The Long View 2003-08-13: The Battle of Ideas

Unfortunately for John, the equivalent of Stinger missiles in Soviet Afghanistan turned out to be cellphone IEDs.

The Battle of Ideas

A frontpage story in today's New York Times, Rising Tide of Islamic Militants See Iraq as Ultimate Battlefield has a quote from an Islamist leader that gives a lucid explanation for what the Terror War is about:

"The resistance is not only a reaction to the American invasion, it is part of the continuous Islamic struggle since the collapse of the caliphate," he said. "All Islamic struggles since then are part of one organized effort to bring back the caliphate."

Ansar al-Islam is the faction of the Islamist movement that the late Baathist regime in Baghdad cultivated, despite the tensions between Islamism and Baathism's own Arab nationalism. The reasons the mullah gives for attacking US troops in Iraq are exactly those that other Islamists gave throughout the 1990s for the attacks on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, on two US embassies in East Africa, on the the USS Cole, and, a little later, for 911. To the extent this offensive of more than a decade can be said to be a reaction to anything the United States did, it is a reaction to President Reagan's withdrawal from Lebanon in 1983 and President Clinton's from Somalia in 1993. Arguably, the US should not have been in either place to begin with, but the rapid departure after taking casualties fed the conviction in the Middle East that the US is easy to exhaust. The US is still taking casualties: now military rather than civilian, at least for the present.

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As C. S. Lewis once remarked, there is wishful thinking even in Hell, so we need not take seriously Mullah Kreikar's analogy of Iraq to Soviet Afghanistan. Most Iraqis have a vested interest in the Coalition remaining for a year or two. The parts of the country that lend themselves to guerrilla activity are not the areas where the population is likely to be hostile. There is little prospect of a technological fix for the insurgents, as US Stinger missiles were against Soviet helicopters. The list of differences could be lengthened. However, the outcome of the war in Iraq, as of the Terror War in toto, depends on a similarity: whether the people see the future being offered them as desirable, or at least tolerable.

American confidence on this score is so great that it is rarely even questioned. Consider this assessment by Philip Zelikow, made on the Jim Lehrer News Hour on August 8:

But on the plus side, since we are all being very downbeat about this, let's just notice that in late 1940s, we were competing against a major ideology that had taken power in much of Eurasia, was about to seize power in all of China and had enormous appeal in large parts of the world. Here we are in a struggle of ideas against the foe who says their goal is to recreate a caliphate through blood and fire. If that's the battle of ideas, I think that we are in a good position to win that.

To this I would say that, if the contest is between the Caliphate and the Federalist Papers, we have little to worry about. On the other hand, if the contest is between the Caliphate and The Sopranos or Sex in the City, I am not at all sure that the Caliphate may not have the greater appeal. The problem is not simply anti-moral popular culture, but the collapse in elite morale that made the popular culture possible. The clothes, music, architecture, even the religions of Western countries can be exported on their merits. However, a political culture that embraces the reasoning of Lawrence v. Texas cannot be exported except at bayonet point.

I was thinking about the Culture War dimension to the Terror War when I came across an executive order recently signed by President Bush. It exempts Iraqi oil from being claimed by the long list of private parties who say the Baathist government did them wrong, and who are now trying to use the US federal courts to attach every thing in Iraq through private litigation. This is, perhaps, an extreme step by the president, but one made necessary by the extreme decay of the principle of sovereign immunity.

A decision by the Supreme Court abolishing marriage (which is what the gay-marriage campaign is about), or finding a right to suicide, would be as embarrassing to the US in most of the world as the Jim Crow laws in the South were. We have some hint of this already in the way that most of the Anglican Communion is reacting to the election of Bishop Robinson by the Episcopal Church in America. If that is what "human rights" come to mean, most of the human race will reject them, along with the political system that produced them. Ought there to be some mechanism, available to the president or Congress or both, to suspend some Supreme Court decisions as a matter of national security?

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Speaking of improbable mechanisms, I got very excited for four or five minutes by this story in Wired about antigravity lifters you can make from spare bits of wire and a DC transformer. I had not known there is an "Antigravity Underground." I am pleased to make its acquaintance.

The story had resonance for me, because I had a small, hand-cranked, electrostatic generator as a kid. I used to make objects move with the same sort of ion flow that explains the "antigravity" effect that has so excited members of the underground. Even as a twelve year old, I realized that gravity had nothing to do with it, but there is something to be said for any machine that makes small lightening bolts and fills the room with ozone.

By the way, "antigravity" is an awkward coinage, especially if by it you mean a force other than gravity. There is an obvious alternative, from Aristotle's physics: levity, the tendency of objects to rise to their proper place in the scheme of things, as gravity is the tendency to descend.

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Entertaining though the gubernatorial recall-election in California may be, the whole thing may yet be cancelled. George Will offers this alternative scenario:

However, if in a few weeks Davis seems a certain loser, muscular Democratic interests, none of which are tied to him by cords of affection, might successfully pressure him to resign. Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is a candidate to succeed him, would become governor, the recall would deflate and the Democratic Party's condign punishment probably would be to continue wrestling with the problems it has created or exacerbated.

A recall campaign might then be launched against Governor Bustamante, of course. But no: that way madness lies.

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On the subject of alternative scenarios, you might want to take a look at the new Alternative History webzine, Changing the Times. They just asked to use a couple of items from my site, but they also have material of merit.

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Finally, regarding alternatives, Amazon has finally been good enough to enter The Perfection of the West into its list, if anyone prefers to buy through a familiar vendor. (Barnes & Noble, has it too, of course.)

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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