by Victor Davis Hanson
Real Clear Politics
What a stupid question. By any benchmark of economic prosperity, military power, and political stability, Western civilization — in the United States, Europe, and the former British Commonwealth — has never been stronger. Globalization has become a euphemism for Westernization, an apparent unstoppable juggernaut.
So how could the lingua franca of English, uniform international travel, or worldwide commerce ever falter — given that American-style material bounty is spreading among billions the world over?
But the global sale of PlayStation 3 or a world in Levis is only the glitzy veneer of civilization. That shared taste almost unnoticeably hinges on a powerful and liberal United States that keeps the peace and remains the spiritual and intellectual fountainhead of an entire global system — one ultimately dependent on American core ideas like freedom and tolerance. What pressures China to liberalize, protects the creativity of Japan, assures Europeans they can be postmodernists in safety, and guarantees that the world commerce is protected from both old and new piracy is a confident and strong United States.
In contrast, grant a jihadist his 7th-century dream world, and within months even he wouldn’t have a cell phone signal to call in an IED explosion.
So just as the central nervous system controls an animal’s most powerful muscles, so too capital, politics, and armed forces are all governed by subtle, unseen public opinion, or the people’s will to define and defend their civilization. For America soldiers to fight jihadists in Afghanistan or Iraq, Americans back home must grasp whom they are fighting and why. And that’s the core problem when we consider the recent news and the West’s response to it.
Intelligence sources announce that Iran is seeking to replace al Qaeda as the foremost anti-Western global terrorist organization. Not to be outdone, al Qaeda is said to be desperately seeking a nuclear device. This is precisely at the time President Ahmadinejad announces the next step of uranium enrichment and more promises to end Israel.
International inspectors report that traces of plutonium are found in Iranian nuclear waste sites. The results of a terrorist with a plutonium-laced suicide belt in the New York Stock Exchange, the Mall of America, the Louvre, the Vatican, or the Harvard Library are like a water spill into a computer hard drive — the tiny drop unseen to the naked eye as it shuts down a way of life.
In the Middle East, Israeli intelligence warns that Gaza is to be the next Lebanon. The terrorists of Hamas worry that Hezbollah’s Katyushas have upstaged their lesser Kassems. The very idea of Israel has suddenly been turned upside down. The last sanctuary of the world’s Jewry that offered immunity from another Holocaust is now to be a one-bomb state that might ensure it. This is not Western paranoia, but Middle Eastern braggadocio. In that way, the Iranians trump Hitler — by not just writing about their plans, but by their president promising both to destroy Israel and to ignore international efforts that might not let him have the means to do so. Could anything be clearer?
A new generation of terrorist killers wishes to erase the stain of past Arab failures of 1947, 1956 1967, and 1973. Perhaps, it at last senses that the students of the 1960s in the West have come of age and into power. Might one day soon they shrug that things would be less of a hassle for all concerned without the “mistake” of Israel — regrettable perhaps, but life goes on?
Suicide bombers intent to destroy democracy in Afghanistan stream across the border from Pakistan with the connivance of the government there. Meanwhile, its President still smiles and hawks his books on Fox News. And why not? Once support for democracy in the Middle East has been demonized as either unrealistic or outright dangerous, a nuclear Islamic state under a sometimes neutral dictator is preferable to hostile theocracy.
In Iraq, the killer Moqtadar Sadr, we are also informed, is now seeking to be the probable power behind the Shiite-led democracy, his militias no longer mere rivals to the state security forces, but may well be infiltrated within them. Apparently he wishes to kill particularly Westerners — for the crime of taking his name off Saddam’s hit list and onto a ballot.
The rationalist would find a common Thucydidean denominator in all this madness, one of lost honor and rampant envy. There is wealth aplenty pouring into Iran and Iraq through oil that is sold at a high price in a world market whose sanctity is ultimately protected by the United States. So the poverty there of radical Islam is not material, but one of the soul.
There is a sick ingenuity of a sort that can disguise terrorists as state policemen in Baghdad to kidnap and torture the innocent, and outwit Humvees with land mines. The improvised explosive device, with help from Iran, gets ever more complex. And there is a great deal of mental energy, time, and money that went into making rockets and suicide belts or even the graphics on a bin Laden infomercial.
How odd that Iranians cannot design a car or computer, but can with the proper instruction manual spend millions of hours putting together Western-designed centrifuges, like the stamped lettered-parts of a build-it-your-self intricate model toy.
So again, the problem with the radicals in the Middle East is not the lack of capital or mental energy. Rather under the influence of Islamism and autocracy a deep-seeded cultural malady distorts human effort and creativity solely for destructive purposes. In all of these places, radical leaders such as a Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, or Sadr — the same thug has a thousand faces that come and go as we saw with Zarqawi, Saddam, and Arafat — are, like the Sultan and Grand Vizier of old, as fascinated with the West as they despise it.
They obviously want Western technology — whether the Internet or the plastic munition — but never the decadence of freedom, democracy, and tolerance that creates the very appurtenances they crave. It is like sacking European Constantinople and then moving into it as your new Window-on-the-West capital, with the requisite minarets plopped on Hagia Sophia.
Such parasitism proves no lasting palliative, but only the goad for more envy and frustration. The stark truth is that the radical Middle East is religiously observant, but spiritually poor. Naturally wealthy, it is mostly materially impoverished — and as anti-Western in ideology as addicted in fact to Western attention and consumerism.
