April 30, 2003

EXPECTATIONS AND REALITIES

A new Iraq: Media memo: Time to learn history lessons (James Lindgren, April 27, 2003, Chicago Tribune)
We are playing a game of expectations--some reasonable, some not. Like a New Hampshire primary in which a winner is treated as a loser because he did not win by as wide a margin as pundits expected, the war's domestic opponents keep raising the bar for success.

Predictions of enormous coalition and Iraqi civilian losses, a bloody battle for Baghdad and the ultimate quagmire melted into the Iraqi countryside along with scores of thousands of Republican Guard. With the war being easier than nearly everyone expected two weeks ago, people now are worrying about a humanitarian crisis.

A few days ago Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to the continuing confusion and death in Iraq as "untidiness"--a euphemism for something far more serious. Yet community upheavals can be deadly--even in the absence of war, cruise missiles, and attack helicopters.

Just last year, more than 200 people died in riots in Nigeria over newspaper comments about the Miss World contest. In the three days of burning and looting in the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, 52 people died and 1,200 businesses were destroyed. Looting was also a big part of the 1990 Detroit Pistons riots, which killed 7 people. In the 1993 Chicago Bulls riots, our fellow Chicagoans killed 3, shot 20 more people, looted 197 businesses, and damaged more police cars than the chase scenes in "The Blues Brothers" movie--139 cruisers in all.

These numbers, of course, are mere shadows of what can happen when a people are freed from colonial rule and millions are forced to relocate, as happened in 1947 with the partition of India and Pakistan. In a recent issue of the scholarly journal Asian Ethnicity, professor Ishtiag Ahmed offers estimates that 2 million people were killed and 750,000 women raped in the violence accompanying the partition. [...]

The French were so angry after only four brutal years of Nazi occupation that more than 9,000 collaborators were summarily killed at the end of the war, according to standard academic accounts. And these vigilantes were the oh-so-civilized French.

The comparison problem goes far deeper than even Mr. Lindgren suggests here, because by any impartial measure, WWII was a disaster for U.S. interests. The worst case scenario had we not intervened is that the Nazis and the Soviets would have settled in for a generation long war of attrition, at the end of which both or the "winner" would have been completely enfeebled. Had there been a "winner" they would then have had to occupy the incredibly hostile other. Had it been a draw, they'd have been tied down by concerns that the whole thing could start over again. At any rate, it's impossible to imagine either or both nations being able to control conquered nations, like France and whonot, for very long given this self-inflicted damage. It seems likely that , within a span of no more than twenty or thirty years, most, if not all, of the nations of Central and Eastern Europe would have been able to reassert their independence and in all likelihood, even the government of Germany and Russia would have faced significant internal unrest.

What did we get instead, by intervening?--even setting aside the monetary and human costs of "winning" WWII, we then paid far higher costs for a 50 year Cold War, while half of Germany, all of Russia, and all of Europe East of Berlin suffered under communist tyranny. Because we helped the Soviets to prevail in WWII, communism was seen to be a viable system and was adopted in places like China, Vietnam, N. Korea, Cuba, etc., all with disastrous results for the people there, and here.

For purposes of comparison, in order for the Iraqi peace to turn out as badly as the end of WWII did the South, along with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Gulf States, Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, & Afghanistan would have to be subsumed by an Iran that then remained radical Islamic and became expansionist for the next five decades. During this entire period we'd have to pump an average of twice what we are now spending into the Defense Department, while intervening in inhuman civil wars in various Muslim states around the periphery of this new menace that we'd be seeking to "contain". As a result of this over-extension on our part, we would have significant dissent and resulting repression at home, be forced to buy off the Democrats with ever increasing social spending, etc., etc., etc. This was what our "victory" over Nazism and the process of defeating communism looked like. There is simply no possibility that the aftermath of the war on terror will turn out worse.

Which brings us to another essay, this one discussing Paul Berman's new book, The Orwell Temptation: Are intellectuals overthinking the Middle East? (Joshua Micah Marshall, May 2003, Washington Monthly)
May you live, as the Chinese curse has it, in interesting times. For the last 18 months, we've all been living in "interesting times"--often frightfully so. Yet for intellectuals there is always a craving that times would be ... well, just a little more interesting.

That's been especially true for the last half century because a shadow has hung over political intellectuals in the English-speaking world, and in some respects throughout the West. It is the shadow of the ideological wars (and the blood-and-iron wars) that grew out of World War I--from communism, to fascism, appeasement, vital-center liberalism, and the rest of it. Even as these struggles congeal into history, their magnitude and seriousness hardly diminish. Understanding fascism, understanding that it could be neither accommodated nor appeased, understanding that Soviet communism was really rather like fascism--these were much more than examples of getting things right or of demonstrating intellectual courage and moral seriousness. These insights, decisions, and moments of action came to define those qualities.

