Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Jonny's TIA

Work has me cornered again, but Jonny has my back, beating back the forces of law firm encroachment. Enjoy him while you can, I know I always do. Jon, the stage is your own:

The Devil You Know, Part 2: The Quaintly Obvious Part

"If the fires of freedom and civil liberties burn low in other lands, they must be made brighter in our own." - FDR

"I think you weaken yourself as a nation when you try to play cute and become more like your enemy instead of like who you want to be" - Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, admonishing AG designate Gonzales about torture 'policy.'

May We Come Out From Under Our Beds Now?

An offhand conventional wisdom floating around the Land of Muffled Farts we call Washington DC is that the war on terror is largely, even basically, an 'ideological' war. Imagine that! 'You can't kill 'em all!' is how it's sometimes delicately put. How sweet! Unfortunately, this idea is 'off-message,' especially for Republicans. So, the central policy question of our time is, in DC, merely some sort of semi-partisan afterthought - a case of 'we'll get to it eventually.' Only in America.

It's a tragedy that George Bush was president of this country on 9/11/01. His leadership has largely been a study in weakness and fear. Iraq may be a bright spot someday (here's hoping), and Arafat did the world the favor of dying so Israel/Palestine may lurch to some sort of better stage (mostly in spite of Bush, as per usual). Bush did a total of one very small thing: say the words 'Palestinian State.' I hope for the best. But you don't get a second chance to make a first impression, and a course once set, it is not easily changed (assuming there is a desire to change it).

I trust that this second Administration will be slightly more circumspect than was the first (for whatever reasons); but nonetheless, Zen Masters like David Brooks really ought to drop flirting with the dewy dream that Mr. Bush might be remembered as 'great' someday. I would be equivocal on this if the war-timing and occupation of Iraq had been even minimally competent on the civilian side - of course you CAN be great by accident, but you have to rise to the occasion, not stumble along like in a Frank Capra movie. This president will always be notable, of course: he will be seen to have exemplified the beginning of the end (or the end) of the American Century. He will be the 'Crash Landing President.' The heading on this period in the history books of the future might read: 'America Blinks.' The economic decline this Administration seems to be actually hastening (a weird 'let's get it over with' Rapture-baiting) is probably the larger story, but let's focus just on our new War for now.

The attacks of 9/11 naturally shocked everyone, but that was almost three and a half years ago. May we have our minds back now? May we please use the time we have before the next attack to act rather than react?

We're all Post-Modernists Now

Contrary to conventional wisdom, this Administration has not really turned away from foreign policy cynicism ('realism'); they've just crafted their own, updated cynicism (hence the rather empty idealism of late). The 'Security Moms' and wavering Independents who put Bush over the top in November of last year knew what they were voting for. They weren't entirely ignoring the torture scandals, the pre-war lies, the post-war disasters, Ashcroft/Patriot 2, the whiffs of thuggish authoritarianism, etc. They were voting for the total package. 'That Bush may be a tough son-of-a-bitch, but he's OUR tough son-of-a-bitch.' It is a pure Cold War formulation - as if this were the same war with a different enemy. Pure Sissy/Bully. And BTW, by identifying the 'sissy/bully' mindset, I'm not 'aiding the terrorist's propaganda': they KNOW already. It's Americans who don't know.

I know that TIA necessarily draws unusually intelligent and informed readers, so please forgive me for saying some obvious things in response:

- Fear is not strength.

- A strong personality (or country) is not scared to understand, or even provisionally empathize with, an enemy ('Friends close - enemies closer'). It knows that doing so strengthens itself; a weak personality, on the other hand, posits an enemy as an incomprehensible 'other' and demonizes them.

- A strong personality neutralizes demagogic criticism by separating-out and absorbing the inevitable small kernels of truth in that criticism (and thereby tacitly admitting to them); a weak personality never admits, never explains.

- A strong personality, in a crisis, is thrown onto itself, becomes more like itself; a weak personality becomes more like its enemy.

Thanks for indulging me. I feel better now.

If You Zig, We Will Zag; But if YOU Zag....We'll Zig. Because We're Strong.

I was struck, watching the recent 'Frontline' episode,
al-Qaeda's New Front the other night, and the interview with, among others, former French intelligence officer and criminologist Xavier Raufer, with the explanation of terrorism provided. Jihadi terror, according to this veteran, looks rather different in Europe than it does here in the US Bubble. Some excerpts:

In France, we were the first ones to have terrorists out of the Middle East on our soil, because at that time, we were with the Christians in Lebanon in the '80s. So we had our first wave of bombs in Paris with quite a lot of people killed, maybe 18 or 20 in 1985 [alone].

Q: The jihad, the jihadists, the Salafi movement -- how is it organized?

A: It is not organized. We are astonished when we see, when we hear, when we read what the present American administration describes as Al Qaeda. For God's sake, they describe this as some kind of an Irish Republican Army except that, instead of being Catholics, they are Muslims.

And if you even see the official document, the "How to Fight Terrorists" White House document, you see there is the party line: A terrorist group is like a pyramid. You have the top and then the bottom, and you even have, in case one shouldn't understand, a drawing of a pyramid on page six of this document that was published in 2002 by the White House. It's on the White House Web site. It's the official document for combating terrorism. I don't remember the precise title. And it's a pyramid.

This is...1980s terrorism. It's the Red Army faction; it's the IRA; it's even Abu Nidal group in the Middle East. It has nothing to do with what terrorism is today. It's an idea of terrorism, a concept of terrorism that is old and outdated. It doesn't work this [way] anymore.

