Juan Cole Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Juan Cole: The Meaning of Historic China-Brokered Deal Between Saudi Arabia and Iran

The Iran-Saudi deal spells trouble for U.S. hegemony but potentially a new chapter of peace and prosperity in a deeply troubled world.

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A major shift in global relations has recently transpired. To some in America, it may look like the second coming of the Evil Empire. Too much of the rest of the world, it’s a welcome chance for a renewed multipolar order, where the sovereign desires of nations are respected and new collaborations can be established. The deal brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brought together by China, to restore diplomatic relations, is a clear example of that. The 20-year anniversary of the Iraq War is bringing even more attention to the faltering era of U.S. global hegemony and bullying. To add to that, America’s thirst for war with China spells out its acknowledgement of its waning dominance in the world. The last two decades in the Middle East serve as the quintessential case study of U.S. foreign policy and how it served the interests of America’s biggest corporations and stakeholders.

University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, a leading Middle East expert, joins host Robert Scheer this week on Scheer Intelligence to discuss the diminishing role of the U.S. in the world, the way its wars in the Middle East led to this point, and how China is emerging as a frontrunner in the new multipolar world. “The United States is not the only game in town anymore, and that’s not been the case since the end of World War II, when the U.S. was 50% of the world economy. It’s just becoming smaller, it has a smaller proportion of world wealth and power,” Cole said.

Despite the U.S.’s best efforts to thwart prosperity in Iran, countries like China have been circumventing their dollar dominance and now sit in the driver’s seat. “Most countries have been strong-armed by the United States—South Korea, Japan and the European countries—not to buy Iranian petroleum. China has defied the U.S. in this regard and can do so because it has a big, complex economy,” Cole said.

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Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests and someone I’ve had before. I don’t know of anybody in the academic world who’s more intelligent than Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, and he’s written over 20 books generally about history, life in the Middle East. My favorite is the one he did on Muhammed, and we did a program about it. And the title will tell you how independent of thought Juan Cole is. It’s Muhammed: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. And I just found this one the most interesting books I’ve read in, I don’t know,  a couple of decades, because it goes through all of the, counter to all of the prejudice we have about Muhammad. And the reason I’m bringing up now is because I want to talk about what seems to be a pretty big event in the history of the Middle East in that China somehow has brokered a restoration of diplomatic relations and maybe the possibilities of peace between the Sunni empire of Saudi Arabia or Kingdom and the Shiite Republic of Iran. And I’m always in danger of overstating this and so forth so I thought I would turn to the one human being in this country that I trust most on this subject, Juan Cole and to set me straight, he doesn’t always agree with me, but this struck me as really monumental. We had all these wars going and most recently we messed up Iraq over this Sunni-Shiite thing. How to read what has happened. First, tell us what you think is actually happened and how to judge it. 

Juan Cole: Sure. Well, Saudi Arabia and Iran have long had a rivalry with one another. Personally, I think it’s more nationalistic than it is religious. But, of course, you know, religion is part of identity and so it comes into it. And in the past five years in particular, they have hit a bad patch in relations. So there’s been the Syrian civil war in which they took opposite sides. And there’s the Yemen civil war in which they took opposite sides. There are things going on in Iraq in which they took opposite sides. So the Saudis feel as though the Iranians have kind of surrounded them. They’re a much smaller country but wealthier. And so because of these geopolitical conflicts, relations soured between the two of them to the point where there were riots in 2016 in Tehran against the Saudis and the Saudi embassy was closed and the two stopped having diplomatic relations. And they had long had diplomatic relations. And in fact, back in the early zeroes, the prime minister of the, I’m sorry, the president of Iran visited Riyadh and the foreign ministers saw each other. But after 2016, there wasn’t a vehicle for such meetings and they were fighting these proxy battles among neighbors. And then in 2019, a very dangerous thing happened, which was that drones or rockets struck the Abqaiq refinery in Saudi Arabia and knocked out all half of Saudi oil production capabilities for a few weeks. Those explosives were attributed either to Iran or to Iran proxy, it’s not clear, but that could have meant war. And it was a really tense time for the world. And of course, Saudi petroleum is very important to the whole world supply. So, in more recent times. In the last two years, the two countries have been looking for a way to back off these very bad relations that could have led to war. The Yemen war has become a quagmire  and the Syrian civil war won by the government, by Bashar al-Assad, who was backed by Russia and Iran. And so the two started talking. Well, Iraq volunteered to mediate between the two. When you have two sides that don’t trust one another, you need a mediator. And Iraq tried to bring Qasem Suleimani, the head of the Quds brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, to Baghdad in early January of 2020 to talk with the then Iraqi prime minister as a go between, hoping to pass on messages then to the Saudis. Well, when Suleimani arrived at Baghdad International Airport, Trump blew him away. He just droned him to death. And then he said that Suleimani had been coming to Iraq to kill Americans, which wasn’t true. He was coming there to negotiate with the Saudis. So the Americans have put themselves in a position where they can’t be trusted by the Iranians and they therefore can’t mediate between the Iranians and the Saudis. And all of these kinds of conflicts have been mediated by the Americans since the end of World War II. So that they went to China for a mediator is a huge geopolitical shift. 

