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Holmes v. Berman


While Paul Krugman has turned out to be very effective, I’ve always thought the academic who could be a really exceptional op-ed columnist (or blogger, for that matter) is Stephen Holmes. In addition to his theory scholarship, he’s written a less specialized book (with Cass Sunstein) called The Cost of Rights, which is excellent, very convincingly making the point that the distinction between “negative” and “positive” liberty is inevitably blurred in practice because upholding individual liberties requires a significant amount of state intervention (and, hence, taxation.) In his theoretical work, however, his command of rhetoric and exceptional polemic abilities carry some predictable costs. The Anatomy of Antiliberalism is a good book, but also less than the sum of its parts; he has a lot of devastating critiques of individual theorists–the demolition of Christopher Lasch, in particular, is a treasure–but fails to convincingly make his case that Strauss, de Maistre, Schmitt, MacIntyre et al. share a common intellectual tradition (apart from being reactionary antiliberals.) But there’s no writer I’d rather see turned on contemporary American conservatism on a regular basis.

In early 2003, Homes wrote a superb decimation of Robert Kagan’s much-discussed but very silly Americans Drive Like This, But Europeans Drive Like This. As Holmes pointed out, Kagan’s argument fails in numerous ways, but most importantly by taking into account the ways in which having low military capacity may cause states to underestimate military threats, while ignoring the ways in which having high military capacity causes states to overestimate military threats. Of course, with respect to Iraq the European evaluation of the threat posed by Iraq was far more accurate. In addition, there’s Kagan’s dismissal of non-military means of combating terrorism is far “less realistic” than the European recognition that police work is a crucial component to stopping terrorism.

Now, Holmes has trained his sights on liberal hawks, and produced an even better review essay. While Paul Berman is a more sophisticated thinker than Kagan, the number of fallacies he shares with him are remarkable, and Holmes elucidates them in painstaking detail. Berman’s central argument–like Kagan’s–is that terrorism poses a threat of essentially the same type as fascism and communism, and therefore like security threats from powerful nation-states requires an emphasis on traditional military power. The entire essay demands to be read, but here are a some of the reasons why Berman’s argument fails:

His analogies, first of all, are tendentious to an extreme. Islamist murderousness resembles Bolshevik and Nazi murderousness. The planetary battle against terrorism (World War IV) resembles the planetary battle against communism. Baath dictatorship resembles Islamic militancy. The problem with such comparisons is not only that they are strained. They are also transparently calculated to serve a partisan political program. Analogies that challenge the Bush Administration (such as Palestinian violence and anticolonial violence) are filtered out, not because they are unrevealing but because they introduce a dissonant note.

Take, for instance, Berman’s peculiar claim that “on the plane of anti-American propaganda, the Iraqi Baath and Al Qaeda were already allied” because Saddam’s press had celebrated the September 11 attacks. The nature of this purported alliance between religious insurgents and a secular oppressor is never explained. In other passages, moreover, Berman concedes that Islamic radicalism has arisen in opposition to authoritarian secular regimes. But he is much less interested in possible causal connections between the two than in their metaphysical identity. His false moral clarity rests entirely on his assertion that spiritually they are one and the same. The Administration’s attempts to associate Iraq and Al Qaeda logistically came to naught. Berman’s cultural and philosophical approach, by contrast, raises the identification of Saddam and Osama, the tyrant and the terrorist, to a level of blurry abstraction that no facts can possibly refute.

A second weakness appears in Berman’s repeated assertion that antiwar liberals are naive optimists, oblivious to the deep roots of irrational violence in human nature and therefore unable to take the true measure of our fanatical enemies. But should someone who speculated that an American invasion of Iraq would force Islamic extremists to give up their paranoid conspiracy theories about the Jews accuse others of facile optimism? He classifies Saddam’s Iraq as “totalitarian” because “there was no sign of democratic opposition at all.” But did this absence not suggest that an occupying army would find no well-organized constituencies for a reconstruction of Iraqi politics along liberal lines? What kind of political system did Berman imagine would emerge in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam? Was it going to be a democracy, namely a system in which a well-organized incumbent party loses elections to a well-organized opposition party and voluntarily leaves office knowing that it will not be harmed once out of power? Is that what he, with his understanding of human irrationality, expected for Iraq?

And how good a job does Berman himself do at identifying and understanding the gravest threats to American national security? Here lies the third flaw in Berman’s framework. He uncritically endorses Bush’s repeated claim that 9/11 was not a crime of mass murder but rather an act of war against America. Putting his own thoughts, as he often does, in the mouth of his subject, he writes: “Fischer rejected the policeman’s view of Islamist terror–the idea that, with a handful of well-chosen arrests or the dismantling of a small number of underground cells, the problem could be solved.” Terrorism is not a police problem, because policemen cannot redraw the political map of the Middle East, spread freedom or compel extremists to abandon their extremism. Only soldiers, apparently, can do these things.

We are dealing, admittedly, with off-the-shelf categories, since neither the war paradigm nor the crime paradigm fits perfectly the battle against transnational Islamic terrorism, which involves political violence by nonstate actors. But Berman, like Bush, prefers the war model to the crime model, because the former seems to signal a more serious approach, a willingness to send young men to die in large numbers, for example.

But this suggestion of greater realism and seriousness is deceptive. The war paradigm, besides inflating all too conveniently the unsupervised powers of the executive branch, assumes that America’s unrivaled military superiority guarantees its success in the current struggle. It suggests that our enemy will eventually surrender and that we will be able to put the nightmare behind us. The crime paradigm has less rosy implications. It assumes that our government can no more stop the importing of a nuclear weapon into a major urban center than it can stop the clandestine flow of contraband drugs. That is to say, the crime paradigm, when applied to terrorism, has chilling implications precisely because it denies that “the problem could be solved.” To turn from the crime paradigm to the war paradigm, therefore, does not bespeak a greater willingness to face the enemy. On the contrary, it is a classic case of sticking one’s head in the sand (of Iraq). [My emphasis]

All quite correct. Another very important point is Berman’s elision of the role of religion in terrorism (which is related to his incomprehensible claim that “jihadi suicide” is “the height of modernity.”) In addtion to being coniveient to his current Republican allies, this also allows him to further avoid thinking about the tensions between secular authoritarianism and Islamic terrorism, in ways that are quite crucial to defending the Iraq War. Given the fact that Iraq posed no direct threat whatsoever to the United States, in order to make the case for war as a security benefit the liberal hawk requires the assumptions that 1)the deposal of Hussein would lead to a reasonable stable pluralistic liberal democracy, and 2)that such a state would provide a model that would create a domino effect that would democratize the middle east. There are obvious problems with the second peg of the argument, but prarticularly problematic for the first is the liklihood that a quasi-democratic Iraqi state is also likely to be an Islamic quasi-theocracy, which is some ways will be even more hostile to Israel and more supportive of Islamic terrorism than the Baathists. As Holmes notes, Berman’s attempt to subsume a complex conlifct into the categories of “freedom” versus “tyranny” leaves him unable to deal with these crucial distinctions.

Anyway, a summary cannot do it justice–read the whole etc.

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