Dearest Illusions and Dangerous Mistakes

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

In 1944 F. A. Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, “The number of dangerous mistakes we have made before and since the outbreak of the war because we do not understand the opponent with whom we are faced is appalling. It seems almost as if we did not want to understand the development which has produced totalitarianism because such an understanding might destroy some of the dearest illusions to which we are determined to cling.” Change “totalitarianism” to “Islamic jihad” and Hayek’s words are still right on the mark.

“Dangerous mistakes” and “dearest illusions” are evident in every theater of the war against jihad, in every debate about its causes, and in every discussion about how to defeat the jihadists. Take the current attempt of the administration to get Congress to delineate clear-cut procedures for extracting intelligence from captured terrorists. Numerous politicians, including Republican Senators and former secretary of state Colin Powell, have blocked or criticized the president’s attempts to find an effective means of uncovering information of possible attacks without descending into torture. These critics rely on Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibits not just torture of prisoners, but “outrages upon personal dignity,” a vague and subjective phrase that eliminates just about any interrogation technique other than polite questioning.

This application of the Geneva conventions to terrorists is bizarre to say the least, since “unlawful combatants” have always been excluded from the rules of war. Worse, it is not called for by the convention itself. Article 4.2 indeed extends the protections of Article 3 not just to regular armies but to “members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organized resistance movements, belonging to a Party to the conflict and operating in or outside their own territory, even if this territory is occupied,” but it does so “provided that [emphasis added] such militias or volunteer corps, including such organized resistance movements, fulfill the following conditions: (a) that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; (c) that of carrying arms openly; (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war [emphasis added].”

No sane person can argue that al Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, the Taliban, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, or bitter-end Sunni Baathists are “conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war,” and it’s debatable that these terrorists fulfill the other three conditions. Hence they are not entitled to the protections of Article 3, unless some subsequent treaty or emendation has eliminated or weakened Article 4.2. But the assumptions behind the conventions themselves are where we can really see the peculiar “dangerous illusions” that are hamstringing our efforts.

The Geneva conventions, like the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and any number of international agreements and treaties, reflect the modern Enlightenment belief that the perennial evils arising from human nature can be mitigated by rational discussion and persuasion. These evils, after all, result from socio-economic inequities and ignorance, and so can be eliminated if those inequities are corrected and people are educated about their true interests. These interests, moreover, can best be realized if nations abjure the use of force and enter into networks of agreements that adjudicate disputes rationally and subject the behavior of nations to clearly defined rules and protocols.

In other words, human nature has progressed and evolved beyond force, a hold-over from more primitive times, and so people can manage themselves on the basis of contracts and treaties and avoid the destruction and suffering that follow the use of force. This “dangerous delusion” has been contradicted by the gruesome history of the last hundred years, with its industrialized carnage and genocidal murder, so one wonders what possible empirical evidence anyone can present to support clinging to this belief and to the international institutions and agreements such a belief has created.

On the contrary, that bloody century’s history proves the timeless wisdom of Thucydides, who recognized that the irrational forces of human nature are constant, restrained with difficulty by law and destructive of civilization when law is weakened by “imperious necessities.” Nor is the Enlightenment faith in reason and signed treaties validated by recent history, which is littered with the treaties violated by dictators and thug regimes. Why should this surprise us? A treaty or agreement is only as good as the intentions and interests of those who sign it. Every nation that signs a treaty does so not because it adheres to timeless universal moral principles, but because that nation believes the treaty will advance its interests. If the treaty doesn’t, the nation will simply ignore its provisions, as we have seen recently with Iran, which has violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. Or a nation can withdraw from the treaty altogether, as North Korea did when its violations of that same treaty were exposed.

The central problem is that such a treaty assumes the values it enshrines are recognized as binding and universal and worthy of respect by those who sign the treaty. But where do these values come from? In the last couple of centuries they have reflected the values of the West, simply because of the power of the West over the rest of the world. Weaker states have been compelled to sign on and pay lip service to those values, particularly if doing so compromises the power of the West and allows weaker states to pursue their interests. But there is little evidence that they sincerely believe in the universal validity of these values. Indeed, they consider that claim to universal validity as just another mechanism the West uses to enforce its hegemony.

