by Victor Davis Hanson
The Premodern Middle East and Postmodern West Don’t Mix, Mr. President
Globalization certainly did not bring the premodern world of the Middle East closer together with the postmodern West — despite Barack Obama’s 2007 narcissistic vows that his own intellect and background could bridge such a gap. If anything, the more we know about each other, the more we sense we are back to Lepanto and the siege of Vienna. Since the 9/11 anniversary attacks, the Obama administration has seemed bewildered, petulant, and more or less shocked in Casablanca-style fashion about the hatred shown the United States — whether overt among the Arab Street, or implicit among Arab governments’ wink-and-nod inability to protect US embassies. It apparently forgot some basic rules about how to deal with radical Islam, and instead regressed back to the old familiar appeasement that led to 9/11/2001.
Mr. President, do not obsess over the pretext of the day. Terry Jones is only as crude as Andres Serrano and his Piss Christ, which I don’t recall warranted a personal call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the artist to cool it, much less a federal effort to detain a Coptic filmmaker. Sometimes Muslims will rage at a Rushdie novel, sometimes at a papal reference to a Byzantine letter, and at other times at a supposedly flushed or torched Koran. Or maybe a grainy amateurish video will set them off to kill a nun, blow up a priest, burn down an embassy, or assassinate a Western ambassador. There are three-hundred-million-plus free-thinking Americans, and thus at least that many possible “slights” — if you choose to go down that road of blaming free expression rather than the primeval mind that objects to it.
The opportunities for Muslims in the Middle East to be outraged at the West in general and the US in particular are legion. You, Mr. Obama, the most powerful of all Americans, must remember that these totems are mere tools of an al Qaeda, a Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic Jihad — or whatever the particular aggrieved party calls itself this week. They are no more than crude pretexts to direct fury among their ignorant and impoverished masses at opportune times against the United States, and thereby gain power.
In that regard, each time we castigate a Rushdie, a Danish cartoonist, a US soldier, or a nut like Terry Jones, we simply play into the hands of the Islamists. The latter are thrilled when American grandees look weak, desperate, and only too eager to fall over themselves in undermining their own singular Constitution and distancing themselves from their own values. Far better it would be to say, one time — and only one time: “We cherish and protect freedom of expression and abhor censorship and violence; if that bothers you, it bothers you.” End of story.
2. The Sources of Islamic Anger
Remember the source of premodern Islamic anger. Why did the Zawahiri brothers, or the late bin Laden, or the Islamist of the week hate the West, and in particular the United States?
It surely is not, as their apologists plead, because of our “foreign policy.” We are enlightened compared to what Putin did in Chechnya or how the Chinese treated their Muslim minorities. You, readers, know the American record better than do I: we graciously accepted Muslim refugees, even ingrates like Mohamed Morsi or the 9/11 mass murderers. We fed Somalis; helped to remove Gaddafi; freed Kuwaitis; liberated Afghans (twice); birthed Iraqi democracy; bombed Christians to save Muslim Kosovars and Bosnians; fund Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians; and so on.
Instead, the wrath of the Muslim Street is elemental and existential (read The Al Qaeda Reader to fathom all the twenty or so excuses given by bin Laden for his hatred of the US). It can be explained in terms something like this: Islamists have convinced the Arab masses that their present mess (so easily fathomed in a globalized world in second-by-second, instantaneous comparisons with other cultures — via cell phones, the Internet, DVDs, and cable television) is not their own fault.
Discussions of the pernicious effects of endemic tribalism, misogyny, statism, anti-Semitism, fundamentalism, religious intolerance, xenophobia, and anti-modernism are taboo. So there is never serious reflection about self-induced pathologies that keep fostering a Saddam Hussein, Muslim Brotherhood, and Ba’ath Party, or the preconditions that throughout much of the 20th century made the Arab world so susceptible to Hitlerism, then Soviet communism, then Baathism, then Western authoritarianism, then authoritarianism, and, then, or rather always back to, Islamic radicalism. The Middle East is not fascist, communist, Baathist, pan-Arabist, or Islamist, so much as it is screwed-up-ist and blame-them-ist.
