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Paul Berman: Will the Opposition Lead?

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The whole point in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, from my perspective, was to achieve those large possibilities right in the center of the Muslim world, where the ripples might lead in every direction........ But Mr. Bush muddied these issues long ago by putting too much emphasis on weapons in Iraq

New York TImes

April 15, 2004

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR Will the Opposition Lead?


The war in Iraq may end up going well or catastrophically, but either way, this war has always been central to the broader war on terror. That is because terror has never been a matter of a few hundred crazies who could be rounded up by the police and special forces. Terror grows out of something larger — an enormous wave of political extremism.

The wave began to swell some 25 years ago and by now has swept across a big swath of the Muslim world. The wave is not a single thing. It consists of several movements or currents, which are entirely recognizable. These movements draw on four tenets: a belief in a paranoid conspiracy theory, according to which cosmically evil Jews, Masons, Crusaders and Westerners are plotting to annihilate Islam or subjugate the Arab people; a belief in the need to wage apocalyptic war against the cosmic conspiracy; an expectation that, post-apocalypse, the Islamic caliphate of ancient times will re-emerge as a utopian new society; and a belief that, meanwhile, death is good, and should be loved and revered.

A quarter century ago, some of the extremist movements pictured the coming utopia in a somewhat secular light, and others in a theocratic light. These differences, plus a few other quarrels, led to hatred and even war, like the one between Iran and Iraq. The visible rivalries left an impression in some people's minds that nothing tied together these sundry movements.

American foreign policy acted on that impression, and tried to play the movements against one another, and backed every non-apocalyptic dictator who promised to keep the extremists under control. The American policy was cynical and cruel. It did nothing to prevent those sundry movements and dictators from committing murders on a gigantic scale.

Nor did the policy produce anything good for America, in the long run. For the sundry movements did share a common outlook, which ought to have been obvious all along — the paranoid and apocalyptic outlook of European fascism from long ago, draped in Muslim robes. These movements added up to a new kind of modern totalitarianism. And, in time, the new totalitarianism found its common point, on which everyone could agree. This was the shared project of building the human bomb. The Shiite theocrats of Iran pioneered the notion of suicide terror. And everyone else took it up: Sunni theocrats, Baathist anti-theocrats of Iraq and Syria, the more radical Palestinian nationalists, and others, too.

The Sept. 11 attacks came from a relatively small organization. But Al Qaeda was a kind of foam thrown up by the larger extremist wave. The police and special forces were never going to be able to stamp out the Qaeda cells so long as millions of people around the world accepted the paranoid and apocalyptic views and revered suicide terror. The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse.

Some people argue that anti-totalitarian revolutions can never be brought about from outside. The history of World War II says otherwise. Some people respond with the observation that Germany, Italy and Japan are nothing like the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, the American-led invasion has nonetheless brought about an anti-totalitarian revolution. A pretty feeble revolution, true — but even feeble progress suggests large possibilities.

The whole point in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, from my perspective, was to achieve those large possibilities right in the center of the Muslim world, where the ripples might lead in every direction. Iraq was a logical place to begin because, for a dozen years, the Baathists had been shooting at American and British planes, and inciting paranoia and hatred against the United States, and encouraging the idea that attacks can successfully be launched against American targets, and giving that idea some extra oomph with the bluff about fearsome weapons. The Baathists, in short, contributed their bit to the atmosphere that led to Sept. 11. Yet Iraq could also boast of liberal democrats and some admirable achievements in the Kurdish north, which meant there were people to support, and not just to oppose. Such were the hopes.

As for the results — well, in one respect, these have turned out to be, in spite of everything, almost comically successful. Baathism's super-weapons may have been a figment of the universal imagination; but as soon as the United States elevated this figment into a world crisis, astonishing progress was made in tracking down weapons programs and trafficking in Libya, Iran, Dubai and Pakistan. Some people will go on insisting that sudden progress on these matters has nothing to do with Iraq, and the dominoes tumbled simultaneously by sheer coincidence — but some people will believe anything.

Nobody can doubt, however, that even in its planning stages, the invasion and occupation of Iraq were depressingly bungled. The whole thing was done in an odd mood of hysteria and parsimony, a bad combination. It is tempting to conclude that, all in all, we would have been better off staying out of Iraq altogether — and maybe this will turn out to be the case.

But everyone who feels drawn to that conclusion had better acknowledge its full meaning: the unavoidable implication that we would be better off today with Saddam Hussein in power; better off with economic sanctions still strangling the Iraqi people; better off with American army bases still occupying Saudi soil (Osama bin Laden's original grievance against us); and better off without the progress on weapons proliferation in the Muslim world (unless you believe in the sheer-coincidence theory, in which case, you think that progress would have happened willy-nilly). That is a pretty horrifying set of alternatives.

Now we need allies — people who will actually do things, and not just offer benedictions from afar. Unfortunately — how many misfortunes can fall upon our heads at once? — finding allies may not be easy. Entire populations around the world feel a personal dislike for America's president, which makes it difficult for even the friendliest of political leaders in some countries to take pro-American positions.

But the bigger problem has to do with public understandings of the war. People around the world may not want to lift a finger in aid so long as the anti-totalitarian logic of the war remains invisible to them. President Bush ought to have cleared up this matter. He has, in fact, spoken about conspiracy theories and hatred (including at Tuesday's press conference). He has spoken about a new totalitarianism, and has even raised the notion of a war of ideas.

But Mr. Bush muddied these issues long ago by putting too much emphasis on weapons in Iraq (and his gleeful opponents have muddied things even further by pretending that weapons were the only reason for war). He muddied the issues again by doing relatively little to promote a war of ideas — quite as if his loftier comments were merely blather. His national security statement of 2002 flatly declared that totalitarianism no longer existed — a strange thing to say. War requires clarity. Here is incoherence.

Somebody else will have to straighten out these confusions, then. I think it will have to be the Democrats — at least those Democrats who accept the anti-totalitarian logic. And why shouldn't they show a bit of leadership? After the Spanish election last month, America needed to reach out to the new Spanish leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and his voters. Mr. Bush was in no position to do this, given that in November he had delivered a speech that was all-too characteristically insulting to the European left. Instead, it was Senator John Kerry who made a public appeal to Mr. Zapatero to keep troops in Iraq.

I wish the Democrats would follow Mr. Kerry's example and take it a step further by putting together a small contingent of Democrats with international reputations, a kind of shadow government — not to undermine American policy but to achieve what Mr. Bush seems unable to do. The Democrats ought to explain the dangers of modern totalitarianism and the goals of the war. They ought to make the call for patience and sacrifice that Mr. Bush has steadfastly avoided. And the Democratic contingent ought to go around the world making that case.

The Democrats ought to thank and congratulate the countries that have sent troops, and ought to remind the economically powerful Switzerlands of this world that they, too, have responsibilities. The Democrats ought to assure everyone that support for a successful outcome in Iraq does not have to mean support for George W. Bush. And how should the Democrats make these several arguments? They should speak about something more than the United Nations and stability in Iraq. They should talk about fascism. About death cults. About the experiences of the 20th century. About the need for democratic solidarity.

This is not a project for after the election — this is a project for right now. America needs allies. Today, and not just tomorrow. And America needs leaders. If the Bush administration cannot rally support around the world, let other people give it a try.

Paul Berman is the author of "Terror and Liberalism."


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Last modified 2005-01-06 06:25 PM

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