Rumsfeld thinks he's Winston Churchill, but he's really Captain Ahab, and the "Islamo-fascists" are his Moby Dick. He wants us to believe that we're in a titanic Manichean struggle with the forces of evil embodied by people like Ahmadinejad. His American Legion speech the other night is nutty on so many levels, I don't even know where to begin. But what I find most interesting about this whole right-wing Islamo-fascist meme is that it's another example about how the hardliner right, whether consciously or unconsciously, projects its own motivations on those it perceives as its enemies. This from his speech to the American Legion Tuesday night:
That year -- 1919 -- turned out to be one of the pivotal junctures in modern history with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the creation of the League of Nations, a treaty and an organization intended to make future wars unnecessary and obsolete. Indeed, 1919 was the beginning of a period where, over time, a very different set of views would come to dominate public discourse and thinking in the West.
Over the next decades, a sentiment took root that contended that if only the growing threats that had begun to emerge in Europe and Asia could be accommodated, then the carnage and the destruction of then-recent memory of World War I could be avoided.
It was a time when a certain amount of cynicism and moral confusion set in among Western democracies. When those who warned about a coming crisis, the rise of fascism and Nazism, they were ridiculed or ignored. Indeed, in the decades before World War II, a great many argued that the fascist threat was exaggerated or that it was someone else's problem. Some nations tried to negotiate a separate peace, even as the enemy made its deadly ambitions crystal clear. It was, as Winston Churchill observed, a bit like feeding a crocodile, hoping it would eat you last.
There was a strange innocence about the world. Someone recently recalled one U.S. senator's reaction in September of 1939 upon hearing that Hitler had invaded Poland to start World War II. He exclaimed:
“Lord, if only I had talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided!”
I recount that history because once again we face similar challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism. Today -- another enemy, a different kind of enemy -- has made clear its intentions with attacks in places like New York and Washington, D.C., Bali, London, Madrid, Moscow and so many other places. But some seem not to have learned history's lessons.
We need to consider the following questions, I would submit:
- With the growing lethality and the increasing availability of weapons, can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?
- Can folks really continue to think that free countries can negotiate a separate peace with terrorists?
- Can we afford the luxury of pretending that the threats today are simply law enforcement problems, like robbing a bank or stealing a car; rather than threats of a fundamentally different nature requiring fundamentally different approaches?
- And can we really afford to return to the destructive view that America, not the enemy, but America, is the source of the world's troubles?
These are central questions of our time, and we must face them and face them honestly.
For this nonsense he gets a standing ovation. I won't even go near the absurdity of the historical analogy and the straw-man argument he makes, but let's get some perspective here. If the proverbial Martian came down to earth on a fact-finding mission and was given an objective account of the last 2500 years of world politics with all its wars and intrigues, what is the pattern that he would see? Those nations which have power use it to dominate weaker nations. The aggressors use their power to achieve their interests, usually more wealth and more power. The defenders, because of their power disadvantage, will use any trick in the book to try and outwit and outmaneuver the aggressor. Their survival depends on it.
This same Martian would learn about all the noble justifications the leaders of the aggressive powers--from Alexander to Napoleon to Hitler--and observe how eager their own people were to believe them and how those justifications never seemed to be accepted by those they sought to dominate. Patriotism is strange that way. There is this tendency among the weak to feel just as patriotic as the strong, and to fight for their country no matter who's ruling it.
And then this Martian would look at the current situation in the Middle East, let's say this most recent confrontation with Iran. And then if asked which country goes in the powerful aggressor column and which in the weak defender column, in which column would he be likely to put the Americans, and in which the Iranians? It's obvious. Obvious to everybody except Americans. Americans always think they are the exceptions to the rule. Americans just want everyone to enjoy freedom and democracy. Everybody knows that. That is to say, everybody who knows nothing about American history knows that.
To listen to Rumsfeld, you would think the U.S. was the poor, innocent victim here. But who has the more legitimate reason to think it must defend itself against aggression? Did any Iranian ever engineer a coup to have a democratically elected leader removed as the U.S. had Mossadegh removed? Are there Iranian armies lined up on U.S. borders? Do Americans have anything to fear from their airforce or their ICBMs?
I'm not for a nuclear Iran. I don't want to see any more proliferation, but if we're honest, we have to see why Iranians feel a need to have one, and it's ridiculous to think that they would use it in a first strike for the same reason that no one else ever has. They know they would be obliterated in a retaliatory strike if they did so. But if you have a nuclear bomb, people tend to leave you alone. If you were a reasonable, moderate Iranian, wouldn't the U.S. threat make you want a nuclear bomb to defend yourself against it? Wouldn't American aggression push you to embrace the hardliners rather than the moderates?