If all these -isms did not exist, we would have to invent them and others as well to find scapegoats for self-induced misery. The Islamist explains to the illiterate masses that they are poor and angry because, despite their renewed zealotry and supposed ancient majesty, the evil Westerners have, quite unfairly, all the power, wealth, and influence — and yet don’t deserve it, given their godlessness, decadence, and corruption. Westerners obtained their preeminence through “crimes” like Zionism, colonialism, imperialism, etc., at a stage of Islamic vulnerability, when Muslim sellouts betrayed the Prophet and joined the enemy. And thus true believers, by sheer force of religious fervor, can slap down these Westerners, as was true in the ancient past. Presto — go torch an embassy and empower me as you leader!
That exegesis for millions in Cairo is far more comforting advice than something a bit more mundane like “treat women equally” or “look at the world empirically” or “take apart your cell phone and see how it works.”
3. Blaming Us, Not Them
The worst response to radical Islam has unfortunately become the present administration’s postmodern, so-cool policy. The Cairo fable, the al Arabiya “Bush did it” interview, the euphemisms (e.g., “man-caused disasters”), the insanity that Maj. Hasan’s murdering threatens our diversity programs, trying KSM in New York, reading Mutallab his Miranda rights, serial trashing of Guantanamo, James Clapper’s laughable assurance that the Muslim Brotherhood is “secular,” NASA’s all-important Muslim outreach, etc., at best remind the Islamists that Westerners would hardly be so self-abasing if there were not something to be ashamed about.
Our hesitancy confirms their accusations and, at worst, suggests that we are also weak and without a sense of self — and so will do very little if a true believer were to kill a diplomat, storm an embassy, or shoot Marines. And when you add in fiscal insolvency, looming defense cuts, and presidential boasting about killing bin Laden and Predator assassinating, this administration had done just enough high-fiving and spiking the ball to incite the anger of an Islamist, but not nearly enough concrete action to remind him of the dangerous consequences of such primitive anger.
Worse, in some ways, are Obama’s feeble attempts to separate himself from the history and values of the United States — almost as if to say, “They did it, don’t blame me!” Remember, Obama objected that he was but a near-infant and so blameless when Daniel Ortega to his face enumerated all his fabricated hurts against America. (If the president of the United States will not defend America in front of a communist dictator, who will?)
The entire subtext of Obama’s outreach narratives (made explicitly in his al Arabiya interview) is that his own unique pedigree and worldview have exempted him from American pathologies and thus culpability for them. In the alternate brain chemistry of the Obamites, there is no contradiction between worldwide Islamist vows to kill our diplomats or burn embassies and Obama’s much-vaunted boasts of restoring American popularity abroad. The derangement goes like this: those who hate America are mistakenly still mad at the old Bush America and have not yet evolved to duly appreciate the new Obama America. In other words, the vestiges of right-wing extremism still confuses those abroad, who have not yet caught on that America is on their side.
In the present case, bewildered press secretary Jay Carney essentially said just that: that when protestors burn flags, kill Americans, and destroy icons of American power, they aren’t really mad at us, Obama, the White House, or American foreign policy. Instead, they are just confused over disgusting Terry Jones and a reprehensible handful of Copts:
We also need to understand that this is a fairly volatile situation and it is in response not to United States policy, and not to, obviously, the administration, or the American people, but it is in response to a video, a film that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it, but this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at US policy, this is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.
“Not…directed at the United States” — perhaps tell that to Ambassador Stevens as he suffocated to death.
4. What Must Muslims Do?
It is not brain surgery to enter the modern world. Follow some South Koreans or Chileans around for a week with a video camera. Grow up and stop blaming those on whom you depend for everything from drilling bits to laptops. Adopt the now seemingly impossible: consensual government, a bill of rights, secular tolerance for religious diversity, gender equality, meritocracy, respect for science and empiricism, a free market, and a free press. In other words, join the 21st century.
