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Liberal War Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War: Round 3 By: Slate
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, January 28, 2004

(This is the Round 3 of Slate's symposium. To see Round 2 Click Here)

Slate's Panel:

Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism and The Passion of Joschka Fischer, which is forthcoming in the spring.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author of Longitudes and Attitudes.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. His most recent book is A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq.

Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate and is the author of The Wizards of Armageddon.

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article about the occupation recently appeared. He is working on a book about America in Iraq.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq.

Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, of In An Uncertain World.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.


From: George Packer
To: Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, Kenneth Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Winning the Cold War for Democracy
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004, at 10:23 AM PT

There are several topics that run through the letters you've published, so I'll try to sort them out that way instead of just answering individual posts.

1. Totalitarianism.

I'm a great admirer of Paul Berman and Terror and Liberalism (my thoughts about it can be found on the back jacket). Paul understood and explained the ideological nature of the 9/11 attacks before anyone else, and in my view his essential argument still holds up. But Paul's argument is grand theory, rooted in history, literature, and philosophy, and one thing it does not do is provide a readily apparent strategy. In the case of Iraq, its altitude is too high to explain the war and its aftermath. Because we are fighting Muslim totalitarianism, Paul says, and because Saddam was a totalitarian who was also a Muslim, the war in Iraq was the first, or second, step to take in the fight. But why does that necessarily follow? Baathism was not a rising totalitarian mania. It was a decaying totalitarian ideology that had long since lost its ability to inspire millions across borders to engage in mass acts of murder and suicide (to use Paul's terms). According to Kanan Makiya, the original expert on Baathism (see Republic of Fear), Iraq after the Gulf War lost its totalitarian nerve and became a criminal state: This explains the condition of its bureaucracy and, to an extent, the mind-set of its people after liberation. Conflating Saddam's regime with the worldwide Islamist movement leads to serious intellectual confusion and makes it harder to keep the latter in our sights. It also, in the short run, has unquestionably made it harder to fight the latter—the U.S. military had to pull special forces troops out of eastern Afghanistan to be used in counterinsurgency in Iraq. I wasn't surprised to read yesterday that Saddam warned Iraqi insurgents against cooperating with Islamists coming across the borders to fight jihad.

The Iraq war was unfinished business from the 1990s, an extension of arguments about the assertion of American power (see back issues of Commentary and Weekly Standard) and humanitarian war (see back issues of Dissent and the New Republic). Now that Saddam is gone and we're in Iraq, of course we should do everything possible to create conditions for liberalism to take root; and there's a chance that in the very long run those conditions could spread to other Muslim countries now controlled by dictatorships. In this sense, Paul and Tom Friedman are saying much the same thing, in different language. Before the war, I was ready to accept these possibilities as one argument for war, but about this my view has changed: The time I spent in Iraq was an education in the limits of war as an instrument of political transformation and the limits of America as its standard-bearer. Liberal democracy requires participation and consent, and as long as American military power is the prime tool for building it, Muslims around the world are unlikely to change their ideas. We need to decouple America and the promotion of democracy; the Iraq war did the opposite. The fact that tens of millions of Muslims around the world harbor increasingly hateful feelings toward America might not be rational, but it is a serious problem if this is a war for liberalism (as I think it is), though it isn't a reason not to fight worldwide Islamism.

2. Democracy abroad.

This might well be the only long-term answer to Islamism and its terrors. The Bush administration sometimes says so, but its actions often undermine its speechwriters' best efforts. As far as I can tell, the top policymakers see the war on terrorism as a matter of killings terrorists, as many as possible, which fits with the hard-edged "realism" most of them brought to the administration. The problem is that we don't know how to change other societies. Iraq so far is a sharp lesson in humility. Supporters of the war are fond of analogizing to Germany and Japan, but those countries had experienced total defeat after prolonged war, and the occupying powers enjoyed a legitimacy that the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq can only look back on with envy. In Eastern Europe, long-term support for dissidents helped end Communism and pave the way for democracy. But those forces were internal. There are very few comparable trends in the Muslim world today, outside of Iran. War is a very blunt instrument for such delicate work—going into Iraq with tanks and then trying to nurture democrats is like doing the finish on cabinetry with a sledgehammer. The war set powerful forces in motion that at the moment are hardly moving in a democratic direction.

The alternative model is something more like the Cold War than World War II—a long, difficult campaign, on many fronts, economic, political, cultural, as well as military, to nurture liberal forces in Muslim dictatorships without strengthening the hand of their enemies, until large parts of those societies begin to embrace liberal ideas. This is unglamorous, frustrating work. It doesn't provide a quick moral frisson. And it requires a longer attention span than most Americans, including liberals, hawks, or combinations of the two, have generally been able to muster.