Scheer: But also it’s a comment on how the U.S. has messed up the Middle East. I mean, it’s, you know, supposedly in the name of extending freedom and modernization and so forth. We basically, well overthrew a Sunni led government. They brought in a strong Iranian presence, even though they’re constantly arguing that Iran is the major threat. And so what I want to take you back to Muhammad, because it seems to me the impact of the West on the Middle East has basically been a destructive one and the clash of empires. And that we’ve all been sort of miseducated to the idea that these two branches of Muslim would always be at each other’s throats, that there would not be, and suddenly there’s a prospect of peace. And lo and behold, this Chinese government, which the U.S. is sort of making warlike noises about China and how dangerous China is. China, Patrick Lawrence, a well-known foreign correspondent, writes for ScheerPost, he points out they’ve had millennia of expertise in diplomacy and suddenly China is there to do kind of the common sense pro-peace thing. And China, of course, is, along with the United States, a major consumer of Saudi oil and concerned about the price of Iranian oil. So is this also a sign, as as Patrick argues, that China is just saying, listen, we don’t trust you to run the world as a hegemon and we’re going to get involved and we have a stake. And they pulled it off. 

Cole: Absolutely. Well, it’s certainly true that this is the first time that I know of that China in modern history has played this kind of major role in restoring diplomatic relations between two countries that had been feuding, As you say, about a third of Chinese petroleum comes from Saudi Arabia, and they’re particularly interested in securing their petroleum supplies because Xi Jinping, the president, has now lifted the no-COVID policy in China, which means that businesses are opening up and there’s going to be a lot of traffic with petroleum as used mainly to fuel cars and trucks and so forth. So the Chinese are going to need petroleum this year to reopen their economy. They’re hoping to grow 5% and the Chinese do import also, Reuters estimated, about 800,000 barrels a day from Iran. The United States has tried to prevent Iran from exporting any petroleum. It has a kind of financial and diplomatic embargo or blockade on ordinary Iranian trade and things like petroleum. And so most countries have been strong armed by the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European countries, not to buy Iranian petroleum. But China has defied the U.S. in this regard and can do so because it has a big, complex economy. So the main way that the U.S. can punish a country for dealing with Iran is to attach its assets in the United States to move against it because it traded in dollars and the Treasury Department claims to control over that. Well, the Chinese have been secretly importing Iranian petroleum on tankers that are marked as other countries, and they turn off the transponders so they can’t be seen by satellite and they unload the petroleum to small domestic private refiners down around Shanghai who don’t have an international presence, don’t have assets in the United States that can be seized and don’t deal in dollars. So the Chinese have been able to skirt the U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the fact that the United States is attempting to strangle Iran economically by cutting off its petroleum exports entirely, if it could, shows you the desperation of U.S. policy. And [indistinguishable], because there’s no international reason for this embargo on Iranian petroleum, There’s no U.N. Security Council decision that Iran can’t export its oil. It’s just unilateral, it’s the United States saying, we don’t want you to do this? And if anybody tries to help you, we’re going to punish them as well. And Trump did this to Iran. But the Biden administration has continued it, even though Iran had signed an agreement with the U.N. Security Council, including President Obama, that would limit its uranium enrichment activities. And it faithfully followed the requirements of that treaty of 2015 until Trump just withdrew from the treaty and trashed it and then punished the Iranians for having given up so much of their program with the Iranians are not going to take that lying down. 

