Saturday, November 02, 2002

Saddam's Western Brain

David Brooks has written a characteristically thoughtful piece on the intellectual foundations of Baathist ideology ("Saddam's Brain"). My only quibble is that somtimes Brooks assumes that the West ended with John Locke and the comfortable liberalism with which we are familiar. It would be wonderful if this were the case; but, alas, it is not. Even Francis Fukuyama, the greatest living proponent of the thesis that Lockean (or Hegelian) liberalism has won, knows that the most recent intellectual-political rivals to liberalism -- fascism, communism, and now Islamism -- are decidedly Western in origin. Our enemies are using our ideas against us; "Saddam's Brain" is Western.

Brooks's excellent discussion of the influence of Michel Aflaq both on Baath party structure and on Saddam Hussein in particular highlights all the characteristics of fascist ideology -- the idea of a master race, a mystical belief in self-purification through violence, elevation of the soul through warfare and killing, a life of relentless struggle, and the anti-spirituality of Europe. These are the ideas on which the Sorbonne-educated Aflaq founded the Baath party in Syria and Iraq and on which the young Saddam fed. According to Brooks, Aflaq's sentimental education in Paris consisted of heavy doses of Marx, Nietzsche, Lenin, Mazzini, and a range of German nationalists and proto-Nazis.

The ideas of these characters are, of course, Western ideas. Everyone reads Marx and Nietzsche right along with Locke, Smith, Montesquieu, and the Federalist in college Western Civ courses -- to the extent that the Great Books are taught anymore in our better universities. Therefore, it makes no sense to say, as Brooks does, that "Aflaq rejected all Western thought." Precisely the opposite is true; Aflaq was clearly a devotee of the most advanced kind of Western, anti-liberal, anti-capitalist thinking, and applied it to politics in Syria and Iraq, much as Hassan al-Banna did, according to Fukuyama, in Egypt.

Brooks quotes Saddam expressing disdain for communism as a Western idea which has no place in the Islamic world. But Brooks unhesitatingly draws parallels between the Baath party to both the communist party and especially the Nazi party. Brooks also brilliantly quotes Saddam sounding like a postmodernist professor at a Western university, declaring that: all principles are relative, truth is determined by the revolution's immediate needs, real Baathists need to look to the future even if it means compromising their founding principles, and that ascension to a higher, purer state, regardless of previous principles, distinguishes Baathism. Take away the political references, and you have a fancy lecture on post-structuralism that could easily have been delivered by Edward Said instead of Saddam Hussein.

Finally, Brooks ends with an excellent challenge to the CIA and State Department to take the ideas of our enemies seriously, for ideas are serious psychological motivators that are not amenable to game theory analysis. Saddam hasn't "miscalculated;" he has behaved perfectly rationally, given his beliefs.

This is not "us" against "them" in a "clash of civilizations;" it's us Islamism embodies both the Left and Right Western critiques of liberalism. The Left says that we lack the equality we espouse and that we foster selfishness; the Right says that we're boring, un-spiritual, and ignoble. We should not be completely surprised about what we are up against and what the perennial points of attack against liberalism are. Given the fact that Islamism already represents a kind of "Westernization," the real question is whether Fukuyama is justified in his hopefulness that this mixture of Marxism and fascism can lead eventually to liberalism, as fascism did in Germany and Marxism did in Russia.


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