CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS....

CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS. If you've been looking for someone to criticize Peter Beinart's book for going too far in the direction of abandoning liberal hawk orthodoxy, look no further than George Packer's review of The Good Fight. The more interesting part of the review, however, is actually addressed at Francis Fukuyama, who writes in his book that "Before the Iraq war, we were probably at war with no more than a few thousand people around the world who would consider martyring themselves and causing nihilistic damage to the United States. The scale of the problem has grown because we have unleashed a maelstrom." Packer thinks this outlook is mistaken, and that "although the Iraq war wasn�t inevitable after September 11th, a global polarization along religious lines probably was . . . the battle lines were already forming well before shock and awe and Abu Ghraib." Why? Well, because he "was in Somalia during the Afghanistan war, and even Western-oriented Muslims there saw the overthrow of the Taliban as the start of a war against Islam."

I think that's an almost silly point of view to have on the situation. So, okay, the toppling of the Taliban raised a lot of suspicions in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, it was something the United States had to do. At that point, though, we faced choices. We could take actions that tended to undercut the view that regime change in Kabul was "the start of a war against Islam" or we could do what we did, namely take actions that re-enforced this view. We could have, for example, not invaded Iraq and not proclaimed the existence of a fictional "axis of evil." We could have taken up the Arab League's efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We could have responded to peace feelers from Teheran. If we wanted to do something idealistic, we could have taken the vast sums spent on Iraq and directed them toward some popular and uncontroversial foreign assistance programs.

One could go on in this vein, though Packer -- apparently too honest to claim he was right about Iraq, but too stubborn to say he was wrong -- expresses the view that it's illegitimate to revisit the wisdom of past policy choices. The point, however, is that we still face these kind of tradeoffs. Do we respond to the existence of anti-American sentiments in the world by throwing up our hands and deciding the situation is hopeless so we may as well start a few wars, or do we respond to anti-American sentiments by trying to take actions that might reduce them? We've been following the former course and the evidence suggests it isn't working very well.

--Matthew Yglesias

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