March 14, 2012 | National Review Online

Re: Let Syria Be

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Andy and I have moved from a narrow discussion of Syria to the broader issues that ought to be driving our national foreign-policy debate. That they do so very rarely is further testament to the importance of Andy’s efforts to focus our minds before we are led up the steps to the executioner.

He’s so right when, speaking of freedom, he says:

I do not think he accounts for the principal freedom dynamic in the equation: the fact that we are losing ours, and losing it precisely because of the same deranged U.S. policymakers who would be responsible for, as Michael puts it, “shap[ing] the ideological outlook and future behavior” of Syria once we’ve helped the Muslim Brotherhood oust Assad.

Agreed, and while we’re on this unpleasant subject, let’s note that the Obama administration has found it easier to support regime change at the expense of friends of America — in Egypt and Tunisia — than of our enemies in Syria and Iran. These people — he diplomatically describes them as “deranged” — are no friends of a “freedom agenda.” They have a preference for tyrants, as Fouad Ajami has put it.

One other clarification: I’m not an unfettered optimist about the power of freedom to defeat tyranny and evil cultures. I’m rooting for it, and, when I was in government, I fought for it, but I certainly don’t think it happens automatically, or even that the odds are in its favor. It takes a fight, most of the time a long, tough fight (although democratic revolutions typically surprise us all when they happen). I’m an historian of the modern world, after all, and I’ve mostly studied tyrannical mass movements — Communism and fascism, above all — whose followers were indoctrinated with messianic ideologies, just as the jihadis nowadays. I know in detail that such movements are often very successful — there wasn’t much in the way of internal opposition to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, or Mao. The German, Russian, Italian, and Chinese peoples were quite enthusiastic about the evil men and evil systems that ruled them. Therefore, I break ranks with those who believe that the desire for freedom is universal and paramount. We humans are quite capable of embracing tyranny and other evils. It seems to come quite naturally, in fact.

Nonetheless, freedom has its moments. The late 18th century saw revolutionary democratic movements in every civilized country in the world. One of my favorite historians, R. R. Palmer, wrote a superb 2-volume study of it called “The Age of the Democratic Revolution.” There was another surge during the Reagan/Thatcher/John Paul II years, and perhaps we are in another one now. I’d be more optimistic if there were great leaders in the West, but there are obviously not.

So now to Andy’s basic complaint, which has to do with the relationship between ideology and action (one of my favorite subjects). He thinks I don’t see this clearly enough, and if he says that, it means at a minimum that I haven’t been very good at explaining myself. Because I have always insisted on the great importance of ideas, great and small, in human history. My dear professor George Mosse would bellow from his grave if he thought I’d left the ranks of cultural historians.

Andy takes my point that Iran is the keystone of the anti-Western alliance, and then moves on to my “blind spot”:

Yet not all of our enemies are allied, the alliances that exist are not permanent, and the glue of those alliances is not Iran. Our enemies align because of a shared belief that Islam commands them to fight us — something that would not disappear with Iran’s defeat. Iran is not the reason the United States is despised in the region, including in places where Iran is also despised. Iran is not the reason Afghan trainees shoot their American mentors. The reason is the interpretation of Islam predominant in the Middle East.

In order:

  • It’s really amazing to see how many of our enemies are allied, whether religious or secular, east or West, north or south. More on this shortly.
  • Certainly, no alliances are permanent. Ask the shah of Iran, for example, or Hosni Mubarak, or Baby Doc.
  • Some of our enemies share a conviction that Islam commands them to fight, but Hugo Chavez, who is a very important ally of the Iranians, doesn’t believe that, nor does Vladimir Putin. We’re facing something bigger than an alliance based on radical Islam.
  • This is not (yet) the place to answer the question about the full picture of the enemy alliance, but I’ll give you a hint. Hannah Arendt’s nose was extremely accurate when she wrote about “Totalitarianism.”
  • I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that Iran is “the reason” (or even the main reason) people despise us, or kill us. Iran recruits them, trains them, pays them, and organizes them against us more than any other state. That is why, in order to win this war, we have to defeat the regime in Tehran.

Brief digression: In the Cold War, we constantly debated the nature of our enemy. Was it a traditional nation-state, or a multiethnic empire, or a vast international movement driven by Communist doctrine? I still don’t know the answer, or even if there’s an answer. But I do know that Communism-the-ideology was gravely weakened when the Soviet empire imploded.

Back to the sermon: Hegel was right when he said that ideas and “reality” are intimately connected. Ideas gain power when their believers triumph, and they lose power when the reverse takes place (ask Obama: Elections matter. Winners dictate rules, etc. etc). Religion is part of that dialectic. And here’s what I think is Andy’s blind spot: It’s not all about Islam, any more than it’s all about Iran. Of course Islam is important, very important. It provides the language in which the jihadis express themselves. But that language is subject to change. In both directions. There weren’t as many jihadis a generation ago as there are today. Why? Not, in my opinion, because of the persuasive powers of jihadi imams and sheikhs. Rather, because the new followers were persuaded that jihad was going to win, and, because they feared for their safety if they didn’t convert to jihadism.

If the jihadis lose, their doctrines become less attractive; they pass into history as failed revelations. If they win, the mass movement becomes more massive, discouraging its enemies as well as inspiring its faithful. Which is why it’s so important to defeat them. Above all, in Iran and in Syria, where the Iranians have sent their best killers to slaughter the Syrians in the streets. That slaughter isn’t part of religious disputes, although both sides will often use religious language. People’s beliefs all over the region will be greatly influenced by who wins, and who loses, in Syria, and in Iran, where the regime executes critics for “religious crimes,” and the critics often use the language of Western freedoms and rights. So do many Syrians.

Yes, it is quite true, as Andy says, that the jihadis have won a lot of the Middle Eastern power struggles. Yes, that’s a very bad thing. Yes, they are moving into the West, trying to impose their evil doctrines on us. All true, and all brilliantly discussed in Andy’s wonderful best-sellers. Was their advance inevitable? I don’t think so. If we’d contested the outcome — and I’m totally with Andy on the importance of going after the noxious doctrines that “justify” jihad — things might have worked out better for us and for the people in those unfortunate lands. Is further jihadi advance inevitable? Hell no. We can win. But marching piously away from the Syrian and Iranian opposition isn’t the way to smash the jihadis.

We can’t get out of this war. We can win, or lose, but our enemies won’t let us escape the battlefield. We’re the Great Satan, after all, the main enemy. At the moment we’re not fighting seriously (a few assassinations do not a global war make), and I don’t think abandoning Syria and Iran is the way to make things better.