Michael Totten

Weekend Reading

I’ll have more original material from Lebanon on Monday, material that got put into deep freeze for too long. In the meantime, Alan Johnson interviewed Paul Berman for Democratiya. It’s loooooong, but it’s the weekend, so read the whole thing.

People with views like mine tried to say, ‘OK, Bush is screwing things up, and we must warn against what might be the results. But, meanwhile, we want to propose actions of our own. We don’t want to just say “no.”‘ In Terror and Liberalism I tried to revive the idea of Leon Blum, the French socialist, from the 1940s. He proposed what in the US would be called cold-war liberalism, but was in his case cold war socialism – my grandfather’s position, by the way. Blum wanted to resist the Communists but he wanted to do it from the left not the right, in the belief that a leftwing opposition was bound to be more effective. Therefore he supported the socialists, and the social democrats, and the trade unionists, and he opposed Communism by being in favour of democratic reforms. My effort in Terror and Liberalism was to revive that sort of idea, in regard to the Ba’athism and Islamism of our own time. People who criticised this idea described it as a ‘liberalism for Bush,’ but that was never the idea.
In our version of the Third Force we recognised that the Bush administration was not going about things correctly, and so we called for an alternative. Totalitarian movements are fundamentally ideological movements — they are driven by ideas. The ideas they are driven by are modern ideas, even if they are presented as exotic and are clothed in seventh century Muslim robes. If the ideas are modern we can argue against them, just as we could argue against fascists and communists. Winning the argument is actually the only victory that can be obtained. We are facing a mass movement with a huge number of adherents. There is no way we can defeat such a movement with Police or Military force. The only way to defeat such a movement is to convince its adherents and sympathisers, and potential sympathisers, that the ideas of that movement are wrong and ought to be abandoned in favour of better ideas. Now this sounds preposterous to some people who can’t imagine that anything can be won by force of persuasion. But what finally caused Communism to collapse was that the Communists themselves recognised that they were wrong and that their own ideas were not worth defending.
In the present case it’s more difficult still because these movements are not dependent on states, and the ideas can be held by people in civil society. The possibility of crushing these movements by force does not exist. We have to win by persuasion. That means the central thing that should be going on is a war of ideas – even if, at times, there is also a need for a war of weapons.
The left and the intellectuals in the Western countries ought to throw themselves into these debates and criticisms. But look what has happened. The left, in its great majority, has remained unengaged. It conducts itself as if the only struggle is between Bush and his enemies. You can see this in the last couple of months in the rise of tensions over the Iranian nuclear programme. The more Ahmadinejad threatened to obliterate Israel and build nuclear weapons the more people around the world wrote about…Bush! ‘Oh, no! What is Bush going to do?’ As if the problem here was Bush! Bush may well be a problem, but the first problem has surely got to be Ahmadinejad. A great campaign should arise to persuade the Iranians and their supporters not to think along these lines. And this is what should have been done with the Islamists and the Ba’athists. But it has not been done.
The crucial place for this war of ideas, by the way, is Europe. In so much of the Arab world, and Iran, it is very difficult to have a serious debate because the conditions don’t exist. In Europe they do. And in Europe there is a vast Arab and Muslim population. In fact many of the deep underlying ideas of radical Islamism, Ba’athism, and radical Pan-Arabism were European ideas to begin with. Not all of the ideas, but some of the crucial ones. So the debate should be taking place in London and Paris and Berlin and Madrid. It should be a very forceful debate. We see a right-wing version of it in which there is prejudice and racism against Muslims and against an ancient and noble religion, Islam – which only bolsters the Ba’athist and Islamist arguments. But the left-wing antitotalitarian contribution to this debate we hardly see. It’s like a unilateral disarmament on the part of the liberal left and the intellectuals has taken place.
Bush isn’t going to do it. He does not want to do it and even if he did, he does not have the talent. It should be done on the left. It should be done by us engaging our fellow thinkers in the Arab and Muslim world (who are becoming ever more visible) and by arguing against the various champions of what I call the Muslim totalitarian idea in its different forms. A Third Force should put its greatest emphasis on that. Military actions and police actions may well be necessary. But they should be put in their place. They are ultimately less important than this battle of ideas.
Totalitarian movements have regularly been greeted by the blindness to which liberalism is prone, and even by apologetics. Hitler, and not just Stalin, had his apologists. Without these apologists neither one of those dictators would have been able to get as far as he did. And what we are seeing now is something exactly parallel. There are only a few screwballs defending Al Qaeda, or Zarqawi in Iraq, or applauding Saddam. But the people who really matter are those (many more numerous) who find some way to say either that these totalitarian movements are normal, natural, rational, or, in any case, that they should be ignored because we should focus our attention on defeating Bush. In these ways, the adherents of the totalitarian movements are not given much opposition and sometimes are even given a back-handed support. So, naturally, the movements prosper.
Alan Johnson : In the meantime, the Muslin democrats who desperately need our support are often ignored. There are very few solidarity movements with the beleaguered Muslim democrats.
Paul Berman: Exactly. And you and I both know that there is nothing more fashionable than to look at some Iraqi liberal democrat and sneer.

UPDATE: Nouri, the Moor Next Door, adds in the comments:

That bottom exchange is so true. I have observed this many times. For instance, I live about 5 minutes away form Yale University by foot, and most book stores in town are frequented by Yalis. I was at the Yale Barnes and Noble one day and overheard a discussion about Islam and democracy and women between several students, one was wearing a keffiyeh the others were average looking college students. The keffiyeh wearing one went and on about how Arabs are mad because they’re not united (ha!) and the other nodded noting that Muslim women are not oppressed at all and how culture is relative. I approached them and asked where they got this drivel (more like “Who told you this?”) and they said it was obvious from how Arabs have flocked to Iraq, and that pan Arabism is alive and well, blah, and how they heard it (gasp!) from their professor. I said that I, as an “Arab” did not agree and they basically began to yell at me, “no” “no” “no”. The one in the keffiyeh called me a “fake Arab” because I was not some semi-totalitarian Baathist. I challenged the idea that Arabs “don’t want democracy” using classic liberal arguments, to which they responded were “right wing junk”. I told them that Saddam was a prick, that he was a thug, a creton, and that he disrespected minority and majority rights. They wouldn’t have it, because you know, Saddam’s regime handed out PhDs like there was no tomorrow. I have an aunt (in law) that works at the State Department who tells me that this attitude is really prevelent among diplomats and analists because they deal mainly with elites that are hostile to any sort of democratization. It’s a real bougie type of attitude, that I still don’t fully understand.