Thursday, August 15, 2002

I'm off on vacation for ten days so I won't be posting anything until the end of August. In the meantime, here's a nice long post about invading Iraq to keep you busy. Enjoy, Collin.

Thoughts on Iraq

With everyone taking sides on a possible strike on Iraq, I thought I might as well put my two bits worth in. From where I sit here in Europe, there are two things that impress me: the ideological component and the strategic.

The Democratic Ideal

By ideology I mean the perspectives various players take on the conflict, including views regarding the United States’ international role, the moral and political import of war and, ultimately, the value of democracy itself. I start here because ideological issues often influence how one views strategic matters. Those who see the US as a harbinger of democracy, freedom and modernity in the world tend to find more opportunity than danger in a possible invasion against Iraq. Conversely, those who hold the opinion that the US is an imperial aggressor out for its own gain, express doubt regarding the likelihood of success, hoping to prevent military action by invoking the spectre of disaster.

As it is the United States that will lead any action against Iraq, the best place to begin is with the Americans. In order to get a handle on the theoretical points involved I want to turn to an authority whose extensive travels and experiences throughout Asia and Europe, along with his long reflection on political and historical matters, give him a fairly unique grasp of the situation we face today: the Greek historian, Herodotus. In his Histories, Herodotus recounted the growth of imperial Persia and its attempt to bring the free Greek city-states, primarily Athens and Sparta, under its control. In our present context, Herodotus’ portrait of a free people is apt:

Athens went from strength to strength, and proved, if proof were needed, how noble a thing equality before the law is, not in one respect only, but in all; for while they were oppressed under tyrants, they had no better success in war than any of their neighbours, yet, once the yoke was flung off, they proved the finest fighters in the world. This clearly shows that, so long as they were held down by authority, they deliberately shirked their duty in the field, as slaves shirk working for their masters; but when freedom was won, then every man amongst them was interested in his own cause.

The point is fairly clear: freedom, associated here with equality before the law, translated into an indomitable military force. As it turned out, the Greek confederacy repelled the much larger imperial forces sent by the Persian king Xerxes, inflicting heavy losses on their enemies while themselves suffering a relatively small number of casualties. According to Herodotus, the source of these amazing victories lay in freedom’s psychological effect. As free citizens, each Greek fighting at Marathon and Salamis, Plataea and Mycale had a stake in the outcome of each battle. If Persia were to win, these free men would lose their legal rights, along with their property and their possessions. Herodotus explicitly draws the connection between the free man working for himself and the freedom of equality before the law. Losing to Persia would have meant the loss of everything for the Greeks. For those fighting under the Persian standard, however, there was little to gain by dying for Xerxes and his empire. Subject to the tyrant, the only source of inspiration was fear, lest the king punish a soldier for failing to fight well. Otherwise, it meant little to Xerxes’ subjects whether they lived under his dominion or that of another tyrant. They had their lives to lose and nothing to gain.

Today, something similar is going on, a democracy is butting heads with a tyrant, and we can learn a great deal about the result of the contest from what Herodotus has to tell us. There are differences no doubt. In this case, the United States will be doing the invading with the objective of removing a dictator; as such, we might consider Alexander the Great’s campaign in Persia as a better model. Indeed, Alexander’s empire with its cultural influences bears some striking similarities to the US. Moreover, democracy in a Greek city-state was substantially different from modern America. On the whole, most people living within the confines of Athens and Sparta were not counted as citizens, and thus not free. By contrast, everyone who is sane, over the age of 18 and born or naturalized in the US is a citizen. Perhaps most significant is the difference in the character of these two democracies. The Greek city-states, and especially Sparta, were dedicated to developing warrior citizens. The United States, by comparison, is a modern democracy encouraging pacific citizens bent on economic advancement.

