Liberal columnist Mark Brown, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, is a typical liberal: he opposed the war but "not to the point of joining any peace protests," heaven forfend. Content to wave from the nearest Starbucks, where he was nursing his double-Frappuccino nonfat latte, nevertheless he let people know where he stood. But let him tell it:
"Despite your misgivings, you didn’t demand the troops be brought home immediately afterward, believing the United States must at least try to finish what it started to avoid even greater bloodshed. And while you cheered Saddam’s capture, you couldn’t help but thinking I-told-you-so in the months that followed as the violence continued to spread and the death toll mounted.
"By now, you might have even voted against George Bush a second time to register your disapproval.
"But after watching Sunday’s election in Iraq and seeing the first clear sign that freedom really may mean something to the Iraqi people, you have to be asking yourself: What if it turns out Bush was right, and we were wrong?
"It’s hard to swallow, isn’t it?"
The liberal mind is a woozy and amorphous phenomenon: wrapped in a hazy gauze of vague benevolence, kept from dispersing into utter formlessness by a canon of rigid prejudices, it is hard to identify as either a solid or a liquid. It doesn’t think, it coagulates, like blood forming a scab over wounded pride. What, one hastens to ask, is so hard to swallow that George W. Bush is a liberal do-gooder, just like you?
What we are witnessing, here, is the Great Switcheroo liberals are having touchy-feely "second thoughts" about the international mission of mercy that is our foreign policy of perpetual war, while conservatives are beginning to get a little cranky as their president lectures them about the necessity of "ending tyranny in our world."
Liberals like the "nation-building" phase of American imperialism: it makes them feel good about themselves. It has so many televised "mission accomplished" moments, in which cheap sentimentality replaces actual knowledge and the narrative of "liberation" spun out by the White House’s information warriors gets them high on their own insufferable self-righteousness. They love imagery, mostly because it replaces thought: emotionalism is the warp and woof of American liberalism. The very idea of all those poor downtrodden Iraqis being lifted up into the warm light of modernity and gathered in the welcoming arms of American GIs, social workers, and taxpayers what a rush!
All the domestic wars waged by Washington struck them as so worthwhile the "war on poverty," the "war on drugs," and now, incredibly, the war on obesity that the feel-good possibilities of a foreign war to advance "democracy" and redistribute America’s wealth on a global, instead of a merely national, scale are just too good to pass up. Ted Kennedy alone seems to have resisted the temptation.
Conservatives, on the other hand, are to a large extent horrified by Bush’s expansive liberationism. Peggy Noonan who took time off from column-writing to campaign for this president found his inaugural speech "startling." It left her "with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike," she wrote in the Wall Street Journal, on account of its hyperbole:
"George W. Bush’s second inaugural will no doubt prove historic because it carried a punch, asserting an agenda so sweeping that an observer quipped that by the end he would not have been surprised if the president had announced we were going to colonize Mars."
Imbued with a "deep moral seriousness" and bereft of "moral modesty," the world-conquering evangelical zeal of this "God-drenched" speech, as Noonan trenchantly described it, was aimed not just at red-state snake-handlers but also at blue-state agnostics who nevertheless worship the god of Government as the end-all and be-all of the world’s problems. Democracy is our religion, and the U.S. government is its Church Militant and modesty never even enters into it. The old conservative virtues prudence, tradition, and "an acknowledgment of the limits of governmental power," as Noonan puts it were incinerated in the president’s fiery rhetoric as he boasted of having lit "a fire in the minds of men."
Noonan wasn’t the only conservative left behind by the presidential rapture the Wall Street Journal editorial page was teeming with discontent, as pugnacious Peggy reiterated her dissent from the Democratist diktat a few days later and declared her sympathy with Mark Helprin‘s worrying diagnosis of the problem with the Bushian-neocon paradigm: blindness.
