In the coming week, the Yale Center for International and Area Studies will consider the candidacy of Juan Cole for a tenured position to study and teach the modern Middle East. The vacancy is palpable, but Cole should not be the man to fill it.
The international studies program has long struggled at Yale. In 1950, A. Whitney Griswold shut down the Yale Institute for International Affairs; he did not consider international affairs worthy of Yale’s liberal arts curriculum. Two years later, Yale professors departed en masse when Princeton University opened the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. For decades following, serious international relations work had to be conducted outside of New Haven. Robin Winks, Gaddis Smith and Paul Kennedy grounded their students well in foreign policy and history, but then sent them on to finishing schools in Boston, Princeton or Washington.
The opening of Luce Hall in 1994 breathed new hope into international studies. YCIAS expanded, but its approach remained scattershot. It became a receptacle for professors’ pet projects, but struggled to bridge traditional academe and contemporary reality. Many faculty members quietly acknowledge that it remains in the shadow of international affairs programs at Princeton, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University and even Columbia University. While Yale’s decision last year to fund a position for a contemporary Middle East scholar sought to remedy this, Cole’s appointment would be hemlock.
Universities thrive on scholarly discourse. Professors should be open to new ideas – not only those that challenge policymakers, but also those that test entrenched campus opinion. Unfortunately, Cole has displayed a cavalier attitude toward those who disagree with him. In a February interview with Detroit’s Metro Times, he argued that the U.S. government should shut down Fox News. “In the 1960s, the FCC would have closed it down,” he argued. “It’s an index of how corrupt our governmental institutions have become that the FCC lets this go on.” Many Yalies may not like Fox, but top-down censorship is no solution. Cole’s outburst was the rule, not an exception. On Sept. 4, 2004, he wrote that “The FBI should investigate how [Walid] Phares, an undistinguished academic with links to far right-wing Lebanese groups and the Likud clique, became the ‘terrorism analyst’ at MSNBC.” While Cole has labeled his own critics “McCarthyites,” they have not called for his censorship or arrest.
False accusations are telling. Phares is neither “far right-wing” nor tied to “the Likud clique.” Public figures label and dismiss when they do not want to debate the substance of ideas. Take Cole’s reaction to Phares, who is far from undistinguished. His most recent book, “Future Jihad,” won acclaim in both the scholarly and policy communities.
While Cole condemns anti-Semitism, he accuses prominent Jewish-American officials of having dual loyalties, a frequent anti-Semitic refrain. That he accuses Jewish Americans of using “the Pentagon as Israel’s Gurkha regiment” is unfortunate. Further, while Cole has never visited Iraq, he condemns many who have.
Credibility matters. Blogging is not scholarship, but it reflects upon it. Sources matter. To support his opinion, Cole has cited the work of Lyndon LaRouche’s former Middle East intelligence correspondent. Seldom are Cole’s opinions backed by fieldwork. If Cole wants to believe that “right-wing Zionists” falsely depict the genocide in Darfur as “Arab” versus “black,” fine. But did he do the work to justify his belief? When I was in southern Sudan, residents laughed at such apologia.
Professors should choose their words carefully. Early in his career, Cole did serious academic work on the 19th century Middle East, although his books did not have lasting historiographical impact. He has since abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary. Perhaps YCIAS is not looking for academic rigor. But unlike prominent professors at Princeton, Columbia or Tufts, Cole cannot bring real-world policy experience to either the classroom or research.
Cole is a major public figure. But political popularity and punditry should not substitute for research, accuracy and experience. Bush criticism may be trendy and perhaps even valid, but the reputation of Yale’s faculty and the future of YCIAS should be based on more. Now, it is time for YCIAS to decide whether it prioritizes academics above politics.
Michael Rubin ’94 GRD ’99 is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.