These differences are substantial, but the underlying convergence remains: free people fight bravely to stay free, while oppressed people fight indifferently out of fear. This fact goes a long way to explaining both why the United States is the militarily as well as economic giant it is, and why so many people, including Muslims, desire to become American citizens. Today, many forget this fact or treat it as naive propaganda. Still, it was important enough to become a main consideration in the political reflections of Enlightenment thinkers from Machiavelli to Descartes, Locke to Montesquieu. Indeed, these philosophers based the appeal and proliferation of their ideas on the notion that people freed from submission to religious domination and otherworldly concerns would seek increasingly to pursue, maintain and expand their own interests. With Machiavelli, this notion applied primarily to princes freeing themselves from the impositions of Christian and Aristotelian virtues in order to wage war for their own ends while ensuring the continuance of their regimes. By the time it reached Montesquieu, the idea became one of economic warfare replacing military actions. But the underlying notion was that free people – meaning equality before the law and property rights - with an interest in their own futures and the possibility of improving their lot in life, would always prevail over oppressed people. Effectively, there would be an ever-expanding world of free and prosperous individuals.

Though this characterization is a bit sketchy, it generally reflects the intention of modern democratic thought and the United States. For the most part, this Herodotean view has reigned among the Americans in one form or another. Whatever differences arose domestically in the US, they usually focussed on the best means for promoting the ideal of American democracy, whether by example or through active military engagement. Debates on this front are of no small consequence, but on the whole both sides recognized the superiority of free liberal democracy over tyranny.

There are, however, those who disagree. Ever since the Enlightenment came on the scene with its ideas of equality and freedom, the rule of law and property rights, there were those who objected. At first this consisted primarily of defenders of the old Christian virtues and Aristotelian philosophy. Modernity, however, soon eclipsed its classical rivals. But no sooner had it won, than it was under attack form within. Beginning with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and continuing through a whole host of commentators, novelists, poets, would-be philosophers and revolutionaries, modern liberal democracy was blamed for everything from undermining civic virtue to impoverishing the proletariat to spawning the boorish last man.

In our day, the anti-modern banner is carried primarily by isms preceded by “post” or “anti”: post-modernism, post-imperialism, post-industrialism, post-structuralism, post-nationalism, anti-globalism, anti-Americanism, anti-Semtism, etc. Whatever the adjective, the thrust of the criticism is that rationalist, modern liberal democracy has been a European (now American) tool for oppressing women, non-Europeans, the marginalized, etc. Today’s posts and antis want to overthrow or displace the dominant Western, capitalist paradigm with one that recognizes the equality of cultures and the inherent dignity of all humans. As such, they claim that individual political rights – equality before the law – and private property exacerbate oppression. They call for a more sweeping and collective notion of rights that encompasses the social, economic, sexual, racial, gender and cultural domains; a notion enforced not by elected national legislators, but international bureaucrats, experts and select civil society groups.

And here’s where Europe and the UN come in. On the whole, the post-modern view – a general catch-all phrase for the critics of modernity – is the dominant ideology both in the European Union and at the United Nations. When it comes to military issues, both condemn national initiative, calling instead for international consensus, obtained through the UN. Politically, both favor global governance through treaties and international agreements drawn up by non-elected bodies, rather than national initiatives approved by elected legislatures – the International Criminal Court being an example. Socially, the EU and UN espouse humanitarian values and the need for global economic development presided over by UN agencies and EU humanitarian organs.

But it’s philosophically where the most interesting difference lies. In the mind of the post-modern, modern liberal democracy with its celebration of individual rights and free markets is the great culprit of the contemporary world. They deny the universal nature of liberal democracy, seeing it instead as a ruse by which white male Europeans and Americans oppress other cultures and social groups. As a result, they reject the pre-eminence of individual political rights, opting instead for group social rights. One example suffices. In the United States there are few phrases more famous than “We the People.” This defining statement reflects the liberal notion of a group of individuals united together, giving their assent to rulers who act as their representatives rather than masters, while maintaining certain legal and political rights. Now, if you jump over to the United Nations web-site you’ll find another phrase: “We the peoples.” The intention couldn’t be more different from that expressed in the US constitution. The UN phrase implies groups, equal regardless of their treatment of the individuals falling within their domain.

