The War of the Liberals | The Nation


The War of the Liberals

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But where exactly does Berman's theoretical analysis go wrong? Five deficiencies in his argument stand out.

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Stephen Holmes
Stephen Holmes teaches at the New York University School of Law. His most recent book is The Matador's Cape: America's...

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His analogies, first of all, are tendentious to an extreme. Islamist murderousness resembles Bolshevik and Nazi murderousness. The planetary battle against terrorism (World War IV) resembles the planetary battle against communism. Baath dictatorship resembles Islamic militancy. The problem with such comparisons is not only that they are strained. They are also transparently calculated to serve a partisan political program. Analogies that challenge the Bush Administration (such as Palestinian violence and anticolonial violence) are filtered out, not because they are unrevealing but because they introduce a dissonant note.

Take, for instance, Berman's peculiar claim that "on the plane of anti-American propaganda, the Iraqi Baath and Al Qaeda were already allied" because Saddam's press had celebrated the September 11 attacks. The nature of this purported alliance between religious insurgents and a secular oppressor is never explained. In other passages, moreover, Berman concedes that Islamic radicalism has arisen in opposition to authoritarian secular regimes. But he is much less interested in possible causal connections between the two than in their metaphysical identity. His false moral clarity rests entirely on his assertion that spiritually they are one and the same. The Administration's attempts to associate Iraq and Al Qaeda logistically came to naught. Berman's cultural and philosophical approach, by contrast, raises the identification of Saddam and Osama, the tyrant and the terrorist, to a level of blurry abstraction that no facts can possibly refute.

A second weakness appears in Berman's repeated assertion that antiwar liberals are naïve optimists, oblivious to the deep roots of irrational violence in human nature and therefore unable to take the true measure of our fanatical enemies. But should someone who speculated that an American invasion of Iraq would force Islamic extremists to give up their paranoid conspiracy theories about the Jews accuse others of facile optimism? He classifies Saddam's Iraq as "totalitarian" because "there was no sign of democratic opposition at all." But did this absence not suggest that an occupying army would find no well-organized constituencies for a reconstruction of Iraqi politics along liberal lines? What kind of political system did Berman imagine would emerge in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam? Was it going to be a democracy, namely a system in which a well-organized incumbent party loses elections to a well-organized opposition party and voluntarily leaves office knowing that it will not be harmed once out of power? Is that what he, with his understanding of human irrationality, expected for Iraq?

And how good a job does Berman himself do at identifying and understanding the gravest threats to American national security? Here lies the third flaw in Berman's framework. He uncritically endorses Bush's repeated claim that 9/11 was not a crime of mass murder but rather an act of war against America. Putting his own thoughts, as he often does, in the mouth of his subject, he writes: "Fischer rejected the policeman's view of Islamist terror--the idea that, with a handful of well-chosen arrests or the dismantling of a small number of underground cells, the problem could be solved." Terrorism is not a police problem, because policemen cannot redraw the political map of the Middle East, spread freedom or compel extremists to abandon their extremism. Only soldiers, apparently, can do these things.

We are dealing, admittedly, with off-the-shelf categories, since neither the war paradigm nor the crime paradigm fits perfectly the battle against transnational Islamic terrorism, which involves political violence by nonstate actors. But Berman, like Bush, prefers the war model to the crime model, because the former seems to signal a more serious approach, a willingness to send young men to die in large numbers, for example.

But this suggestion of greater realism and seriousness is deceptive. The war paradigm, besides inflating all too conveniently the unsupervised powers of the executive branch, assumes that America's unrivaled military superiority guarantees its success in the current struggle. It suggests that our enemy will eventually surrender and that we will be able to put the nightmare behind us. The crime paradigm has less rosy implications. It assumes that our government can no more stop the importing of a nuclear weapon into a major urban center than it can stop the clandestine flow of contraband drugs. That is to say, the crime paradigm, when applied to terrorism, has chilling implications precisely because it denies that "the problem could be solved." To turn from the crime paradigm to the war paradigm, therefore, does not bespeak a greater willingness to face the enemy. On the contrary, it is a classic case of sticking one's head in the sand (of Iraq).

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