Since 9/11 I have been mulling over the words of Georgi Arbatov pinned on the wall above my desk. I don’t believe in conspiracies, and I strive to keep my distance from the sophisticates of the Chomsky school of conspiracy-peddlers. But I do believe in what Barbara Tuchman described so well in The March of Folly. Folly, it seems to me, is the most severe and unforgiving sin of politicians, especially politicians responsible for the security of societies in advanced cultures of relative freedom, such as ours at this time in history. As Martin Walker, then the Moscow correspondent for the Guardian, reported in August 1992, Arbatov said to him: “We are going to do the worst thing we possibly can to America — we are going to take away their enemy.” Arbatov, you might recall, was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, responsible for keeping track of Soviet-American relations.
Arbatov — now looking back nearly twenty years later in deconstructing his words — seemed to possess a piercing understanding, as student of history, of the American scene, and how it could likely unfold over time in the post-Soviet and post-Communist era. His words to Walker were more insightful than any offered by just about all the left-leaning talking heads and commentators, in the U.S., Canada, and Europe put together. Arbatov understood, given his experience sitting in the privileged seat of the party in Moscow during the Brezhnev period, how the existence of Communist Russia checked the forces of the left in the West, keeping them from gaining influence and power. Now, as Arbatov reflected, since the Soviet Union as a military superpower had collapsed and the threat of Soviet Communism was discarded in the so-called dustbin of history, the spoiled children and beneficiaries of the West’s longest and strongest economic expansion and technological achievements, unparalleled in history, would set forth to do what the Soviet Union could not do — to advance the aim of Communism to wreck liberal capitalism from the inside.
Just ponder how a third-rate community organizer — from the most incestuously corrupt political region in the U.S.; with a record of participation in the most vulgar gathering of Jeremiah Wright posing as a reverend, spouting Fanonian rhetoric and bigotry; with mentors such as the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers; channelling the teachings of Saul Alinsky and Rashid Khalidi of the Chomsky school of self-loathing and sophistry — could advance through the ranks of American politics at an astounding speed, with little or no record of experience in government, to become the 44th president. In one of my columns from 2008 for the Sun Media in Canada, I had written in disbelief, as I watched the primaries unfold, of how American voters could be so beguiled by a charlatan of the Harold Hill type from The Music Man and vote for Obama. I was wrong in my overestimation of reason and experience among American voters as a check on the naivete of the university crowd and the duplicity of Lenin’s “useful idiots” in free societies. One of the lessons from 2008, for me, is this: how can I now scold Egyptians for wanting freedom and democracy behind the banners of the Muslim Brotherhood when their experience with electoral politics is negligible, and their history of 7,000 years offer little guidance for what freedom requires — respect for the other and not mistaking freedom for licentiousness?
There is not a very long arc connecting the joyful news of Soviet disintegration with the painfully distressing slide of American politics framed for posterity in the election of Obama. Arbatov did not nor, even if he had indulged in irresponsible speculation, could have predicted such an eventuality in American politics. But he had it right, it seems to me, for what he meant was the presence of the Soviet Union placed upon liberal democracies, led by the U.S., a discipline and a check upon the excesses and follies of democracy. But once this discipline was removed it would lead to a bacchanalia in the West, the near instant raising of the slogan “end of history” even as the dust from the tearing down of the Berlin Wall had not settled, and this lack of discipline combined with the “flower children” of the sixties coming of age and grasping for power, would bring about a situation, Arbatov imagined, that would do more damage than the old men of the Communist plutocracy could ever deliver without committing suicide of their own.
It is on account of the circumstances in which we find ourselves since 9/11 that I fear the West is precariously tilting at the edge of terminal decline. The situation today is dramatically different than the one in 1979. Then, Ronald Reagan, with Thatcher and Pope John Paul II on either side, reversed the slide of American politics and the West — from the debacle of defeat in Vietnam, brought by the fecklessness of the Democrats, to the hostage crisis in Tehran.
The Soviet Union did discipline the West and, ironically, the existing reality of the Soviet Empire gave Reagan the measure needed to re-group and deliver the coup de grace. But after 1992 we have been in the state of enjoying our unrestrained appetite for endless orgy, the zeal that comes to declining bodies from the artificiality of induced eroticism by pills which give to narcissists of the “sixties” generation the pathetic sense of immortality. These are the folks the people have elected to run their lives, protect their cultural legacy, hold back the enemies of freedom, maintain balance of power in strategic and vulnerable regions of the world and, as Burke reminded his own generation, maintain the promise of the present and inheritance of the past as trustees for the unborn generations of the future.
Ten years after 9/11, we, the broad public of liberal democracies, still have not fully grasped the meaning of that horror-filled morning, or understood without any apologetics or polemics the evil nature and ideology of the men who planned and executed the deed. We remain more or less preoccupied with re-litigating the debate over the decision by the Bush administration to take the war declared upon the West into the heartland of the enemy and expunge them; and instead of faulting Bush for not going far enough at home and abroad in defeating the Islamist jihadi assault on the West, for reasons that have everything to do with the nature of our corrupted polity, we have contorted ourselves to find the right mix of appeasement. From the ashes piled high at the end of the Second World War to the re-grouping that was essential to contain the Soviet Union, the passage of time was barely twenty-four months. Ten years after 9/11, the West has as leaders Obama and Cameron, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, and Merkel still clinging to the fantasy that Islamists are merely a Middle Eastern version of Milton and Locke, Tocqueville and Mill, leading the reform of the Islamic civilization that once gave us Alhambra and the Taj Mahal, Omar Khayyam and the tales from the Arabian Nights.
The fault, as Cassius reminds Brutus, is in ourselves, a decaying civilization that will be saved (if it will be) not by the snobs in Washington and New York, London and Paris, Rome and Berlin, but by our version of the unsophisticated children of truckers who are now waking up from the drug-induced stupor of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. I have hope, the eternal hope of a fearful heart, that the West will survive and yet again gather speed, but how sad are the losses and tears that have piled up — with more to come. They could have been avoided if we, as a people, were not so irresponsible or unfaithful to our history as to place at the head of our societies leaders so unworthy and clueless as the one who so unfittingly occupies the seat of Washington and Lincoln, at the head of this great republic.