Out of all those ashes of failure and contradiction arose the Phoenix of Islamic fascism whose origins Western experts endlessly dissect. Who and what caused this foul apparition that has succeeded fascism, Nazism, and communism as the world’s next bane?
Is the hatred and venom a feral shoot of Islam, or an import from the West during the dark times of the 1930s? Or is it a bastard of Soviet statism that infected the Middle East after the war?
Did globalization bring the reality of failure to the Arab street though cell phones and satellite television — and with that realization a deadly response by dictators, who paid off terrorists to blame the West, not themselves, for the glaring disparities?
We now are arguing over the significance of schisms between Shiite and Sunni. Or is the real story the regional grievances of Hamas versus Hezbollah versus al Qaeda, or again the difference between the autocracies of an Assad, Saddam Hussein, or Iranian mullocracy? Like tiny wildfires can they be put out with buckets here and there, or are they simply embers of a global conflagration? After all, these strains of hatred, or so we are told, are so intricate as to defy generalization — and so leave us all so smart Westerners clueless, like Byzantine scholastics bickering over a smudged erasure in an ancient palimpsest.
Next, examine the Western political response to all this Middle Eastern madness. The recent November election made it clear that the American public is tired of Iraq, tired of the televised bombings, tired of the Middle East and just wants to be left alone, to go home or to “redeploy.” But if America withdraws before Iraqi reformers can establish a stable society, what illegitimate Arab strongman would wish to host a defeated infidel army with Islam on the rise in his backyard.
A once stalwart Tony Blair now praises Iran and welcomes back terrorist-sponsoring Teheran and Damascus for negotiations. To receive wisdom about Iran, we in America now look to the position papers of those who presided over the 1979 hostage fiasco and the Iran-Contra tragic-comedy. The University of Edinburgh gives the Iranian President emeritus Khatami an honorary degree, after his return from a triumphant American tour. It is understandable to want to talk with the Iranians and avoid unnecessary confrontation, but only on the understanding that the theocracy there is trying to destroy Israel and kill Americans working to protect democracy in Iraq. Thinking Syria or Iran could tolerate a constitutional republic in Iraq on its borders is like imagining that Hitler could have lived with a democratic Poland or Czechoslovakia next door or the old Soviet Union would have tolerated a free Ukraine.
Americans in their televised wrangling seem traumatized over Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, the Patriot Act, and wiretaps. For many George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are far greater threats than Osama bin Laden. Indeed, without a care for the thousands tortured by Saddam or dismembered by the terrorists, American leftists now seek to indict (in Germany of all places!) the former Secretary of Defense on charges such as subjecting detainees to “religious humiliation.” Religious humiliation? Is war now to be played out on Court TV or ape the hurt feelings of Sunday morning television?
Iraq to the CNN talking heads is solely a story of amputations, unemployed veterans, anti-war song-writing Marines, and gratuitous violence against civilians — nothing much about Iraqis voting, the Husseins gone, or the brave each day fighting jihadists. Somehow trying to foster democracy abroad has earned far worse public outcry than the old Cold War support for dictators. Leftists apparently think helping the elected government in Iraq is comparable to our past support for a Somoza or Marcos, while those on the Old Right lament that it is not.
We in the West write novels and film scripts about killing our American President, while those in the Middle East plan it, as their latest vows to blow up the White House attest. Better yet, we supposed liberals — not Nazis, communists, or monarchs — now will censor our own cartoons, operas, films, novels, and Pope, as if the Enlightenment was a mere construct. If we find the struggle to stop Islamism is too costly or at least too bothersome, maybe appeasement of it will prove less so.
In short, while the Islamists get bolder and crazier, we become more timid and all too rational, quibbling over this terrorist’s affinities and that militia’s particular grievances — in hopes of cutting some magical deal with an imaginary moderate imam or nonexistent reasonable militia chief or Middle East dictator.
Well beyond us now is any overarching Churchillian vision of our enemies. We lack the practical understanding of an FDR that all of these Islamists loathe us far more than they despise each other. Their infighting, after all, is like the transitory bickering of thieves over the division of loot that always pales before their shared hatred of the targeted bank owner.
So we are at a crossroads of all places in Iraq. The war there has metamorphosized from a successful effort to remove a mass-murdering dictator into the frontlines of the entire struggle between Islamic radicalism and Western liberality. If we withdraw before the elected government stabilizes, the consequences won’t just be the loss of the perceptions of power, but perhaps the loss of real power. What follows won’t be the impression that we are weak, but the fact that we are — as we convince ourselves we cannot win against such horrific enemies, and so should never again try.
That stumble will send a shudder throughout the so-called West that will be felt worldwide. It will insidiously show that the premodern world proved the master of the postmodern, as al Qaeda’s Alfred Rosenberg, the pudgy Dr. Zawahri, boasted all along — whose followers will not be happy with a successful defense when they think they can go back on an even more successful offense.
In the end, the Islamicists’ best way to blow up the world’s Starbucks or to turn off freewheeling American television is ultimately with a whimper, not a bang. They need not plant a hundred thousand bombs across the Westernized globe, but simply to cauterize its very spinal cord in the United States — the willingness of the American public, as in the past, to confront only the latest challenge to their freedom and all the ripples from it.
©2006 Victor Davis Hanson