Helprin’s astringent realism is the perfect antidote for Republicans beginning to tire of Bush’s self-conscious grandiosity, the frat-boy arrogance turned into a belligerent assertion of imperial will and conservatives who yearn for more historical perspective and less self-regard will find his analysis refreshing. A century ago, he reminds us, another war-maddened Republican, one Theodore Roosevelt, was returning in triumph to the White House as a war against Muslim insurgents raged in the Philippines. Mesmerized by the glittering promise of glory and empire, we were taken by surprise when the influenza pandemic that was gathering in the shadows struck out to fell half a million in this country and 100 times that worldwide. There is in this history a lesson for today:
"Our own absorbing passions, which are remarkably similar, have blinded us in the same way. We have yet to find a serviceable framework for the application of our military power in the war on terrorism; in view of potential catastrophes of which we have a great deal of forewarning, we have yet to provide adequately for what used to be called civil defense; and we have no policy in regard to China’s steady cultivation of power that soon will vie with our own. Though any one of these things is capable of dominating the coming century, not one has been properly addressed."
He reminds me of Michael Scheuer, whose sense of panic that we’re plunging headlong into disaster is a palpable presence on every page of Imperial Hubris, Scheuer’s brilliant and influential book. There is the same Lovecraftian sense of large, dark forces lurking just outside our narrow range of vision, and an urgency that frightens because it is so utterly convincing:
"God help the army that must fight for an idea rather than an objective. After somehow failing to argue competently on behalf of a patently justifiable invasion, and as its more specious arguments were collapsing, the Bush administration then pivoted with breathtaking enthusiasm to nation-building, something so Clinton-tinged that it had previously been held in contempt. The more that nation-building in Iraq is in doubt, the more the mission creeps into a doubling of bets in hope of covering those that are lost. Now the goal is to reforge the politics, and perforce the culture, not merely of Iraq but of the billion-strong Islamic world from Morocco to the South Seas. That evangelical democracy writ overwhelmingly large is the manic idea for which the army must fight."
The pellucid logic of Helprin’s argument makes the one error leap out at the reader "patently justifiable"? But the casual, almost breezy manner in which this comment is tossed off alerts us to its utter irrelevance. The author addresses us as if we’re fellow survivors of a shipwreck, thrown together in a lifeboat, who must now fight a common enemy: the sea. Reminding us of the rootedness of culture, Helprin excoriates the folly of social engineering the Middle East by building a "model" of democracy in its midst "They do not need Iraq as an example, they have Britain and Denmark" and cuts down the chief argument for a Democratist crusade at the legs:
"No law of nature says a democracy is incapable of supporting terrorism, so even if every Islamic capital were to become a kind of Westminster with curlicues, the objective of suppressing terrorism might still find its death in the inadequacy of the premise. Even if all the Islamic states became democracies, the kind of democracies they might become might not be the kind of democracies wrongly presumed to be incapable of supporting terrorism."
I agree with left-anarchist Noam Chomsky and right-wing libertarian James Bovard that the long record of American state terrorism certainly proves Helprin’s point beyond any possible dispute. The century stretching from our abortive colonial adventure in the Philippines to our current incursion into Iraq is dotted with so many atrocities that a map of them would darken much of the world. We, after all, are a democracy the Democracy and our example alone proves the inadequacy of the premise.
Helprin doesn’t mention this dark history, so I thought I would, but that’s not what I find interesting about his remarks. What’s really important here, in understanding why the Iraqi election is not the concrete vindication of the president’s inaugural call to arms, is Helprin’s openness to the view that the Islamic variant of "democracy" could produce a system quite compatible with deploying or inspiring terrorists.