Scheer: So let me ask you a question. I think I first met you soon after you were a graduate student at UCLA. [Indistinguishable] I think, was your professor, a very famous scholar. And you’ve been trying to get Iran, among other countries right, for, you know, a long time now. And you’ve written some of the most important work and were also trying to get the Muslim religion right. I mean, it’s an incredibly, I just can’t speak as highly enough as I have of your Muhammad book. I mean, the demystification of a major religious branch, and that is demonized. And, you know, the most scurrilous things can be said about it. I just found it incredibly readable and if nothing else, let me just promote that book here. And here, we’ve made a caricature of this region ever since I was there in Egypt and Israel at the time of the Six-Day War and just, you know, wandering around, my God, you know, whatever image we had of Egypt and the rest of the Arab world was just so simplistic. And so we’re talking about American leadership. How could it be that America keeps getting this region wrong, or was it by design and China can suddenly come along and represent common sense? What is going on? What is your assessment of, is this a shifting of the plates? I mean, because we were raised to think that the U.S. was the center of reasonable, you know, policymaking going back to Roosevelt and so forth. Tell me what’s happening. 

Cole: Well, I think the United States still has it in its mind that it’s the world hegemon and that they can do what they want. So if they want to break treaties with Iran and put them under an economic blockade, they can do that with not very much consequence to the United States. But what they don’t realize is that, well, the U.S. has something like a $20 to 23 trillion economy annually, and China now has a $17 trillion economy annually. So the United States is just not the only game in town anymore. And that’s not been the case since the end of World War II, when the U.S. was 50% of the world economy. It’s just becoming smaller, it has a smaller proportion of world wealth and power. And it is also true that the United States, you know, is in the Middle East for particular purposes. They want to guarantee that the oil comes out of the Persian Gulf. And so it’s very security oriented. And to the extent that they saw Iran as a spoiler, the Islamic revolution of 1979 was explicitly anti-American. It has had potentially bad effects on American investments in the Middle East. American corporations have suffered. So the U.S. sees Iran as a bad actor and wants to contain it, put it in a cage, crash its economy if it can, overthrow its government, if it’s not too much trouble, and China is not behaving that way in the Middle East, the Chinese have, for a long time, had this doctrine of harmonious development, and they just don’t want any trouble as they grow into this enormous behemoth on the world stage. And so they don’t have anything against Iran. It doesn’t say anything to them. And they also don’t have anything against Saudi Arabia. They do trade with both and that’s their policy to do trade with everybody if they can. And so I think they can just be more evenhanded. The United States has picked winners and losers in the region and people that it wants to punish and people that it wants to help. And, you know, it has this, you mentioned, that it has this rhetoric of spreading freedom and democracy and so forth. But it’s all very hypocritical because Saudi Arabia is one of the pillars of U.S. policy in the Middle East and it’s the least democratic country you could hope to find. And it’s never criticized by the State Department for its human rights abuses in any concerted way or in a very public way, whereas Iran is a very flawed system and very dictatorial. But it has more input from the people in the form of an elected parliament than the Saudis do by a long shot. So we’re not even true to our own ideals if you were going to support the country that was more democratic. Well, Iran is not very democratic, but it’s slightly more than the Saudis and that’s not saying much. But we don’t make policy on those grounds. We simply say we do. We make policy on oil and security interests. 

