Only the Left Can Win the War of Ideas

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Only the Left Can Win the War of Ideas

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Only the Left Can Win the War of Ideas
June 1996 - June 2006.
Jan. 14 2004 3:31 PM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War


I have always believed that Bush's principal public justifications for the war in Iraq were mendacious, and I've said so all along. The mendacities have caused a huge number of problems, too, and one of those problems has been to get everyone to play "gotcha" with Bush instead of looking at what seems to be happening in the present. An example: today's story today about Saddam and his directive not to collaborate with jihadists.

The claim that Saddam and Osama were in cahoots was one of Bush's principal mendacities—an unlikely claim, which, if it had any truth at all, was likely to be a very tiny truth. And yet, because of that claim, the discovery in Iraq of Saddam's directive is seen as news. The news is: "See! Bush was wrong yet again! Saddam did not, in fact, want to conspire with the partisans of radical Islamism." But there is no news here. Saddam wants his Arab Baath Socialist Party to get back into power. Saddam does not want to see a victory for radical Islamism. He does not want to see his own movement get taken over by foreign Islamists. And why is that?


It is because these two movements, Baathism and radical Islamism, have many differences. Baathism is a species of radical Arab nationalism. It is semi-secular, sometimes even with a touch of leftism. Radical Islamism is ultra-theocratic. Different styles, different rhetorics, different ultimate goals. A lot of mutual hatred.

In the past, the United States and many another hapless government around the world adopted the policy of playing those two movements against each another in the hope of reducing terrorist dangers to ourselves. That is why, during the Reagan years, the United States supported Saddam and his Baath—in the hope of damaging the radical Islamists of Iran. Other countries, following the same logic, supported some of the wings of radical Islamism—in the hope of constraining the more violent or terrorist-inclined radical Arab nationalists. Anwar Sadat in Egypt supported the Islamists on this basis (though a radical Islamist group ended up assassinating him), and so did the French (for a while, which they came to regret), and so did the Israelis (in the forlorn hope that Islamist piety would quiet down the radical nationalist champions of violence).

Those were Machiavellian maneuvers, which sometimes may have made sense, in the short run. But the longer run has turned out to be a disaster for everyone—for the Arab and Muslim worlds, for the Israelis, the French, and even for us. And why did these efforts to play the two movements against each other prove to be disastrous? It was because radical Islamism and Baathism (to restrict the discussion to that one branch of radical Arab nationalism) do have their differences. But they also have a lot in common, beginning with their respective doctrines, at a fundamental level. They share, to wit:

      1) A Paranoid Conspiracy Theory, according to which the Arab world (for the Baath) or the world of Islam (for the Islamists) is under a massive assault by a sinister and cosmic conspiracy of Zionists (and/or Jews, and/or Masons) and Crusaders (and/or Western imperialists).


      2) An Apocalyptic Fantasy. The cosmic conspiracy will be defeated in order to reinstate the Golden Age of Islam in the seventh century, described as the Islamic Caliphate (by the Islamists) or as the Arab Empire based on Islam (by the Baath)—though both movements picture the reinstated seventh century as a high-tech extravaganza, a kind of modernity.   

      3) A Tyrannical Plan: The reinstated Golden Age will require an extreme police-state, described as the pious reign of Shariah or Quranic law (by the Islamists) or as the reign of brotherly Arab love (by the Baath).

      4) A Cult of Death: the belief that masses of people should die, and death will strengthen the larger cause. The Iran-Iraq War was conducted on this basis, which is why it was one of the ghastliest things that has happened in modern times. And, as a consequence of that same Cult of Death, both movements, Baathism and radical Islamism alike, took to promoting random terror attacks.

The specific tactic of suicide terror is said to have been originally a specialty of the radical Islamists in Iran, who exported it to the Hezbollah in Lebanon—the people who truck-bombed the U.S. Marine barracks there (and French barracks, too). Since Lebanon was at that moment under the control of the Syrian Baath, it has always seemed likely that a bit of Baath-Islamist cooperation was already underway, in the cause of suicide terror—which is to say, collaboration between these movements is, in principle, not absolutely out of the question.


In any case, both movements, not just the Islamists, ended up promoting the larger vogue of suicide terror. Young men wearing shrouds—the costumes of suicide terrorists—marched in the Baathist military parade in Baghdad before the invasion, just to show that the Iraqi Baath was already planning for suicide terror. The Iraqi Baath is reported to have sent genuinely large sums of money to reimburse the families of Palestinian suicide terrorists. (Suicide terror has frequently been a matter of paying people.) Why did suicide terror become such a large fad in recent years? Because enormous institutions were promoting it, including some of the most enormous of all, the Baath and the Islamist movement.

So, then—Baathism and radical Islamism have their differences. But it ought to be obvious that, even so, these are branches of a larger single movement, and the nature of that movement ought to be recognizable to us. For what are these doctrines? The Paranoid Conspiracy Theory, the Apocalyptic Fantasy, the Tyrannical Plan, the Cult of Death—these things are old stand-bys of modern history. They are the central tenets of European fascism (and, in some respects, of Stalinism), which have been adapted into Muslim and Arab dialects by a variety of theoreticians. And this single movement, which I call Muslim totalitarianism, has, over the last quarter century, killed millions—exactly as European totalitarianism did, in its time.

George Packer worries that conflating the Baath and the Islamists into a single movement will sow an intellectual confusion. Yes, that can happen. But I think the principle confusion that has beset us in the last few decades has been the failure to see what these two movements have in common—the ways in which they are wings of a single movement.

George calls for a Cold War tactic of ideological pressure, which should last many years. I couldn't agree more. I salute him. He himself has done more than anyone to raise these points. A rifle and a cruise missile are surely the worst of all tools for helping some other society construct a liberal political culture. Still, terrorist attacks against Americans have been going on ever since 1983, and we may not want to wait another 21 years for the vogue of suicide terror to come to an end.

So, there is a logic for extremely crude responses, in spite of everything. (And let us not rule out at least a few crumbs of success, just because other methods would be a million times preferable. Things are terrible in Afghanistan today; and yet, a properly Muslim version of liberal democracy does seem at least thinkable there, lately. In Afghanistan!—one of the most rustic, far-away, un-middle-class societies on earth! And there is the exemplary model of Iraqi Kurdistan …)

But, yes, totalitarian movements can ultimately be defeated only in the realm of ideas. Millions of people have to be persuaded to change their ideas. Not forced—persuaded. Which is to say, someone has to go out there and try to persuade people.

On this point, which happens to be the most important point of all, Bush has failed us almost totally. It is pretty outrageous. His failure to take up these matters ought to be seen as a calamity. But then, who has been making up for this terrible failure of his? Who has taken up the burden to wage a really extensive war of ideas, a war of TV networks, radio programs, lectures, books, magazines, and everything else? I don't mean something small—I mean a massive campaign.

I think the political right is incapable of waging such a war, by virtue of its own militaristic and isolationist instincts. The neocons do sometimes talk about a war of ideas, but, on these matters, neoconservatism is all talk, no action. So, then, this should be the business of people on the left side of the spectrum. But where are the Democrats, on these matters? The left? This is truly a problem, and nobody seems to be doing very much about it, not on a grand scale, anyway.