The top man on the winning Iraqi electoral list, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, heads up the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI): Iran financed, armed, and gave sanctuary to his group during the years of Ba’athist rule, and SCIRI has always stood for the imposition of Sharia law on Iraqi society. Liberal democrats they aren’t. For one example, Abdul’s brother, the Ayatollah Sayed Mohamad Baqir Al-Hakim, before he was assassinated in August 2003, targeted the Sabaean Mandaean sect of Iraqi Christians who venerate St. John the Baptist. As Paul Marshall pointed out in National Review a year ago:
"The prominent Shi’ite leader Ayatollah Al-Hakim gave a decree, also posted on his website, that, unlike Christians and Jews, Mandaeans were not People of the Book (Ahl-i-Kitab). This meant that they were ‘unclean’ (najes), were not protected by Islamic law and, like the Bahais in neighboring Iran, could be killed without penalty or punishment. Among many reports of their persecution is that in Fallujah alone 35 Mandaean families have been forcibly converted to Islam and their women and girls married off to Muslims."
Marshall describes the Islamization of the universities that accompanied the "liberation," and points out that moderates and women have been purged from officialdom. When Nidal Nasser Hussein was appointed a judge in Najaf, none other than the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani personally intervened, issuing a fatwa upholding the eternally masculine nature of the judicial temperament: no ladies. This is the same man who engineered what looks to be the overwhelming victory of the United Islamic Alliance slate, known as the Sistani list an Islamic version of Karl Rove and the Ayatollah Pat al-Robertson all rolled into one.
Iran is a working democracy, albeit one in which hardline mullahs have successfully resisted the popular reforms of liberal President Khatami. When Thomas Friedman was confronted with this reality on Monday’s Charlie Rose show, he loudly protested that the hardliners are constantly kicking reformist candidates off the ballot a complaint that Ralph Nader’s supporters in this country might find ironic. We allow basically two parties, given the laws in most states that make ballot access difficult if not impossible for third party challengers, while the Iranians have a multiplicity of party and factional groupings.
In any case, Friedman’s ridiculous thesis, which he had rehearsed earlier with Chris Matthews, is that Tehran is supposedly deathly afraid of Iraq’s forced march to democracy. Ridiculous, and not just mistaken, because the Iranians financed and have long-standing close relations with at least two of the mainstream Muslim parties at the top of the United Islamic Alliance list likely to be the top vote-getters in Sunday’s triumphant photo opportunity. What kind of a regime will come out of the first free elections in some 50 years, given what we know about the probable victors, is going to roughly resemble what they have in Iran, give or take a few fatwas.
According to the U.S. State Department, Iran is the single biggest financier and protector of terrorist groups in the Middle East, officially deemed "the most active state sponsor of international terrorism." If Iran is Numero Uno, its little brother Iraq could easily follow in the family tradition. If, as seems likely, the American occupation lasts much beyond a few more months, the country could become the incubator of a particularly virulent form of Shi’ite radicalism, one that could turn on its American liberators to deadly effect and not just in Iraq.
In this latest "democracy conquers all" election narrative, we have idealized the Revolution of the Purple Finger well before any announcement of the actual winners. Sure, there are plenty of difficulties attendant on vote-counting in wartime, but there seems to be more to this delay than mere logistics. While Sistani and the Iran-backed fundamentalists who make up the base of SCIRI are already claiming an overwhelming victory, the delay in announcing at least preliminary results is due, says NPR, to a dispute over whether the ballots counted in the various localities need to be re-counted in Baghdad. My own theory is that the administration is embarrassed by the results, and it fears any close examination of the victors in time to spoil the State of the Union.