Scheer: But we’re not very good at it. I mean, what I want to get out of here and again, I’m going to take you back to your book on Muhammed. It was an eye opener for me, because Muhammed, in so far as we know, was somebody who needed to do trading and that was what he did. He took products and had to get along with people who spoke a lot of different languages and had different ideas of religion and deities and so forth. And that was his early education as a young person, take these caravans and so forth. So he was born into a sophistication which even though it was way pre-capitalist, one would have thought would also be the sophistication of capitalism. How do you do trade? How do you get along with a lot of people? How do you learn their ways and so forth? And what we’ve managed to do, it’s so odd now, is here is the United States that is stoking the tensions around the world and the Middle East certainly picking one side against another and and benefiting or thinking it can benefit, in the mind of some, I guess, empires of old, divide and conquer. And here is still communist run China is actually proving to be more effective as a kind of capitalist nation, securing resources, making products people want. I just find this such an odd moment that seems to be never recognized at the university where I teach. Maybe it is, and I’m not in all these classes. I don’t see it recognized in The New York Times or other newspapers or on television. But for my money, I’m much older than you are so maybe that’s why I feel this way, I never in my life expected that Communist China would be the paradigm of a rational capitalism. Let’s get people trading and buying together. And here is the U.S. fomenting war wherever it can, almost, with wild abandon. Is this recognized among your historian colleagues? 

Cole: Oh, yeah, I think it is. And I think a lot of American political scientists feel about exactly as you do, that, you know, the U.S. has become a kind of Don Quixote figure tilting at windmills that he thinks of dragons and, as you say, for no benefit, Bob. Well, you know, I challenge anyone to name one benefit that came to the United States from the nearly 20 year war in Iraq. What exactly did that do for us? It didn’t enhance our power or our security. And it cost us several trillion dollars, which we could use right now. But at the time, the people who invaded Iraq had reasons for which they thought they should do it. And they were very narrow and sectional interests, so that were not the American interests. And I think one of the problems with American policy in the Middle East is that it’s not democratic. You know, I did some consulting, Bob, when in the early years of the Iraq war with Congress. And I was astonished to find well, one congressman looked at me and said, well Professor Cole, why do you think we’re in Iraq? I nearly fell off my chair. I thought, Well, I’m a midwestern college professor, you’re the U.S. government. You tell me why we’re in Iraq. But they didn’t know, Bush didn’t tell them and didn’t brief them in. Congress really kept its hands off the Iraq war for a long time and just let the executive, because I think they knew it was a failure in the making and they didn’t want to be tainted by it, they just let the executive have it. So why in a democratic country, why would our Congress be kept in the dark about our going to war and its reasons? It’s not right. There’s something wrong with the way the system is operating. And by the way, in that period, Joe Biden was on the Senate Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. And he invited me to speak to a panel, the Senate on Iraq. And he had read some of the things that I had written and took them to heart. So I always thought that’s the way the government should operate. The people should be reading, you know, the experts and then questioning them and trying to make policy on a rational basis. That wasn’t what was done with Iraq, they just got in their heads they were going to do this and they manipulated the people and they manipulated other forces and they did it. And it was a tremendous failure, as you said, with a very long shadow over the United States so that people increasingly don’t trust the US to be an honest broker. The same thing with the Arab-Israeli conflict and the kind of partisan approach that the US government takes towards things Israeli. So of course, if there were another player in town, if there were another great power that had aircraft carriers and had a multi trillion dollar economy, people would love to go there instead. So this is what’s happening with the rise of China. And China has its own, you know, problems. It’s a very dictatorial government and often people are not very happy with it because it makes these decisions without consulting them. The no-COVID policy was very unpopular. In fact, there were riots in the streets, one of the reasons that the government backed off of it. And so they’re not perfect either but from the point of view, as you say, of these Muslim Middle Eastern countries, China can do things for them that the US just no longer is perceived to be able to do. 

