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Revolution from Above

Call it the Kosovo Syndrome. In 1999, many liberals cheered when NATO planes were dispatched to bomb Belgrade in an effort to stop Serbs from “cleansing” Kosovo. Military intervention, led by the United States, was seen by some critics as a bullying infringement of the sovereign rights of Serbia. Yet this action saved hundreds of thousands of Albanian Kosovars from being driven from their homes, raped, tortured, and, in many cases, murdered. The bombing campaign was promoted as the first humanitarian war, the perfect example of liberal interventionism. In April of that same year, Kofi Annan stated in Geneva that human rights stood above the rights of governments.

Ironically, in the light of more recent events, the principles of “liberal intervention,” or the “right to intervene” to stop mass murder and persecution, were developed in Paris in the 1980s, by Mario Bettati, a professor of international public law, and popularized by a French politician, Bernard Kouchner, who was one of the founders of Médecins sans Frontières. This is how Kouchner described his enthusiasm for liberal intervention with military force: “The day will come, we are convinced of it, when we are going to be able to say to a dictator: ‘Mr. Dictator we are going to stop you preventively from oppressing, torturing and exterminating your ethnic minorities.’”

In fact, Kouchner, and others, had been pleading for intervention before, in Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, and Somalia. When it came, however, it was usually too late. Many people, especially left-leaning liberals, had felt squeamish about US bombers or Marines going into other countries anyway, however noble the intentions. For it smacked of US imperialism, and brought back memories of Vietnam. But Kosovo, or even before that, Bosnia, changed many minds (though not yet that of George W. Bush, who promised in his election campaign to adopt a more “humble” foreign policy). They were the precedents that made it easier for liberals and indeed leftists to lend their support to even more elaborate war plans, hatched by neo-conservative hawks circling around the younger Bush’s Pentagon, in the name of liberating the Middle East.

Paul Berman counts himself among them. But his views are more radical than Kouchner’s, whose liberal interventionism is about saving minorities from death and persecution, not about spreading revolution. In a recent issue of The New Republic, Berman declared his support for the war against Iraq by quoting the Gettysburg Address. Battling Saddam Hussein, he said, was like liberating the slaves of the Southern states. More than that, Abraham Lincoln, in Berman’s perhaps over-romantic take on his great American hero, was bent on liberating the world. This was quite unlike the namby-pamby Europeans today who, Berman writes,

cannot conceive or accept the notion of liberal democracy as a revolutionary project for universal liberation, they cannot imagine how to be liberal democrats and wield power at the same time. They simply cannot imagine how an exercise of force might bring about political revolutions in remote corners of the world.1

But when Lincoln promised that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth,” was he talking about the American Revolution on a global scale? I’m not convinced that he was. His words could just as easily have been an expression of American exceptionalism.

Fully aware that George W. Bush, alas, is no Abraham Lincoln, Berman argues nonetheless that the current intervention in the Middle East is a Lincolnian project, a liberal war, a battle for universal freedom. Berman’s idea of liberal democracy is the opposite of what “the Europeans” (Berman is rather ahead of us in the Old World, where such collective feeling is still somewhat rare) supposedly make of it. Europeans, so Berman tells us in Terror and Liberalism, see liberal democracy as “mediocre,” a “compromise,” “something to settle for, in a spirit of resignation.” Europeans did not resist communism to safeguard liberal democratic freedoms so much as Christianity, or nationalism, or true socialism. All I can say is that this is not the way I saw it growing up in Holland. Nor do I know many people in other parts of Europe who did.

I also wonder whether Berman is quite right about the lack of European desire to spread universal democratic ideals. Napoleon may not have been a liberal democrat, but the French certainly were keen on sowing their revolutionary seeds as far as their armies reached. Like the American variety, French democracy was born from a revolution, and the two nations once shared the idea of manifest destiny and universal values. In the French case, the grandeur of the old mission civilisatrice has been reduced to often irritating grandstanding in Europe, and not always honorable interventions in Francophone Africa. Still, the legacy of freedom, equality, and brotherhood can still be seen, in the legal codes and administrative practices left behind by Napoleon in many parts of Europe.

The British, too, have not been shy about exporting their brand of politics around the world. And democratic institutions in the former British Empire have been no less successful than they are in the Philippines, say, a former US colony, and, in some cases, decidedly more successful than in many US client states. The Lincolnian record in Latin America is not great, to say the least.

