April 20, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Muscular Idealism

You can't fight terrorism without fighting terrorists. You have to eliminate both those who load cars with explosives and those who tell them where to go and whom to kill. Most people grasp this concept.

Neither can you fight terrorism without fighting the ideas that inspire young men (and women) to choose to end their lives in spectacular acts of mass murder. This concept baffles some people.

Start on the left, with Michael Kinsley, currently the editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times. Kinsley is outraged that President Bush, after 9/11, changed his mind about the advisability of promoting freedom, democracy and human rights in corners of the world that have long endured tyranny. If Bush supports democratic reform, then Kinsley and his friends on the left feel obliged to oppose it.

In so doing, they have joined with the “paleo-conservatives” on the right led by Pat Buchanan. For him, it is the apogee of naivety to suppose that liberty can blossom in the arid Muslim landscape. Besides, Buchanan says, Americans have brought terrorism on themselves through interventionist policies. “What happened on 9/11 was a result of interventionism,” he argues. “Interventionism is the cause of terror.” 

That's an astonishing conclusion. The atrocities of 9/11 were orchestrated by Mohammed Atta, an Egyptian. How, before 9/11, did Washington intervene in Egypt's affairs — except to give Egypt billions of dollars, re-supply its military, and turn a blind eye to President Hosni Mubarak's repression of dissidents?

Atta followed orders from Osama bin Laden, a Saudi. For more than fifty years, American “interventionism” in Saudi Arabia consisted of paying the kingdom astronomical sums in oil revenue, granting Saudis unprecedented privileges (for example, empowering Wahhabis to vet Muslim chaplains for our military and our prisons) and, in 1990, sending American soldiers, at the request of the Saudis, to protect them from being invaded by Saddam Hussein. 

Or maybe Buchanan was thinking about our intervention in Somalia – the only goal of which was to feed starving people. Or our intervention in Afghanistan to support guerrillas fighting the Soviet invader. We also intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo – to save Muslims from further devastation at the hands of their Christian neighbors. 

Clearly, it is not “interventionism” that has spawned anti-American terrorism. What is it then? Listen to our enemies. They've told us — over and over.

Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual godfather of many of today's radical Islamists, rejected not interventionism but American-style democracy. As a student in the United States in the late 1940s, he saw the freedoms we cherish – and was disgusted by them. “Democracy, as a form of government is already bankrupt in the West.” He wrote. “Why should it be imported to the Middle East?” 

Bin Laden similarly reviles the United States as a nation that refuses to submit to “the law of Allah.” You Americans, he has said, “chose to implement your own inferior rules and regulations, thus following your own vain whims and desire.” 

Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, also has condemned democratic institutions as “un-Islamic.” “We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it,” Zarqawi said in an audiotape released just before Iraq's Jan. 30 parliamentary vote. “Candidates in elections are seeking to become demigods, while those who vote for them are infidels.” 

The point is not just that radical Islamists despise us for reasons that no shift in foreign policy, no attempt at compromise or gesture of appeasement, could address. The point also is that our enemies recognize that our fundamental values are a threat to theirs. Our ideas are, as Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put it, “seductive.” Those who embrace liberty will not support Islamist supremacism and totalitarianism. 

And what is the alternative to promoting our values? Too many of us, observes military historian Victor Davis Hanson, have forgotten that “the messy business” of encouraging freedom and democracy “was the successor, not the precursor, to a litany of other failed prescriptions” for treating the diseases afflicting Arab and Muslim nations.

September 11, Hanson adds, “was the wage of decades of American appeasement and neglect — a pathological Middle East left alone to blame others for its own self-induced mess.” 

Since September 11, America has been trying something new, testing whether ideas such as self-rule and tolerance may be more inspiring than the poisonous brew of Islamism, fascism and terrorism that bin Laden and his ilk offer.

To Buchanan and Kinsley alike this is “neo-conservatism” and they want none of it. Hanson suggests a more accurate name: “Muscular idealism.”

Muscular idealism does not imply imposing freedom and democratization. Instead, it proposes at long last extending support to those fighting, suffering and dying for ideals we share – even if they happen to be Arabs or Muslims. They – not their oppressors – are our allies.

Military people understand that it takes force to defeat a violent and determined enemy. “Ideas people” understand that it takes good ideas to beat bad ideas. Yet Kinsley on the left and Buchanan on the right argue, in effect, that in the War of Ideas, America should unilaterally disarm.

What an odd position. And, by the way, what an odd alliance.

– Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



Al Qaeda Egypt