Saturday, April 19, 2003

World War IV?

James Woolsey has taken much flack for using Eliot Cohen's phrase "World War IV" to describe our conflict against terrorism or Islamism, and he probably will do so again for his defense of that phrase today in the WSJ.

If one takes the Cold War to be World War III because it was a titanic ideological struggle, then one ought to take our conflict against Islamism to be World War IV. "Islamism" is the current manifestation of dissatisfaction with liberalism which has deep roots. From the beginning, liberalism was criticized by traditional religion and even from philosophy itself (Rousseau). Religion doesn't approve of liberalism's liberty and individualism; it prefers virtue and order. To the extent that religion is hierarchical and was allied with the aristocracy in Europe, it hasn't typically approved of liberalism's equality either. Liberty and equality pretty much sum up liberal democracy.

From the point of view of modern or late-modern philosophy (beginning with Rousseau), liberal democracy fosters a slavish, conformist, and ignoble character, the bourgeois. So liberalism isn't as free as it claims to be. The protection of property gives Rousseau doubts about liberal democracy's claims to equality as well. Religion has attacked liberal democracy mostly from the right, while most (but not all) of Rousseau's attacks surprisingly came from the left where liberal democracy originally thought it was invulnerable. Religion has typically disagreed with liberal democracy's principles, while Rousseau mostly chided it for not living up to its principles.

These are the claims that have been leveled against liberal democracy from the beginning, and because they have some merit to them we should become accustomed to facing them perennially. The only interesting issue regarding our current conflict is the question of how much "Islamism" is philosophically-inspired or represents Islam. Clearly, Saddam was a secular leader, an old-fashioned thug (which is why we supported him against Iran in the '80's) who had recently invoked Islam only to inspire hatred of liberalism and America; Iraq was no theocracy under Saddam's fist. Baath party ideology, as David Brooks and others have shown, owes more to Rousseau's children, Marx and Nietzsche, than religion. And even this ideological support was just a cover for traditional thuggery; there was no real effort to re-educate, remake, or re-engineer Islamic man's soul in Iraq. Nevertheless, Iran and other countries in the Middle East seem to be closer to theocracies than traditional tyrannies with a veneer of ideology.

Whatever the inspiration of Islamism, this struggle looks and feels like the other big ones preceding it: a battle over the justice of liberalism taking us back to first principles. One may claim that those who persist in calling this "World War IV" are backwards or "still fighting the last war." The truth is that liberalism will always be fighting this war, for liberalism has inherent weaknesses that will be attacked perennially and should be faced by those who wish to defend it. How many wars do we have to fight against those who view us as economically oppressive and/or ignoble and permissive before we recognize the pattern?


Post a Comment

<< Home