Since then, things have never been quite the same. Like doctors who want to treat the most challenging patients or cops who want to take down the worst criminals, it's only natural for people who think seriously about political and moral issues to seek out the most challenging and morally vexing questions to ponder and confront. Yet, since the Cold War hit its middle period in the late 1950s, nothing has really quite compared. For a time, the struggles of the 1960s came to rival those heady days from earlier in the century. But the tenor was too antic, the stakes too meager, and the legacy too mixed to ever quite match up. And while momentous, the collapse of communism in the late 1980s was bittersweet for intellectuals. In his essay "The End of History," Francis Fukuyama even posited that history had "ended" with the collapse of communism, ushering in an era in which there would be no more great debates or challenges, but rather a bourgeois millennium of endlessly growing investment funds, a brave new world of consumer appliances. Later, the Balkans provided a crisis of moral weight sufficient to rival those earlier times--especially for those writers and journalists, mostly on the center-left, who had the courage and intrepidity to go there. But Yugoslavia's collapse was essentially a local affair, with no clear connections to the world beyond the mangled and rancid history of the region.

September 11 changed all that. Al Qaeda's war on America and America's war on terrorism provided just such a vast field for thought and action. In the months after the attacks, especially on the right, writers began identifying the radical Islamist menace with fascism--Islamo-fascism, as the catch phrase had it. The idea that the war on terror should be seen as the latter-day equivalent or extension of the battles against last century's totalitarianisms has been bandied about in opinion columns and magazine articles for more than a year with varying degrees of seriousness. Paul Berman's new book Terror and Liberalism aims to give it intellectual ballast, a moral seriousness, and analytic grounding. [...]

The heart of Berman's argument is that the violence of al Qaeda is neither simply the extreme response of an oppressed group nor the alien and unknowable product of a religion and culture fundamentally different from our own. Much of the book's first half is taken up with an effort to show that Islamism is ideologically and historically tied to the extremism's that rocked Europe and most of the rest of the world through much of the 20th century. Berman's most powerful passages are those that show the deep similarities between radical, martyrdom-obsessed Islam and the nihilist, irrationalist totalitarian movements of the early and middle 20th century. (In arguing that Baathist Arab nationalism is a latter-day variant of fascism, he seems on considerably weaker ground.)

Berman forces his readers to see the irrationalism of the extremist branch of political Islam, recognizing that the movement is not just anti-American or violent or dangerous but, in fact, deeply pathological. Like every extremist movement that posits a sufficiently transcendent utopia, it is capable of rationalizing almost any degree of brutality and butchery in achieving that goal. In radical Islamism, as in the totalitarianisms of the past, one sees the same mixture of ancient, seemingly immutable, and thus reassuring beliefs coming into vexed confrontation with modernity--and producing some hideous amalgam that combines the worst of the two. One is reminded of Churchill's warning that Nazism might cast the world into "a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of a perverted science." [...]

Berman, in other words, seeks to lay the template of fascism and anti-fascist commitment onto the current reality of fanatical Islamic terrorism and Arab nationalist authoritarianism. Yet reading his book one cannot help but feel that the equation never quite works. There are similarities both meaningful and suggestive. But the analogy is not only incomplete, it is fundamentally wrong. One can recognize the grave dangers posed by radical Islamism without forcing it into a mold in which it does not fit.

One of the book's shortcomings is Berman's argument that the world of Islam and its fanaticisms are really not so exotic or distinct from the intellectual and ideological history of Europe. When one considers the long relationship between Christianity and Islam, as well as the more recent interpenetrations brought about by Western colonialism, there is much to be said for this argument. But Berman would have to be much more thoroughly grounded in Islamic theology and history to make that argument credible, and he is quite candid with readers that this is a depth of expertise he lacks. A deeper shortcoming crops up when Berman begins to chart the course we must take to do battle against the Muslim totalitarian menace. Though the battle may sometimes require bullets and bombs, it is also a battle of ideas. That battle, Berman argues, will be principally fought in London and Paris, Jersey City and Lackawanna, the Buffalo suburb where six Yemeni immigrants recently pled guilty to visiting a bin Laden training camp in Afghanistan in 2001. [...]