"Oh," Americans say to themselves, "after 9/11 everything has changed." We Americans are the victims now, and we have the right to force the world to bend to our will. We have the right now to dictate what is in the world's best interests. As we have treated Latin America for almost two hundred years, now we think we have the right to treat the Middle East. We're the good guys. These beknighted Muslims, these haters of freedom, must be forced to do what we know is in their best interest, because whatever is in the best interest of the U.S. is in the world's best interest. It's global trickle down.
Why are we really there? Why do we care about the Middle East in a way that we don't care about Africa? Why is our being there worth the cost to us? What do we really want there? Does anybody really believe that if we withdrew our troops from the Middle East and let the countries there work their way into the modern world on their own that we would ever again be attacked by terrorists? Why would they care to? What other motivations do they really have to hate us except our own history of aggressive behavior in the region? Doesn't it underline the point that what Islamic extremists are doing is motivated primarily by what is in their minds defensive--a desire to repel the invader? If we were they, would we not feel the same way? I know it's complicated, but the point is that we look at everyone else as aggressors and don't see how our own bullying incites those we push around to push back.
What is the U.S motivation? Why are we willing to invest this much blood and treasure in this region? Do you really think the official explanations account for it? If you're inclined to accept the official justifications, ask yourself if it even begins to make sense. This has very little to do with terrorists or in bringing democracy to the heathen--they are second- or third-tier issues. It would not be worth the cost to us to do that. It has mainly to do with establishing American hegemony now that the Russian sphere of influence in the region has collapsed. It has mainly to do with our seeking economic and geopolitical power advantages.
I think the argument could be made that after dropping the bomb on Japan, we've proved that we're just like everyone else now. I don't want to think so, but if you look at it dispassionately, it's hard to refute. We haven't incinerated millions of Jews, but we did incinerate hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Is the moral difference only one of scale--their millions to our hundreds of thousands? Was it morally less grisly because we did it from an airlplane rather than herding them into the ovens? Does it lie in the fact that although we herded Japanese American citizens into concentration camps, we didn't gas them?
There is a difference, but it's not so big as we'd like to think. How would the Martian look at it? Would he look at the way we wiped out the American Indian and treated African slaves and see this wonderfully morally superior nation? Would he see such a huge difference between us and everyone else as we automatically assume? My point here is not to beat up the American character, but to point out that it is a huge mistake to think we have any reason to believe we are incapable of the kind of atrocities we always accuse others of committing. By this time we should know better. We have a duty to guard against the tendency in the American character, particularly on the harliner right, that lead us to do horrible things.
For me the difference lies in the fact that while we Americans allow the right-wing hardliners have their day, we still haven't given them carte blanche. Although we are guilty of terrible crimes, we still have had the ability to rein in this worst element in our national character. That's what sets us apart. The countries that lose their moral compass are the ones which when they feel angry or fearful, give carte blanche to the hardliner, militarist right factions in their society. When we've done it in the past, they were not a proud moments. Nevertheless, we've always found a way to recognize our error and change course. That's what we're called upon to do now.
I suppose there is still reason for hope that we can get hold of our fear and anger, to recognize that these demagogues are playing us for Pavlovian idiots, and to put somebody with more sense into power. But the fact is that the bloody-minded hardliners are in control now, and Rumsfeld exemplifies the type. When people like him are directing policy, American policy is not impelled by any fundamentally different motivation than that which impelled aggressors in the past. We're playing by the same rules that the powerful have always played by: The powerful dictate, everyone else submits. The Japanese would not submit, so we used disproportionate force to make them do so. Rumsfeld's Islamo-fascists will not submit, so we are threatening likewise to make them do so. It's complex in the details, but pretty simple at the fundamental level of motivation.
And so long as we have the power, the mentality of leaders like Rumsfeld make them feel compelled to use it for fear of losing it. Losing power and prestige is the worst possible outcome, and the the failure of his policies in the Middle East I suspect is a humiliation he is psychologically incapable of facing. So the only alternative is to up the ante, and to expand the aggression. That's what's so disturbing about what's going on in the Middle East right now. We have people who are truly not in their right mind with their finger on the trigger. I'm not saying that America has no role to play in the Middle East, but better we do nothing than let people like Rumsfeld direct our activities there.
Update: When it comes to appeasement, I guess it takes one to know one. Some good links here.