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Tomdispatch Interview: Juan Cole on George Bush's Iraq
The Treasure, the Strongbox, and the Crowbar
A Tomdispatch Interview with Juan Cole (Part 1)
The man who starts my every on-line day is standing at the door. He's small-framed with short, wavy hair and fragile-looking specs. Nattily dressed in a dark suit and tie, he apologizes, as he enters, for being so formally togged out on a Sunday morning. As it happens, I'm but a pit stop on the way to an afternoon TV interview at the PBS program Great Decisions on one of his specialties, Iran.
This is, of course, Juan Cole. His website, Informed Comment, first came on line in April 2002, almost a year before the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. As he recalls his life back then, "I was just a Midwestern college professor. I taught my courses and wrote my articles about the Middle East. My interests were in religious institutions, religious movements, especially Shiite Islam and Sunni modernism. I knew where these movements came from. I knew the history of the Shiite clergy in Najaf back to the eighteenth century. And I had lived in the Middle East off and on for a significant period of time. When my blog began, it was little more than gardening for me, a small hobby on the side to put up a few thoughts every once in a while, initially read by fifty to a hundred people a day." Now, it is counted among the top hundred blogs at Technorati.com, a site which follows such things, and may be one of the more linked to blogs on Earth. American reporters trapped in hotels in Baghdad read it regularly for the latest news from Iraq. The secret of his success? "I type fast," he says with a sly smile. "Seventy words a minute."
An "Army brat," with Arabic, Persian, and Urdu under his belt, a scholar who "can make something out of an Ottoman text," he teaches modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. He is exceedingly mild looking, mild-mannered, and quiet-spoken. Even his humor is hushed. He's ironic. The very name of his blog, he tells me, was meant as a quiet commentary on the "grandiose" blog titles people were then choosing back in 2002. And yet, as anyone who reads his blog knows, his mind is anything but mild. As a reasonable man increasingly appalled by the Bush administration and American policy in the Middle East, he can be, and often is, an impressively fierce essayist.
As he settles into an easy chair in my living room to await breakfast on a day when nature has once again dealt a horrific blow to humanity -- the Pakistani earthquake had just occurred -- he proceeds to tell me much I didn't know about the history and plate tectonics of the region. When asked a question, he pauses to formulate his response. It's rare in our world, but you can actually see him think. If you were a student with a penny of sense in your head, this is the man you would want for your professor. In fact, an hour and a half after our interview begins, as I click off my tape recorders, I feel I've only scratched the surface. There are reams of questions still to be asked -- perhaps on another day -- and the first Tomdispatch two-part interview to type up.