Sunday, March 12, 2006

To Hell with Them

Rich Lowry, writing in NR Digital (subscription required):

The way Bush has wed conservative opinion in the wake of 9/11 to a soaringly aspirational foreign policy has been extraordinary. It was predictable in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that conservatives would support a vigorous military response. It was not predictable that they would rally around a president who firmly maintained that “Islam is a religion of peace,” who undertook a quest for democracy in the Middle East, and who supported nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq of the sort most of the Right had rejected in the Clinton years. These positions weren’t inevitable for the Right; they were almost entirely the product of Bush’s priorities.

As Bush has weakened, so has the support for these priorities. Sotto voce, conservatives have often said among themselves of Islam, after some horrific terror attack, “This is a religion of peace?” And a small group of vocal right-wing experts have knocked Bush for his “Islam is peace” rhetoric from the beginning. The “cartoon riots” seemed to tip more conservatives into, or close to, this camp.

The Palestinian elections have undermined Bush’s contention that all people everywhere desire freedom in their hearts. If this statement is interpreted in such a way as to make it true, it becomes non-falsifiable — to wit, all people really do desire freedom although it might not be evinced in any practical way, e.g., election results. If Bush’s belief is interpreted thus, it’s not terribly comforting since it means the universal desire for freedom is limited by circumstances and buried under cultural and institutional obstacles. In other words, this supposed universal desire won’t do us much good when people hold all sorts of other competing desires, including a hunger for order, power, religious purity, ethnic solidarity, national prestige, and revenge. All of which have been on display in Iraq.

It is Iraq, of course, that is discrediting the project of nation-building. It has reminded us of the enduring importance of culture. Iraq suffers from a lack of a democratic culture, and its longstanding ethnic and tribal divisions have worked against us. Iraq has also been a lesson in the delicacy of institutions and the extreme difficulty of creating them anew. Iraq’s army, police, and governmental ministries collapsed after our invasion, and we obviously haven’t been able to reconstitute them, at least not satisfactorily.

In light of these developments, the “to hell with them” hawks want to write off reforming Islam, since they consider it inherently unreformable. They are in favor of varying levels of frankness about this evaluation, wanting either to pass over it in silence or to be open about what they see as a clash of civilizations, with Islam itself the enemy. They don’t see any relation between spreading democracy and fighting terrorism, so want to give democracy-promotion a much lower prominence in U.S. foreign policy. They see the Iraq War as essentially lost, and want to pull up stakes either immediately or as soon as is plausible without creating further disaster. They agree on the imperative of never launching such a project again.

This is a most dangerous attitude to have, precisely because it is self-fulfilling. If Americans start believing we are at war with Islam, we will soon be at war with Islam.

Rich goes on:

Whether we say “never again” is important for another reason. A key question in the political debate post-9/11 is, What kind of conflict are we in? Is it primarily a law-enforcement action, or is it a war? “To hell with them” hawks think it is a war. But there is another important question: What kind of war?

The answer is that it is most like a counterinsurgency. This doesn’t mean that the War on Terror has to be the Iraq War over and over again. It is, after all, a feature of counterinsurgencies that they aren’t exclusively military in nature. They require persuading people through a range of inducements — military, but also political, economic, and ideological — to put down their arms, or not to take them up in the first place. On a global scale, that is our task in the War on Terror.

This means we need the two qualities that we either haven’t had or are rapidly losing in Iraq: an intimate knowledge of the culture we are dealing with, and patience. We will need more engagement with the Muslim world rather than less, and more perspective rather than less. To allow a month or two of sporadic rioting over the Danish cartoons — much of it fomented and paid for by fanatics — to make us turn our backs on the Muslim world for the long term is childish. It highlights the way our enemies and the “to hell with them” hawks exist in a somewhat symbiotic relationship. They want us to quit the Middle East, and the “to hell with them” hawks wouldn’t mind quitting; our enemies say democracy is incompatible with Islam, and the “to hell with them” hawks believe them.

Graves, I think you will appreciate this part:

First, the contention that Islam is a religion of peace. Even if this seems a polite fiction, it is an important one. Influential Muslims believe it to be true, and it is crucial that they prevail in the Muslim struggle for self-definition. Rather than scorning them, we should be doing what we can to support the likes of King Abdullah of Jordan, who has launched an anti-terror initiative, and Iraq’s Ayatollah Sistani, who has been consistent in condemning terrorism. Whatever the theological niceties of Islam, religious cultures take on different colorations across time. Some people wondered whether Christianity was a religion of peace 300 years ago when rival Christian princes were warring over questions of faith.

Like Christianity, Islam has within it resources that can be used both to promote liberty and peace and to repress these things. The relative strength of these dueling resources depends in part on the political and economic conditions in which they exist. We should want to do all we reasonably can to create the conditions in which the positive elements within Islam flower.

