Arguing the World

Just before the holidays, Bernard-Henri Lévy, France's most influential intellectual, contacted the Prospect offering to write an essay on the future of neoconservatism. Aware that his views on the matter were not wholly consonant with ours, he also suggested that he'd be open to a “spirited dialogue” on such questions as: Have the neoconservatives accomplished anything positive? Have they advanced any notions from which liberalism and the left could learn? What of the effort to spread global democracy? What's the legacy of the Iraq War? How to deal, in the war's aftermath, with totalitarian regimes?

We knew just the fellow to engage him. Anatol Lieven is British by birth and spent most of his career as a journalist in South Asia and the former Soviet Union. A fellow at the New America Foundation, he has lived in the United States for five years and has become one of neoconservatism's harshest intellectual critics.

On a Saturday in mid-January, BHL and Lieven conducted the following exchange in real time via email (Lévy's last entry came a short while later). It is fascinating discussion of the great questions involving America and the world with which liberals must grapple. This is the full, 10,000-word dialogue. A shorter version appears in the April issue of the Prospect.

Anatol Lieven: Dr. Lévy, we agree on many things about America and the world. However, to judge by your latest book, we disagree quite strongly on the subject of the neoconservative movement, its historical meaning, and above all its moral quality.

This is not to say that I exaggerate either the political or the intellectual importance of this movement. On the contrary, in one sense the neoconservatives cannot disappear because they never existed, at least in the grandiose form they assumed in their own minds, and later in the public imagination. In the past, some really distinguished thinkers have been given the name of "neoconservative" -- though usually wrongly. Today's neoconservatives, however, are neither original nor profound, and their key recent works are just twinkly beads of journalistic commentary strung together on a necklace of prejudice.

The success of the neoconservatives lay not in their originality, but, on the contrary, in the fact that they took deep and ancient strains in the American national tradition and then used particular events to give these strains a radical twist. The first of these is the old American belief, rooted both in the Protestant tradition and in American civic nationalism, in America's right and duty to spread its democratic model to the rest of the world (the "American Nationalist Thesis"). The second, antithetical, strain is a strong degree in many American quarters of hatred, contempt, and fear directed at the rest of the world -- the "paranoid style" of American populist nationalism analyzed by Richard Hofstadter and his intellectual descendants.

Another vital element is the existential needs of the military-industrial and academic-bureaucratic security structures that grew up during the Cold War and were orphaned and endangered by the end of that struggle. Finally, there is the passionate defense of Israel. This is a legitimate and praiseworthy motive in itself. Tragically, however, a belief that this means backing the Israelis unconditionally in their confrontation with the Palestinians inevitably points toward a wider confrontation with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The historical conjunctures the neoconservatives exploited so brilliantly were the end of the Cold War and, of course, September 11. The end of the Cold War deprived the American establishment of its only real intellectual paradigm for understanding the world and the conduct of U.S. world policy. The collapse of Communism appeared to leave free-market liberal capitalism as the only global model for progress; and most dangerously, the collapse of the Soviet superpower appeared to make the United States practically omnipotent on the planet, free to do anything if only it possessed the "will" to do so.

The problem confronting the neoconservatives was to create that will among the American people. On the whole, these are a generally moderate, peaceful, and pragmatic lot who, although they have both generous international impulses and certain messianic dreams, also have a whole set of reasons to distrust global missions that will be paid for by their taxes and the lives of their children. September 11 gave the neoconservatives and their allies in the Bush administration the chance -- rather briefly, as it turns out -- to mobilize that will. They have tried to power a program of American liberal imperialism with the fuel of a wounded and vengeful American nationalism.

This hasn't lasted well. The occupation of Iraq has crippled both America's ability to use its military might elsewhere in the world and the willingness of the American people to support further such interventions. Far from being omnipotent to shape the world, the United States can't even control Fallujah. Nonetheless, because their approach was founded not in new thought, but in the intensification of old American traditions, a good deal of it remains. There also remain the terrible problems for America and the world that the neoconservatives have helped to create.

To take the most obvious example: As Bush's recent speeches make clear, the messianic rhetoric of spreading "democracy" and "freedom" is more than ever the core of the administration's "strategy" in the Muslim world. It is highly doubtful that this really represents the beliefs of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, or even Condoleezza Rice, in a way that it really did represent the core beliefs of Paul Wolfowitz.

Rather, the administration is emphasizing democratization because it doesn't have anything else to do or say. It cannot adopt a sensible diplomatic strategy toward a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or toward détente with key regional players like Iran. And with Iraq crippling the U.S. budget, it is impossible to ask Congress for the kind of economic aid for Muslim countries that would give the long-term construction of democracy there a real chance.

