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The Rival Fanaticisms of Our Day

A perceived American defeat could bring a more dangerous world. From our summer issue.

By 7.21.04

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WASHINGTON -- In a monthly magazine, a good excuse for not writing about headline news is that everything is out of date by the time it's in print. That is particularly true now. "Now" for me is Memorial Day weekend. For you the famous June 30th deadline will have passed. So you know more than I do. Please remember that!

When President Bush launched the war, in March 2003, I thought his stated reasons for doing so were grossly insufficient. It was a huge gamble, both for the country and for his own presidency. It risked making the Middle East an even more dangerous place. Now we seem to be dashing for the exits, and there are insufficient grounds for that, too. The last mistake may be worse than the first. Seeing that 800 American deaths were all it took to change U.S. policy, the Islamists will be emboldened. Just as they surely were by the Spanish bombing, election reversal, and instant withdrawal. Better to have avoided this Quixotic crusade altogether.

We seem to be living at a time of rival fanaticisms. On television (and I have no desire to get any closer than that) we see the fanaticism of the Islamic madmen. They behave like agitated children. An inner frenzy seems to be their normal collective state. Is there something about Islam that takes possession of its young men? We are deluded if we imagine that they are waiting for democracy to be brought to them on a platter. They are not, and it will not be.

Consider now the opposed and very different fanaticism of the neoconservatives who enticed Bush into war. Commentators on TV have their unguarded moments, and here is Charles Krauthammer on Inside Washington, as recently as last December 27: "If we succeed in changing the culture of the Middle East, starting in Iraq and spreading elsewhere, that's going to be the key to our safety and our children's in the next generation. And if we fail it will be catastrophic."

So, they were planning to change the culture of the Middle East? Now they tell us. Who knew that their plans were so ambitious?

THEN THERE'S THE FAMILIAR fanaticism of American liberalism. We have had to contend with it on and off since Vietnam, but the photographs from the Baghdad prison brought it roaring back -- Susan Sontag and all the trimmings. We were reminded of just how crazed the liberals are. They are anti-American to the core. It's clear from their response to the pictures from Abu Ghraib that the American empire that Krauthammer was hoping for is just not in the cards.

Are we really so shocked that Iraqi prisoners were taunted and humiliated? Only if we are shocked by war itself (as perhaps we should be). I suspect the liberals themselves relished what they had pretended to find shocking, just as they had enjoyed every minute of the supposed crisis of Watergate. They knew that Abu Ghraib had played into their hands. Its message was their message, that Americans are the true oppressors of the planet.

More recently, there was an exchange between Krauthammer and Nina Totenberg, a liberal zealot employed by National Public Radio. This time I sympathized with Krauthammer. "You don't run a war on images," he said. "Yes you do," Totenberg replied. "In the modern world you do fight war on images." She was both complacent and triumphant because she knew that images appear on television, and that liberals control television.

Two weeks earlier, David Brooks had said on the PBS NewsHour: "Can we fight a war in the media age? That is the problem."

Actually, in March 2003, the U.S. went to war with an "embedded" media. Some journalists were killed. So, yes, we probably can fight a war in the media age. But after the "war" stage is over, media rules apply. If cameras can find "oppressed" people, there will be pictures on television, breast beating, and terrified politicians. The media will call for apologies.

As soon as it became clear that enough Iraqi fanatics would use guerrilla tactics and blow themselves up, the story changed. It was plain that American control could be achieved only at the cost of being portrayed as oppressors. The new if unstated rules will be set not by the Pentagon but by Amnesty International and the United Nations.

By late May, Fouad Ajami of Johns Hopkins was adopting a somber tone. "Our enemies have taken our measure. They have taken stock of our national discord over war." It was "our biggest undertaking in the foreign world wince Vietnam. We as a nation pay dearly every day. We fight under the gaze of multitudes in the Arab world who wish us ill."

Probably, unruly Arabs can be ruled only by tyranny. Maybe Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites should divide up the country. Iraq was created in 1921 by lines drawn in the desert. Do British colonial borders have to be preserved indefinitely? Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations suggested local autonomy, but the State Department (currying favor with the powers that be as always) wants "stability." If Iraq must indeed remain unified, another tyrant will certainly emerge.

AS FOR DEMOCRACY, HERE is Simon Jenkins, formerly the editor of the Times of London: "Just one pre-requisite of a democracy is that all groups share sufficient national cohesion for a minority to acquiesce in majority rule. Only a fool could say that of modern Iraq. Democracy will merely serve as a transition to Shi'a theocracy, Iran-style, while Sunnis and Kurds break loose. Yet Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair cite Iraq in the same breath as post-war Germany and Japan."

Islam has never been compatible with democracy and that won't change overnight. An Iranian Muslim, Amir Taheri, pointed out in the Times that democracy is based on equality. But "there is no equivalent [word] in any of the Muslim languages," he wrote. "Nor do we have a word for politics. The word siassah, now used as a synonym for politics, initially meant whipping stray camels into line.…The closest translation may be: regimentation." Not encouraging.

Bush keeps talking about Iraqi freedom, but Bernard Lewis pointed out some years ago that the notion of political freedom was unknown in the Islamic world for over a thousand years. Its appearance at the time of Napoleon was "patently due to European influence." Scholar were unable to translate it into Arabic.

Democracy is normally a bulwark against fanaticism. But the neoconservatives saw the U.S. military as a reservoir of power that could be mobilized, and U.S. foreign policy redirected. They saw, too, that the public would mostly slumber on. The masses still had their bread and circuses. The airwaves were so filled with cross-talk about avenging 9/11, weapons of mass destruction, punishing al Qaeda, catching the dictator Saddam, that few could keep their eye on the goal, which I guess was planting the U.S. military in the Middle East with a view to "changing the culture."

The residual American power is supposed to be transferred from the Pentagon to the State Department. There was (maybe still is) a crazed American plan to ensure that in the coming democracy, 40 percent of the legislators would be women. That was fanaticism, another instance of U.S. policy being captured by ideologically motivated groups. There have been plans to unleash all kinds of liberal nostrums, ranging from fuzzy math to condom distribution.

If such idiocies survive, my guess is that the Iraqis in charge will play along to keep the reconstruction billions flowing. Then they will privatize as much of the money as they can by moving it to offshore accounts. Maybe they will sweep Western news media out of the country, and then do whatever is necessary to consolidate power. Our Islamic enemies will be emboldened. A perceived American defeat is likely to turn Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East, into a more dangerous place than it was before the war began.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).