Column for 24 September, 2006
“Rebuke the beat among the reeds, the herd of bulls among the calves of the nations. Humbled, may it bring bars of silver. Scatter the nations who delight in war.”
Another September 11th has come and gone and the airwaves and the “tubes” of the “internets” are buzzing with reflections and recriminations on the “War on Terror,” which has now lasted longer than America’s war against fascism that President Bush continually refers to. Democrats attacked the President’s September 11 television address as “partisan” and “too political” because he talked about the war in Iraq, trying desperately to link it in a skeptical public mind with the “War on Terror.” This is overreaching; the President is a political leader—everything he does is political. Complaining that his speech was “political” because it reflected ideas Democrats don’t agree with is as asinine as when the Republicans used to complain about President Clinton taking Air Force One to events they deemed “political” (as though he was supposed to get there by bicycle). Expect Republicans in general and the President in particular to be even more outrageous in claiming that Democrats are “soft on terror’; the GOP has nothing else left to run on. But Bush made a couple of good points during his speech; first, he is right that the War on Terror is a war of ideology, specifically the ideology of secular democracy versus totalitarian religious dictatorship. It was a little ludicrous for the President to adopt “Islamic fascism,” a term invented in the Right-wing blogosphere, to describe the enemy, but then he couldn’t use a more accurate descriptor (like “religious fanatics who hate democracy”) without offending supporters like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson, who are con-men making millions by pretending to be religious fanatics who hate democracy. Also, using “fascist” might be a cute way of getting back at Liberals who slap that label on just about anything, but its’ true definition, a political dictatorship advocating corporate rule and opposed to socialism, liberalism and democracy, cuts a little close to home. Second, Bush was correct in comparing the War on Terror to the Cold War, though not to World War II. During the Cold War, another ideological conflict, the two major powers never fought each other directly, for fear of mutual assured destruction by nuclear weapons. In the War on Terror, the major conflict is not state versus state because the Islamists don’t really have a state of their own (though some states, like Iran and Syria, support the movement). Unfortunately, without another country to defeat and occupy as the Allies did with Japan and Germany at the end of World War II, Bush is also likely correct when he says the War on Terror, like the Cold War, is a conflict for the long haul. Americans often have a hard time understanding the motivations of the Islamists; Conservatives like to imagine it’s just because they “hate democracy,” while Liberals try to reassure themselves that terrorism, like crime, is the result of poverty and poor education. They are both wrong. Islamists are opposed to Western secular capitalist culture in general, which they see as decadent, corrupt and immoral (something else they have in common with some of the more extreme political Christian evangelists in this country). Islamists want to destroy Israel and they oppose the United States for steadfastly defending the Jewish state since its creation in 1947. Some Islamists dream of recreating the Caliphate, a Muslim empire that once covered most of the Middle East, North Africa and Iran, with its headquarters in Baghdad. And while it’s true that many rank and file Islamist followers and sympathizers (the “Arab Street”) are poor and uninformed (mostly thanks to the deliberate policies of corrupt and dictatorial non-Islamist governments like Egypt), the London bombers and the 9-11 hijackers were well-educated young men from solid middle-class backgrounds. Osama bin Laden, whom Bush simultaneously compares to Hitler but dismisses as not all that important, comes from a very privileged background as the son of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family. So exporting Head Start and Midnight Basketball to the Middle East is not going to end the jihad. So then how do we “win” the War on Terror? For starters, we have to agree on what “victory” means. Does it mean the United States never gets attacked again? Short of transforming ourselves into a police state, that’s not a very realistic goal. Is “victory” creating democratic states in the Middle East? Again, not likely, at least not anytime soon, since the Islamists would almost certainly win free elections if they were held today in Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria and many other Muslim countries. It took us well over a century to develop a stable, secular democracy in this country, so how would do we expect people who have practically no experience with self-rule to do it overnight? Does “winning” mean we persuade people to abandon terrorism as a political and military tool? That seems the unlikeliest of them all. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I think that ultimately in order for us ever to see an end to the Islamists’ war against the West, two things will need to happen: one, America will have to free itself from its addiction to cheap oil that distorts our foreign policy and requires us to kowtow to corrupt bucolic old medieval thugs like the Saudi Royal Family; and two, there will, somehow, have to be an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict that allows fanatics like bin Laden to convince young men and women to blow themselves and innocent civilians to bits to advance the cause. If that happens, and the Arab world can see that the Palestinians are much better off in economic cooperation with Israel, then maybe Radical Islam will lose its appeal and democracy can transform Middle Eastern societies. It’s a long shot, obviously, but the alternatives, either retreating from the region or continuing the spectacular fiasco that is the Bush Doctrine of “imposing democracy,” can lead only to endless war.