While I generally have little interest in post-modern rambling, the criticisms lodged against the Enlightenment by people such as Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche were not without merit. But these men were far superior in intellect and virtue to our contemporary post-modern gurus. This isn’t the place to go into the multiple failings I find in post-modern thought. A few points should suffice.

First, post-moderns decry western war as a form of imperialism, yet they are often willing to admit terrorism as a legitimate weapon provided its wielded by the oppressed of the Third World – the UN Human Rights Commission this year released a statement to this effect as regards Palestine. As a result, the humanitarian post-modern reflexively rejects military action by a western nations seeing such action as innately immoral. The post-modern could also be rightly described as a post-Kantian, trumpeting Kant’s notion of perpetual peace, while rejecting Kant’s liberalism.

A second problem involves post-modern genealogy. By this I don’t mean historical deconstruction, but the simple fact that unlike classical philosophers who proffer a view of the world fundamentally different from that of the moderns, post-moderns remain essentially moderns in terms of their foundations. The point of departure for the post-modern is actually the demand that modern formal democracy become pure democracy, that all aspects of social, economic and cultural life submit to a complete egalitarian regime. But the pursuit of pure democracy, especially in the twentieth century, was responsible for the worst political horrors ever inflicted on man by his own or any other government. Freedom was sacrificed for slavery and all but a small clique became equally and brutally oppressed. The only result was lies and cynicism – the latter being a feature I find all too common among Europeans.

And here we return to Herodotus. While the critics of the Enlightenment often have a point about the extremes of individualism inherent in modern liberal democracy, we cannot forget the lesson of a free people, equal before the law, fighting to defend what is their own. Despite its flaws, liberal democracy and free markets are incredibly attractive. Certainly unchecked individualism can make a nation weak and lazy – just ask Plato, Aristotle or Thucydides - but the prospect of economic betterment and political rights can also produce a virtue all their own. In this regard, the United States vindicates the Enlightenment.

The Democratic Strategy

So much for ideology, now for strategy. Here I return to the question: Why invade Iraq? The answer surely has something to do with the democratic idea. Those who attacked the United States on September 11 were radical fundamentalists who saw the US as “the Great Satan.” Most commonly, this group spends its time condemning the libertine American attitude. But we have to be precise here. The men who flew civilian aircraft into buildings in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania were not the picture of moral rectitude. The source of their hatred were the modern freedoms all Americans enjoy and the power that freedom gives the US in the world. To their minds the US, with its bourgeois rationalism, was an immediate threat to the Muslim world. The United States represents the modernity that the Islamic fundamentalist wishes to destroy in large part because the Muslim radical, unlike the contemporary European post-modern, understands the great attraction of democratic freedoms, he sees the temptation of Satan.

Radical Islam, however, does converge with European post-modernism in seeing modernity as the source of all oppression. It’s not surprising then that fundamentalist Islam has had a long relationship with Nazism, fascism and communism, and now finds itself trumpeting the tenets of post-colonialism and anti-globalism.

The problem then is one of confronting a particularly violent version of Muslim post-modernism with modern freedom. It should be noted here, that Islam, like Christianity and Judaism has a vigorous intellectual tradition that concerned itself with the conflict between reason and the demands of the faith. I won’t go into that here, but we can say that the modern Enlightenment was one way of dealing with that problem. The solution has, nonetheless, been problematic. Indeed, Europe itself is the source of such violent reactions against modernity as fascism and communism. For various reasons, Islam tended to suppress the reason side of the equation ever since the eleventh century. It was only when European civilization began to dominate the world that Islam took notice of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, like so many other non-European cultures, the Muslim world absorbed the technological – mostly military – of the West, but not the concomitant political institutions. Fouad Ajami, in his Dream Palace of the Arabs does a wonderful job of showing how colonial liberal democratic institutions quickly collapsed in the Arab world following national independence, giving way to fundamentalism and post-modern ideologies of power.

