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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.

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

  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.

  3. 3

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

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