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Revolution from Above

Something Japanese ultranationalists in the 1930s, Pan-Arabists, Baathists, Islamists, Indian fascists, Russian Slavophiles, and other enemies of liberalism have in common is a fatal weakness for illiberal German ideas on race and nation. The founder of the Pan-Arab movement after World War I, Sati al-Husri, was an avid reader of the Romantic German nationalist Fichte. An early Baathist, Sami al-Jundi, said:

We were racists, admiring Nazism, reading its books and the source of its thought, particularly Nietzsche …Fichte, and [Houston Stewart] Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, which revolves on race.

Jalal Al-e Ahmad, an influential Iranian radical intellectual in the 1960s, who coined the phrase “Westoxification,” was a translator of Ernst Jünger, not a racist, but certainly not a liberal.

Baathism, like pre-war Japanese militarism, or even extreme forms of Hindu nationalism, borrowed a great deal from European fascism and national socialism. Like Marxism, that other great Western export to the postcolonial world, variations of fascism were attractive because they were modern, while at the same time offering millenarian visions to essentially religious people who wished to reject, or at least transform, their traditional religions. Fascism, communism, and theocracy promise totality—states or communities where the people stand as a monolithic mass behind their Führer, emperor, or god. As Berman points out, communism was the first European mass movement to prosper in the Middle East. Extreme religious movements often began as a response to failed Marxist regimes, in Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, or Yemen, before turning their sights on the evils of Western liberalism. Their immediate revolutionary aim is to establish theocratic regimes in the Islamic world. This must have some bearing on how the West ought to respond to their threat, for unlike Hitler’s Germany or even Stalin’s Soviet Union, Islamist groups can do us much harm, but are not about to invade our countries, infiltrate our institutions, or take over our governments.

Berman is good on the inadequacy of Western intellectuals in the face of extremism. History is indeed not reassuring. Berman reminds us how the pacifist left in pre-war France argued against resisting Hitler’s Germany. They didn’t like the Nazis, to be sure, but they believed that nothing was worth fighting another war over. Some tried to justify their pacifism by claiming that Hitler was less of a threat than greedy capitalist warmongers, arms manufacturers, and Jews. Berman goes on to argue that many people in the West today, especially but not exclusively leftists, are in the same state of denial about the Islamist threat. I cannot disagree about the egregiousness of some of his examples. José Saramago’s comparisons between Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians and the Nazi Holocaust are indeed odious. Noam Chomsky’s idea that Bill Clinton’s missile strike on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was worse than “9/11” is plain silly. And what Harold Pinter usually has to say about the US is more than silly.

One can go on and on listing examples of dumb statements by literary celebrities who think the American Empire is so evil that everything else pales into insignificance. Berman puts this down to a kind of false rationalism, a self-deluding idea that the world operates along inherently reasonable lines, and thus can be worked out by intelligent people. If you hold, as Noam Chomsky tends to do, that US foreign policy can be reduced to corporate interests, things would appear to make sense. There is, Berman writes, “an unwillingness, sometimes an outright refusal, to accept that, from time to time, mass political movements do get drunk on the idea of slaughter.” Palestinian suicide bombers and people who crash planes into office buildings must have “legitimate grievances,” for otherwise why would they do such things? Palestinians do indeed have legitimate grievances, but in the case of suicide bombers, it is reasonable to assume that their ideals are as extreme as their means to achieve them.

It is of course comforting to believe that the world is essentially a rational place. And Berman is quite right to warn us against this illusion. But what would he have us do about it? Here is where I would take issue with him, for his historical parallels don’t ring true. Berman thinks we are in the 1930s or 1950s, when many Western intellectuals fell for the temptations of totalitarian ideology. His book reads like an updated manifesto for the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Of course, we should recognize Islamist extremism as a serious threat. But there is a huge difference from earlier attacks on liberalism. Some misguided apologetics for Palestinian suicide tactics apart, there is no evidence that any serious European or American intellectual has any sympathy for Osama bin Laden’s revolutionary brew, let alone Saddamite Baathism.

If some Western intellectuals can be faulted, it is for the kind of moral blindness that sees every Israeli or US action as a crime against humanity, while ignoring mass murders by tyrants in Africa and Asia. Those who demonstrate against US imperialism do not do so, on the whole, out of sympathy for Baathism or Islamist suicide bombers, but out of a deep conviction that American force—at least since Vietnam—cannot possibly do any good. This, it seems to me, is a mistake. If the US, or other Western governments, can usefully intervene to stop atrocities, or help people to establish liberal democracies, no absolute principle of national sovereignty, or fear of US imperialism, should stand in our way. But does this mean we must embark on revolutionary wars? Do we really want “a new radicalism to press Bush to turn more convincingly against the ‘realist’ errors of the past”? Is a “militant version” of Wilsonianism what we need in today’s world? Is there not something a little irrational about a messianic project to save the world, even if much of the world is against it?