Now it's much more fuzzy. You don't have a central committee and a political bureau of Al Qaeda. This is stupid. It doesn't work this way. The only power in bin Laden is the power to issue fatwas, to give religious orders. Then the religious orders are followed around the world by people who believe that this is the right thing to do: "We should do it, and we will do it."

One should understand what really is jihad for a Muslim, for any Muslim in the world. It's a totally personal thing. what bin Laden says. He never gives orders. [He's] not a general; it's not an army. He says, "The good Muslim should understand that one should fight the infidels," and so on. "I am happy to see that some infidel has been hit in Casablanca," whatever. He never gives orders.

Jihad is a purely personal matter. You stop smoking; it's jihad. You start a diet; it's something that ... you force yourself to do. It's either a personal thing like refraining from smoking, as I said, or the greater jihad is fighting the infidels. But it's something personal.
In addition to citing the fact that 'Old Europe' has many millions of not entirely integrated Arab Muslims, and that young people join jihad like gangs in Europe, he adds:

[Iraq] is a huge problem for us because if today this president of the United States or a future president says: "OK, we've had it, we'll take the boys home and leave them do their thing" and the chaos spreads - you don't have any ground continuity between Iraq and the United States.

But if you drive a car today out of Iraq, and you drive it through Turkey, you can reach France within two or three days.
So, is the 'law enforcement' approach not grand enough? Not 'meta' enough? It doesn't qualify as an EZ 'vision thing'? This administration's 'grand strategy' reminds me of some American Libertarians, devoted as they are to the preservation of the Second Amendment's first clause, to the effective exclusion of the other Nine Amendments ('We need our weapons for when the black helicopters come for us,' all the while neglecting to take obvious steps to forestall the advent of a police state in the first place.) It's like a first baseman running for homeplate whenever the ball is hit to avoid a 'score.' Is greater freedom and opportunity in the Middle East a good idea? Of course it is. Is blowing off the rest of the world and attempting - ineptly, as it happens - to simply impose it at gunpoint, a good idea? I'd say not. Is it 'leadership' to simply tell everyone else what to do, take it or leave it? No. Does Rumsfeld 'negotiate with himself' or simply think rationally? You bet!

What's the most 'meta,' visionary approach of all? I submit that - in domestic or international politics - it's having the courage of our own convictions; being what we endlessly say we are; embodying - especially when tested - what we say we want to export. That means human rights, rule of law, official transparency, open debate, anti-racism, cosmopolitanism, tolerance, church and state separation, and war as a last resort. Yeah, that stuff. You can't fake it. A critical majority of Muslims around the world (among others) know more about our hypocrisy than we cop to - a double weakness for us. We must, by (involuntary and enormous) example, separate them from the violent, fanatical few rather than drive them into the arms of that few. Hard work!

Again, I hate to say something obvious, but: these are sentient, often very sophisticated, human beings. Yes, human beings, not unlike us. Perhaps if we begin to think of them that way - and not as humans in some provincial 'abstract' sense - we'll do better in this 'war.' If our way is better - in this conflict we didn't choose - we have to actually be better. Not a bad deal for us, potentially. We're handed the perfect excuse to not be neurotic and decadent - to slough it off, no questions asked. Let's face it: what was great about the 'greatest generation' was their not cowering. We cannot cower, too. It's voluntary, but worth it, I'd say.

[UPDATE: Just a note about the Iraqi election, while I still have the rich TIA terrazzo floor. Sunday was a day of strangely mixed emotions for a lot of people on the Left (I didn't read much of it, but I
gather). You'd have to have been a zombie to not feel moved at the sight of regular Iraqis, sometimes joyfully, voting for the first real time in many years, if not ever - double that for people who risked their lives to do it. I was. I was also proud of the Americans on the ground helping facilitate the vote. I wrote a post saying so. However, sensing right-wing 'triumphalism' in the offing, my post deteriorated into an inappropriate (but completely accurate) savaging of the Administration. Luckily, I thought better of posting it, but I still wondered why such extreme, sour vitriol came out of me at that moment. I now think I know why. America has an awfully short attention-span, and I didn't think it right for this election to 'close the book' on Iraq here in the Homeland. I still don't believe that the Administration should be let off the hook for their bafflingly bad postwar conduct (what Hitchens himself called 'almost criminal negligence' - exactly right, except for the 'almost'). However, not that it would've made the slightest difference to anyone, I'm glad I didn't allow it to be posted; Sunday belonged to the Iraqis, for a change.

The current, official 'anti-war' position is basically dead, though, because it's really 'anti-ante.' It's anti-war before the war. Nobody in their right mind hopes for anything but the best in Iraq now. Despite his rhetorical watusi-ing, Hitchens does
successfully make the limited point that Iraq doesn't really resemble Vietnam in pertinent ways. One thing that means is: being an 'anti' now is not identical to being an 'anti' in the Vietnam days. Forget the model, and deal with what's in front of you. We are in a world of trouble in Iraq, and we can't just walk away, for lots of people's sake. You can thank your President and his crappy party by hauling them out of office wholesale in the coming years. If we don't do that, then the jihadis are right, also by default - in spite of themselves: we ARE decadent and neurotic. There is no 'third way', or 'post-modernist' way. The NYC press/ad community tried, and limply succeeded, to make a 'product' out of 'the end of irony' after 9/11. But this really *is* the end of a certain kind of cheap irony. Contra Bush, I would choose to embrace the challenge. Ideologically, it's a gift.]

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