April 20, 2005

Madain Mystery

Now from the Department of Islam is Peace comes another charming massacre story from Iraq.

A couple of days ago news items started showing up about a large hostage-taking, supposedly of Shiites from the town of Madain, south of Baghdad. As many as 100 people were said to be involved, but details were very sketchy. Juan Cole went so far as to say on April 18 that the whole story probably had nothing to it. Today, according to Iraqi President Talabani, about 50 bodies were pulled out of the Tigris.

Did Cole blow it? That's not actually the question I had when reading what Talabani said today -- that question was more along the lines of "what is going on here?" -- but I imagine that in certain sections of the blogosphere whether Cole got it wrong will be a topic of discussion. Personally this kind of thing is not that big a deal for me. First of all, as I just said we really don't know what is going on here; second, I expect Cole or anyone else trying to track events in Iraq from thousands of miles away to get lots of things wrong. It just goes with the territory.

Bloggers, like mainstream media outlets, are sources of information and commentary, both of which can sometimes be useful or illuminating. We tend I think to exaggerate the impact of the commentary, though. I know Cole's writing well enough to understand he has a tendency to "go native" in his commentary about Iraqis, especially Iraqis hostile to the American presence in that country, and as an academic he puts enough boilerplate rhetoric about Western imperialism and so forth on his site to keep his key to the faculty washroom. Do I agree with his views on Iraq? No, not most of the time anyway. Do I think he's an impediment to the war effort or a menace in some other way? Be serious. No blogger's commentary -- even if he gets on television -- could have that kind of impact.

Maybe my capacity for taking offense is just abnormally low. I just have the impression, reading some of the exchanges in the blogosphere (this one, for example), that a few people have forgotten that they are only observers of great events, and having forgotten that take disagreement way too personally.

Posted by at April 20, 2005 11:12 PM | TrackBack (5)

Joseph --

First, welcome to your new gig. Delighted Greg is keeping BD going and has brought in a new voice and interests.

If folks want to point fingers I suggest they first read extensive coverage of the muddle about Madaen in the NYT and AP (including from some of their folks on the ground). I assume they were what Cole was relying on. I'd give you all the links, but you need the history and chronology as well. So it's easiest to see Swopa at Needlenose for the elaborate and befuddling tale in a post aptly titled "The Fog of Insurgency."

There does seem to have been some violence and tit-for-tat kidnappings among Sunnis and Shi'a in and around Madaen. Whether it involves Sunni "insurgents" or AQ-related types is far less clear -- they're denying it when they usually like to take credit. Also, the story of a hostage crisis looks quite a bit more murky than it was being presented on Baghdad TV on Saturday.

I'm with Swopa -- I'll wait until I actually see and hear something far more definitive from someone who's actually been there or who isn't a Baghdad politician who's being fed by a rather remarkable rumor mill.

Facts are facts, but perception is reality.

Posted by: nadezhda at April 21, 2005 04:27 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


Good post and good work thus far on BD. I read through the Cole thread on Michael Totten's site and couldn't agree more with your take.

As for Cole, there is plenty of space in the blogosphere for his views, as well as there is plenty of space for the many people who have an entirely different opinion of Bush and the Middle East.

Cole's site isn't state-controlled media being spread through the land like a great propaganda organ. As an American living in China, I find the hysteria over these things, well, hysterical (in both senses of the word).

If you disagree with Cole, which I often do, then simply move on to something else.

Posted by: MattSchiavenza at April 21, 2005 08:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm afraid you underestimate the impact of blogging. In April 2004, my blogging was instrumental in putting an end to the occupation forces' attack on Fallujah. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stop the second assault in November.

Look at the Bolton fiasco. Bloggers like Steve Clemons are leading the drive to reject this awful choice and it now appears highly unlikely that the nomination will go through.

If internet commentators would only embrace their capacity to speak truth to power electronically, we'd more than likely be able to stop the imperial designs of the Bush-Cheney regime, and secure the blessings of a genuine liberty for our children and grandchildren.

Posted by: Juan Cole at April 21, 2005 11:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Juan, correlation does not equal causation.

Joseph, I like your blogging. Do you have a regular gig outside of subbing here?

