Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Terror And Liberalism

One of the persistent complaints I have heard in the last few years is that the Democrats do not have a consistent and comprehensive foreign policy to match that of the Republicans. Indeed, for the most part the Democrats have been reduced to doing nothing more than bitching about Republican failings, without necessarily having any viable alternatives to offer in return. Even my own candidate, Howard Dean, has only offered vague notions of engaging the international community more in efforts in the Middle East. I support this of course, but it still seems vaguely dissatisfying. It worries me that a lack of something substantive on this point will ultimately bury Dean's candidacy. For, while I think the Bush foreign policy is a joke, its simple raft of cowboy platitudes has a certain visceral appeal that, in the absence of any viable alternatives, will win over the muddled middle in the end. I'd like to recommend to the Dean campaign, and other members of the Democratic establishment, that they go out and buy a new book by Paul Berman called "Terror and Liberalism". Berman writes from a liberal perspective about the failings of liberalism in response to totalitarianism while, at the same time, hilighting the fact that it is liberalism, more than anything else, that is the primary bug-a-boo of the totalitarian mindset (of both the left and right varieties). Berman begins this work with a review of the history of the development of nihilism and totalitarianism (the later of which can be characterized as a form of nihilism on a nationalistic scale) and the many atrocities that have resulted from these phenomena. He then goes into a long analysis of the rise of Islamism and how it bears many striking similarities to European models of totalitarianism. Among these are the belief that there is a small group that can be considered to the People Of God, that these People are being attacked both from within and without and that they must surrender their wills to a higher power and its representatives on Earth if they are to establishment the thousand year kingdom of God that has been promised so much in myth. Berman wraps this into a discussion of the complete failure of many on the left to comprehend that the totalitarian ways of the 20th century did not end with fall of the Berlin Wall but have simply found new and fertile ground in the Middle East. Berman is particular harsh in his analysis of liberal reaction to this phenomena, hilighting its historical tendency to excuse the mass psychosis that accompanies totalitarianism and to look instead for some rational explanation for fundamentally irrational behavior. The liberal tradition requires more than just an attempt to find excuses for this behavior since, as Berman clearly demonstrates (to me at least), totalitarianism is, in large part, a reaction to the failures of liberalism in the 20th century. This will be an uncomfortable book for some liberals to read because of this criticism and the fact that Berman does not automatically condemn George W. Bush for his own failures. He points them out where he thinks they are, but he tends to give Bush the benefit of the doubt when talking about where he has gone wrong while also pointing out where he has gone right. Berman is, perhaps, a bit more lenient on Bush and harsher on liberals than I would be, but his points are to well argued to simply dismiss them outright. And how does this tie back into the point I started with? Berman concludes by arguing that the War on Terror cannot simply be about pounding people into the ground until they come back to their senses. It is a war that has to be fought as much on the intellectual battlefield as on the physical one. He illustrates this by a discussion of the post World War II period in Western Europe where, for several years, there was the real fear that France and other countries would fall before the intellectual juggernaut that was Communism at that time. To combat this America and the West engaged the East in a battle of ideas before it ever got into a battle of guns and managed, through shear intellectual argument, to win Western Europe away from Soviet domination. I think you an appreciate the difficulty here, but let me quote Berman on this point (all typos mine):
There was never any doubt that, given a sufficient American diplomatic effort, Bush would be able to secure the approval and even the participation of all sorts of allies in the Terror War--if not the United Nations in every instance, then some other group of nations, as in the Kosovo War: an alliance of Western countries and of Muslim countries, the First and Third Worlds in motley combination. America's power was large, and putting down the terrorist groups was in many people's interests. It was not a matter of us against the universe. And yet, having raised the issue of preemptive wars, Bush also raised the issue of American unilateralism--which was bound to make countries all over the world feel that, on matters of war and peace, they had lost their say. In this fashion, Bush ensured that even in those instances when he did secure United Nations approval, the backing was going to be reluctant, begrudging, and unpopular--an approval won by strong-arm pressures and by promises of sweetheart oil deals in a post-war Iraq, and not by any appeal to the higher motives of a liberal civilization. Why did he do that? For no reason. For reasons of ideology. Maybe out of inexperience. For lack of time to ponder the alternatives. Or who knows? Here, in any case, was the great, frightening truth of all modern history, laid out for everyone to inspect once again--the great truth that vast consequences flow from inconsequential-seeming causes, and that a systematic logic does not govern world events, and that chance occurrences frame the largest of phenomena: in this case, the chance occurrence that, at a moment of supreme crisis, the world's most powerful person happened to be George W. Bush.
The argument that Dean or any other Democrat can make on foreign policy is that the issues confronting the world today require a war of ideas as much, if not more, than they require a war of missiles and bombs. The people of the Middle East have been raised on an exegis of Qu'ranic principles that says that their very way of life is under attack by a liberal and secular west that proposes the ultimate of blasphemies: that there are some aspects of life for which we should not always appeal to God first before our own abilities. How many people in the west truly appreciate how offensive the idea of secular government is to Muslims who have been raised on militant Islamist teachings? We will never win a battle against an idea like that with bombs. We certainly won't win it with 30 second commercials on Al'Jazeera or radio stations that play a mixture of western style Arabic rock. To win this battle we have to engage the Muslim world in an intense intellectual discussion about the most fundamental aspects of human existence and this is a task for which George W. Bush is wholely unsuited. The Democrats are idealy suited to this battle, or at least they should be, certainly far more than the Republicans, because it is Liberal ideas that are the crux of the battle and who better to defend them than Liberals? Update: This post was written at 3:30 in the morning after devouring this book in a single sitting. So, apologies if it was kind of rambling. Let me try and reduce it to something short and simple: the current threat from terrorism is really just the latest manifestation of reactionary totalitarianism that is a rebellion against Western liberalism. Winning the war on terror will require a lot more than just more bombs and more bodies. It will require engaging the people of the Middle East on the intellectual battleground in a war of ideas. Obviously, Bush is not up to this task. Governor Dean, or whoever gets the nomination, needs to convince the electorate that (1) the war on terror is a war of ideas and (2) that he is better suited to winning that war than is Bush. The latter should be easy. It is the former that will be the tricky part.


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