Whatever the long-term effects of the war in Iraq, it was disingenuous of Bush and his team to claim that the war is being fought to protect the American people from terrorism. The threat from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was not identical to the threat from al-Qaeda, even though Berman, like the US government, slips and slides from one to the other as though they were. Invading Iraq was not the most logical way to combat religious extremism in the Middle East; it could easily end up inflaming it. Nor was Saddam Hussein identical to Hitler; the latter was building up a great military power, poised to jump on its European neighbors. Saddam could never have won a war with the US, even with a nuclear bomb.

Berman is right to call the attack on Saddam’s Iraq a revolutionary war. That’s what “regime change” means. To think that American force will bring liberal democracy to the Middle East is indeed a form of militant Wilsonianism, and this is why it warms the hearts of former leftists, such as Berman, who can’t settle for what they see as the bourgeois, compromising, peace-loving mediocrity of “European” democracies, but crave instead the Sturm und Drang of revolution from above. Berman calls himself a liberal, but it is hard to distinguish him from the more radical neoconservatives, whose mentors under Reagan mixed up Straussian conservatism with the revolutionary zeal of their Trotskyist origins. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the former student leader of Paris ‘68, recognized this immediately in a recent debate with Richard Perle, when “Red Danny” called his opponent a Bolshevik who reminded him of his own student days.

The idea that liberalism is mediocre, unheroic, and without martial vigor is an old battle-cry of the anti-liberal European right. That is what such disparate figures as Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, the eminent jurist who justified the Nazi state, and indeed Leo Strauss believed. Schmitt and Jünger advocated an authoritarian state of heroic citizen-warriors, bound together by their constant struggle against outside enemies. Leo Strauss was a refugee from Nazism. Nevertheless, in a letter to Carl Schmitt, he expressed a similar idea: “People can only be unified against other people.”3 But neither Strauss nor Schmitt, let alone Jünger, would have called themselves liberals. This is where the neoconservatives and old leftists, such as Paul Berman, are different. Their radical vision of an American state, filled with revolutionary élan and military steel, battling heroically and alone with outside enemies, is anti-liberal, yet they call it liberalism—tough, militant American liberalism, as opposed to the homebody European variety. Berman invokes the spirit of Lincoln. To have mentioned Carl Schmitt might have hit the spot better.

If the philosophical side of Berman’s liberal battle-cry is oddly illiberal, what about the state of America’s world revolution on the ground? So far US policy has fallen short of Lincoln’s ideals. Even as the stated aims in the Iraqi war are to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, other dictatorships (Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and an assortment of other Stans) are coddled as prized allies; the Russians are barely criticized for demolishing Chechnya; human rights in China are hardly even mentioned anymore; and when Turks or Brazilians exercise their democratic rights to vote for leaders or policies that the American administration doesn’t like, they get chastised for doing so. Clearly democratic revolution is rather a selective business.

This is sometimes unavoidable. Even, or indeed especially, the United States, as a superpower, needs to make shabby deals, bribe unsavory leaders, and compromise to protect its interests. It would, of course, be desirable if the US did more to promote freedom and democracy, wherever and whenever it can, but it is precisely the penchant of the current administration to blur realpolitik with revolutionary zeal, to bribe and twist arms with trumpeting blasts of self-righteousness, that provokes so much resistance in the world. The idea, moreover, that democracy can be established by military invasion is not bolstered with much historical evidence.

Apologists for the current US government keep on reminding us of Germany and Japan, but these examples are widely off the mark. To start, both countries attacked the US with their own military forces first. The Allies did not fight to build Japanese and German democracies, but to defend themselves. Secondly, the US did not create German or Japanese democracies from scratch. Both countries were modern nation-states, which once had flawed but functioning democratic institutions, with parliaments, political parties, independent judges, vigorous newspapers, and so on. Things went horribly wrong in the 1930s, to be sure, but what was needed in 1945, and indeed carried out with great American humanity and skill, was a restoration job, not a revolution.

Again, one does not have to be a hard-boiled “realist” to see that bringing democracy to Iran, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea with military force would be a very different proposition. The US may be exceptional in many respects, but the belief of its more zealous officials, and intellectual cheerleaders, in a national destiny to dispatch American armies to remake the world in its own image is by no means unique. Others have been down that route, and not everything they did was ignoble: think of Napoleon’s emancipation of the Jews. But eventually such missions always come to grief, leaving ruins where they meant to build utopias.

—April 3, 2003

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    Quoted by Robert Misik in Berlin’s Tageszeitung, March 17, 2003.

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