The problem with emphasizing democratization in this way is that it is radically incompatible with the actual policies of the Bush administration in the war on terrorism, as fully encouraged and supported by the neoconservatives. This contradiction between ideals and realpolitik was always there in U.S. policy. The neoconservatives and the Bush administration, however, have raised this contradiction to surreal, virtually Orwellian heights. They believe in spreading human rights and the rule of law? So they kidnap suspected terrorists and have them tortured in illegal U.S. prisons and in those of Muslim dictatorships whose human-rights records they publicly profess to despise. They want to bring democracy to the Muslim world? So they act with brazen contempt for the opinions of the vast majority of ordinary Muslims in democracies like Turkey and Indonesia.

The Bush administration and the neoconservatives believe in free elections? So every time this seems likely to bring victory for Islamist forces, they veer back to support for dictatorship. They respect ordinary Iraqis and believe they are ready for democracy? They respect them so much that they try to foist Ahmed Chalabi on them as a U.S.-backed dictator, and they share the general approach of the U.S. military, which respects them so much that it doesn't bother to count how many of them it accidentally kills.

This is not idealism, but a sick joke. And it reflects not real belief in democracy, but what might better be called democratism. It bears the same relationship to real democratic thinking as Soviet Communism did to the original ideals of Marxism.

Bernard-Henri Levy: You put me in a difficult spot already. Yes, yes, you put me in a difficult spot. Because I really did not feel like starting this conversation by making myself look like an advocate for Bush and the neoconservatives.

You read my book, right? You read the portrait I make of this poor Bush as a child, à la Georges Bernanos, overwhelmed by what is happening to him, frightened by the world and trying to frighten it back?

You read my chapter entitled “The Revenge of the Little Man,” as well as the many chapters where I express my nostalgia for the true great America, that of John Kennedy, that of Bill Clinton even, that in which people like John Kerry or Barack Obama could be the continuators?

It has not escaped you either, I imagine, that I have been from the beginning against this damned war in Iraq, whose main effect has been, for the moment, to increase the number of terrorists in the area and to intensify this war of civilizations in which fundamentalist Muslims and Samuel Huntington are equally enthusiastic advocates?

And as for the neoconservatives themselves, can I be any clearer than in the pages where I blame them for their unconditional rallying with Bush's crusade for moral values, their adhesion to the creationist creed and the death penalty, their ambiguities on abortion rights, their repugnant campaigns about Clinton's private life, their taste for moral order, etc. etc.?

In short, they are not my friends.

But at the same time, there are things in what you write that I cannot let slide, either. No matter how much one doesn't like this poor Chalabi, for instance, and the ridiculous attempt to put him in the saddle in Baghdad, I do not believe that one can present him as a “U.S.-backed dictator” whom they tried hard to impose in office by gunfire.

No matter what one thinks of the “general approach of the U.S. military,” no matter what one thinks of an event like Abu Ghraib, I do not believe that one can seriously claim that the main responsibility for the deaths of Iraqis today lies on us, and that one can forget the suicide bombers, the booby-trapped cars, the blind shootings; in short, Iraqi terrorism (Islamist or ex-Baathist) and its incommensurable lack of consideration, of all things, for the life of civilian Muslims.

And then: No matter what one thinks of this idiotic war, no matter what conviction one has -- and I repeat that it is my case -- of its uselessness and its perverse effects, it is just not honest to deny the positive effects it has also had; for example, the freedom of the press, the end of the dictatorship, free elections, and the fact that an increasing number of Iraqis are starting to enter this democratic culture you disparage.

Now, taking this into account, taking into account what I blame them for and the credit I give them for injecting a little democracy in a country that is coming out of dictatorship, what do I make, and what do I say, of the neoconservative phenomenon?

Eh well, I try to be honest, quite simply.

I try, if you prefer, to treat them without the fanaticism they show with their adversaries. And, history being what it is -- a complex cacophony, a concert of mixed voices and ambiguous meanings in which you are never, except in extreme cases, a total angel or a total devil -- I recognize that they have two or three real merits.

One merit: making politics with ideas. Or reintroducing, if you prefer, the old philosophical consideration of the “types of regimes” in conducting international politics. Say what you want, but, between a real politician without scruples and a reader of Leo Strauss or Aristotle injecting moral considerations into the way he does politics, my heart leans toward the latter.

