“America-First” conservatives are in fury and despair over America’s steady march toward war. They fear that a U.S. invasion and takeover of Iraq will bring not only the obvious dangers attendant on any war and occupation, but also the empowerment of the global-democratist agenda being pushed by prominent neoconservative war advocates. As many conservative war critics see it, this agenda consists of exporting America’s ever-more extreme version of individual freedom to the rest of the world within the framework of a global American hegemony, while destroying whatever remains of America’s own historical culture and national unity through unrestricted immigration. Perhaps more than any other single consideration, the current policy of waging war against our jihadist enemies abroad while continuing to welcome them into America has created an insuperable distrust on the part of many conservatives toward the Bush administration and the neoconservatives, who are (or aspire to be) the chief articulators of Bush’s war strategy.
I agree with the antiwar right that these are legitimate reasons to be wary of the coming war against Iraq. But the analysis cannot stop there. Given that the possible results of inaction in this case (Saddam Hussein armed with deliverable weapons of mass destruction and passing them on to terrorist groups) are vastly more horrible than the possible results of action (America bogged down in a Mideast imperium for a few years while continuing its slow cultural hemorrhage at home), the fear of foreign entanglements cannot, by itself, be the main factor in deciding what to do about Iraq. I am dismayed at those paleoconservatives and Buchananites who, out of hatred of neoconservatives and reactive opposition to President Bush, refuse even to acknowledge the logical possibility that military action against Iraq may be called for. It is up to responsible conservatives to engage in a delicate balancing act, supporting whatever steps — including war — may be needed to remove the threat we face from terrorists and terror-supporting regimes, while continuing to be on guard against the utopian ideological project that the neoconservatives are trying to promote by means of such a war.
In this light, it might be useful to look at some of the beliefs that, in the minds of the neoconservatives and of President Bush himself, justify that project and make it seem practicable. As we shall see, those beliefs are not only wrongheaded in themselves, but they may well be part of what has gotten us in trouble with the Muslim extremists in the first place.
Everybody’s the same.
In a talk published in the September 2002 Imprimis, Midge Decter says that if we defeat Hussein and stay in the Mideast for the long haul, we can succeed in transforming the entire region in a more free and democratic direction: “That, after all, is what happened in Germany. We stayed there. We took the Germans through the ritual of de-Nazification. And then came Konrad Adenauer [who] with the strength of our friendship and commitment behind him ... brought the Germans from darkness to light.”
The obvious problem with the idea of America re-ordering the Arab Mideast just as it did post-Nazi Germany is that Arabs are not like Germans. As a friend put it to me recently, Germans do what they are told and Arabs do not; Germans are governable and Arabs are not — a view supported by the complete absence of consensual government anywhere in the Arab world. There is simply no basis for assuming that West Germany’s political and moral reformation following World War II proves that the same sort of thing can happen in any Arab country, let alone in all Arab countries. Remember also that parliamentary democracy had existed in Germany prior to Hitler under the Weimar Republic, and that, even before Weimar, Germany had many of the prerequisites of democracy that today’s Arab states have never possessed, such as the rule of law, an impartial judiciary, an educated populace, a mostly free press, and a government dedicated to the public interest.
Decter nevertheless believes that a democratic transformation of Arab society is entirely achievable, and here is her reason: “[T]he world is everywhere full of ordinary people who want exactly what we want, though they may not even dare to dream of it. [Emphasis added.] Whether they are Asians or Africans or Middle Easterners or Latin Americans, what they want is a decent place to live, decent food to eat, to be able to stick around long enough to watch their children grow and prosper, and perhaps above all, not to get pushed around by people with guns in their hands.”
As silly as it sounds, what Decter is telling us is that all human beings are identical in the attributes that matter politically, and that the attributes that matter politically are simply the universal human instincts for food, shelter, and physical survival. Because Muslims have the same physical needs as ourselves, the same desire to raise children, and the same preference not to be cruelly mistreated, that, according to Decter, means that we can successfully transplant American-style democracy into their countries, and that they will have the ability and will to nurture and preserve it!
Norman Podhoretz’s article in the September issue of Commentary, “In Praise of the Bush Doctrine,” compliments the argument advanced by his wife Midge Decter. After elucidating several aspects of President Bush’s war on terrorism that most conservatives, including some paleocons, would probably agree with, such as the rejection of moral relativism and the re-conception of terror as a military rather than a criminal problem, Podhoretz unfolds a more controversial notion that he sees as the animating core of the Bush Doctrine: the advance of global democracy. In a speech to the graduating class at West Point on June 1, 2002, the President declared:
“The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.”
