Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

Stopping Muslim Totalitarianism
June 1996 - June 2006.
Jan. 12 2004 2:10 PM

Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War

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My own two cents, on the topic of WMD: I never did think that Saddam's weapons were sufficient grounds for war. I even said so here, in Slate, before the war. If WMD were the problem, containment and deterrence were the solution. But I can understand, sort of, why Bush and Blair ended up harping on the weapons issue, and why the Bush administration kept hinting at conspiracies that probably never existed. I don't defend Bush and Blair for speaking in these ways, and I hope that future elections will show that Bush has been punished for his misdeeds, and Blair has not. But I can imagine what drove them to do this.

It was because something is missing from our modern way of discussing the world. We know how to describe certain things—and have forgotten how to describe certain others, which are sometimes larger. This has been true of the war's proponents, except for a few of us lonely liberals (and even we have been inconsistent), and true of the war's opponents. It is a vocabulary problem. The words are missing.

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Foreign-policy-speak has been taken over by terms like these: WMD, rogue states, regime change, nation-building, humanitarianism, and individual Bad Guys with such names as Osama, Saddam, and Slobodan. These terms express a vision of the universe that might suit a big-city mayor—a universe in which every problem can be handled either by the police department or by the do-good agencies. WMD, rogue states, and Bad Guys are the foreign-policy equivalents of guns, gangs, and gangsters—matters for the police.

Regime change, nation-building, and humanitarianism are the equivalents of slum-clearance, housing development, schools, and soup kitchens—matters for the do-goods. In city politics, conservatives cheer on the police department, and liberals cheer on the do-goods. Thus, in foreign policy, conservatives cheer on the U.S. military, and liberals, the United Nations—the police and the do-goods.

Only this vision of life has the minor drawback of leaving out the single largest fact in the modern history of the world. That largest of facts is the rise of a certain kind of political movement—movements animated by paranoid hatreds, by apocalyptic fantasies, and by the fanatical desire to kill people en masse. These have been the big totalitarian movements, Nazism, Fascism, Stalinism, and a few others—movements whose greatest goal was to destroy liberal civilization.

The language of WMD, Bad Guys, humanitarianism, and all the rest cannot describe these movements and their doctrines and their fanaticism. We know how to speak about member states of the United Nations. But totalitarian movements have always been international, with and without state support. We have lost the ability to speak about mass international movements of that sort.

Why is that? It is because most people have convinced themselves that modern totalitarianism no longer exists. The Bush administration has said so itself. Everybody remembers the notorious National Security statement of 2002—the statement that became infamous for declaring somewhat idiotically (because some things are better left unsaid) a policy of pre-emptive war. But the really scandalous part of that statement said: "For most of the 20th century, the world was divided by a great struggle over ideas: destructive totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality. That great struggle is over."

Wrong! The totalitarian visions live on. Only, instead of being called fascism or some other name from the past, the visions of the present are called radical Islamism and Baathism and suchlike, with doctrines duly descended from their European progenitors—the totalitarianism of the modern Muslim world. All the talk about WMD has been hugely misleading, in this respect. As the NRA likes to say, WMD don't kill people; mass totalitarian movements kill people (sometimes using WMD, but more often, not). But our mayor's language of foreign policy has prohibited us from saying so.

What was the reason for the war in Iraq? Sept. 11 was the reason. At least to my mind it was. Sept. 11 showed that totalitarianism in its modern Muslim version was not going to stop at slaughtering millions of Muslims, and hundreds of Israelis, and attacking the Indian government, and blowing up American embassies. The totalitarian manias were rising, and the United States itself was now in danger. A lot of people wanted to respond, as any mayor would do, by rounding up a single Bad Guy, Osama.

But Sept. 11 did not come from a single Bad Guy—it was a product of the larger totalitarian wave, and the only proper response was to comprehend the size and depth of that larger wave, and find ways to begin rolling it back, militarily and otherwise—mostly otherwise. To roll it back for our own sake, and everyone else's sake, Muslims' especially. Iraq, with its somewhat antique variation of the Muslim totalitarian idea, was merely a place to begin, after Afghanistan, with its more modern variation.

But I haven't responded to what everyone else has said, or said anything about non-military ways to go about this. I promise to do so tomorrow.

Paul Berman is the author ofTerror and Liberalismand The Passion of Joschka Fischer. Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times and most recently the author ofLongitudes and Attitudes. Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a regular contributor to Slate. Fred Kaplan writes the "War Stories" column for Slate and is the author ofThe Wizards of Armageddon. George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where his article about the occupation recently appeared. He is working on a book about America in Iraq. Kenneth M. Pollack is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Jacob Weisberg is editor of Slate and co-author, with Robert E. Rubin, ofIn an Uncertain World. Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author ofThe Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.