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The War of the Liberals | The Nation

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The War of the Liberals

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A fourth and closely related objection concerns Berman's insistence that our real enemy is Muslim extremism. This idea, too, appears confrontational but is actually escapist. The gravest threat to American national security today is no longer the Soviet nuclear arsenal, obviously, but neither can it be identified exclusively with Muslim extremism. American national security is threatened most seriously by those laxly regulated markets in lethal matériel and know-how that, in the aftermath of the cold war, have emerged alongside the global communication, transportation and banking systems created largely by the West. Terrorist groups have a global reach only because we have supplied it to them on computer discs, via the Internet and ATMs and so forth. And these are not the West's only contributions. The petrodollars that we are now pumping at an unprecedented rate into politically unstable parts of the world may make it easier for a private group to acquire, without detection, a compact weapon of unspeakable destructiveness--a weapon, of course, originally created by Western science.

About the Author

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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It may be disheartening to realize that the dangers we face, because deeply intertwined with American power and prosperity, cannot be eliminated. But candor in this respect can at least help us avoid the temptation to tie down a vast proportion of our scarce national-security assets in distant and territorially localized conflicts. Heightened self-awareness can also help us avoid identifying the ultimate source of danger, erroneously, with an odious enemy whom we can definitively defeat in war. Berman's construct has the opposite effect. By encouraging us to focus obsessively on Islamic extremism, it fosters a cavalier attitude toward other threats, such as nuclear proliferation in Russia, Pakistan and North Korea. It also leads us to ignore the extent to which our economically open and technically advanced way of life, and not a replaceable network of zealots intoxicated by an amalgam of religious and revolutionary slogans, is the frighteningly enduring problem with which we have to cope.

A fifth obscurity in Berman's thinking concerns the way faith has influenced both sides in the war on terror. He wants us to believe that we are witnessing a confrontation of freedom versus tyranny. The Europeans, by contrast, are much more likely to code the conflict as a struggle of secularism versus religion. The second polarity, needless to say, is embarrassing to an Administration that is no more eager to blame proselytizing religion and rogue religious charities for revolutionary violence aimed at the United States than it is to lay any responsibility on unregulated markets and geysers of petrodollars. A rogue state is a much more convenient scapegoat, distracting public attention from nonstate sponsors of terrorism (including rogue religious charities) that hit too close to home. The reader will not be surprised, therefore, when Berman labors to muffle the role of religion in 9/11, claiming that Islamic fundamentalism is really "a modern ideological temptation, familiar to Europeans." He is particularly certain that "jihadi suicide" is "the height of modernity."

In the Muslim world, over the past few decades, an obvious alternative to the God That Failed has been, well, God. Totalitarian ideologies--as Berman, too, learned in college--contained secularized eschatologies. Totalitarianism rejected the religious answers but retained the religious questions, re-creating a worldview that contained heretics and orthodoxy, sacred texts and martyrs, banishment and anathema, contamination and purity. So why is Berman so sure, when he sees these ideas resurface among Islamists, that they derive from the secularized religion of totalitarianism rather than from religion itself, which lent them to totalitarianism in the first place? After all, antiliberalism did not begin with twentieth-century totalitarianism. Nor is apocalypse a twentieth-century idea. Revealed religion is itself deeply antiliberal, to the extent that it makes a self-appointed vanguard of the faithful so certain of what God wants that it feels free to use coercion to force the rest of society to submit to God's ostensible will. There is nothing "entirely modern" about such an outlook, nor about a "system of oppression that reaches into the coziest and most private corners of life."

Berman's decision to turn "totalitarian" into a catchall term, covering Osama bin Laden as well as Hitler and Stalin, also encourages Americans to cling unthinkingly to their cold war habits of mind. Why make any profound readjustments if we are still fighting totalitarianism? One stimulus to radically refashioning the country's approach to national security is the striking fact that an antireligious enemy has been displaced by a religious enemy. Berman's conceptual scheme blunts the impact of this obvious truth. It also helps conceal a deep perversity of the current war of good versus evil. The US President apparently believes that he has been personally assigned to punish the enemies of God. This fantasy is disquieting because we are now facing enemies who believe that they have been personally assigned to punish the enemies of God. By drawing such a clear-cut contrast between liberals and totalitarians, Berman throws a veil over this unsettling coincidence of self-images.

Interestingly enough, Berman admits that "fantasy role-playing"--the Bush Administration comes to mind--"lies at the heart of a good deal of modern history." It is so pervasive, it turns out, that Berman indulges in it too. He poses as a modern-day Orwell, standing up to tyranny, however insufferable to the literati such a daring posture may prove to be. This is not the book's most pernicious analogy, to be sure. It may be the most revealing, however, designed as it is to swat away pre-emptively Berman's future critics by associating them with weakly conventional minds unable to recognize authentic moral courage when they see it. But readers should not be put off by this modest conceit. They should instead savor this colorful book for what it is: the last testament of an exotic species, the 1990s liberal hawk, by no means destined to survive the blast furnace of Iraq.

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