Scheer: But, you know, the conceit of the American experiment is that we’re not given to irrational sources of information, whether it comes out of one religion or one political party or so forth. So we have this idea that our democracy works. And yet in example after example, our public is not informed correctly. Our leaders seem to be out to lunch or are confused or cannot state their position. And what one assumed was the source of rational behavior, if I understand the ideology of our society, was the market. That you were actually interested in producing things, selling things, there would be consumers who wanted it and you would extend this to the world. You would be rational. You would show people that can all get more prosperous and be productive. We are, in fact, here at a time when we’re worried about climate change and we have engaged in a whole series of practices where now almost every country in the world is ramping up their military budget. Even Germany, which was supposed to be pledged, you know, to a neutral policy coming out of World War II. Now should they double or triple it, make more of this and so forth. And I’m asking you to draw on your wisdom as a scholar. And, you know, I don’t want to get into each specific thing. And I know as a scholar, you don’t like these general observations, for instance, you know, but in the case of Israel, there’s another example. We supposedly sided with Israel because it was more democratic and committed to it. And you’re now having Netanyahu just making a hash of any of that defense of Israel, and yet it doesn’t seem to trouble anyone. And so I want to ask you, really, you mentioned these experts, but, you know, where is it? Where is the informed public? You know, for instance, one of the issues with China and why we have to have sanctions is supposedly the Chinese mistreat their Muslim population. Right? In a particular province. And yet here are two contenders for the idea of the leadership of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia and Iran are able to do business with China. They seem to be able to function and so forth. So let’s take that specific idea that somehow, you know, that we operate on the basis of fact and logic. Others operate on the basis of religions that seem strange or political ideologies that are out of date and so forth. And yet I pick up the paper now and there is the foreign minister of China with the leader of Saudi Arabia, with a representative from Saudi Arabia, from Iran, saying, hey, on common sense, you guys ought to be talking to each other and, you know, try to avoid war and try to do commerce and so forth. And you even have India and China now siding up on this. You know, wait a minute, we want to be able to do business. So, again, as a historian, I know you hate to take the broader view as a professional, but tell me, where are we? Because otherwise it sounds like the craziest of times. 

Cole: Well, you know, on the one hand, I think you’re absolutely right, Bob, that things are changing in this way. And China is starting to play this role in the world. On the other hand, the Chinese are becoming more assertive as they become wealthier and more powerful, I suppose it’s natural. But there are many flashpoints in world affairs where it’s not clear exactly how they’re going to come down. Are they going to support Putin’s war on Ukraine in a material way? We don’t know the answer to that yet. They’ve kind of nodded in that direction. That would be a huge geopolitical conflict. You know, are they going to make assertions of control of Taiwan and. I can remember I went to Taiwan in 2007 and at that time there were Taiwanese who felt very positively towards Beijing and thought that there was some hope for a resolution of their problems of some kind of loose federalism or something might ultimately encompass the two. The Chinese were developing a capitalist sector and the Taiwanese had gone in that direction and they had a common language and heritage and so forth. And now the two are at daggers drawn because President Xi Jinping is throwing his weight around. And, you know, he’s claiming Filipino islands and at least indicating he claims Japanese islands. And I think there’s one of the problems with the rise of China is that, you know, sometimes when a new regional hegemon emerges that causes war and there’s potential for a lot of conflict between the US and China in the South Pacific. 

Scheer: Right. And going back. Okay, we’re going to, I don’t push just beyond, I know the area that you feel academically most comfortable with, and so that’s correct. You are a genuine expert. But again, going back to your Muhammad book, I think there is a recognition there was by Muhammad as somebody having to do business. There were all of these countries, small, big, different religions, different… Will have their idea of national interest to the degree that even you have nation states or that whether they’re tribes or whatever they are. And the whole idea is really not that you will not have tension, but whether that tension will be regulated by one system of law. Right, that’s really the argument now that somehow NATO and the United States represent the repository of logical rules of the road that should be followed and that’s the best way of having world peace, because the alternative is the end of life on the planet. And what and so when one argues for a multi-polar world, we’re not saying there won’t be tensions or fights or arguments or stupidity, whatever, we’re really talking about whether the US and its whatever it is, its surrogates in western, what used to be Western Europe, hold the keys to rational behavior, hold the keys to democracy. And I’m saying what seems very obvious to me and I think is that many people around the world, yes, they will have their differences, but I think India and China will continue to have differences and occasionally will, you know, break into violence. But I think the arrogance and this I bring you back as an intellectual in the United States, the arrogance that somehow we had the secret sauce, that we knew the way to behave rationally and factually informed, and our public would be knowledgeable. Well, it’s not the case and it’s not the case clearly to the people around the world, even within our own domestic politics, I mean, we you know, who do we look to for wisdom now? There seems to be almost no peace presence on the Democratic side. Are we supposed to be alone? There is DeSantis and Trump at least saying maybe negotiations should work? I mean, it’s startling. And so I’m just curious, do you think, and let’s take it to extremes, is this the worst of times or the best of times? What’s what’s going on? You know, and what would Muhammad make of it? 

