September 16, 2011


A Free-for-All on a Decade of War: From the Times Magazine, a post-9/11 debate on what has been learned and where our conclusions might take us. (SCOTT MALCOMSON, September 7, 2011, NY Times\)

The American reaction to being attacked on Sept. 11 was in many ways an intellectual one. President George W. Bush tended to frame it that way: the attack was on our "values," and the "war against terror" was a war of ideas meant to advance the idea of freedom. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was the administration's epistemologist, worrying over the question of knowability; Bernard Lewis was its historian, Paul Wolfowitz its moralist in arms. That America's actions (as opposed to precautions) after 9/11 almost all took place far from home, with a professional army, strengthened this sense of abstraction. The possibility of anything like victory over our enemies was discounted early on (by Rumsfeld). Little wonder that, unlike in earlier wars, we have talked so much about what this conflict means, rather than simply working to end it as soon as possible.

This magazine participated from the beginning in debates on the meaning of 9/11 and its aftermath. For this 10th anniversary, we brought together some of the actors to discuss what has been learned and where our conclusions might take us. Michael Ignatieff wrote frequently for the magazine on terrorism and war before entering Canadian politics as a member of Parliament and then Liberal Party leader; he is now at the University of Toronto. David Rieff was a frequent contributor of essays short and long on American policy. James Traub anchored our foreign-policy reporting across this period while producing two books on the subject, "The Best Intentions" and "The Freedom Agenda." Paul Berman's March 2003 cover story on Sayyid Qutb, ''The Philosopher of Islamic Terror,'' was a seminal attempt to frame the conflict in terms of competing ideologies. Ian Buruma's magazine articles focused more on contemporary Muslims, most notably Tariq Ramadan (in February 2007). We met virtually, on two separate occasions, with Ignatieff entering the fray late and Rieff exiting early. - SCOTT MALCOMSON [...]

BERMAN: I think that, during the last 80 or 90 years, we have seen a series of totalitarian ideologies spring up -- communist, fascist in different versions, together with doctrines like Baathism and Islamism. I do not think these are anthropological developments, which could only be addressed by, say, Russians, or Germans, or people who consider themselves part of a Muslim ummah. The ideas are modern, and everyone is free to engage with them -- obliged to engage with them, I would think. It was crucial, generations ago, to argue with the fascists, and some people did. Crucial to argue with the communists. And more recently crucial to argue with the Baathists (whose own doctrine has died, thankfully) and the Islamists. The Islamists do not come out of primitive caves; they come out of modern intellectual settings, out of universities and libraries. And everyone can argue with them. Even successfully!

I think the Arab Spring is a confirmation of this notion. The original notion was that, in a large part of the Arab world and some parts of the rest of the Muslim world, the pathologies of totalitarian movements had set in, and had to be opposed -- by argument, above all. And the arguments have gone on. And guess what? A great many people in the Arab world -- and in Iran, too -- agree with the liberal and anti-dictatorial and anti-totalitarian arguments. This is indeed grand. And this is indeed the only way that a true solution of these various problems was ever going to be found.

There's some amusing stuff here from the guys who imagine the Arab Spring is occurring in a vacuum to the ones who apparently think that al Qaeda was more deadly and oppressive than the Ba'ath.

Posted by at September 16, 2011 6:47 AM

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