Roger L. Simon

What's the Question?

One of my favorite interchanges… probably apocryphal… is the one attributed to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at Gertrude’s death bed at the moment Stein was about to depart this vail of tears:

Alice: Gertrude, Gertrude… what’s the answer?

Gertrude: What’s the question?

She dies… Well, I know it doesn’t refer exactly to the current world situation, but I always find it amusing and it is close enough to provide some sort of lede to Amir Taheri’s piece in this morning’s NYPost — Wrong 9/11 Questions:

. . . the commission got on the wrong track from the start.

The report assumes that there is a single, readily identifiable enemy. This is the routine way of political thinking, that took shape during the Cold War.

Anyone with knowledge of the Arab countries and the Muslim world in general would know that this is not the case.

The problem with the current War on Terror is that the democracies, and those Muslims who aspire for democracy, are faced with a multi-faceted threat that assumes numerous forms, from the burning of books to the cutting of throats.

This is a war that has to be fought on numerous battlefields and against many enemies that, though united in their efforts to destroy the democratic societies, and first among them the United States, use a bewilderingly wide range of weapons and tactics.

The Bush administration has opened the military theatre of this war by liberating Afghanistan and Iraq and seeking to destroy the terrorists in there.

But this is a war that must also be fought on diplomatic, cultural, religious and political battlefields. In all those theatres the United States would need, and can find, allies, including among a majority of the Muslims who have been the first victims of Islamic fascism and its ideology of terror. The commission has no suggestions about how to engage in those battles, who to choose as allies and who to identify as neutrals.

The commission makes an even bigger mistake. By speaking of “political grievances” it tries to explain the Islamists within the parameters of classical logic. Having accused the administration of lack of imagination, the commission, is itself unable to imagine a conflict that is not political in the normal sense of the term.

The typical politician in a democracy, starting with ancient Athens, is a deal-maker. He practices the art of compromise, not confrontation. He is always ready to understand the other side, to accept part of the blame, and to propose give-and-take. A more cynical version of this type of politics leads to triangulation, a la Bill Clinton. That kind of politics, however, does not work with the kind of enemy the United States now faces.

This enemy does not want to give and take, to compromise, or to triangulate. He wants you to obey him in every detail or he will kill you.

Once you assume some guilt on your own part, the whole thing could go like this: Well, you know, our wealth and power is bound to cause jealousy and humiliation among the poor and powerless; we also have a military presence in all but three of the Arab states, and don’t we support Israel whose destruction is the dream of every Arab worth his salt?

The aims of the “enemy” in question, however, are not solely political.

He will not be happy even if, in the spirit of liberal generosity, you gave him half of your power and wealth. Nor would he settle for a total American withdrawal from the world. Nor would he be satisfied if you helped wipe Israel off the map.

This enemy’s conflict with the United States, and alongside it other democracies, not to mention those Muslims who also aspire after democracy, is not political but existential.

He wants to rule you because he thinks he is the holder of a “the highest form of truth.”

This enemy wants you, the whole world in fact, to convert to Islam because he believes the advent of Islam abrogated all other religions. Anyone who is not a Muslim is not a full human being.

“Our struggle is not about land or water,” the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini said in 1980. “It is about bringing, by force if necessary, the whole of mankind onto the right path.”

Last night I watched the co-chairs of the Commission – Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton – on “Meet the Press.” Nice, earnest men. But I wonder if they have ever talked with or even read Taheri whose experience of the situation and understanding of it dwarfs theirs.

(hat tip: Catherine Johnson)