The Long View 2004-06-28: Disaffected Persons

Here is a good example of the things that John ended being very, very wrong about. First, in his criticism of Tom Friedman, John says:

The problem is not that the US exports fear. It's that the US has so far failed to rouse the thanatophilic international class from what may be a terminal coma.

It turned out that the international class became extremely enthusiastic about the War on Terror, and was willing to open new fronts worldwide. In part, this is because you could marry the transnational [John's term] or globalist [current term] agenda to exporting war under the rubric of human rights and free trade. It probably also helped that President Obama was a leader more to their tastes, although the Bush family business interests align them pretty strongly to globalism as well.

Also, John thought that Michael Moore's style of popular political documentary would flop. It turned to be quite successful, and widely imitated.


Disaffected Persons

Does today's unscheduled transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi Provisional Government seem a little on the low-key side? Yes it does, but it represents a commendable understanding on the part of the Iraqis and the US that they are in a war, which means that they have to react to events. Imagine the transfer taking place amidst brass bands and fireworks, but with a dozen police stations being attacked at the same time. Low-key was better

No doubt the police stations will blow up eventually, but now the explosions will not be part of a war of independence, but of an insurgency against a popular government. As I have remarked before, few images could have overcome the visual impact of the Abu Ghraib pictures, but Zarqawi seems to have done the trick with his televised beheadings and infomercials in which hostages plead for their lives. For the last generation in Iraq, political authority was gained by horrifying the opposition into submission. With a plausible alternative to hand, it is possible, even likely, that the tactic will fail this time, but that is by no means certain.

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For instance, it seems to have worked so well on Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that he is taking three months off to get a grip on himself. In a summer farewell column on June 27, he listed the following among the wish-list items he would like to see in the news while he is away:

Bush Administration Calls an End to the "War on Terrorism." No, I haven't taken leave of my senses on the way out the door. I realize that we have enemies and they need to be confronted. But I do not want this to be all that America is about in the world anymore, and that is what has happened under this administration. I don't want the rest of my career to be about an America that exports fear, not hope, and ends up importing everyone else's fears as a result. I don't want it to be about explaining to young Chinese why my government can't give them student visas anymore. I don't want it to be about visiting U.S. Embassies around the world and finding them so isolated behind barbed wire, they might as well not be there at all. Defeating "them" has begun to define "us" in too many ways.

One wonders what Friedman would say if President Bush issued a proclamation declaring that global warming had ended and calling on the nation to move on to things that Bush would prefer to talk about. The United States did not declare the Terror War; the jihadis did. The problem is not that the US exports fear. It's that the US has so far failed to rouse the thanatophilic international class from what may be a terminal coma. It is beyond the power of the United States to end the assault on the West, or at least to end it by declaration. That bit of reality seems too much for Friedman to bear. Certainly it is a bad sign when he tells us: "I'm taking a sabbatical to finish a book about geopolitics, called 'The World Is Flat.'

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In the same issue of the Times, we see a metaphysically more rarified version of Friedman's attitude in a piece by Michael Ignatieff, Mirage in the Desert. The article is a long wail by a liberal supporter of the war. He says that his human-rights arguments for the war were exploded by the Abu Ghraib scandal, which is false but plausible. However, he goes on to express his outrage that anything unexpected or even difficult happened in the course of the occupation. He reaches this conclusion:

The signal illusion from which America has to awake in Iraq and everywhere else is that it serves God's providence or (for those with more secular beliefs) that it is the engine of history. In Iraq, America is not the maker of history but its plaything. In the region at large, America is not the hegemon but the hesitant shaper of forces it barely understands.

Do you think? War and statecraft are always improvised. We work with imperfect information, and at least some results are always unexpected. Frankly, compared to occupied Japan and the trainwreck-that-was-Europe between 1945 and 1948, US reconstruction efforts in Iraq have been made with singular dispatch and success. The big difference from World War II is that the overthrow of the Baathist government was not the end of the Terror War, but only the beginning of a new phase. The Bush Administration never said otherwise.

For Ignatieff, the null hypothesis was American omnipotence; he experienced the shortfall from that standard as failure. In reality, if America were omnipotent, it would not need a defense policy at all. The fact is, though, the United States is vulnerable. Sometimes it has to act, even when success is uncertain, even when imperfectly prepared. As for the role of the US in history, it certainly is not the case that history is an American artifact. The US does have a special place in the world system, and that, I think, is real reason for the disaffection of the transnationalists.

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Yes, I did do other things on Sunday, June 27, desides read New York Times editorials, but permit me to note one more example of the Times confronting reality and defeating it. In this case, the Op Ed writer is Garry ("Two Rs") Willis, a disaffected Catholic who pretends to orthodoxy by reducing its substance to a nearly perfect vacuum. In The Bishops vs. the Bible he tells us:

Catholic bishops recently met and sought the best way to enforce "church teaching" with Catholic politicians who fail to oppose laws that allow abortion. Some critics of the bishops see this as a violation of the separation of church and state. Both sides are working from misconceptions. Abortion is not a church issue, so what the bishops have to say about it cannot be an intrusion of the church into state concerns. Abortion is, admittedly, a moral issue -- but not one that can be settled by theology or by religious authority.

One might argue that the natural-law arguments against abortion are unpersuasive. (Willis account of the scriptural arguments is unpersuasive, in the sense he does not state key evidence contrary to his position, but there's Willis for you.) Nonetheless, the prohibition of abortion is part of the Magisterium. That is the Catholic position. You really don't get to make this stuff up.

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And on the subject of making things up, one notes this:

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" took in a whopping $21.8 million in its first three days, becoming the first documentary ever to debut as Hollywood's top weekend film.

That is pretty whopping for a documentary, however tendentious. Let me make two predictions:

First, very soon we will see, not just bootlegged copies of the film, but versions in which the sound track has been modified to better reflect the political views of the bootlegger.

Second, real producers will now start to greenlight activist political documentaries. All of them will flop. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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