The danger here does not lie in the President’s rather conservative enumeration of liberal principles (in which he avoids, for example, the usual liberal buzzwords such as “diversity,” “inclusion,” or substantive “equality”), but rather in his insistence (enthusiastically backed by Podhoretz) that these principles be instituted for every people and culture in the world. Furthermore, as in Midge Decter’s article, Bush’s moral and pragmatic justification for this global model is the idea that everyone in the world is the same:
“When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes.... Mothers and fathers and children across the Islamic world, and all the world, share the same fears and aspirations. In poverty, they struggle. In tyranny, they suffer. And as we saw in Afghanistan, in liberation they celebrate.”
True, all people in the world have the same abstract rights, as well as the same basic human needs and hopes and fears. But, as I pointed out earlier, none of that proves that any particular people has the specific attributes and aspirations that are needed to maintain a constitutional representative democracy. Podhoretz himself acknowledges as much: after quoting the above passage by the President, he ruefully notes that in the Muslim Mideast, mothers and fathers, who according to Bush have the same feelings and aspirations as mothers and fathers everywhere, “were celebrating Palestinian children (including their own) who blew themselves up as a way of killing as many Israeli Jews as possible.”
Given these formidable obstacles on the road to global democracy, Podhoretz recognizes that the transformation of the Mideast is not going to be generated from within. Therefore, going way beyond anything the President has suggested, he urges that the United States overthrow the regimes of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority, and that the U.S. then “impose a new political culture on the defeated parties. This is what we did directly and unapologetically in Germany and Japan after winning World War II.... ” While Podhoretz admits, in a partial bow to reality, that these countries, even under America’s benevolent guidance, could not be expected to become democratic overnight, he nevertheless insists that there is no essential reason why Islam couldn’t become modern and democratic, just as Judaism and Christianity did before it.
Thus, however differently they may articulate their respective visions of global democracy, the President and the neoconservatives have the same bottom line. In order to make those visions plausible, they must imagine that the most profound differences between different cultures do not really exist (Bush and Decter) or, if they do exist, that they can be readily overcome by government action (Podhoretz). The neoconservative project, like the liberalism from which it sprang, turns out to be a form of global utopianism.
Why they want to kill us
So much for America’s desire to uplift the Muslims.What about the other side of the coin—the Muslims’ desire to harm us? Ever since the September 11 attack, President Bush, mainstream politicians, and the neoconservatives have kept repeating the mantra that Al Qaeda attacked us because of “our freedoms” — “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other,” as the President put it in his historic speech to the Congress on September 20, 2001. I confess that this idea has never made the slightest sense to me. Why should Muslims be enraged against us for the freedoms we enjoy in our own country? Whoever heard of people on one side of the world hating and mass murdering people on the other side of the world, simply because the latter had certain political and personal liberties that the former didn’t have and apparently didn’t want?
In terms of global democratization, however, this odd-sounding explanation of the Muslims’ motives begins to make a good deal of sense. If freedom no longer means the freedom which we Americans have historically practiced and enjoyed, and which we benevolently hoped that other countries would adopt when they were ready for it; if freedom means, instead, the equal right and instant claim to the full panoply of American-style freedoms for everyone in the world, including Muslims; if such freedom further implies that it is our mission to bestow (or rather, as Podhoretz puts it, to impose) those freedoms on them; and if, moreover, the very concept of freedom has been expanded to mean, not ordered liberty within a particular cultural and moral tradition (which was what Americans once had), but radical individualism with its destruction of all tradition, then, suddenly, it becomes perfectly understandable why Muslims should fear and hate us for our “freedoms” — because those freedoms, which we are trying to force on them, threaten their very existence as Muslims.
Universal democratism requires the reduction of all human beings to a low common denominator: the abstract individual possessing the same equal rights as everyone else in the world, but stripped of the social, biological, and transcendent dimensions that provide the real context and meaning of human life. And that’s why Muslims, who of all cultural groups are the most incompatible with Western individualism, are the most threatened by our naïve and arrogant claims of global sameness — and by our attempt to construct a new world order in the image of that sameness.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying, as anti-Americans on both the right and the left say, that the radical Muslim threat is only a defensive response to American imperalism. I fully recognize the totalitarian character and the global aspirations of Jihadism, and the urgent necessity for us to combat it and contain it. But America, as we’ve seen, has been evolving its own set of globalist aspirations. So I ask the reader this question. If America were not trying to create, in Charles Krauthammer’s terrifying words, a “super-sovereign West, economically, culturally, and politically hegemonic in the world”; and if this American hegemony were not the carrier of a radical individualism that breaks down all cultural and religious values; and, furthermore, if we were not simultaneously admitting entire populations of Muslims into America, thus increasing the pressures of our hyper-individualist culture on theirs, isn’t it just possible that America would seem a good deal less threatening and hateful to many Muslims?
By the same token (since this article began with a discussion of the antiwar right and their increasingly paranoid view of America), if we changed in the ways I’ve indicated, wouldn’t America seem less threatening and hateful ... to many Americans?