Rich goes on:

There is no more powerful political force than legitimacy. With it, a great empire can sprawl around the world; without it, it collapses the next day. Philip Bobbitt argues in his brilliant book The Shield of Achilles that what he calls “epochal wars” always revolve around legitimacy, around the questions of what the state is and how it is to be governed. He calls the period from the First World War to the end of the Cold War the “Long War,” a running conflict over whether the legitimate government of the nation-state was fascism, communism, or parliamentary democracy.

In the Middle East today, there is a similar struggle over legitimacy. How should Arab and surrounding states be governed — secular fascism, religious dictatorship, or a semi-democratic parliamentarianism? This struggle is mixed up with complicated ethnic and sectarian divisions, making it particularly nettlesome, but to pretend we have no stake in it is folly. How Muslim states and populations are governed makes a difference in the expression of Islam. Witness the relative moderation of Islamic populations in Turkey, Indonesia, and India.

“To hell with them” hawks suffer from an awful case of presentism. Because for the last 30 years there has been a rising tide of Islamic radicalism, they conclude it is inevitable. But radical Islam is an ideology, and ideologies don’t rise out of nothing. They exist in relation to political and state power, and to economic success, and their prestige rises or falls with these factors. In the 1960s, “to hell with them” hawks might have said, “All Arabs must be nationalists.” Arab nationalism delivered political and economic stagnation, and duly declined, with Islamism taking its place.

The key moment in the advance of radical Islam was Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran in 1979. The mullahs became the biggest boosters of suicide bombing. The burst of Iranian ideological energy scared the Saudis. Worried about losing leadership of the Islamic world, they began an international campaign of evangelism on behalf of Wahhabism. These two developments changed the iteration of global Islam. It wasn’t inevitable that this change take place, and it needn’t inevitably endure. Further, the geopolitical context of the Middle East mattered in making this change happen, and it will matter to reversing it.

The contemporary Middle East has featured a competition of radicalisms — who can be religiously purer, and more hostile to the West? The project in Iraq is an attempt to shift the terms of the competition to who can better deliver peace, prosperity, and representation. If this shift occurs, it will be a grave blow to the legitimacy of radical Islam. The radicals realize this, which is why they hope to defeat us in Iraq and in so doing trash the legitimacy of semi-democratic parliamentarianism.

“To hell with them” hawks would say, “Fine, but since Iraq isn’t capable of any sort of democracy, you are on a fool’s errand.” But the outcome of the conflict in Iraq is still in doubt. Confident predictions about which cultures are or are not capable of democracy have the aspect of unassailable truth — right up to the point that they don’t. Representative Arab government will be impossible until it happens.

Skeptics about the relation between political systems and terrorism in the Middle East point to the existence of homegrown terrorists in Britain to show violent extremism can exist in liberal democracies. Of course it can. But such extremism in many cases reflects the tentacles of Saudi money and propaganda. During the Cold War, there were also homegrown Communists in Western societies, but when the center of Communism, the Soviet Union, collapsed, these Communists disappeared. Similarly, if the Middle East, the heart of the Muslim world, didn’t have so many players sanctioning extremism and violence, there would be fewer homegrown fanatics.

“To hell with them” hawks implicitly promise that if we deny extremists sophisticated technology, and secure ourselves at home, we can be safe. But it is the fire in the minds of men that matters most. As long as there are countless young men who want to do us harm, and are willing to die in the process, it is going to be hard to deny them the materials or the access to the U.S. necessary to do it. The key is to try to see that the fire itself begins to die out. There is no chance of that happening without changes in the Middle East that will require calling on all aspects of our power — economic, diplomatic, ideological, as well as military — in a drawn-out, unconventional kind of political warfare.

For believers in a clash in civilizations, the “to hell with them” hawks have an odd attitude toward their own. They want to put our civilization in a permanent posture of strategic defense. In Cold War terms, they believe in Containment rather than Rollback. Containment was a successful strategy, but especially so when Ronald Reagan invested it with aspects of Rollback, launching insurgencies against Communist states and engaging in unapologetic evangelism for the Western cause.

Like the “to hell with them” hawks, the Crusaders of old believed in a clash of civilizations. But they wanted to spread the one, true faith; the “to hell with them” hawks want to enhance port security. Perhaps it is President Bush who is most serious about engaging in a war of civilizations, seeking to translate key aspects of our civilization to theirs (while at the same time shrewdly denying that there is any clash of civilizations, to help make the medicine go down). What Islamists are attempting to do in Europe, Bush is attempting in the Middle East.

As I've said before, we must stay engaged. If we don't, it's only going to get worse.


Blogger Super 6 said...

You gotta git rid of the black background, too hard on this old guy's eyes. Great post........

9:58 PM  
Blogger Aristides said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...



(But agree about the black background. Also, it is difficult to tell where Rich Lowry speaks and where you do.)

Jamie Irons

9:39 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

Changed it, should be better now.

6:30 PM  

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