An Ally I Can Do Without

by , April 15, 2004

If you need any more proof of how badly the occupation in Iraq is going, look no further than a couple of recent articles in those hotbeds of Bush-bashing, the Weekly Standard and the American Spectator. Neocon Pollyanna Fred Barnes, writing in the former last week, bemoans the enormity of the imperial burden and rattles off a list of things he and his pals neglected to ponder while planning their totally excellent Mesopotamian adventure. Whoa, dude, like Iraq doesn’t even have a modern banking system with depositor’s insurance, no army, no cops, no public broadcasting system. And what happened to the agriculture and infrastructure? You’d almost think someone’s been bombing and embargoing this place for the last 12 years. It’s bummer central, man.

As shocking as this twinkle of lucidity was to me, I nearly fainted upon seeing it skewered in the American Spectator on Monday. Emmett Tyrrell’s magazine, so delightfully (if mechanically) contrarian during the Clinton era, has become little more than an altar to Dubya in the years since. Hence my surprise at reading William Tucker’s attack on what he identifies as the neoconservative “illusion” behind this war:

“We are now occupying Iraq under the premise that the Iraqi people are yearning to create a peaceful, free-market democracy that will be a beacon of hope—an example of order and stability in an otherwise turbulent and hostile Middle East.”

Absurd, he argues, but we’ll come back to why in a moment. As for the endless chirping of the Provisional Authority and its stateside parrots, Tucker delivers this jewel:

“Close your eyes and you’re back in Saigon in 1966 listening to Robert McNamara rhapsodize about the future of Vietnam. All that’s missing is the body counts.”

Good stuff, and there’s lot’s more of it. So why does this essay give me heartburn?

THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE GROAN-INDUCING

The first sign of trouble comes early on, though my enthusiasm for the piece led me to let it slide on the first read through:

“If we are really involved in a 100-year War on Terror—which we probably are—the question becomes: Do we want to expend everything we have right here and now?”

Before I got too concerned about the trajectory of this argument, Tucker reeled me back in with a couple of shots at Bill Kristol and company. You may recall that for much of the last year the Kristollites hyped our new best friends in Iraq, the Shi’ites. Oh, after years of Sunni and secularist persecution, the Shi’ites were gonna run right out and kiss the feet of American troops! They would finally be free to express their undying love for the U.S. and Israel! They would probably spend their first few liberation dinars on Sierra Club memberships and copies of Bobos in Paradise! Gay marriage and Janet Jackson would become the chief topics of heated, though civil, debate! The only unresolved issue was whether the new, Shi’ite Iraq would tilt more toward the Weekly Standard or the New Republic worldview.

What struck me about this new picture of Shi’ites was not that it must be untrue because it clashed with the old picture, but rather that both caricatures were just means to temporary ends. During my Eighties childhood, foreign-policy elites used the terms “Shi’ite” and “fanatic” interchangeably. My God, man, look at those American-flag-burning crazies in Iran and Lebanon! I recall no hysteria about the Sunnis; they were supposed to be a pain in the neck, of course, but nothing a little Icy Hot diplomacy couldn’t soothe. Incidentally, I also recall no panic about the Wahhabis, as evidenced by this passage from P.J. O’Rourke’s 1992 book, Give War a Chance:

“Wahhabis are strict like old-fashioned American Baptists are—no drinking, dating, mixed dancing or movie going. But the Wahhabis are not looney televangelist-with-a-gun fanatics of the Ayatollah Khomeini stripe. The religious practices and attitudes of Saudi Arabia are no more peculiar than those of Billy Graham.”

Did the Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Wahhabis change so drastically in the last 15 years, or did one set of noble lies simply replace another?

Tucker never asks this question, opting instead to accept the old Shi’ite stereotypes at face value. But rather than dwell on his own problematic assumptions, he quickly shifts to a valid critique of the neocon mania for democracy. Since when do conservatives worship sheer majoritarianism? Laying aside its questionable merits as a form of governance, it is only that—a form of governance, a method of deciding who will rule, not how. Even the godfather of liberventionism, John Stuart Mill, knew that democracy is a poor guarantor of freedom. How can its imposition on an authoritarian society lead to anything other than authoritarian rule?

Tucker begins to lose me around this point, though not entirely. Consider this:

“Perhaps it was unavoidable, but the simple act of closing down a newspaper has led to a Shi’ite uprising that is probably going to turn the whole country against us. It is almost inevitable. Now that the liberation is over, America is perceived as an occupying army—which in fact we are. That can only attract people’s hatred.”

True so far, but then:

“It is the same as American ghettoes, where people kill each other every day almost without anyone noticing, but when the police finally kill someone it is remembered and resented for years to come.”