3. Democracy at home.

Fred Kaplan is right: How we went to war matters a lot (which is why I wrote in my first post that the weapons question remains a scandal waiting for a dramatizer—perhaps a journalist as polemically gifted as Christopher Hitchens was when it came to the deceptions of Nixon, Kissinger, and Clinton). Bush damaged alliances and institutions abroad because, as his national security strategy makes plain, he thinks they're disposable. (The damage done by the French was about equal—this was a case of codependency.) As for democratic process at home, the president has never shown a great deal of regard for that, either. By March, when Fred wrote his renunciation, the wreckage was already considerable, the war inevitable—and as far as being able to pull it off, that depends on what "it" is. For me, it was getting rid of Saddam and his regime. But the things Bush broke on the way to war badly need repair—not just as ends in themselves, but because without alliances and institutions, and without the informed consent of the American public, we're a lot less likely to win the larger war that started on Sept. 11.

George Packer

From: Fred Kaplan
To: Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Kenneth M. Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Why Was Saddam Anti-Jihad?
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004, at 10:58 AM PT

George Packer's dispatch relieves me of the need to deal with Paul Berman's salvo. He makes the same point I would have, plus three or four others, all of them more elegantly. Let me follow up on a point George made with a question, aimed specifically at Paul and Christopher, but that anyone should feel free to pick up: What do you make of Jim Risen's front-page story in today's New York Times, reporting that, before he was captured (but after he went into hiding), Saddam Hussein wrote a directive to his insurgent-followers, urging them to stay away from the foreign jihadists who were coming in to battle the Americans and who, S.H. apparently emphasized, had incompatibly different goals and motives?

From: Paul Berman
To: Thomas Friedman, Christopher Hitchens, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Kenneth Pollack, Jacob Weisberg, and Fareed Zakaria
Subject: Only the Left Can Win the War of Ideas
Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004, at 3:31 PM PT

I have always believed that Bush's principal public justifications for the war in Iraq were mendacious, and I've said so all along. The mendacities have caused a huge number of problems, too, and one of those problems has been to get everyone to play "gotcha" with Bush instead of looking at what seems to be happening in the present. An example: today's story today about Saddam and his directive not to collaborate with jihadists.

The claim that Saddam and Osama were in cahoots was one of Bush's principal mendacities—an unlikely claim, which, if it had any truth at all, was likely to be a very tiny truth. And yet, because of that claim, the discovery in Iraq of Saddam's directive is seen as news. The news is: "See! Bush was wrong yet again! Saddam did not, in fact, want to conspire with the partisans of radical Islamism." But there is no news here. Saddam wants his Arab Baath Socialist Party to get back into power. Saddam does not want to see a victory for radical Islamism. He does not want to see his own movement get taken over by foreign Islamists. And why is that?

It is because these two movements, Baathism and radical Islamism, have many differences. Baathism is a species of radical Arab nationalism. It is semi-secular, sometimes even with a touch of leftism. Radical Islamism is ultra-theocratic. Different styles, different rhetorics, different ultimate goals. A lot of mutual hatred.

In the past, the United States and many another hapless government around the world adopted the policy of playing those two movements against each another in the hope of reducing terrorist dangers to ourselves. That is why, during the Reagan years, the United States supported Saddam and his Baath—in the hope of damaging the radical Islamists of Iran. Other countries, following the same logic, supported some of the wings of radical Islamism—in the hope of constraining the more violent or terrorist-inclined radical Arab nationalists. Anwar Sadat in Egypt supported the Islamists on this basis (though a radical Islamist group ended up assassinating him), and so did the French (for a while, which they came to regret), and so did the Israelis (in the forlorn hope that Islamist piety would quiet down the radical nationalist champions of violence).

Those were Machiavellian maneuvers, which sometimes may have made sense, in the short run. But the longer run has turned out to be a disaster for everyone—for the Arab and Muslim worlds, for the Israelis, the French, and even for us. And why did these efforts to play the two movements against each other prove to be disastrous? It was because radical Islamism and Baathism (to restrict the discussion to that one branch of radical Arab nationalism) do have their differences. But they also have a lot in common, beginning with their respective doctrines, at a fundamental level. They share, to wit:

      1) A Paranoid Conspiracy Theory, according to which the Arab world (for the Baath) or the world of Islam (for the Islamists) is under a massive assault by a sinister and cosmic conspiracy of Zionists (and/or Jews, and/or Masons) and Crusaders (and/or Western imperialists).