Another merit: to privilege, among these ideas, that which involves promoting democratic principles and actually spreading Western universalism in Muslim countries. I am not saying that the program is respected. I don't deny that it is, at the very least, strange, when one says he is a democrat, to accept Guantanamo or the secret prisons of Central Europe. But one can't deny that it is a program. And between this right wing and the right wing of old times -- between people who, even awkwardly, even by committing mistakes or crimes, think that America's role is to work for world-wide democracy and those who, like Henry Kissinger in his time, considered that its role was to support and reinforce all the dictatorships of the planet -- I prefer the former; I prefer the America that defends the heirs of Ahmed Shah Massoud rather than the one that put Augusto Pinochet in power.

And a third merit: the fact of taking seriously the tragic dimension of contemporary history. Or, more precisely, of taking stock of this figure of modern tragedy that is the challenge addressed to all democrats -- and not only to those of America! -- by the Muslim radicals and sectarians. You talked about Iran. You said that there should be détente with Iran. Agreed. That's all I ask for. But I believe that first it is necessary to take into account the tragedy of the situation. And when I say tragic I mean a situation in which the entire Iranian establishment, including Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, that pleads for the resumption of [nuclear] tests -- and therefore for a line of a president who has stated his intention, or rather his dream, to wipe Israel from the map. To notice that this is an extreme danger, and that the democrats of the world are facing a challenge that, all things being equal, is no less frightening than the one formerly presented by Communists and Nazis, what do you want me to say? For now, all I can see are these neoconservatives.

I would like it a thousand times better if others would speak firmly with Iran.
I would like it if the other camp, that of humanistic America, were in more of a hurry to go back to the beloved topics of Michael Walzer, refusing the culture of excuses concerning the new terrorism.

In short, I would like it if America experienced what Europe experienced 30 years ago, namely the emergence of a left wing, a true left wing, which, without giving up being the left, without giving up any of its moral heritage or positions on the so-called social issues, would become truly anti-totalitarian.

But we are not there. The Americans are not there either. And it seems to me that the whole problem comes from that -- all this free space, left to the neoconservatives, because of the ideological resignation of the left. …

AL: I am British. As such, I feel a special responsibility -- like you, I would hope -- to remember not just the often savage methods of “democratic” British and French imperialism, but also the ways in which very vicious agendas frequently cloaked themselves in the language of “civilizing missions.” This is part of the origin of my profound distrust of the neoconservatives.

The second point that I should stress is that I am not of the left, but rather from the old, pre-Thatcherite tradition of British moderate conservatism. Admittedly, that tradition's emphasis on social solidarity and responsibility, and on pragmatism, does place me very much at odds both with neoconservative-style national messianism and with the feral kind of free-market capitalism adopted by the neoconservatives and the Bush administration. However, I am certainly not inclined to take up radical or reckless positions in international affairs. In consequence, while I strongly opposed the launch of the Iraq War, I do not think, now that we are in this quagmire, that it would be either moral or wise simply to pull out and allow Iraq to fall into full-scale civil war. On that, at least, I imagine we agree.

I am fully aware that you are not a neoconservative and that you have opposed many of their policies including the Iraq War; and for this I praise you. However, both in your book and in your response to my first volley, you also made clear that on certain key points you both sympathize with neoconservative “ideals” and believe that their actual policies either stand a good chance of success, or have no viable alternative, or both.

You also appear to join the neoconservatives in one of their most willfully disastrous intellectual approaches (shared and even encouraged by certain figures who still think they are on the left), which is to muddle up the radically different and mutually hostile forces of al-Qaeda-style Sunni extremism, Shia conservatism (often infused with Iranian nationalism), and Baath-style radical Arab nationalism or fascism. This muddle has even less intellectual justification than the American establishment's previous muddling up of Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Latin American Communism, but may have even more appalling results.

You set up a radical opposition between neoconservative idealism and Kissingerian realpolitik. This is quite false. What you seem to have forgotten is that the neoconservatives initially broke with the liberal Democrats, and began their march toward the Republicans, in large part precisely because of their belief that the United States should continue to wage war in Vietnam by all necessary means, however ruthless.

What is more, when the Carter administration tried to make human rights and democracy the centerpiece of its international strategy, the neoconservatives were the first to denounce this as hopelessly naive and to insist that America continue to support the Shah of Iran against his population and a variety of bloodstained Central American military regimes against their “Communist” opponents. Idealism, anyone? How exactly was this different from Kissinger's belief that American vital interests, and the defense of Western democracy, often required support for anti-Communist dictatorships?

