Renowned Middle East scholar Juan Cole visited the University of Toledo Thursday to discuss his research on the weaknesses of the proposed Iraqi constitution.
One of Professor Cole's strengths is his depoliticized, sober approach to a topic that is laden with inflamed passions, and for which rational discourse can be tricky. While he is critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, his criticisms lie more with Bush & Company's ignorance of regional history than in its geopolitical goals.
Cole highlighted a number of planning and post-invasion blunders that, in hindsight, illustrate just how ill-informed were the policies that Wolfowitz and Bremer pursued in Iraq. Here is a Wolfowitz quote from a February 19 2003 interview on NPR:
The Iraqis are...by and large quite secular. They are overwhelmingly Shia which is different from the Wahabis of the [Arabian] peninsula, and they don't bring the sensitivity of having the holy cities of Islam being on their territory. [emphasis added]
Cole correctly noted that the remains of the Ali, Mohammad's son-in-law, are in Najaf, and that the remains of the martyred Husain, the Prophet's grandson, are in Karballah.
These, of course, are two of the holiest of sites to the Shia, and the centers of numerous US military campaigns.
Moreover, Cole is not, in Pollyannish fashion, demanding immediate withdrawal of US troops from the region. He readily acknowledges that such an action would be a "disaster;" Cole estimated that as much as 20% of the world's oil production would be pulled off global markets if a full-scale civil war broke out from a sudden US withdrawal, sinking the world into a massive economic depression.
I hope that the policymakers have greater insight in the planning of a US exit than they had during the enty into Iraq.
Cole used a PowerPoint presentation in addition to his lecture, peppering the discussion with maps, tables, and excellent imagery.
Cole's final assessment: without the Sunnis, the constitutional referendum will further sink Iraq into regional separatism, and most likely lead to an escalation of the low-intensity civil war currently festering among the various factions competing for power and resources (read: oil) in post-Sadaam Iraq.
I highly recommend Professor Cole's most recent book, Sacred Space, Holy War, for those interested in the background to the modern history of the Shia. I am about a third of the way through the text, and it is revelatory, but it is helpful to have access to another reference source nearby; the author assumes a moderate level of familiarity with the subject by the reader.