Nowhere is this mistaken belief in the universal endorsement of Western values more evident than in our fight against jihad. Failing to understand our opponent and the historical nature of Islam, we have interpreted his behavior in term of our own values and goods and materialist assumptions. Since we value individual freedom and material prosperity, we assume that those are also the supreme motivating goods of Muslims. Since we privilege material causes over all others, we ignore spiritual causes or reduce them to deformed responses to unfulfilled material needs. Since we prize the transparent fulfillment of the requirements of agreements we sign, we assume other peoples will also, even if those requirements contradict a more important national interest or a spiritual goal, such as fighting the infidel until the whole world is for Allah, as the Koran puts it.

Worse, because we no longer recognize any transcendent validation for our values and beliefs, we will not act decisively to defend them. And since we are no longer confident in the inarguable rightness of those beliefs, we refuse to make the tragic choices and trade-offs to protect them, the inadvertent death, suffering, and brutality sometimes required when defending freedom against a fanatic enemy who wants to destroy it. Riddled with doubt about the ends we say we prize, we hesitate about the means we will use. We forget that although not all ends justify all means, some ends do justify even some brutal means. Certainly the Americans that defeated Germany and Japan understood this tragic truth, for they believed in the end for which they fought, and they were confident it was superior and right. And they knew that if they were not willing to accept those grim and sometimes gruesome means to achieve that end, something much, much worse would triumph.

The arguments of those opposing the use of coercive interrogation based on the Geneva Conventions all rest on these “dangerous delusions.”  Colin Powell said that redefining the conventions to clarify its subjective and ambiguous language would make the world “doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism,” and “put our own troops at risk.” First, who cares if the world “doubts the moral basis” of why we fight? What’s important is that we know that basis and we believe that the end for which we fight justifies some, not each and every, means we will use to achieve that end. And what “world” is Powell talking about? Muslims regimes? Where is the evidence that they adhere to our “moral basis” and so can be judges of whether or not we are true to it? The Europeans, who, with the exception of the British, have calculated every move strictly in terms of their own national interests rather than any “moral basis”? Only doubt about our own “moral basis” and its rightness explains why some are so anxious to have it validated by a “world” that shows little evidence of respect for anything other than naked self-interest.

The other part of the argument is equally incoherent. Does anyone think that any fighting force, let alone terrorists, that captures one of our troops will be guided in its behavior by our treatment of its fighters? That being nice to terrorists in our custody will convince terrorists to be nice to those who fall into their custody? That tutored by our example, terrorists will convert to the Geneva Conventions? Where is the evidence for such fantasies? The internet beheadings, the tortured and mutilated corpses on the streets of Baghdad, the ballbearing-laden missiles of Hezbollah?

Herein lies the greatest, most dangerous delusion we have been indulging for years now: everything our enemy does is merely a reaction to what we do. The enemy has no motives of his own, no goods or ends he is pursuing that may be very different from ours. He may think he does, and set those goods and ends out with clarity and force, and link them to the traditions of his faith, and be seconded in his opinion by millions of his co-religionists and the theologians of his faith, but they are all deluded. It’s not about Islam and Allah, it’s about Israel, oil, voting, cartoons, unemployment, American television, globalization, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the occupation of Iraq–– any and every material or psychological cause other than the one spiritual cause the enemy keeps telling us over and over guides and justifies his actions and has guided and justified the wars of Islam for fourteen centuries.

This indeed is an “appalling” misunderstanding of the enemy. As long as we indulge this reduction of the jihadist to our own assumptions; as long as we show by our actions that we are not really sure that the ends we pursue are just and right, right enough to do things at times we’d rather not; as long as we cling to “dangerous delusions” about human nature and the primacy of the material over the spiritual, we will continue to lose the war. For our enemy has none of our hesitation, none of our doubt, none of our fear of the world’s disapproval. He knows why he kills and dies. What will it take to teach us what we should kill and die for?

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