Otherwise, Westerners must make themselves as immune from Middle East passions as is possible. In that context, not tapping vast new domestic finds of gas and oil on public lands is suicidal, given that such potential income and independence would soon make the Gulf irrelevant to our survival. Let the Kuwaitis or the Iranians deal with the Chinese. Of course, elites warn us not to “overreact.” But overreacting, compared to the present radical appeasement, is the moderate, rational course.
A good start, then, would be very quietly to start trimming aid at about $100 million every month, and quite coolly rejecting visas from the Middle East (putting thousands of future Mr. Morsis on hold). We can put travel restrictions on the Middle East, and ask the Egyptian ambassador to go home for a month or so to think things over and see whether he really wishes to protect our embassy. Elites shriek, “Oh, but you’ll only isolate Morsi and alienate the moderates.” Perhaps, but we might also remind them that American friendship is based on reciprocity and must be earned rather than assumed. How odd that the only good thing that either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton has said throughout this depressing spectacle was Obama’s flub that he didn’t quite know whether Egypt, the recipient of over $1 billion in annual US cash, was an ally or enemy. So only by accident does he make the Muslim Brotherhood government a tiny bit unsure of exactly how we feel or what we might do.
5. Whom to Fear?
Finally we must examine the ubiquitous Westernized Middle Easterner who appears as pundit, talking head, and the authentic voice of the Arab Street. Quite dangerous are the Mohamed Morsis of the world — men like a Sayyid Qutb or Mohammed Atta, who had spent time in the West, fled here for its protection, enjoyed its affluence, indulged in its sins, and blossomed amid its hot-house universities. These men can often be quite dangerous.
Most are intelligent and understand the self-loathing that is endemic among their postmodern Western hosts. For the Westernized anti-Americanist, being educated, working, and living in California or New York reminds him of the contrast with his own Egypt or the West Bank. That disconnect evokes all sorts of contradictory emotions: why am I so blessed in the land of the infidels and so wretched at home? Or how much penance must I undertake for satisfying over here what would be seen as illicit appetites at home? Or how can these affluent atheists have so much more than my pious brothers in the Middle East?
The Westernized Middle Easterner, energized by Western self-loathing, steeped in post-colonial theory, nursed on deconstruction, and attuned to multicultural victimology, learns quickly. Whether a Khomeini returning from a generous France, a Mohammed Atta leaving Germany, or a Mohamed Morsi arriving in Cairo, they soon hate their prior Western benefactors for reminding them how their own self-induced pathologies have led to the miasma of the Middle East — but now with no longer a nodding professor to egg them on, but rather only a mute embassy, a flag, and a diplomat to incite their passions. Poor Hillary Clinton wonders out loud how can it be that the Libyans are unappreciative of our efforts, as if such ingratitude is new and surprising, rather than old and predictable.
With the implosion of the Middle East comes the end of the mythic foreign policy of Barack Obama. Just as Russia was not reset and our enemies did not become friends, so, too, the fantasy that Barack Obama’s name, race, and lineage, when coupled with leftist politics, would win over our Middle East never arrived. All that failed — failed not just for America, but for the Nobel laureate himself. In that regard, Obama’s entire four-year project has failed: $5 trillion of borrowed stimulus did not jump-start the economy; only more federal debt and bankruptcy followed “solar and wind and millions of green jobs,” as vast new finds of oil and gas on public lands were ignored, while gas hit $4 a gallon. The problem for supporters of Obamacare is not to implement, but how to junk, this boondoggle without loss of face. Government Motors and the Volt went nowhere, and appointees like Eric Holder, Kathleen Sebelius, Timothy Geithner, and Janet Napolitano proved embarrassments. Now we are left with the Federal Reserve desperately printing money before the election.
There was human frenzy in 2008 that entranced millions, and now we will be paying for the wages of that madness for quite some time.
©2012 Victor Davis Hanson