors. One of them, according to Scott Johnson, was a student of Alan Dershowitz’s at Harvard. The other is Johnson’s daughter, Eliana, then a Yale senior. After that article, Johnson, a Minneapolis lawyer and Dartmouth grad, wrote up the case on his blog, which describes itself as a friend of Israel, and attacked Cole as a “moonbat.”

Alex Joffe denies that a network went after Cole. “There wasn’t any organized opposition. It was a question of people becoming aware of it somehow and each getting in his two cents.” Asked about pot-stirrers, Johnson says, “I think if you look anywhere but Yale, you’d be making a mistake.”

Well, if this isn’t a network, neither are the professionals who exchange cards at New York parties. Joel Mowbray, a Washington Times columnist who has assailed the consideration of Cole, sent a letter to a dozen Yale donors, many of them Jewish, warning of Cole’s possible appointment. According to the Jewish Week, “Several faculty members said they had heard that at least four major Jewish donors…have contacted officials at the university urging that Cole’s appointment be denied.” Still, Johnson’s point is well taken. It must have been Yale insiders who got the news out to Cole’s enemies, as Cole’s appointment passed one after another of several institutional hurdles. The vote in the history department was said to be 13 to 7 with three abstentions (which count as no). This signaled unusual opposition to an appointment recommended by an interdisciplinary search committee. Yale’s history department includes prominent supporters of the Bush international agenda like John Gaddis and Donald Kagan.

After Cole’s defeat, Rubin suggested that Yale now had an opportunity to hire a real talent, someone at the level of, say, Aaron Friedberg, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. Who is Friedberg? A former national security aide to Vice President Cheney through the first two years of the war that the-network-that-is-not-a-network wanted to get us into. Having a role in the greatest foreign-policy disaster of our generation is evidently a worthy credential in academia. Douglas Feith, after all, is about to join the Georgetown faculty.

As Scott Johnson notes, the left didn’t care about Cole’s appointment as much as the right. (Maybe because the left values his blog, which an Ivy League job might have cut in on.) In retrospect, though, it is appalling to consider what was done to Cole’s reputation over this blue-chip appointment.

Cole chose not to discuss the process publicly while it was happening. “I think that a hiring process in academia is a professional matter,” he told me. But he also said that Yale sought him out, and that the vilification process was orchestrated. “There were clearly phone calls amongst the persons doing it.” The Yale Herald quoted two Michigan students one of whom had visited him at his office in Ann Arbor and questioned his openness to Jews. “I am frankly suspicious,” Cole says. “How did [the Herald] track down these students?”

Lockman, Cole’s fellow Middle Eastern scholar at NYU (speaking for himself only), finds the process fearful. “Since September 11 there has been a concerted effort by a small but well-funded group of people outside academia to monitor very carefully what all of us are saying, ready to jump on any sign of deviation from what they see as acceptable opinion. It’s an attack on academic freedom, and it’s not very healthy for our society.”

Cole declined to talk about his feelings on losing the job. Still, the pain came through in his comments. Modern Middle Eastern studies has always been politicized, he says. He jumped into the blogosphere for a simple reason, to counter the common assertion that the Israeli occupation had nothing at all to do with the 9/11 attacks. “I’m from a military family. I had two cousins working in the Pentagon that was attacked. So this was personal to me. My country had been attacked. The mistreatment of the Palestinians and the high-handed policies of the Israeli right were deeply implicated in the attacks. I was angry.

“I knew when I began to speak out that I wasn’t going to be hired. I knew my academic career was over. I knew that I can be in this place, be a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan for the rest of my life. But I would never be a dean. I would never be a provost. I would never be in the Ivy League. I’m not surprised. I’m not upset. Actually, the bizarre thing is that Juan Cole was considered by Yale in the first place.”

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