Posted by: Joel at April 21, 2005 01:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

1) There are places where it's kosher to impersonate a blogsphere personality for the purposes of humor. Rantburg comes immediately to mind, frex. Belgravia probably isn't one of those places.

2) I'm not normally of a mind to defend Juan Cole, but he's hardly the only one to be confused by the al-Mandain situation. The guys over at Iraq the Model are equally confused, and Omar apparently tried to do on-the-ground reporting himself.

Posted by: Mitch H. at April 21, 2005 02:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yes, I'm with Joel on both counts.

Prof Cole - I haven't read your site as of yet, but if bloggers have as much power as you suggest, couldn't people on both sides benefit from a bit more circumspection and a bit less histrionics?

Posted by: NYCmoderate at April 21, 2005 02:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Dr Cole:

Your blog was instrumental in stopping the May invasion of Falluja? How? Who read you? Who from the administration saw your posts and asked your advice? Did old media get a hold of your postings I recall no public pressure against moving on Falluja (as oppposed to the more general pressure against moving on Iraq.)

Is the Bolton story being driven by bloggers or the daily embarassment in the Washington Post? This seems more a scandal driven story at this point, helped along by Democrat unanimity and general distaste for this guy's philosophy.

By the way, Mr. Britt, great post. I think you are right specifically on Dr. Cole's influence on this administration's action (mostly because there's little evidence they listen to anyone), but underestimate the extent he is contributing to the intellectual backbone of the antiwar movement. (Without his blog, would he have his NPR gig, or his presidency of the middle eastern studies? I doubt it.)

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at April 21, 2005 03:22 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thanks to Dr. Cole for his comment. I recall thinking at the time that the 4/04 Marine operation against Fallujah was questionable because put together in haste and with inadequate forces. If it was called off because of postings on the Internet things were more screwed up than I thought. I imagine historians will at some point be able to determine whether Dr. Cole or I has a more realistic picture of blogging's impact.

Incidentally, I note that in his post today Dr. Cole has an update on the Madain mystery, a particularly tasteless bit of speculation that the murderers were driven to murder by the government's dispatch of troops to the kidnapping site, immediately and rather incongruously followed by a report of another massacre of people the government evidently made no attempt to rescue.

This is what I meant by a tendency to "go native." My own speculation is that the men who apparently slaughtered the Madain hostages enjoyed their work. Those are the kind of people opposing "imperialism" in Iraq.

Posted by: JEB at April 21, 2005 03:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I would be very interested in hearing any sort of proof that Juan Cole had an impact on any US military decisions in Iraq. This seems to be a ridiculous statement. I'll assume its a Rovian plant, meant to make Cole look back. Otherwise, a serious case of blogging "hubris"?

As long as Cole continues to use stale, meaningless cliches like "truth to power" and "imperial designs of the Bush-Cheney regime", he will continue to be taken less than seriously, no matter what the subject.

Honestly, if he represents the best that the left has to offer, game over.

The serious debate is among objective, informed blogs (like this one) that allow comments on their sites. Cole may be informed, but only on the subjects that support his set-in-stone views, and he is anything but objective. Otherwise, he'd open the floor.

Posted by: paul at April 21, 2005 04:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

sorry, should read "...Cole look bad" in prior post.

Posted by: paul at April 21, 2005 04:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

should read "...Cole look bad" in prior post.


Posted by: paul at April 21, 2005 04:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

should read "...Cole look bad" in previous post.


Posted by: paul at April 21, 2005 04:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Nonsense. Blogs control the cosmos.

Posted by: praktike at April 22, 2005 12:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Geez. I guess I can really clear a dance-floor. Nice to have the last word for once.

Sorry for the multiple superfluous posts.

Posted by: paul at April 22, 2005 02:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I doubt that that comment was actually from Juan Cole.

And if I am correct that it wasn't, whoever posted it is a real jerk.

Posted by: JakeV at April 23, 2005 04:21 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A reader alerted me that someone had "spoofed" or "counterfeited" my cyberspace identity on this list. I would appreciate the basic courtesy of having the list owner remove the spurious comments or identify them as falsehoods.

Juan Cole
University of Michigan

Posted by: Juan Cole at April 28, 2005 12:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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