Helprin’s essay helps us to understand why and how this is all happening, but that isn’t even the best thing about it. He really hits a home run with his demolition of the old neocon argument: if we did it with Germany and Japan, then democratizing Iraq should be a breeze. Noting that the American-British-allied contingent in Iraq numbers some 150,000, he surveys the country and finds it relatively intact, compared to the fate that befell postwar Germany and Japan:
"In contrast, on the day of Germany’s surrender, Eisenhower had three million Americans under his command 61 divisions, battle-hardened. Other Western forces pushed the total to 4.5 million in 93 divisions. And then there were the Russians, who poured 2.5 million troops into the Berlin sector alone. All in all, close to 10 million soldiers had converged upon a demoralized German population of 70 million that had suffered more than four million dead and 10 million wounded, captured, or missing. No sympathizers existed, no friendly borders. The cities had been razed. Germany had been broken, but even after this was clear, more than 700,000 occupation troops remained, with millions close by. The situation in Japan was much the same: a country with a disciplined, homogenous population, no allies, sealed borders, its cities half burnt, more than three million dead, a million wounded, missing, or captured, its revered emperor having capitulated, and nearly half a million troops in occupation. And whereas both Germany and Japan had been democracies in varying degree, Iraq has been ruled by a succession of terrifying autocrats since the beginning of human history."
Comparing the second Gulf war to World War II was a bit loony, but the grandiosity of our neoconservative revolutionaries and the Texas Napoleon’s speechwriters naturally lends itself to hyperbole. It is the rhetoric of conceit, just as the stern republicanism of Bush’s conservative critics is couched in the language of necessity, not desire, and argued in terms of national and not universal interests. The lesson of the German and Japanese experiments is simple, Helprin writes:
"To succeed, a paradigm of ‘invade, reconstruct, and transform’ requires the decisive defeat, disarmament, and political isolation of the enemy; the demoralization of his population and destruction of its political beliefs; and the presence, at the end of hostilities, of overwhelming force."
Incredulous at the implications of the Democratist creed, Helprin cannot imagine its application to the Middle East. But I can. Iraq is emerging not as a model, but as a springboard. There are those in the American leadership who would like nothing more than to see total fragmentation visited on the Muslim nations of the region and a massive U.S. military occupation if that’s what it takes to ensure what they regard as U.S. interests and those of our allies. The neocons are already calling for a bigger military to accommodate their dreams of "World War IV," an appeal this administration may find irresistible.
The Iranians surely recognize this, as does everyone in the region, and they have been using their Iraqi proxies to head off the American encirclement through political means. If Iranian-backed groups, including the Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi, are in top positions of the Iraqi government, it looks like this effort is succeeding. Remember, the Americans never wanted these elections: they were forced on former American proconsul Paul Bremer by Sistani. What comes out of them may be "democratic," but it is not necessarily going to resemble anything even vaguely recognizable as a condition of freedom.
The ultimate reprise to the Democratists is the undeniable popularity of Osama bin Laden throughout the Middle East. As Arnaud de Borchgrave wryly observes:
"Bin Laden has read what prominent non-royal Saudis have said about him e.g., in a truly free election in Saudi Arabia he would win hands down against the royal family, which is now cordially and widely disliked, if not despised. The world’s most wanted terrorist also has friends in high places in Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf is also widely despised by a majority of the population. In Pakistan as a whole, bin Laden scored a 66 percent approval rating. In the two provinces governed by the pro-al-Qaeda, pro-Taliban coalition of six politico-religious parties, bin Laden’s popularity rating as a freedom fighter climbs to above 80 percent."
Transfixed by the illusion of our worldwide supremacy, we are blind to dangers closer to home: our civil defense is nonexistent, the threat of biological warfare remains to be seriously addressed and, worst of all, the constant inflammation of the running sore of Islamist radicalism, kept open and bleeding by the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, is swelling our enemies’ ranks. Our actions in the Middle East lubricate the terrorist-producing machine, recruiting for bin Laden and his allies hand over fist.
The mere fact that bin Laden is still at large, out there somewhere mocking us, is a huge defeat, and a source of inspiration for the worldwide Islamist insurgency. Intent on repeating their horrific 9/11 "success," bin Laden’s myrmidons are once again moving under the radar, homing in on their target with deadly accuracy. And what are we doing about it? The president is making speeches about the alleged triumph of "democracy." I’ll be sure to remember that as mushroom clouds sprout over New York and Chicago.