Thursday, September 19, 2002

Steven den Beste has an essay up which the normally sharp Hesiod and Atrios are lambasting as "The Protocols of the Elders of Islam", to compare with the notorious antisemitic forgery, "the Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Which is just wrong (though den Beste's argument has problems of its own, which I'll get to in a bit):
  • "Zion" purports to be the records of a single, overarching conspiracy. Den Beste isn't speaking so much of a unified conspiracy, as a culture that needs --- he says --- to be defeated: "in this war there is no single government or small group of them, no man, no organization. Our enemy is a culture which is deeply diseased."
  • People who bruit about the "Elders of Zion" fear that alleged conspiracy because of its supposed success. Den Beste portrays the culture he describes as a failure, and describes the armed eruptions that trouble us now as effects of that culture's inability to cope.
  • The "Elders of Zion" are supposedly trying to control Gentile culture in secret. Islamists, for lack of a better term, would like nothing better to take it over and control it overtly, though their immediate goals are a return to glory in historically Muslim lands, featuring regimes which they regard as weak, degraded and corrupt, a point I'll return to.

(Besides, even though den Beste is talking about a culture and not any single group, it's useful to remember that there is an Islamist conspiracy which is in fact trying to destroy America, drawing its strength from the culture Den Beste describes, which makes no secret of its existence or its aims. It's called al-Qaeda. You may have heard of it.)

What den Beste's essay does represent, which I think is important, and worrisome, is the return of the White Man's Burden. Historically, that was all too often just an excuse for commercial exploitation of the weak. And there are certainly people playing that tune on Dubya's war drums, what with his economic advisor, Larry Lindsey, suggesting that the war would be so cheap that it would effectively pay for itself in reduced petroleum prices --- implying that he expects a replacement regime in Iraq which is so thoroughly a U.S. puppet that it will pursue American interests in preference to its own. But that's not den Beste's argument, so let's put that aside and return to den Beste.

The striking thing to me about den Beste's essay is the lack of connection between the ends, elimination of the terrorist threat from Islamist radicals, and the means, a military attack on, and defeat of, the secular Baathist regime in Iraq --- a regime which the Wahhabi-inspired religious fanatics who drive al-Qaeda view as an ally of convenience at best. (If at all; Dubya's crowd is soft-pedaling the argument that Hussein has something to do with al-Qaeda, because they haven't been able to show convincing evidence).

So, suppose we fight what den Beste views as the battle of Iraq in the War on Islamia, or something like that, and suppose we win. Will that, in fact, refute any of the arguments of the Islamists? No. It will play into their hands. We will show them an Arab country which has adopted a secular regime, with no religious trappings, getting the pants beat off of it in a conflict with the actual West, which will only reinforce their argument that religious revival is a road to glory. And, as Demosthenes points out, it will play into their own "clash of civilizations" rhetoric. The mere fact of a military defeat, particularly of a secular regime, won't dampen their movement --- in fact, by den Beste's own argument, it is a sustained record of military defeats at the hands of the West, over hundreds of years, which has given rise to it.

Clausewitz says that war is the continuation of politics by other means. And, even if you take the Huntington-inspired "clash of civilizations" line at face value, it is not obvious at all that we've tried other means short of war. Consider trade: we could, for instance, just stop pumping oil from Saudi Arabia, and paying for it, until they, for instance, started seriously cooperating with American attempts to track down terrorists and their donors, and stopped broadcasting anti-American and anti-Semitic rants in their government press. That strategy would require a willingness to endure a price spike, but Dubya's folks do keep talking about sacrifice. It would also require a trade coalition to make sure other Western powers did the same, but that is that really all that much harder than asking coalition partners' soldiers to die for us?

Is it the right idea? I don't know. I don't know nearly enough about Arab culture to say. But at least it would go after expressions of den Beste's "diseased culture" directly, rather than arguing, in effect, that an attack on one bunch of Arabs is pretty much the same as an attack on another.

It won't happen of course. One thing that is clear about Dubya's administration is that the Saudi regime --- the rulers of Mecca and Medina, the sponsors of Wahhabism, and as such another key element of den Beste's "diseased culture" --- have Dubya and his administration wrapped around their little fingers.

By the way, if the idea is to establish a "beacon of democracy" in the larger Muslim community --- well, there are other places we could try that. Indonesia, where we... umm... sponsored a coup. Iran where... umm... we put the Shah in power, displacing an elected prime minister who didn't like the way the West was running his oil industry. (That worked out great, huh?) Pakistan, where our current "bastard in the region" --- who's taking over that role from ummm... Saddam Hussein --- is rapidly converting himself into a military strongman. (By the by, he's also a former sponsor of Kashmiri terrorists whose disavowals of support for their current operations are less than completely convincing. And he certainly has WMD. I have a sick feeling we may be hearing more about that in the years to come). And of course, Afghanistan, where we have in the past supported, ummm... Islamic fanatics against the Soviets, and where the regime we installed just this year is hanging on by its fingernails...

(Incidentally, I've reworked the first paragraph slightly to make it clear up front that I don't mean to defend den Beste... which was obvious anyway to people who read all the way through, but might have been missed on a brief skim)


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