Invoking the Past

Speeches given this week by Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and President Bush, invoking World War II, the Cold War, and Fascists, Nazis and Communists amount to a bit of nostalgia combined with a desperate, last-ditch attempt to convince the American people – and perhaps themselves – that the war they maneuvered the country into really is something that can be won, as previous wars have been, by conventional military means.

Having plunged the beloved country into a conflict with shadowy bands of terrorists and guerrillas motivated by generally similar but sometimes divergent worldviews – not really an unprecedented kind of conflict, but a “new kind of war” compared with what the U.S. military is constructed to do and is accustomed to doing – they still hark back to the superficially comforting tactics and rhetoric of past eras.

As to whether the possibility that contending with slippery stateless terror groups with the tools appropriate to confronting a great-power state might not be the best way to gain an ill-defined victory has ever occurred to them, I cannot claim to have any particular knowledge.

Do They Really Believe It?

Now perhaps using the past to justify the present is done simply because it is seen as a simplified way to connect with the rubes and get them to suspend disbelief. It seems odd to expect that people who have become increasingly disillusioned with the war in Iraq will suddenly perk up their ears when they hear the term “Islamofascist” slap their heads and say, “Now I get it; it’s our chance to emulate the Greatest Generation.” But considering the news out of Iraq these days, it may be the administration’s last best hope of reversing the slide.

Or perhaps these worthies actually believe it themselves, whether because this is the only way they know how to look at political-ideological disputes, given that their attitudes settled into immovable concrete form somewhere around their Sophomore year in college, as seems to be true of most people, or because the idea of a stateless, formless, largely invisible adversary you’re not quite certain how to handle is too frightening to contemplate in private, let alone discuss in public. If either is the case, the country is in for a long, desultory series of conflicts whose outcomes are more likely to harm the republic than to make it more safe.

Justifying Power and Spending

There’s an even less encouraging explanation for this reversion, which has to do with the inevitable impulse of nation-states to want to accrue more power. For a long time now one of the ways to have power as a nation-state – even if it turns out to be elusive or even delusive power, as the U.S. adventure in Iraq and the Israeli adventure against Hezbollah seem to be demonstrating – is to have an impressive military-industrial complex. Whether or not such an impressive military machine is actually of any practical use to the people who are supposed to be “protected” by the nation-state, it is useful psychologically and in some cases practically to those who head the country’s government. Thus any excuse to build the complex will do.

The invocation of historic struggles with Nazism, Fascism and Communism is a handy way to justify ever more impressive military expenditure, and seems calculated to resonate with Americans who, the administration thinks, need to be reminded that this country was once capable of enduring long military struggles. But it also reflects a profound cluelessness about the nature of the struggle our leaders have plunged us into.

Maybe their thinking is more sophisticated than this – the fact that former Secretary of State Jim Baker is in Iraq poking around suggests the remote possibility that Dubya is actually interested in a no-B.S. assessment from somebody who has little reason to suck up and probably still considers the Bushlet a wet-behind-the-ears whelp. But their public statements, combined with their floundering in a war that has now lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World War II, reflect little understanding of the quicksand they have plunged themselves and the country into.

Fascism Redux

Why is it so inappropriate to compare the struggle with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups with Fascism or to claim that what we’re confronting is essentially a totalitarian ideology? Let us count the ways.

To be candid, there are some superficial similarities between today’s jihadist movement (or impulse) and Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s. Both seem to spring from a sense of humiliation deep enough that it is uncomfortable to express it as humiliation. Better to express it as resentment and a desire to get even. The Arab world, which during much of the time of the Ottoman Empire was far ahead of the primitives living in Europe, has fallen far behind the West in terms of culture, scientific prowess and economic development. Germany was humiliated by the defeat of the old order in World War I, highlighted by French occupation of the Rhineland. Italy was widely viewed in the 1920s as inept in almost every department.

Those attracted to Fascism, Nazism and jihadism start by rejecting the more modern world that has outstripped them, especially Enlightenment rationalism, and blaming their backwardness on alien forces that must be purged. Then comes an exaggerated xenophobia and a longing for an idealized past that probably never existed in the form nostalgia remembers it. Not all European fascists were anti-Semitic, but most were, and much of the jihadist mentality is suffused with anti-Semitism. A few Communist regimes – Croatia, Slovakia, Romania – justified mass murder on religious grounds, as a way of establishing purity.

Differences More Important

That word “regime,” however, highlights one of the essential differences. While al-Qaeda had significant influence on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, it has never actually controlled a nation-state. That means it has not had access to the sheen of legitimacy such control confers in all too many minds, or to the levers of legitimized force that statehood brings.

Al-Qaeda is not the kind of mass movement the black shirts and brown shirts developed. Instead it is a small, conspiratorial band whose influence derives from its ability to inspire a small number of fanatics to engage in spectacular, sometimes suicidal acts of destruction.

Most importantly, Fascism and Nazism reflected a worship of the State as an institution and a desire to control a state. Al-Qaeda, at least at this point, rejects the legitimacy of existing states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, whose boundaries were created by Western colonialists and which in its view are ruled by corrupt and inauthentic Muslims. Whether it aspires to be a government is unclear, but it is unlikely to become one.

Fascism and Nazism were defeated when the regimes they ruled were defeated through military means. The U.S. already occupies Afghanistan, the only state where the jihadists had substantial influence, and that has done little or nothing to reduce the dangers they pose. The occupation of Iraq has been more headache than triumph, and has probably increased the threat of jihadism to the United States and the West.

Clearly, the methods used to defeat Nazism and Fascism are not working against al-Qaeda and jihadism. Failure to recognize the differences, which are much more important strategically than the largely superficial similarities, has led to great squandering of Iraqi and American (and “coalition-of-the-willing”) lives. If jihadism is ever defeated – it is more likely to peter out after a while unless U.S. leaders become cleverer than they seem to have the capacity to be – it will be more through espionage, diplomacy and police work than military action.

Failure to understand this on the part of leaders who prefer nostalgic images of an at least partially mythical past to analyzing the real challenges of the present – in a way a mirror-image, at least in this aspect, of the Nazis, Fascists and jihadists – does not make America safer.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).