What the neoconservatives see as American vital interests will always trump their professed ideals. This makes them not idealists, but a species of revolutionary realists. However, like most revolutionaries, they are realists whose capacity for ruthlessness is considerably enhanced by their genuine belief that they are deeply moral and that “the winds of history are in their sails,” to use the old Communist phrase. This is a classically Jacobin mixture, and, as Robespierre himself came belatedly to recognize, “no one likes armed missionaries.” The French attempt back then to spread a mixture of revolutionary values and French empire across Europe led not to a triumph for liberalism or democracy, but a series of dreadful wars ending in the triumph of European reaction backed by a furious German, Russian, and British nationalist response to French conquest. People who sympathize with neoconservative ideas about changing the world by force while expanding American imperial power should watch out that this does not lead them, step after logical step, to Kissingerian or dare I say it even Napoleonic positions.

The other question of course is whether neoconservative policies stand the slightest chance of actually achieving their stated goals of winning the war on terrorism and changing the Muslim world. As Hans Morgenthau pointed out, “The choice is not between moral principles and the national interest, devoid of moral dignity, but between one set of principles divorced from political reality and another set of principles derived from political reality.” In other words, good intentions are no excuse if these are divorced from any serious and prudent study of realities on the ground -- of a kind that the neoconservatives and the Bush administration have criminally failed to conduct.

And since we're speaking of reality, do you know of the slightest actual evidence that the American campaign in Iraq, and the neoconservative approach that it reflects, is increasing support for “Western universal values” in the Muslim world? Does not rather every election and every poll show an increase in hatred of the United States and support for radical Islamism? And is this not proving of immense benefit to al-Qaeda and its allies?

On Iran: Obviously all members of the Iranian establishment share certain positions, but to suggest an absolute identity of views between men like Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a travesty. If this were the case, then why has Ahmadinejad's election made such a difference? Here, once again, I'm afraid that you remind me of those analysts who, during the Cold War, were simply incapable of seeing any difference between different kinds of Communist, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. The vast majority of Iranians -- secular liberals included -- desire either nuclear weapons or some other credible assurances of national security. Figures like Ahmadinejad must be opposed and weakened; but that can successfully be done only by not making blowhard speeches in the West and by dealing with other Iranians.

That, unfortunately, means dealing with unpleasant but pragmatic characters like Rafsanjani, and by offering them a choice between tough sanctions and real benefits in return for giving up their nuclear program. If the neoconservatives had encouraged the Bush administration to take this approach four years ago, instead of lumping Iran in the “axis of evil,” then as likely as not we would not have Ahmadinejad in power today. That is not just a realist, but a realistic position. We have to put pressure on the Iranians, but in the end we either have to negotiate with them -- or fight them. Can we fight them, given the experience of Iraq? And if we do fight Iran, will it be the neoconservatives and their children who will do the fighting and dying? We know the answer to that one.

BHL: We obviously agree on colonialism and its alleged “civilizing” mission: Recently, we had this debate in France; we had a whole discussion about the alleged “positive aspects” of colonialism; and I said that, in my opinion, the only positive aspect in question was [provided by] François Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre, and any of the other Frenchmen who, intellectuals or not, took the side of justice. And I am not going to change my mind and speak differently in the United States.

We also agree on Napoleon and even on Robespierre, these two terrible characters, these two stains on the history of my country: In my opinion, they always were the inventors of terror; two different terrors, agreed; but terror in both cases and, in a certain way, the origin of what today we call terrorism. I said this in France; here again, I will not say the opposite in the United States.

As for neoconservatives, as to the fact that there would be no difference in nature between their position and those of the realists á la Kissinger, I find you excessively severe: but well; it is a rather complex history, with characters who are sufficiently different from one another, so that we find a bit of everything; and I would not fight about it -- I grant you that, in this disparate movement, surely we find people who were all for napalming down to the last Cambodian or Vietnamese.

No. The disagreement is elsewhere. And, if I were to define it, I would say that it can be summarized into three or, perhaps, four points.

First, this business of Communism. You seem to mock those who, in the past, painted the different kinds of Communism with the same brush -- “Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Latin American.” I was not myself far from this position. I was enough of a Marxist to understand the nuances, even the quarrels, and sometimes the deadly fights among these various types of Communism. But that did not prevent me from also understanding what brought them together. That did not prohibit me, like Andrei Sakharov and the dissidents, from also understanding the essence that they had in common and that, in fact, when the time came, made them implode and disappear en masse.

