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An Imperialism for the Left

Just as there are former Cold-War conservatives now skeptical about the foreign policy of the Bush administration, so are there liberals and leftists passionate for a New American Empire. This dispensation has been evident since the first Gulf War, but twelve years later the reshuffling of positions and allies is more pronounced. Many liberals joined with neoconservatives to support NATO’s war to separate the province of Kosovo from Serbia. After Sept. 11, left-wing hawks have sought more ambitiously to reconfigure the war against Saddam Hussein and fundamentalist Islam into the shape of the “Good War” against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan—that is, as a war of “progressives” against totalitarian fascism.

In the hands of the most talented of them, this is an interesting argument. As a prime example, Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism is a wide ranging, sometimes witty, and often incisive polemic for the idea that the fate of the free world depends on a decisive Western victory over fundamentalist Islam. It is more subtle than the writing of many of the hawks who (recognizing the utility of an ally from the Left) have embraced his book, and a far better argument for pre-emptive war than President Bush makes himself. Terror and Liberalism has much to interest those who might disagree with its particulars and its general thrust.

Berman, once a socialist of the Dissent stripe, explains that he is above all not a “realist” who chooses foreign policy positions based on a cold-blooded assessment of the national interests of the United States. He supported the first Gulf War not because Saddam Hussein had invaded one oil rich country and threatened to invade more but because he thought Saddam was a fascist. He argued for an “anti-fascist” war on “progressive” grounds. Terror and Liberalism is an expansion of that argument: it vigorously defends a liberal vision of the free society (in which the various social spheres—religion, science, politics, private life—are able to operate autonomously from one another, with no central guiding hand). It dwells on the weaknesses of the European non-communist Left in facing up to fascism (though it suffered from a lack of realism). He makes good sport with the fascination of certain European intellectuals with the Palestinian cause and explores the writings of Sayyid Qutb, a seminal figure of militant fundamentalist Islam.

For a book that is essentially about contemporary politics, it has a pleasing range—touching on Paul Faure (a forgotten French socialist) and Leon Blum, (less forgotten), to Anthony Crossman and Arthur Koestler (representating “The God that Failed” contingent of former communists), to contemporary figures like the Nobel-Prize-winner Jose Saramago, the South African and Parisian novelist Breytan Breytenbach, and many others. This distinguishes it from more typical pro-war arguments: Berman evidently believes that European thought should not be ignored, even by the “world’s only superpower.”

Despite this breadth, Terror and Liberalism is infused with the single-mindedness of a political pamphlet. Berman’s thesis is that The West—or more, the whole idea of freedom—is threatened by an implacable totalitarian foe; that we are in the dark days of 1941 all over again. The foe cannot be worn down by containment, or the passage of time, or by police measures to uproot terrorists, or the co-option of the issues terrorist use to mobilize supporters.

Why? Because the foe is the eternal enemy of freedom. Saddam and the Ba’ath Party, the heirs of the Muslim Brotherhood, are, for Berman, both direct descendants the fascisms of the 1930s. It is the same totalitarianism all over again, in Islamic guise: the Ba’athi and the fundamentalists, eternally opposed to “the liberal values of the West.”

In making this case Berman throws everything he can reach into the pot. Today’s enemies are of a kind with those who railed against the cosmopolitan and bourgeois as far back as the Book of Revelation of St. John the Divine. Their spirit is found in many French revolutionaries, in some of the pre-Bolshevik Russian terrorists, in Lenin, Stalin, and Saddam. In the period right after World War II, there arose a reading of German history that tried to wind everything down to a single thread, shaping every major social, cultural, or intellectual development “from Luther to Hitler” into a precursor or explanation of the eventual Nazi seizure of power. Berman, in his search for the connecting tissues of the eternal fascist enemy, does this one better: a plausible subtitle for his work might be “Totalitarian Anti-Liberals from St. John the Divine to Sayyid Qutb”—all equally foes of freedom, modernity, Jews.

