Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Definitive History of the Goldberg-Cole Feud, and Some Comments

In case you missed it, National Review writer Jonah Goldberg and U-M poly sci professor and MESA president-elect Juan Cole recently got into a bare-knuckled brawl over Iraq, Iran, and each other.

A Brief History:

1. Goldberg wrote a paragraph mocking Cole for saying that the 1997 elections in Iran were "much more democratic" than the January 2005 election in Iraq.

2. Cole responded, arguing (i) Goldberg is an uneducated idiot who is unqualified to have an opinion about the relative democraticness of the 97 Iranian and 05 Iraqi elections; (ii) Goldberg was a vicious warmonger who promoted the war in Iraq when everyone should have known Saddam was no threat to us; (iii) the 97 Iranian elections were actually more democratic than the 05 Iraqi elections because, although the Mullahs rejected almost all candidates, and although they didn't let the winner of the election actually carry out any liberal policies, they did allow a liberal candidate to run, and people could campaign and vote safely; (iv) Goldberg's real agenda in picking on Cole is to distract the world from Goldberg's desire to kill thousands of Iranians; (v) if Goldberg likes war so much, why doesn't he enlist, and (vi) if Goldberg agrees to debate "Middle East issues," Cole will be glad to show him for the idiot he is.

3. Goldberg answered by (i) mocking Cole a little more; (ii) conceding that Cole made "a pretty good point" about the democratic nature of the 97 Iranian elections; and (iii) raising the criticism that Cole isn't just talking about how democratic the Iranians were, he's mainly criticizing the Iraqi elections, and doing a sloppy job of it. Cole responded in his original piece, calling Goldberg's response "smarmy" and generally picking on Goldberg some more as an uninformed warmongering buffoon.

4. Goldberg wrote an article in which he argued that: (i) his pre-war position that Iraq was a threat was widely held and reasonable; (ii) Cole himself has expressed some support for the Iraq war at various times; (iii) the Iranian elections weren't all that democratic because the Mullahs rejected more than 300 candidates and because the Mullahs prevented the winner from actually implementing any reforms; (iv) contrary to Cole's characterization, Goldberg didn't want an Iranian bloodbath; (v) the chicken-hawk argument was stupid; and (vi) Goldberg would be happy to debate various specific issues (Bush's foriegn policy, whether the war in Iraq was justified, etc.), but wasn't prepared to debate "Middle East issues"

5. Cole responded that: (i) Goldberg should try reading a book sometime; (ii) contrary to Goldberg, Cole speaks Arabic very well, but speaks so many dialects of Arabic that he knew better than to use his vast Arabic knowledge in an Al Jazeera interview; (iii) Cole never supported the war, and never thought Iraq was a threat to US interests, but was ambivalent because he knew how bad Saddam was; (iv) Cole would debate "Middle East issues," but not the war in Iraq or US policy with regard to Middle East issues, and Goldberg was a coward for narrowing the subject of the debate; (v) Goldberg was too a chicken-hawk for not fighting; (vi) we should have known Iraq was no threat, but many people were fooled by liars like Goldberg; and (vii) more generally, as shown by Jon Stewart (!) "empty headed" and "dime a dozen" pundits like Goldberg are a threat to the polity because they decieve rather than educate.

6. Goldberg wrote another article, arguing that: (i) Cole's ad-hominem attacks don't show anything; (ii) Goldberg has too read a book; (iii) Cole's arguments regarding expertise and judgment are hollow; (iv) James Wolcott is an idiot (an idea Goldberg wrote more about here); and (v) if Cole was so proud of his judgment, Goldberg would be happy to make a bet, with proceeds to go to charity, with Goldberg to win if in two years, Iraq had a constitution, did not have a civil war, and the majority of Iraqis and Americans believed that the war was a good idea. (Goldberg also offered to bet on other conditions of Cole's choosing).

