The Wrong War

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden; drawing by David Levine

At this writing it seems certain that there will be a war in Iraq. It is the wrong war to fight. I am not waiting for the next report of Hans Blix: I already believe that Iraq is hiding chemical and biological weapons. I also believe that it is hiding a few dozen missiles in western Iraq. Yet, while holding these beliefs, I still maintain that this is the wrong war.

If you were to ask American officials after September 11 what the enemy is, you would hear three different answers: world terrorism, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of evildoers like Saddam Hussein, and radical Islam of the sort promoted by Osama bin Laden. I believe that the muddleheadedness in the American thinking about the war against Iraq comes from conflating these three answers as if somehow they were one and the same. In fact they are very different, with very different and incompatible practical implications.

In my view radical Islam of the sort promoted by bin Laden is and should be regarded as the enemy. And fighting Saddam Hussein will greatly help this enemy rather than set him back. This will be true even if the war is successful, let alone if it turns out to be unsuccessful.

The Islamic world, which consists of a seventh of the world’s population, is on the verge of what in the old-fashioned jargon was called a “revolutionary situation.” Lenin characterized the revolutionary situation as one in which the masses can’t stand the regime anymore, and the regime finds it very hard to control them. In almost all the Islamic countries, over 50 percent of the population is made up of young people under eighteen. Their prospects in life are very bleak, and yet they have a sense of a glittering life elsewhere that comes mostly from the Western press, television, movies, and the Internet. This makes the gap between their prospects and their dreams very painful.

There are two ways to go about dealing with this explosive gap. The first is to enhance the economic prospects of people in the Islamic world and work for a better life for them, and the second is to change people’s expectations of life by changing their notion of what constitutes the good life. Secular ideologies work on real-life prospects, while religious ideologies work on dreams. And when secular ideologies fail, as they have so miserably in the Islamic countries, the attraction of the dreams encouraged by religious ideologies increases many times over.

Radical Islam is making a revolutionary bid for the allegiance of the Islamic world. The attempts of its leaders to increase their following comes in two versions. There is the “Stalinist” version, which is a revolution in one country of the sort successfully made by Khomeini in Iran. A successful Islamic revolution in a major country would, or so it is…

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