When comparing "Muslim totalitarianism" to fascism, communism, or other totalitarian utopianisms, the most striking thing about radical Islamism, and the Muslim world generally, is not its strength but its weakness. Indeed, the weakness of the world of Islam--an ideology and culture that sees itself not only as superior to the West and the world's other great civilizations but as properly in the vanguard of history--is the kernel of the threat it poses, the heart of violent Islamism's toxicity. At the beginning of the 21st century most of the world is, for better or worse, rushing along the current of globalization. By any measure, the world of Islam lags far behind. With the exception of a few countries with vast amounts of wealth based on natural resources, it is impoverished and trailing the rest of the world on numerous fronts. Where is the great Muslim power? There is none. Where is the world of Islam's advanced technology-driven economy? There is none. [...]

If it weren't for the fact that fanatical Islamist terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, the sad fact is that few would even care. Of course, the fact that they could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction is a serious caveat. But it does place the issue in a certain context. It is a grave threat, but in a very specific, physical way--a threat to liberal societies but hardly the kind of ideological or political threat that great totalitarianisms posed a half a century ago. Islamist fanatics might destroy a whole city in the West, a catastrophic event. But they'll never conquer or subvert a country. And this is the heart of the difference. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger, Islamism is a danger to the West but hardly a danger in the West--or China, or Latin America, or anywhere else where Islam is not already the dominant religion.

For intellectuals, however, there is always a temptation to take momentous, morally serious questions and make them out to be slightly more momentous and world-historical than they really are. Call it the Orwellian temptation. George Orwell not only epitomized what an intellectual can and should be. He has also become the symbol of the role the best intellectuals played in those critical mid-century years. Along the way, however, the image he cast--or rather his ghost, or his shade--has also become part of the pornography of intellectuals. Berman has given way to this craving.

Note the series of errors here, in fact the "Orwell Temptation" that Mr. Marshall has fallen prey to himself. He's absolutely right that Islamism is not a serious threat to subvert our government, but neither, as we've seen, were Nazism and communism. The desire to puff up the latter two "ism's" until we can pretend that they were dire threats to our very way of life is perfectly understandable; after all, we beat them and would like to freight that with as much meaning as we possibly can. Who that would celebrate themself and their nation would seek to minimize past victories? No, as Ernest Renan (1823-92) said: "To forget and--I will venture to say--to get one's history wrong are essential factors in the making of a nation."

Turning our attention back to Islamism though, even if we need not be concerned here in America it is certainly a threat to all of the non-fundamentalist nations in the Middle East, including several democracies (Israel, India & Turkey) and several soon-to-be-something-like-democracies (Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan). Furthermore, given demographic trends, it is a more serious threat to continental Europe than ever were fascism and communism, because where those were by their very nature only temporary pathologies, the
combination of Europe's imploding birth rates and the rise of an empowered and hostile Islamic soon-to-be-majority, could spell the end of European culture, even of Europeans, within a couple generations. Of course, this would be the expansionist phase, and just the energy and repeated successes would be enough to keep Islamism going. But then, when it stretched from Kashmir to the English Channel to Central Africa, the reality of governing would set in and, like the other totalitarianism, it would be doomed to fall apart quite quickly. If Iran is a reliable indicator--and given the advantages it started out with thanks to the Westernizing of the Shah it probably offers the best case scenario, not an average one--totalitarian Islam has a life expectancy of about twenty years, or one generation. Still, over the period of expansion and then rule it would be a rival we'd have to worry about, so though not really a threat to us, it would inevitably become a focus of our policy. When you add to this prospect the likelihood of weapons of mass destruction proliferating--for instance, if we fail to attack North Korea, it will soon be building and selling nuclear weapons hand over fist--and the willingness of the Osama bin Ladens of the world to use them, and you have a world situation that is certainly no less threatening than the ones that led to WWII and the Cold War respectively. The three conflicts, just like the three totalitarianisms, are of a sameness.

So, why then does Mr. Marshall dismiss this threat? Because, of course, he opposes the wars on terror that we're waging now. Fifty years ago, he'd have been opposing the Cold War and writing the exact same column only telling us that George Orwell had succumbed to temptation by inflating communism into as great a menace as Nazism. And, fifty years from now, when we're squaring off against some new "ism" and Islamism is long since gone, some successor, or maybe Mr. Marshall himself (God willing), will be writing about how, though we obviously had to take on Islamism, just as we had to fight Nazism and communism, this new "ism", though yet another iteration of totalitarianism, is of an entirely different nature, because it's not really a threat and anyone who believes it is has given way to the craving. Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2003 4:32 PM
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