Cole: Well, let me address that because thank you very much for your kind words on the book and my scholarship. I think… 

Scheer: Let’s read the title by the way.

Cole: I’m sorry? 

Scheer: I said let’s give the title of the book. 

Cole: The book is Mohammed: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. And you framed it correctly that Muhammad, the one thing we’re pretty sure we know about him is that he was a long distance merchant. This is mentioned by non-Muslim sources of the seventh century as well. And the Koran does show that cosmopolitanism. There’s a verse which says that God has made you peoples and tribes two different sexes so that you would come to know one another. That is to say difference is not being viewed as a negative. It was being viewed as a positive because it has within it extra information, extra insight. And with regard to settling disputes, the Quran might be the first text that Adam writes a doctrine of collective security. It says that if one party proves to be the aggressor and just lashes out and attacks another party, all the other parties should gang up on it and put it in its place. And Islamic law became a very deep subject in the medieval period and was studied by Europeans. And so if you go to the US Supreme Court, one of the lawmakers up there on the lintel is, as it’s mentioned, Muhammed, so sure this idea that the West is the only form of civilization is silly. It actually came late to the civilization game. And there are other great civilizations from which we all can learn and a great heritage there that we tend to discount in our country out of ignorance. But with regard to these big issues in foreign policy, I do think that the rise of China, the reemergence of a multipolar world is an enormous change in our lives. You know, it’s unusual to have a bipolar or unipolar world. If you go back to the 18th century, the 19th century, it’s usually several great powers, be it France and Britain. Our French and Indian war of the 18th century. That was really just a local manifestation of a world war between Britain and France that was fought out in India and Europe as well. And in the 19th century you had the concert of Europe and you had Austria and even little Denmark played a big role and Britain and France and Russia. So a multipolar world has been much more normal. But in the Cold War, we really had a bipolar world with just the US and the Soviet Union as the two great superpowers. And then when the Soviet Union collapsed, we had a unipolar world in which the United States could throw its weight around and do whatever it pleased because there was no counter. That’s how you get the Iraq war. There was, you know, and during the Cold War, they would have done something like the Iraq war because the Russians would have taken the Iraqi side and forestalled an invasion. They weren’t players anymore in 2003. And so the US in a way fell into the trap of its own omnipotence. But now China is emerging as a pure power with the United States. It’s not quite there yet, but you can see it coming ten, 15, 20 years. It’s going to be the world’s largest economy. It’s developing its aircraft carriers and military might. It has a nuclear bomb. It has had one for a long time. And it is likely that India will also be a great power of the 21st century, as you mentioned. So we’re not going to be in a world which is dominated solely by the United States, and it’s going to be a much more Asian world going forward. And that’s going to be a hard thing for Americans to get used to not being the only game in town, not being the richest people in the world, not being the font of the so-called civilization. And I’m hoping that they can manage to deal with it, as you say, in a rational way. But I think one of the one of the sources of the irrationality in our politics and you saw this with the emergence of Trump and his followers, was this kind of white grievance, this kind of sense that we no longer had have what we had that are, you know, from generation to generation, people were getting better off of the sort of the United States bestrode the world as a Goliath. And I think there’s some danger of many Americans turning to the far right in an irrational response to this change in the world situation. 

