Yet another attempt to account for the Iraqi insurgency by Eric Westervelt on NPR’s “Morning Edition” falls foul of the sin of intellectual pride. Some interviews with captured Islamist fighters in Iraq who came into the country from Saudi Arabia are said to have revealed (1) that they were quite happily minding their own business down at the sheep and goat pens with never a thought of engaging in jihad until America invaded Iraq and (2) that the invasion itself had persuaded them that America’s ambitions in the Middle East were to occupy Arab territory and seize control of Arab oil. That’s why they are fighting against us, we are told, and so our task is to persuade them of their mistake in failing to recognize that we are really nice guys with no designs on their land or their oil. Left unspoken is the rather obvious conclusion that the best way to do that is to set a timetable for withdrawing American troops, which is what the left has been calling for all along.
I’m sorry, but I don’t believe a word of it. If there were ever a study which was designed to reach a conclusion in accord with the designer’s preconceptions this was it. And those preconceptions can be summed up in one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, published a few months after 9/11. The cartoonist, Alex Gregory, shows a quartet of Southern California types sitting poolside in bathing suits with their martinis and cigarettes as one of them says to the rest: “I think that if these Islamic fundamentalists got to know us they’d like us.”
How hard it is for intellectuals, in particular, to shed the illusion that all conflict is the result of misunderstanding or ignorance! In fact, of course, if the jihadis got to know us they would hate us even more. It is not because of what they don’t know about us that they want to kill us but because of what they do know, namely that we are a liberal society inclined to tolerance towards other religions, respectful of individual freedom and privacy in matters of sexual practice and insistent on the full humanity of women and their rights of citizenship. As a recent YouGov poll in Britain discovered, a third of British Muslims were prepared to agree with the proposition that “Western society is decadent and immoral, and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end.”
Boy, have they got us pegged! It’s true, we are self-indulgent, frequently immoral (or at least more open and unashamed about our immorality than they are), addicted to mindless entertainments, and lax in our religious observance. Above all, at least in the view of such a traditional society as the Muslims have been able to preserve, we are shockingly lewd about exposing our bodies in public. Everything about us proclaims that we are infidels — and not only to the fanatics but to ordinary Muslims as well. But the only conciliatory gestures likely to placate the fanatics in the slightest — our conversion to Islam, for example, or the compulsory return of women to domestic tasks only — are unthinkable.
To these guys, that is, America is the enemy, and about the enemy enough bad can never be said. Do we want to occupy the Arab lands and steal their oil? Of course we do! What else could be expected of the hated infidels? But the jihadis don’t hate us because they think that; rather, they think that because they hate us. This is what the anti-war and anti-Bush left cannot bring themselves to understand. They have a vested interest in believing the contrary. If it is some fault or mistake of our own which motivates the terrorists, it means that whenever there are new terrorist outrages, like the recent bombs in the London Underground, or American soldiers are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, they can blame the blunders of the Bush administration. They are actually comforted to think that if only we hadn’t antagonized these people, they wouldn’t be trying to kill us at all — because it means that they have someone to blame other than the terrorists, and someone who is a good deal easier to get rid of than the terrorists.
That kind of wishful thinking is something that intellectuals are particularly prone to — because they wouldn’t be intellectuals in the first place if they didn’t believe that it is clever political decisions which make good things happen and stupid ones which make bad things happen. If people are getting killed, it must mean that somebody powerful goofed. Guess who that might be? Yet the propensity of the American left to blame the goof in the White House is not only predictable but lazy. It is quite literally a cartoonish view of the world, as anyone can tell who regularly reads Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury.” At least the Euroleft shows a little more inventiveness. “I have not the slightest doubt,” said Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, recently, “that, if at the end of the First World War, we had done what we promised the Arabs, which was to let them be free and have their own governments, kept out of Arab affairs and just bought their oil [the matter of the London terror bombs] wouldn’t have arisen.”
This bit of ratiocination owes at least something to the vanity of knowledge in finding the real reason for terrorism in the Balfour declaration of nearly a century ago. Bet you didn’t know that! Perhaps Red Ken should be given some credit, at least, for blaming his fellow Britons, rather than the Americans for once. But for the British left, hatred of America is just another form of self-hatred — the two are practically indivisible. Hence the Chatham House report which blamed British support for the American invasion of Iraq for the increased risk of terrorism in Britain. It’s not that this is untrue. It is true in exactly the same sense that British support for Poland in 1939 led to an increased risk of German bombs falling on London. But foreign policy is not and cannot be a matter of avoiding all risks. It is rather the process of deciding what risks to run and for what reasons. And since 1939, there have been few risks more worth the running than those of opposing the jihadis wherever we can find them. The best comment on the Chatham House report was that of the British defense secretary, John Reid: “The idea that somehow by running away from the school bully, then the bully will not come after you, is a thesis that is known to be completely untrue by every kid in the playground.” Or at least every kid who’s not an intellectual.