But, if the great freedoms of liberal democracy failed in the Arab world, it would seem that the post-modernists might be right after all, and an invasion of Iraq, attempting to turn it into a democracy is sheer lunacy on the part of the naive Americans. Maybe, but maybe not.

Recently, Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, noted that an attack on Iraq is not in fact part of the war on terror. His point was simply that Iraqis aren’t particularly prone to terrorism; in fact most of the terrorists who attacked the US were Saudis. Further, radical Islam derives primarily from extreme Wahabbist fundamentalism, which is virtually the state religion in Saudi Arabia, not Iraq. Finally, Pipes points out that Saddam Hussein has no interest in Islam as such; his only concern is maintaining his own power.

But why attack Iraq if the centre of anti-American Islamic terror is Saudi Arabia? I think there are two reasons. The first is that Saddam Hussein, like the Palestinian-Israeli issue, complicates the war on terror. Hussein uses and incites fundamentalist Islamicists for propaganda. He’s attempting to use the issue to convince the world that an attack on Iraq would result in a massive uprising of Muslims against the West. Among post-moderns in the EU, at the UN and teaching at American universities this argument has a sympathetic ear. Already hostile to modern liberal democracy and the US, these institutions and groups turn Saddam Hussein’s threat into a self-fulfilling prophecy. They want the “Muslim Street” to rise up, and so they see it as inevitable.

But the opposite could just as easily happen. The US might successfully remove Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq, including all ethnic groups and religious factions, may actually be happy to see him go: the fiery anti-American rhetoric of Saddam would be quelled. The post-modern nay-sayers want us to forget that the Iraqi population is already highly westernized. Like the Iranians, the Iraqis are not particularly anti-western and many would be glad to see the elimination of the tyrant Saddam and the theocratic Iranian mullahs. So we’re back to Herodotus and his praise of freedom.

And this leads to the second reason for attacking Saddam. The source of Islamic terrorism resides in Saudi Arabia, but this means that any attempt to overthrow the Saudi government or to foment revolution there would be certain to result in a virulently anti-American government. On the other hand, an invasion of Iraq would likely lead to a much more pro-western, pro-American government in Baghdad, setting an example of a free and modern Arab state for the rest of the Muslim world.

Simply put, the Americans are attempting to build modern liberal democracies in those Muslim nations where the project is most likely to succeed. The short-term effect would be to create a sort of NATO of the Middle East, encircling the more anti-American populations in the region. The long-term effect, and ultimately the most significant, would be psychological. The US wants to assist moderate Muslim populations to build successful modern democracies in order to undermine the emotional appeal of radical anti-western sentiment.

We often hear that the United States is naive, that it ignores the sources of anti-Americanism in the world. This criticism, however, comes from post-moderns who want the US to reject its liberal democratic heritage and sign on to the post-modern credo. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the US is not only taking account of the sources of anti-Americanism, but is attempting to overwhelm them with the desirability of freedom. The United States believes in Herodotus’ wisdom and rejects the post-modern ideology. Its own success as the most powerful nation on earth stands as evidence.

This is not to suggest that the US will be necessarily be successful in its aims – nothing is certain. But history tends to show that freedom is highly attractive. In many respects our current qualms are the fruit of a long campaign by post-moderns to make us doubt the efficacy of freedom. Their cynicism and arrogance, however, is more rhetorical than factual, and their questions concerning an invasion of Iraq are based far more on their ideology than on the real prospects for success. They want the world to believe that the American administration is naive and immoderate. Recently, George Bush said he was “a deliberate person.” I tend to think the same could be said for the US war on terror. Its critics, including many conservative commentators who want more immediate action, fail to see this. The US is following a deliberate and intentional war plan. It may need some adjustments, it may deserve some criticisms, it may even fall flat, but it’s one Herodotus would recognize.


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