7. Cole announced that he was "nearly immobilized with disgust and grief" by Goldberg's offered wager. In Cole's opinion, Goldberg was proposing to bet "on the backs of human beings." Cole wants nothing to do with the wager, or with Goldberg. (Goldberg, predictably, ruthlessly mocked Cole's sensitivity to whatever it is Cole is sensitive to).

8. In between the above posts, both Cole and Goldberg posted too many comments from readers and links to other sites to summarize. If you want to, you can read them by skimming the early February posts from Informed Consent and The Corner.

Comment 1 - Civility

My first thought is that Cole's attacks do his actual arguments a severe disservice. Cole's core positions - which seem to be that the 97 Iranian elections were more democratic than people give them credit for; that the 05 Iraqi elections are much less democratic than commonly thought; and that the Iraq war was unjustified - are serious arguments that we on the right should at least consider. If Cole had responded to Goldberg clearly and succinctly, I think it would have helped him in preparing responses to counterarguments and in expressing his ideas clearly, and he may even have convinced some people.

The problem is that Cole's arguments are buried under a mountain of anti-Goldberg invective. To find out why Cole thinks Iran is more democratic than most people think, you have to sort through all kinds of stuff about whether Goldberg has ever read a book, what an evil chicken-hawk he is, etc. I never would have found Cole's real arguments if I hadn't re-read everything to write this piece.

So my advice for the Doctor is: "chill." I understand that you think Goldberg is a prime example of a group of know-nothings who are deceiving the populace and driving us into evil, needless wars. Still, if you would put all the anti-Goldberg stuff at the end of each of your responses, then your readers could separate the two arguments, and consider each on their merits. When you mix them up, all you do is cause everyone who doesn't already agree with you to tune out.

Comment 2 - Cole's Disgust and Grief

I am amazed by Cole's response to Goldberg's bet. Goldberg is offering to wager that in two years, most Iraqis and most Americans will think that the Iraq war was worth it, with the winnings to go to charity. I can't see that Goldberg is harming anyone (to the contrary, whoever wins, some charity will get some money), and he's testing his ability to predict events in Iraq versus Cole's.

In response, Cole is so horrified that he's "nearly immobilized." How can Goldberg make a bet? Doesn't Goldberg understand that people are suffering, right now, in Iraq?

I think that's part of the problem with the anti-war left. Confronted with suffering, they are too often "immobilized." For example, two years ago, we all knew that we had basically one of three choices: (1) oust Saddam, (2) eventually let Saddam out of the sanction and no fly zone regime; or (3) keep up inspections and the no fly zones indefinitely. There was going suffering no matter which option we and the world chose - #1 would result in war deaths, collateral damage, and instability; #2 would leave Saddam free to continue sponsoring terror, restart his WMD programs, and begin a massacre of the Kurds; and #3 meant prolonging the sanctions' suffering on the Iraqi people indefinitely, plus continuing the deaths from the constant no-fly-zone-related engagements.

Faced with three choices involving human suffering, Cole was justifiably saddened, but unjustifiably immobilized. As Cole has written on his site, he was unable to decide on the war - he knew very well what a monster Saddam was, but couldn't quite bring himself to justify war.

A rightous inaction in the face of horror is not what this world needs, whether or not that inaction is backed by a bunch of degrees and a working knowledge of three Arabic dialects. Cole should take Goldberg up on his offers to: (1) have a public debate whether the Iraq war was justified; and (2) make a concrete prediction about whether the majority of Iraqis will agree that the war was a good thing. (If Cole is horrified by betting, he can just make a clear public prediction, and we can come back to it in two years to see who was right). If not, Cole's contributions as a public intellectual are useless or worse on the things that really matter.

Update: Wow, a Cornerlanche! Now I wish I had taken the time to fix up my template and links. (Not unlike when a date asks to see your house, and you start inventorying just how much clothing you have on the floor, and how quickly you can kick it away . . .)