Berman’s other point of comparison between European and American liberalism is equally doubtful. It was Lincoln’s great insight, in Berman’s reading, that liberalism can only survive if it is backed by a collective will to die for it. Liberalism cannot prevail in what Berman sees as a cynical European world of compromise and military spinelessness. European liberalism, he argues, has become soggy, comfortable, and selfish. Apropos of the European reaction to the horrors in Bosnia, he actually uses the words—not entirely without justice—“base, cowardly, greedy, and self-absorbed, apart from being antique.” Without US protection, then, European liberal democracy would surely perish, for Europeans are not willing to die for it.

This is a caricature, to be sure, but as a description of the post–World War II order, it holds some truth. A combination of war-weariness and dependency on the US has made Europeans complacent. It was not always thus. In the early twentieth century millions of Europeans were more than willing to kill and die for their countries, yet it was not liberal democracy that rose from the bloodbaths of Ypres and Verdun, but fascism. It is true that Europeans today should be more responsible, and pay more for their security. But the common European calculation that international institutions are the most effective safeguards of our democracies is not just a matter of cynicism or cowardice. After all, this idea has served us well for fifty years; far better, at any rate, than a world in which nations compete in military prowess.

Still, the benighted Europeans are not the only, or perhaps even the main, targets of Berman’s wrath. He also takes aim at American proponents of “realism” in foreign policy, the Nixonian conservatives, who see national interests as paramount, and would make deals with Satan to protect them. He takes issue in his book with the late Richard Nixon’s view of the first Gulf War as one of “vital economic interests.” Instead, Berman backed that war as an “anti-fascist” war—a war with “progressive” goals. He didn’t care about “interests”; he cared because Saddam Hussein was a tyrant. As a matter of principle, it would be difficult to side with the hard men against Berman’s idealism. And yet one doesn’t have to be an ardent fan of Henry Kissinger to see that any sensible foreign policy has to take national interests into account; that is what liberal democratic governments are elected to do. Policies based entirely on revolutionary ideals can only end in zealotry. There is something in the tone of Berman’s polemic that reminds me of the quiet American in Graham Greene’s novel, the man of principle who causes mayhem, without quite realizing why.

There is, however, much to admire in Berman’s book too. As a general analysis of the various enemies of liberalism, and what ties them together, it is superb. All—Nazis, Islamists, Bolsheviks, Fascists, and so on—are linked by Berman to the “ur-myth” of the fall of Babylon. The decadent city-dwellers of Babylon, corrupted by luxury and poisoned by greed, infect the people of God with their wicked ways, even as the forces of Satan threaten the good people from afar. The people of God will only be freed from these abominations after a massive war of Armageddon, in which the city slickers and Satanic forces will be exterminated. A pure new world will rise from the burning ruins and “the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.”

As Berman says:

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined. They were the proletariat or the Russian masses (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the children of the Roman wolf (for Mussolini’s Fascists); or the Spanish Catholics and the Warriors of Christ the King (for Franco’s Phalange); or the Aryan race (for the Nazis).

And there were always rootless cosmopolitans—Jews, Freemasons, Chinese, bourgeois capitalists, Zionists, Crusaders, homosexuals, and whatnot—to destroy root and branch. The cult of death has always been at war with the desire for the good life; unity, purity, and submission always were the promised goals of zealots, once the wicked city was razed. And pockets of liberty in the world were always vulnerable to less tolerant predators.

The cult of death is an important feature of all wars against liberalism. Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian Islamist, who was hanged in 1966 in Cairo for sedition, once wrote that the Koran pointed to a “contemptible characteristic of the Jews; their craven desire to live, no matter at what price and regardless of quality, honor and dignity.” Reading this sentence in Berman’s book, I was reminded of the Taliban warrior who told a British newspaper reporter that the Americans would never succeed in defeating the Taliban, because the latter love death while the Americans love Pepsi Cola. Berman quotes the famous battle cry of one of Franco’s generals in the Spanish Civil War: “åÁViva la Muerte!” Point taken.2

Berman’s most valuable contribution is his insistence that Islamism and other extreme forms of anti-liberalism are by no means exotic, or part of some peculiar clash of civilizations. The roots of non-Western extremism can often be traced to the West itself. One irony Berman does not point out, in this regard, is that some of his new allies on the American right, those of a radical Christian persuasion, also subscribe to visions of Babylonian decadence and a war of Armageddon. Still, I suppose that in the face of a common enemy, one cannot always be too picky about one’s friends.

  1. 1

    Resolved: What Lincoln Knew About War,” The New Republic, March 3, 2003.

  2. 2

    I would have to endorse this, since Avishai Margalit and I made the same point, using many of the same examples as Berman, in our article “Occidentalism,” The New York Review, January 17, 2002.

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