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The Ideology of Defeatism By: William R. Hawkins
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 18, 2006

John Garth in his biography of J. R. R. Tolkien recounts a meeting between the future author of The Lord of the Rings and an Oxford professor at the outbreak of World War I. As a student, Tolkien had taken part in debates over the looming German threat, but was still dismayed at the turn of events. According to Garth, “the Catholic professor responded that this war was no aberration: on the contrary, for the human race it was merely ‘back to normal’.”

It is the complete rejection of this concept of normality in human affairs that is at the core of liberalism. Though there have been strands of liberalism throughout history, it flowered in the relatively peaceful first decades of the 19th century, following the quarter century of global warfare that had been spawned by the French Revolution and the ambitions of Napoleon. Writing in 1821, James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, claimed, “There is, in the present advanced state of the civilized world...so little chance of civil war or foreign invasion, that, in contriving the means of national felicity, but little allowance can be rationally required of it.” Any problems remaining, Mill would refer to an international court of arbitration. The French economist J.B. Say called for an end to the diplomatic corps, arguing that "it is not necessary to have ambassadors. This is one of the ancient stupidit­ies which time will do away with."  Industrialization would create so much new wealth, there would be nothing to fight about. The British Radical Richard Cobden claimed that commerce was “the grand panacea” and would remove “the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great fleets.”

International and revolutionary violence increased in the second half of the 19th century, undermining liberal notions until their credibility was completely washed away by the world wars of the 20th century. The end of the Cold War, however, seemed to give liberalism the new world order they had long desired. The liberal hope was best described by the title of Tom Englehardt’s 1995 book The End of Victory Culture. In 1999, President Bill Clinton proclaimed: “Perhaps for the first time in history, the world's leading nations are not engaged in a struggle with each other for security or territory.  The world clearly is coming together.” It is because the events of the last few years so clearly contradict this liberal vision of a harmonious world, that there is so much hatred of President George W. Bush. The primary defeat of Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman by a neophyte anti-war candidate showed the ability of this aspect of liberalism to trump all other issues.

The disruption of the London terrorist plot to blow up a number of airliners has again raised the “clash of civilizations” issue brought to prominence by Samuel Huntington. But rather than dwell on how Islamic fundamentalism is able to motivate suicide bombers and insurgents, it is more important to look at whether American civilization can still motivate resistance to such assaults. Has liberalism already so weakened society’s will to fight back that even leaders and soldiers committed to do so cannot succeed?


British historian Jeremy Black, looking at Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, described a “bellicose society.” One in which “killing was generally accepted as necessary, both for civil society– against crime, heresy and disorder– and in international relations. War itself seemed necessary....it was natural as the best means by which to defend interests and achieve goals.” There was also a strong sense of “glory and honor” among the elites, and “by modern Western standards, a large percentage of males served in the military.” This Europe was expanding across the globe and would dominate world affairs for 500 years. It would also produce the United States as the offspring of imperial ambitions. 


It is against these values that liberalism has struggled for centuries, its success corresponding with Europe’s decline. It is seen in both domestic and international issues. It is not just today’s Democrat Party leaders who oppose every new weapons system and embrace every disarmament agreement. Historian Heinz Gollwitzer, looking at the 19th century, found “Left-wing liberalism, in so far as it was doctrinaire, put up a strong fight against armaments and power policies, the acquisition of non-European territories, the establishment of naval bases and, above all, the retreat from its economic principles.” Those principles became increasingly socialist. The British scholar Bernard Semmel has argued that liberals advocated expanded welfare programs “against the alternative use of available tax revenues for armaments.”


Liberals have been obsessed since the 9/11 attacks that America not ‘over react” to the threat of terrorism or to the rogue states that support it. The antiwar movement took to the streets long before the invasion of Iraq, to protest a military response to al-Qaeda’s murder of over 3,000 people in New York and Washington. As Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, wrote at the time, “the most promising and effective way to halt terrorism lies in bringing those responsible to justice through non-military actions in cooperation with the global community and within the framework of domestic and international law.” The constraint of any unilateral action taken by a bellicose America administration by a UN that supposedly embodies liberal ideals has been the centerpiece of liberal foreign policy pronouncements. 


It is clear that the objective of liberal policy is not to be more effective, but to uphold liberal values. If this means losing a war, so be it. It is better to accept defeat than to adapt to the needs of an illiberal world.


The treatment of enemy prisoners has been a major focus of liberals, whether at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or from “rendition” to other countries. Did the interrogation methods used in Pakistan to gain key information about the pending London airline plot violate Sen. John McCain’s strictures against torture? This is not merely an expression of sympathy for the enemy, it is a fear that under the pressures of war, Americans will regain their former “bellicose” attitudes and adopt methods of war as ruthless as those employed by the enemy.


Liberal opposition to the death penalty for any crime, no matter how horrific; and for widening the definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” is the domestic side of this ideology. So is opposition to private gun ownership, as it keeps alive a familiarity with weapons, and a belief in active self-defense. Hunting, whether for sport, food or clothing (fur) is likewise condemned as perpetuating bellicose attitudes. Violence in movies, television or video games is to be censored. Counselors must rush to any disaster or crime scene to ensure the public reacts with the proper amount of panic and never become “desensitized” to the rigors of the real world. And in the schools, competition, whether for grades in glass or points on the playing field, is to be discouraged.


In contrast, Islamic fundamentalists harken back to the glory days when Moslem armies swept across the world from Spain to India, and Mohammed himself approved the razing of villages and the beheading of opponents. They inhabit {and enshrine) the kind of bellicose society that liberalism has done much to bleach out of America.  The result is that despite having brave soldiers armed with high-tech weapons who win every pitched battle, American society teeters on the edge of military collapse from a lack of will to do what is needed, on a large enough scale for a long enough period of time, to defeat Islamic militants in any theater of current combat.


Militant Islam’s war against the West is not just normal, it is perpetual. If campaigns of conquest are not possible, then ghazi (raiding) warfare is to be conducted. This is more than mere “terrorism.” It is the tradition of weakening bordering communities by attrition until conquest is possible. That the London plotters were from Pakistan, whose theater of conflict is Kashmir, on the Indian frontier of Islam, indicates that they see a world war, not a struggle limited to Gaza, Lebanon or Iraq.  Many Moslems have been recruited into extremism while living in the midst of liberal societies (like London), having found their surroundings decadent and corrupt. Thus liberalism’s much vaunted ideals of tolerance and passivity are seen by foes as a lack of honor and strength.


As a student, Tolkien had argued for the proposition in prep school debates that the West had become too civilized for its own good; and by civilized is meant having adopted too many liberal notions. The triumph of the Anglo-American alliance in all but one of the great wars of the 20th century (Vietnam being the exception) indicate that Tolkien’s pessimism was pre-mature. But a century later, his case is much stronger.


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William Hawkins is a consultant on international economics and national security issues.

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