Engaging the Middle East
By Juan Cole
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) pp288

Reviewed by: Prof. Spencer B. Meredith, III, Department of Government, Regent University

University of Michigan professor, and Islam expert, Juan Cole argues that theUnited States should reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, treat Muslims with dignity, and pursue realistic security policies in the Middle East. Highly critical of the Bush administration, and full of dire warnings for President Obama, he states that the U.S. has a chance to engage the Muslim world with understanding and compassion, while condemning the most obvious forms of abuse in the region’s authoritarian regimes. Accordingly, he identifies historical errors that have lead to “Islam anxiety” in the West and “American anxiety” everywhere else, arguing that different Western perceptions can reduce mutual animosity and increase the chances for peace.

The author seeks to persuade policymakers and concerned American citizens that the status quo must change because of rising geopolitical competition from Chinaand India, which the US might lose if it maintains current policies in the Middle East. He also wants to reduce general threat perceptions in the post-9/11 American consciousness by revealing a common enemy shared by America and the Muslim world – aggressive Republican Party warmongering. Cole argues that the Western liberal tradition of human rights and international cooperation will prevail if the enemies of peace lose their blind-eyed support among the American people. The solution lies in sympathizing with Iran’s need for security, affirming Hamas and Hezbollah’s charitable works, and supporting indigenous democratic development in Afghanistan. As such, Engaging the Muslim World attempts to clear away the obfuscation of the previous ten years and show the two sides how to cooperate.

Unfortunately, Juan Cole offers the worst kind of liberalism as he attacks straw men and presents an anemic case for Western ideals. For certain, he defends the pursuit of freedom, good governance, and the rule of law, but does not define how those things are to come about in the Middle East other than to rely on Western instruction; several statements stand out for review, even though their contentiousness receives very little analysis in the book. Cole also under-examines two critical variables while giving lip-service to how important they are: local elite responsibility for the suffering in the region, and religious identity as a determinative policy factor.

First, the author claims that Hamas and Hezbollah are primarily nationalistic social service providers with widespread political legitimacy within their communities, and insignificant offensive capabilities. This makes Israel the aggressor in all the recent conflicts with Lebanon and Palestine, and the assumed obviousness of this view does not deserve any questioning according to Cole.

He continues that Iranian influence in the region is neither monolithic nor inherently hostile, claiming that security-seeking and religious unity define its program far more than Republican hawks present to the American public. Accordingly, oil interests determine relations not only with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, but also with Iran as US hostility stems from the loss of concessions after the Iranian Revolution. Cole also proposes that Iran should develop natural gas and solar energy production to offset the need for nuclear power, but defends the right to develop it since Iran complies with IAEA requirements, a highly problematic claim that he assumes rather than defends empirically.

In addition, while Cole identifies many problems of policy blowback from Cold War anti-communist interventions in the Middle East, his twenty-first century hindsight expresses none of the empathy he believes will change current threat perceptions. He insinuates that the US should have known that the Soviet Union would collapse on its own, thereby negating any need for plaguing the Middle East with proxy wars, and asserts that Iran has an even better chance of its own “perestroika” if the US would stop threatening it with military aggression. However, the viability of the Iranian political opposition deserves far more analysis than given by Cole’s assumption that it will inevitably prevail.

Underlying these policy prescriptions lies an assumption in the inherent legitimacy of Western efforts to convince and teach Muslims in the Middle East that liberal idealism is better than their current systems. Much like the European “burden to civilize” Africa, Cole wants the West to tell them about liberal ideals and why they should follow them, but does not call for the US and the EU to model objective policymaking. Even worse, he does not engage the question of whether the teacher-student discourse is an appropriate analogy. A host of alternatives exist, some hostile, others benign, but Cole does not even mention them.The author also prioritizes agricultural and medical assistance to Afghanistan, stating that NATO military strategies will never work as long as civilians die and the government remains under US control. He seems to forget the exigencies of defending Afghan villages from Taliban abuses before they can build peaceful, prosperous communities. He goes so far as to claim that Western military force will always be negatively perceived, and is therefore unacceptable to the residents of the Middle East. This may be true, but Cole barely acknowledges that a debate exists. Consequently, he suggests policy makers should foreswear the military option in all but the most obvious cases, none of which exist beyond al Qaeda, and even that threat has been greatly exaggerated for political advancement and economic profit.

Finally, the book proceeds with a view of Islam as a peaceful religion, but greatly minimizes the severity of its instrumental uses for violent purposes. Good historical analysis would have shown the boundaries for religious ideational influence, defining the conditions when it had an impact on political behavior, how that changed over time, and the kinds of diversity of thought that exist today.

Despite the prominence given to Islam in cultural identities, the author relegates religious ideology to an ancillary role affecting politics because he claims most Muslims do not want to live under sharia law. Cole seems to forget that religion can not only define goals, but also the methods of achieving them. He fails to ask if the diverse Muslim communities in the Middle East share the same methodological paradigm for achieving their goals even if the ends themselves differ. This debate would have allowed him to propose democratic structures different from Western examples but still within the Western liberal tradition.

As a westerner with extensive time in the region, Juan Cole could have been a voice for objective self-examination in the West and the Middle East. Unfortunately, Engaging the Muslim World does not do justice either to the strength of Western ideals, or the need for rethinking in the West. Instead of elevating the discussion, Cole’s tone and lack of evidence come across as shrill warnings preached to the choir rather than solid academic analysis, and the laudable contribution a new understanding could bring gets lost in its diatribe and oversimplified presentation.