An interesting analogy, and telling. American ghettoes, like the Arab and Muslim “ghettoes” the neocons plan to reform, are packed with problems of the residents’ own making. I would be the last to deny that, or that individuals are responsible for their own actions. But conservatives and libertarians have long argued that in addition to the individual and cultural failings that plague America’s inner cities, there is a disastrous history of government meddling at work. From rent control and public education to the Wars on Poverty and Drugs, U.S. government intervention has exacerbated old ills and nursed a thousand new ones. This is not bleeding-heart excuse-making. Such alleged conservative icons as Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, and Charles Murray have examined the state’s role in perpetuating poverty, illegitimacy, crime, and so on without excusing the lazy, irresponsible, or violent. In doing so, they have illuminated the sort of interventionist follies that we’re never allowed to bring up when discussing U.S. foreign policy and its blowback. Arabs and Muslims cannot be permitted any valid grievances against the U.S. or Israeli governments, because recognizing such grievances, we’re told, justifies terrorism.

Tucker, too, follows this line, even as he lists reasons for new grievances: U.S. forces firing indiscriminately on Fallujah, the inevitable brutality of occupation, the Vietnamesque efforts to win “hearts and minds” through bullets and bombs. But while he rightly notes the decline of genuine Communism and the rise of market economies in the Southeast Asia (and China) we lost, he refuses to concede that this gradual liberalization has taken place despite previous American meddling, not because of it.

After a slow descent from brilliance into mediocrity, the essay then plummets into outright insanity. I figure the blotter Tucker stuck on his tongue when he started the essay finally kicked in right around the point he began typing the words “there is a fatal flaw in Islam that makes social peace virtually impossible.”

Oh, you think that LSD use is a silly, reductionist, possibly libelous explanation for something I can’t explain? Well, I agree. But I’d say the same of Tucker’s contention that all Islam is doomed to failure and violence because of polygamy. Yes, you read that correctly. You see, the dumb savages don’t hate us because of anything our government has ever done to them—no, no, they hate us because “12 percent of marriages in Moslem countries are polygamous.”

“When successful men can accumulate more than one wife, that means some other man gets none. As a result, the unavoidable outcome is a hard-core residue of unattached men who have little or no prospect of achieving a family life.

“The inevitable outcome is that competition among males becomes much more fierce and intense. Mating is an all-or-nothing proposition. Women become a scarce resource that must be hoarded and veiled and banned from public places so they cannot drift away through spontaneous romances. Men who are denied access to these hoarded women have only one option—they can band together and try to fight their way into seats of power.”

Aha! So al Qaeda is really nothing more than Osama bin Laden’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Exactly:

“The entire history of Islam is a story of superfluous males going off into the desert (literally or figuratively) and deciding that the religion being practiced by the well-furnished elites of the cities is ‘not the true Islam.’”

Hmm. I can think of another celibate male who went off into the desert (literally or figuratively, as your piety dictates) and had some squabbles with the religious and political establishment of his day, but that doesn’t tell me much about the Crusades or the Inquisition. You’ll have to elaborate.

“The only defense Islam has been able to construct for itself is to recruit these unattached males, inculcate them into the religion, and convince them that if they turn their violence and sexual frustrations outward, they will be rewarded with ‘70 virgins in heaven.’ This is how the ranks of martyrs and suicide bombers are created. …

“In a polygamous Islamic society, some men’s lives have very little intrinsic value. They are literally better off seeking death.”

Most suicide bombers no doubt believe such nonsense, which erases their fear of death. Yet that only explains (and not fully) why a tiny group of men volunteer for suicide missions, not why incomparably larger masses who would not commit suicide despise the U.S. and Israeli governments. Tucker, however, is too fixated on his clash of matrimonies thesis and his barely concealed hatred for Muslims (often referred to simply as “these people”) to trifle with such details. Yes, he argues for withdrawal from Iraq, but in terms so vile I will almost cheer the first neocon who shoots him down. Unfortunately, the neocons will likely besmirch the good name of “isolationists” by calling Tucker one. He’s not:

“So what should we do? Since we have accomplished our mission of removing Saddam Hussein, I suggest we pack up and leave. The world is now a safer place [whose world?], there are no nuclear weapons in Iraq waiting to be pointed at Israel or America [there never were in the first place], and we can now regroup and gird ourselves for the next confrontation in Pakistan or Syria or wherever it may take place.”

I should have known that the only way to squeeze an anti-occupation piece into some rags is to grease it with bigotry and militarism. I think I’ll go cleanse my palate now with the thoughtful prose of Michael Ledeen.

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