Scheer: Let me end on this. But I offer my own view and I’ll give you a last chance to answer. And then I took a lot of your time. I think the real danger is in precisely this notion of American exceptionalism, that instead of celebrating diversity in the world and saying, yes, none of these countries are perfect and they have their problems and don’t fight about a lot stuff, and sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re wrong, etc., etc.. But somehow this is a good thing as long as they don’t kill each other because there’s lots of ways to approach problems. You know, for instance, China is doing a lot on electric cars, for instance, and because they don’t have petroleum and, you know, and you can argue about the pandemic, but actually they had, by any reckoning, far fewer deaths than we did. Actually, we had the worst record and we had the worst record in the place where we have the highest level of medicine in Manhattan and New York. And so I think if one embraces a notion of diversity of approaches and people finding their own way, one could see that as positive. I think the notion of American exceptionalism and you’ve been up against that as a scholar, because mostly you’ve been talking about a region that we felt we had the right to tear apart, at least since Roosevelt. I think that is the real menace. It’s not saying who has the answer, but denying that any way but our way is the wrong way. That is what I’m getting out of this discussion, you know what? I know you and I have had disagreements about Syria, [indistinguishable]. All right. That’s fine. That’s what democracy is supposed to be all about. On any level you know a lot more than I do. So I generally defer to you. But there’s an assumption now that we own democracy, self-determination, and a way to have the right economy. We own it. You’ve been a victim of it. I’m going to end on this. You’ve been a victim of it because after all, what you are writing, which I find should be mainstream in every which way, I can’t imagine people, you actually I don’t know if you want to revisit that, but you had said you were going to be at Princeton. They pointed you toward somebody. 

Cole: It was Yale.

Scheer: Yeah sorry, I got it wrong. And the fact of the matter is, we in the academic world, I mean, I don’t see much serious challenge to this. America is the only way. And I’ll give you just one final example, and you’ll end with your response. Yes, it was insanely stupid for Trump to make it a slogan we’ll make America great again. But I thought even more dangerous was Hillary Clinton’s answer that America has always been great. What with slavery, with the killing of indigenous people, with needless wars. So I’ll give you the last chance because you tend to be more balanced than I am. 

Cole: Well, I don’t disagree with you Bob that American exceptionalism and this kind of attitude of my country, right or wrong, is enormously damaging to the fabric of our country and our lives. I wrote an essay for TomDispatch on the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War, and I just made the point that all of the violations of international law that the U.S. State Department is now attributing to Vladimir Putin in Ukraine were committed by the United States. And in Iraq, there was no issue of self-defense. When they invaded Iraq, there was no U.N. Security Council resolution. They simply unilaterally went to war and caused enormous death and destruction. They committed all that they caused to that. And I heard back from one editor who reprinted the piece that he had shared the thesis with The Progressive, who had pushed back and said, oh, no, no, no. The two situations are not alike at all. The United States, you know, had its reasons joined by Iraqis. Putin’s attack on Ukraine is completely unacceptable. And the inability to to think comparatively about this country, even from a progressive, just sent me back on my heels. So I certainly do think that we need critical voices. We need to be self-critical. There is much to celebrate in U.S. history, and I think we should celebrate it. But we can’t be better if we don’t recognize our flaws and the things we got wrong. And I don’t, as you say, get many bouquets for saying that. 

Scheer: All right. Let’s end on that. If people want and they should want more from Juan Cole. You have your, I noticed you’re now being distributed by TomDispatch. And I run every one that I can get a great. I’m happy that you’re not hiding behind a paywall, but also you have your Informed Comment that people can go to. And, you know, I just want to say, I think, you know, you’re one of the indispensable intellectuals we have. And you’re honest as the day’s long. I mean, you’re credible. And even when I disagree with you, my response is generally, I better go do some more research, because probably Juan Cole is right and I got it wrong. So on that note, I want to say thank you for doing this on short notice. I want to thank Laura Kondourajian at KCRW, the NPR station in Santa Monica, that hosts these podcasts along with Christopher Ho. I want to thank Joshua Scheer for being our executive producer and keeping the show going and recommending wonderful guests like Juan Cole. Diego Ramos, who writes the introduction. Max Jones, who’s doing the video and getting it out to a larger audience, hopefully on YouTube and elsewhere, and the JKW Foundation for financial support in the name of a very independent, terrific writer, the late Jean Stein. On that note, see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

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