Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Stuck in Westphalia

[posted by Callimachus]

As America does its slow dance of defeat in Iraq, we should attend to the lives of the people we have sent over there to do a job we bailed out on before they finished. We should attend to those who have come home already with wounds and crippling conditions, and to the survivors of the slain. We should attend to the Iraqi people who stood by us and cast their lot with the vision we dangled before them, then yanked away, of a free, strong, prosperous place to live.

I'm trying to do my part for all that. But, over my shoulder, I can't help but note some people who don't seem to care much about doing any of that are busying themselves writing history in advance: The anti-war people, who have the luxury of not really doing or saying anything positive while they toast retreat and wait for the big change in January 2009. Currently they're sorting out whether to write the story so that the entire adventure was a fool's errand, doomed from the start, or whether it was doomed by specific post-invasion decisions or indecisions by the criminal Bu$h gang.

Shrubbie & Co. are the cartoon villains of the piece. But when the official victors' history is written, I predict plenty of bile will be hosed at the turncoat liberals, the humanitarian and conscientious people who normally never would have found themselves taking the same side as a George W. Bush in anything so drastic as this.

Already it begins. Here, Scott Lemieux sneers at "one of the more bizarre manifestations of pro-Bush's-war liberalism, Paul Berman's attempt to fit Islamic terrorism seamlessly into the WWII and/or Cold War models of conflict, as a fight waged against totalitarianism."

Well, is it or isn't it totalitarianism? It seems that's something that can be persuasively argued down, and not merely dismissed with an ad hominem. Lemieux cites this 2005 "Nation" column by Stephen Holmes which attempts to bitch-slap Berman and his ilk.

His analogies, first of all, are tendentious to an extreme. Islamist murderousness resembles Bolshevik and Nazi murderousness. The planetary battle against terrorism (World War IV) resembles the planetary battle against communism. Baath dictatorship resembles Islamic militancy. The problem with such comparisons is not only that they are strained. They are also transparently calculated to serve a partisan political program.

Yet that assistance to other agendas need not be collusion and doesn't ipso facto make them false. Neither Lemieux nor Holmes seems interested in looking at this, however, only in dismissing it as idiocy.

If you read Qutb or Bin Laden, clearly their world-view is totalitarian. It happens to be rooted in religion, not in the essentially secular (but subversively spiritual) systems of communism and fascism -- Holmes notices this much. Yet it is just as totalitarian as they are. That the Islamist political worldview is hostile to atheist Soviet communism doesn't change their fundamental similarity as totalitarianisms. The individual is subsumed into the proposed system in a complete and total way in both.

It is totalitarian; I defy anyone to prove otherwise. And like the other great totalitarianisms of the 20th century, it insists it is the true and ultimate freedom of mankind. It sets itself in firm opposition to Western capitalism and decadent liberal democracy -- as did Hitler and Stalin.

You need not say, as some do, that the Islamists borrowed these grand, awful ideas from the West. They found them independently. Just as modern anti-globalists criticize the capitalist corporations in the same frame and terms (but with less rhetorical skill) that the Southern slaveholders of the 1850s used against the Yankee industrialists, without having any essential identity with them.

Islamism finds common cause with communism and fascism in having a common enemy -- us. Like fascism, it is full of yearning for a mythical past golden age, it despises and fears Jews as the authors of conspiracies. Like Soviet communism, it is deeply (if often hypocritically) collectivist, socialist. Both of those come from Islam itself. You need not posit a Western source, though the convergence does, perhaps, help explain the perverse fondness of certain fringes in our society for certain fringes in theirs.

What you're left with in considering the totalitarianism question -- and what some have said, though not Lemieux and Holmes, as far as I read them -- is that the difference is, both fascism and communism had control of powerful nation-states, while Islamists do not. Yet.

[Shortly after 9/11 the satirical newspaper site "The Onion" ran a story to the effect of George W. Bush offering to buy Osama a country and build him a capital -- so we could bomb it to the stone age.]

I suppose the reason Berman's critics don't go there is that it re-elevates Islamism to the level of the great 20th century mass killing ideologies -- where Berman has placed it. For there was a time when they, too, were not yet empowered.

Which is an interesting parallel path to consider. If you were the leader of America in the 1920s, and you foresaw the rise of Hitler and his party, how would you have stopped him? Invade Germany? Or do something to reverse the economic despair and political impotence felt by the German people? Or both? Could it have worked? Or do you have to wait for the dictator to complete his rise to power and reveal himself?

America and other powers did try to halt the rise of Soviet communism through military intervention. But, like Iraq today, the American people soon lost track of the point of what seemed an endless mission to nowhere, and they complained to Congress and Army morale suffered, and we gave it up.

The difference, of course, was that Iraq in 2003 was not at imminent threat of becoming the next Islamist nation. Saudi Arabia or Pakistan would have been high on that list. But Iraq seemed to be, as I've said, not a bad place to begin to do something to reverse the economic despair and political impotence felt by the Arab Muslim people. To this day, I have no idea exactly why George W. Bush went to war. But that was my reason -- that and the lesson that you have to clean up the messes you leave behind after wars (as we didn't do in the Civil War and World War I and the Cold War, and we paid and continue to pay the price).

One of the principal criticism leveled at Berman is that he insists on some sort of Saddam-9/11 connection. This is one of the most frustrating topics for me. Of course there was a connection. But it's nothing like people imagine, whether they insist on it or they mock the very idea of it. It was a clear, explicit connection, stated plainly time and time again by Bin Laden himself, both before and after the attack.

Here, for instance, in the interview he gave to Al-Jazeera correspondent Tayseer Alouni in October 2001:

When we kill their innocents, the entire world from east to west screams at us, and America rallies its allies, agents, and the sons of its agents. Who said that our blood is not blood, but theirs is? Who made this pronouncement? Who has been getting killed in our countries for decades? More than 1 million children, more than 1 million children died in Iraq and others are still dying. Why do we not hear someone screaming or condemning, or even someone's words of consolation or condolence?

The sufferings of the Iraqi people -- under the U.N. sanctions regime as a result of the Gulf War -- always figured high on his short list of specific grievances against the West. Whether he felt that sincerely or not, I can't say. But the suffering was real, Saddam's continuance in power was the cause of it, and the U.N. sanctions only hurt the innocent while the guilty prospered by bribing their way through them. Saddam most of all.

Somehow I suspect that won't make it into the histories, as written by the victors.

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