      2) An Apocalyptic Fantasy. The cosmic conspiracy will be defeated in order to reinstate the Golden Age of Islam in the seventh century, described as the Islamic Caliphate (by the Islamists) or as the Arab Empire based on Islam (by the Baath)—though both movements picture the reinstated seventh century as a high-tech extravaganza, a kind of modernity.   

      3) A Tyrannical Plan: The reinstated Golden Age will require an extreme police-state, described as the pious reign of Shariah or Quranic law (by the Islamists) or as the reign of brotherly Arab love (by the Baath).

      4) A Cult of Death: the belief that masses of people should die, and death will strengthen the larger cause. The Iran-Iraq War was conducted on this basis, which is why it was one of the ghastliest things that has happened in modern times. And, as a consequence of that same Cult of Death, both movements, Baathism and radical Islamism alike, took to promoting random terror attacks.

The specific tactic of suicide terror is said to have been originally a specialty of the radical Islamists in Iran, who exported it to the Hezbollah in Lebanon—the people who truck-bombed the U.S. Marine barracks there (and French barracks, too). Since Lebanon was at that moment under the control of the Syrian Baath, it has always seemed likely that a bit of Baath-Islamist cooperation was already underway, in the cause of suicide terror—which is to say, collaboration between these movements is, in principle, not absolutely out of the question.

In any case, both movements, not just the Islamists, ended up promoting the larger vogue of suicide terror. Young men wearing shrouds—the costumes of suicide terrorists—marched in the Baathist military parade in Baghdad before the invasion, just to show that the Iraqi Baath was already planning for suicide terror. The Iraqi Baath is reported to have sent genuinely large sums of money to reimburse the families of Palestinian suicide terrorists. (Suicide terror has frequently been a matter of paying people.) Why did suicide terror become such a large fad in recent years? Because enormous institutions were promoting it, including some of the most enormous of all, the Baath and the Islamist movement.

So, then—Baathism and radical Islamism have their differences. But it ought to be obvious that, even so, these are branches of a larger single movement, and the nature of that movement ought to be recognizable to us. For what are these doctrines? The Paranoid Conspiracy Theory, the Apocalyptic Fantasy, the Tyrannical Plan, the Cult of Death—these things are old stand-bys of modern history. They are the central tenets of European fascism (and, in some respects, of Stalinism), which have been adapted into Muslim and Arab dialects by a variety of theoreticians. And this single movement, which I call Muslim totalitarianism, has, over the last quarter century, killed millions—exactly as European totalitarianism did, in its time.

George Packer worries that conflating the Baath and the Islamists into a single movement will sow an intellectual confusion. Yes, that can happen. But I think the principle confusion that has beset us in the last few decades has been the failure to see what these two movements have in common—the ways in which they are wings of a single movement.

George calls for a Cold War tactic of ideological pressure, which should last many years. I couldn't agree more. I salute him. He himself has done more than anyone to raise these points. A rifle and a cruise missile are surely the worst of all tools for helping some other society construct a liberal political culture. Still, terrorist attacks against Americans have been going on ever since 1983, and we may not want to wait another 21 years for the vogue of suicide terror to come to an end.

So, there is a logic for extremely crude responses, in spite of everything. (And let us not rule out at least a few crumbs of success, just because other methods would be a million times preferable. Things are terrible in Afghanistan today; and yet, a properly Muslim version of liberal democracy does seem at least thinkable there, lately. In Afghanistan!—one of the most rustic, far-away, un-middle-class societies on earth! And there is the exemplary model of Iraqi Kurdistan …)

But, yes, totalitarian movements can ultimately be defeated only in the realm of ideas. Millions of people have to be persuaded to change their ideas. Not forced—persuaded. Which is to say, someone has to go out there and try to persuade people.

On this point, which happens to be the most important point of all, Bush has failed us almost totally. It is pretty outrageous. His failure to take up these matters ought to be seen as a calamity. But then, who has been making up for this terrible failure of his? Who has taken up the burden to wage a really extensive war of ideas, a war of TV networks, radio programs, lectures, books, magazines, and everything else? I don't mean something small—I mean a massive campaign.

I think the political right is incapable of waging such a war, by virtue of its own militaristic and isolationist instincts. The neocons do sometimes talk about a war of ideas, but, on these matters, neoconservatism is all talk, no action. So, then, this should be the business of people on the left side of the spectrum. But where are the Democrats, on these matters? The left? This is truly a problem, and nobody seems to be doing very much about it, not on a grand scale, anyway.

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