The Long View 2007-02-16: 911 & the Failure of Imagination; Warmed-Over Cold War; The Fate of the Unworthy

2007 was about the point when even John J. Reilly started to get tired of the administration of President George W. Bush.


911 & the Failure of Imagination; Warmed-Over Cold War; The Fate of the Unworthy

There is more than one history of the world, as John Crowley never tires of reminding his readers. This comes through very strongly in an excellent review by James Meek in The London Review of Books of The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida’s Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The book was published last year. I have not read it, but apparently I should have. Anyone interested can order it here. This is how the review ends:

Long before [911], the US intelligence establishment (together with the British) deafened itself to revolutionary Islam’s loud message that it intended to change the world. Two prevailing narratives – of the West v. Soviet Communism, and of Israel v. the Arab world – overwhelmed understanding of another emerging one, in which most of Europe and most of America, together with the Soviet bloc and the secular intelligentsia of developing countries, were on the same side. Although this is not what it explicitly sets out to do, Wright’s book supports the conclusion that the direct struggle between revolutionary, counter-Enlightenment Islam and the post-Enlightenment world began some time before the Cold War ended – specifically, in 1979. That was the year of Iran’s revolution, in which, significantly, Islamic revolutionaries overcame not only the pro-American Shah but also their leftist counterparts; the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to protect its leftist regime against Islamic rebels; and the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, was seized by a band of Islamic fundamentalists. It took Saudi forces more than two weeks to overcome the four to five hundred insurgents involved, who had demanded that Saudi Arabia isolate itself culturally and politically from the West, remove the royal family, expel all Westerners and stop selling oil to the US. Before the battle ended, women among the insurgents shot the faces off their dead male comrades to stop them being recognised. It was the first fortnight of the new Islamic year, the year 1400, the dawn of Islam’s 15th century. The rest of the world was still operating according to a different calendar.

Actually, an Arabist explained to me the significance of 1400 AH well before 911, as well as the fact that century years are often felt to be pregnant with meaning in Islamic culture in a way that Christian century-years typically have not been. My recollection is that I then turned the discussion to the eschatology of Tim McVeigh.

What I gather from this review is that the proposals for disengagement and accommodation made by people as different as Patrick Buchanan and Michael Scheuer are not so much misguided as irrelevant. Surrender is impossible, not because the terms would be so onerous, but because they are incomprehensible.

* * *

More than one old Cold Warrior felt rejuvenated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent performance at the Wehrkunde (Defense Study) Conference in Munich, an annual event for NATO diplomats to which the Russian president had been invited as a further step in the integration of Europe. Tod Lindberg of The Washington Times has this account of what Putin actually accomplished:

He clearly relished the platform, and with a little prelude in which he said he welcomed the opportunity to speak without "excessive politeness," he launched zestily into a denunciation of the United States and the Atlantic alliance... by the time he finished, an audience that was largely prepared, [despite] misgivings [about civil liberties in Russia], to welcome him warmly and to embrace his unprecedented accession to participation in the Western security dialogue was instead knocked back and reeling....[it] brought a troubled partnership back together, not in opposition to him, but in support of common values that he quite flamboyantly doesn't share.

The Realist School of foreign policy is composed of people who yearn for diplomacy to be about ordinary big-power deterence again; they want the UN to be taken seriously as the chief public forum (though not the ultimate arbiter) of international disputes; they never want to hear the terms "religion" and "geopolitics" in the same sentence again. The Realists are not delusional; there really are aspects of the international system that can still be thought of in this way. Events like the Wehrkunde Conference must give them hope that reality is reasserting itself. I fear, though, that the conference may have been rather like the funeral of Edward VII in 1910: a fine display of monarchy at the last moment before the institution was revealed to be an anachronism.

* * *

Speaking of anachronisms, Mark Steyn might agree with the view that the American political class has joined their number:

[Hugh Hewitt]:...Let’s turn to the debate in Congress. First of all, the news this afternoon, Mark Steyn, is that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq was wounded, his name is Abu Ayub al-Masri, and his second in command, Abu Adawa al-Majahami was killed today. Muqtada al Sadr has bugged out to Iran, and the security situation in Baghdad appears to be calming.

[Mark Steyn]: Well you know, this is the stuff that matters if you’re in Iraq. The President gets no credit for it over here, because the war has in effect departed the physical constraints of Iraq, and is essentially now being waged for political considerations in Washington. And no news is good news, and sadder news is badder news, basically. I mean, the New York Times had this ludicrous piece yesterday arguing that the departure of Muqtada al Sadr for Iran could leave a power vacuum in Iraq that would be filled by even more extreme forces.

As I have said before, no outcome in Iraq will be counted as a success by the mainstream media and elements of the political class if the Bush Administration would get the credit for it. If the situation in Iraq finally crystalizes in a positive way, the issue will be methodically forgotten.

In any case, Steyn has further harsh words: :

This is simply a political class that is unworthy of a serious power. And it is difficult to see how this idea of discussing Iraq as if it’s some kind of board game about…it’s like the McGuffin in a Hitchcock movie, it’s merely the pretext for a lot of domestic political positioning. It’s not. It’s a real country, and it’s a real war, and it ought to be discussed in those terms.

If they are unworthy of it, then they will lose it. Already, I think, they have jumped the shark. The problem is that President Bush jumped the shark long since, with the attempted appointment of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. He will not benefit from Congress's impending discomfiture, or even from his government's increasingly effective diplomacy.

I would not have thought it possible, but the late Bush Administration is starting to look like the crepuscular last two years of the Hoover Administration.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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