There is an attractive daring to this, and writers should not fear pursuit of connections that are not readily obvious. Berman is also right when he argues that most intellectuals in the modern world do not have a single national or cultural identity but rather many overlapping ones. This may be especially so for those hailing from Islamic countries, where intellectual life grew under the shadow of Western imperial dominance. Berman is not idle to point out that the founders of the Ba’ath parties and the early Islamic radicals did some borrowing from the European far Right, (though more was borrowed from the Left, and a Marxism imported from Paris or London has been, until now, the more deadly import). The drawbacks of cross-cultural intellectual fertilization were understood by the more sophisticated of colonial administrators at least since the 1920s. Students from the colonized Middle East (or Indochina) tended to gravitate to revolutionary extremist doctrines in London and Paris far more readily than they absorbed measured liberalism or prudent conservatism. Skeptics about empire (and the British and French colonial offices had them) concluded that great forces of culture and history made the non-West irredeemably different from the West, had produced “different men.” Berman does not explain how America’s empire builders might avoid this pitfall.

For Berman, both the Ba’ath Party ideology and fundamentalism are cut from the same cloth: the revolt against liberalism and freedom that arose in Russia, then moved westward after the 1918 Armistice, did not die with the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989—it just assumed different form, migrated from Berlin to Moscow, then on to Tehran and Cairo and Baghdad. Berman notes “totalitarian politics always end up as a revolt against the liberal values of the West; that is their purpose.”

He fleshes this out with the most lucid short account I have seen of Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Karl Marx figure of contemporary Islamist radicalism. Qutb, Berman says, understood the West well, indeed had penetrated to the heart of meaning of separation of Church and State. He opposed Christianity and the West not because Western societies had failed to measure up to their professed values, but because of the values themselves.

Berman also makes, in passing, a telling point about the pockets of irrationality within the West. He scores easily against European intellectuals who have embraced the Palestinian cause and makes the arresting argument that European sympathy for the Palestinians seemed to peak when the pace of suicide terror bombings was most intense. Something is attractive to intellectuals about such random violence, he implies, adding that many in Europe seem to have lost interest as Sharon’s harsh repression took hold and the bombings diminished, though in terms of their suffering, the Palestinian situation had been made far worse.

Yet the world does not quite divide so easily as Berman would have it into the free and the “fascist.” As the author himself is aware, there is a fair amount of anti-liberalism within the Western anti-Islam camp. The fundamentalist Christian component to American Mideast policy might be mentioned, though the Christian Right is hardly likely to play a major role in conceptualizing the New American Empire or selecting the next targets for regime change. Berman is honest enough to acknowledge (if only in two sentences) that there is Jewish component in the 20th-century anti-liberal disease—which, like all the fascisms, has its own founding myths of blood and soil and a dehumanizing contempt for those outside the chosen national circle. Berman quietly lets on that there is much of this in Israel’s present-day Likud, which surely will complicate an American campaign against against liberalism’s foes.

Berman urges a rekindled ideological war against the new totalitarianism, imagining an effort something like the cultural Cold War, with intellectuals debunking the bad ideology and vigorous free trade unions demonstrating that real economic rights require real freedom. But let us count the ways in which the analogy between anti-totalitarianism in the 1930s or the 1950s and that of today doesn’t stand up. First of all, there are virtually no indigenous admirers of fundamentalist Islam within the West, certainly nothing like those who stood for communism and fascism. (Where pockets of Islamist sympathy do exist, among some Middle Eastern immigrants and their children, it seems relevant to point out that those in the West who have opposed mass immigration—from Enoch Powell to Pat Buchanan—have been consistently derided as bigots, xenophobes, or worse by progressive intellectuals like Berman.) As for the trade unions, they are not really much a part of American economic life in a globalist economy.

Secondly, unlike the totalitarian movements at their zenith, there is little evidence that Islamism is really on the rise today. Berman gives a warm acknowledgement to Gilles Kepel’s superbly researched Jihad: the Trail of Political Islam but somehow chooses to glide over Kepel’s main point, which is that radical Islam is now in its senescence. Look at Iran, the place where the Jihad actually triumphed, and Islamism’s now universally acknowledged irrelevance to the country’s young and educated, and one sees the point. Everywhere Kepel examines the phenomenon, Islamic parties have either lost touch with their mass constituencies or are climbing back towards more nuanced, more democratic and less extremist positions.

Of course a war against a Western invader (or liberator, as imperialists invariably depict themselves) could change that. Once the United States becomes—as it now has—an occupier of Arab land, Islamism should be able to attach itself to one political sentiment that really is eternal: the desire of people to be free of foreign domination. As a recipe for American foreign policy, then, Berman’s work comes up well short of the realists’.  

about the author

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars. Follow him on Twitter at @ScottMcConnell9.

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