Saturday, April 28, 2007

Preserving western civilization

There is much to discuss this week, including the leaks from George Tenet's book and General Petraeus's anything-but-optimistic statements about Iraq, but in the relatively short time I have available this morning (I'm traveling) I would like to use my broadest available brush. The story of the last four or five centuries has been the story of the spread of western European civilization, but I am becoming more and more convinced that we can save that civilization as we have known it only by assuming a more defensive posture towards the world. By "western civilization" I mean, more than anything else, a secular, rationalistic civilization, based on impartial principles and legal systems, which affirms (even if it does not always respect) the dignity of individual human beings regardless of their beliefs.

To be sure, that kind of civilization has never been as secure as we would have liked to believe. Seemingly unchallengeable 100 years ago, it promptly gave the world two disastrous global wars, but righted itself in the second half of the twentieth century. "Civilized peoples," Clausewitz wrote almost two hundred years ago, are ruled by reason, and barbarians by passion, but those, we can now see, were ideal types, and we need no reminding today of the role that passions play in our own politics, dominated as they are by the crassest appeals to feelings about patriotism, religion, and sex. Still, we inherited from the eighteenth century principles and ideals that have served us well in trying to make a fairer and better world. Our own Founding Fathers realized that slavery, for instance, stood in complete contradiction to their principles, but 80 years later slavery was in fact abolished. One hundred years after that, black Americans actually received full civil rights.

Meanwhile, Europe extended its rule over most of the globe, but Europe never ruled a large part of the Muslim world, and after 1945 direct imperialist rule retreated. Still, we believed in the second half of the twentieth century that the rest of the world would follow the western path, and even Communist nations were following an essentially western, rationalist ideology. Now all that, it seems to me, has been exposed as in illusion.

One critical sign of this comes this morning from Turkey, where Parliament is in crisis over the election of a new President. The leading candidate comes from the Islamic Party, which is the governing party today, but which has been held in check by Turkey's secular traditions and by the Turkish Army. Thanks to its founder Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has of course been a uniquely modern Muslim nation for 85 years now--a nation with full rights for women, in which everyone must contract civil marriages. The scholar Bernard Lewis, who gave the Bush Administration key advice before the Iraq War, argued in effect that this was proof that the Muslim world could modernize. But Turkey's exception has had no real imitators, and Ataturk's achievements are severely threatened. It seems less and less likely that Turkey will join the EU now, signalling a halt to the advance of western civilization for some time to come.

Another related sign of trouble is the crisis over American missile defense bases in Europe, which has led Russia to denounce the Conventional Forces Treaty, one of the great achievements of the post-cold war era, and which is also dividing the US from the rest of NATO. Here, as in Iraq, American irrationalism is to blame. The deployment of missile defense in Czechoslovakia and Poland is irrational from several perspectives--the threat which it claims to meet does not yet exist, the denunciation of the ABM treaty was a huge step backward for arms control, and our missile defense system has never been shown to work. But missile defense has been a conservative Republican shibboleth since Ronald Reagan proposed it in 1983, and Rumsfeld, Cheney and President Bush were all determined to get it in place regardless of the consequences. They have made it very clear how little they care for the solidarity of the western industrialized world, the great achievement of their parents' generation, and the one which can save us from a renewal of the intra-industrial conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century.

Indeed, their whole foreign policy has defied rationality from the beginning. The invasion of Iraq exemplified the principle that President Bush so loves to denounce: "If it feels good, do it, and if you've got a problem, blame some one else." It is no accident that the Administration had to intimidate or ignore the national security bureaucracy to fight the war it wanted--bureaucracy is based upon rationality, and thus the State, CIA and even much of the military understood that the costs of this war would almost surely outweigh the benefits. Even now the President remains convinced that the world has to conform to his wishes. Today's Times also includes a report of a White House meeting in January (it would have been nice to hear about it then) in which the President claimed to have told Prime Minister Maliki, "this [the surge] has to work or you're out"--a remarkable statement, one might think, to make to the leader of a foreign government. When a legislator asked why the President was so sure that this new tactic would work, he replied, "Because it has to." But now, General Petraeus has both admitted that Maliki cannot make the political deals we believe to be necessary and made it clear that we can expect no dramatic results by next fall. What we can expect, to judge from this month, is an increase in American casualties, as American forces set up outposts in hostile neighborhoods without having been able to create any real pro-American political base.

It is true that military power helped spread western ideas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but I do not believe that this is possible any longer. Armed forces have shrunk drastically in relation to world population--a good thing, in my opinion--and cannot occupy foreign lands for decades or centuries. We shall have to drop the insane idea that the best way to fight terrorism is to conquer and transform large parts of the Muslim world. The whole Administration approach to the war on terror contradicts one of Clausewitz's fundamental principles of strategy--that defense is strategically stronger than offense, partly because the defensive power is far more likely to secure the sympathy and help of third parties. Rationalism, meanwhile, is under attack in the United States as well. We must restore more of it at home before we try to spread it abroad, even if only by example.

Readers will have seen, I think, how discouraged I have been in recent years by the eclipse of so many of the achievements of our parents' and grandparents' generation. Like any good westerner, I grew up believing that progress was continuous and inevitable, and that is a painful illusion to let go. Yet the reality may be in a way more inspiring. We are still fighting the battles that Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and FDR fought before us, because, human nature being what it is, every victory is only provisional. That is why the "end of history" was so illusory. We are once again facing the same conflicts between reason and emotion, secularism and religion, greed and ambition on the one hand the impulse towards a more just equality on the other. We are once again compelled to play for great stakes, and our ancestors have left us all the tools we need to do battle. We can certainly do better than this.


Nur-al-Cubicle said...

A combination of foreboding and hope. I have goosebumps.

About the missile shield, neither the US nor Poland and the Czech Republic consulted the European Commission about the installatlions. One cynic said back in 2003 before the invastion of Iraq that Berlin and Paris will be targeted, as well as Moscow.

"In 1993, a neighbor of mine who was a Fulbright scholar on leave from a position as a diplomat in the Polish foreign ministry told me that Poland would gain membership in NATO by convincing the US that it can be a military launch pad which can be used to contain Germany or France in the event they act against American interests. Due to this conversation, it came as no surprise to me that Poland would purchase billions in American weaponry it cannot afford under financial terms similar to those provided to Israel and that it would support a war against Iraq "even without further UN resolutions." "

As to the good fight, I'm pretty low on the totem pole and aside from letters to senators and representatives (which I'm sure they trash), I don't now how to participate. I've marched, I've bumperstickered, I've mobilized for Dean, I've stood up and tried to talk some sense to classmates and coworkers on their "raw nationalism" (that certainly nails it). Result? Nothing. And these are the college educated. You gotta believe, I guess.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Perhaps I should have said, my senators and representatives send me form letters. I have a form letter from Senator Schumer declaring his certainty that WMD would be found in Iraq...In 2005!

M.R. Gundolf said...

Insightful.Uplifting. Dare I say, inspirational. Perhaps you should consider writing "on-the run" more often. Kindest regards, MRG>