Then, the issue of Iran. I am not saying that there is an “absolute identity of views between men like Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad.” I am saying that there is an identity of views on a point that is essential, and that -- taking into account the anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and hatred of democracy in general that prevail within the establishment of Teheran -- is not a negligible point. This point is the nuclear point. And, on this nuclear point, I think indeed that there is no true alternative within that establishment. So what does it all mean? Does it mean that I preach war against the regime? No, of course not. I do not preach war anymore than I preach compromise. And this is so because, between war and compromise, there is a third term, which I am amazed that you do not seem to consider: it is the support for the Iranian women, the young people, the intellectuals -- it is the support for this enormous proportion of the Iranian population that does not recognize itself in any of the official factions but identifies with democratic combat. That's it, yes. My position on Iran is not to reinforce a certain person or allow some other person to save face. But it is to defend with all our might the 16-year-old girls who have taken off the veil. Between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani, there are the women who fight for their freedom, who expect moral support and hope from us.

Third, the issue of the two kinds of Islam. Of course, I know the differences between Shiism and Sunnism. I was in Pakistan long enough to know that there is conflict that is especially bloody because it covers theological cleavage and geopolitical affiliations at the same time. I also know, and you can be assured of this, what separates them both from the atheistic Baath trends of Saddam Hussein's heirs. But I am saying just two things. First I say that, precisely, they happen to forget these disagreements in order to ally themselves in the hatred of the common enemy, namely America, Israel, and the Occident: This is the history of al-Qaeda in the years it took refuge in Sudan; this is the entire chronicle of the relations between Hezbollah and Hamas; this is all that came out from the admissions of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed about the support given by Teheran to Saudis of September 11; in short, it is these moments of synthesis, which become, all of a sudden, the object of fulltime reflection; and in these moments, we certainly dealt with Shiism, certainly with Sunnism, but also with the third term that they create by merging and that becomes as enigmatic as might have been, after the merger of the “conservative revolutionaries” and the “German Bolsheviks nationals,” the National-Socialist synthesis of the 1920s; this incredible synthesis, this almost unthinkable moment, the hallucinatory spectacle of Saddam Hussein invoking the Koran in his trial, it is really what I would call “fascislamism,” for lack of a better word. And then I say a second thing: No matter how radical the cleavage between Sunnis and Shiites, regardless of whether we insist on what opposes them or what sometimes succeeds to unite them, regardless of the depth of what opposes them to all Baath atheists, there is a second cleavage of which you do not seem to think, but which I have the weakness of believing is more essential, more radical, and, for the concrete men and women that populate this world of Islam, of much greater consequence. And this cleavage is the one between democrats and fundamentalists. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about a “war of civilizations”; when you adopt, as I try to do, the point of view of concrete nations and men, here is the only war of civilizations that holds here, in this political division, exclusively political, between these two versions of Islam, the most important clash of civilizations of our time.

And then finally, the question that results from what I just said, of what may be for democracies an international politics worthy of this name. You say that you are not “inclined to take up radical or reckless positions in international affairs.” You understand, this is not my case. I continue to believe in what we, along with Bernard Kouchner and some others, call the “duty to intervene.” I think, more than ever, that it was necessary to intervene in Bosnia. I regret, more than ever, that we did not support Massoud in Afghanistan. I estimated, and I still estimate, that we had, in Rwanda, the duty to intervene. I still believe today, right now even as we speak, that we are guilty of not giving assistance to people in danger in these areas about which I know quite a lot, namely Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. I hate the idea that the right of people to be their own masters should imply the right of the states to be the masters of their people. I continue to dream of an ambitious foreign policy that would help the simple men and women martyrized by their states in cases such as that of Iran or even, a few years ago, Iraq. And perhaps, in essence, it is the great reproach that I feel like making against the neoconservatives: that, with their bad war, their bad policies, their absurd democratic messianism, their errors of perspective and judgment, they have compromised, wasted, and perhaps even discredited this magnificent and necessary duty to intervene -- and have caused us, from this point of view, to take a gigantic step backward.

AL: I am delighted that our differences have narrowed to such an extent, and that our long-term hopes are indeed very close. We do, however, continue to have rather different ideas on contemporary strategy, and on recent history.

Of course the different Communist movements and states had strong resemblances. There were also, however, key differences, which led to radical differences in the respective strength of Western and Communist forces in different circumstances. In Eastern Europe, the fact that Soviet, Russian-speaking Communism was an alien imperialist force meant that local nationalism worked for us, and eventually helped bring us victory. In Vietnam, exactly the opposite was the case.

This should remind us that we will never prevail in the war on terrorism if we encourage ordinary Muslims to equate our strategy with their national humiliation. If we cannot get local nationalism on our side, at the very least we have to try to remove it from the equation. No preaching of "Western universalism" in the Muslim world is going to help us with that task.

Moreover, the fact that the Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian movements split along national lines made the whole Vietnam War, with all its horrors, completely unnecessary from the point of view of U.S. strategy. Rather than fantasizing about mechanistic rows of dominoes falling to a monolithic Communist threat, all the United States had to do -- and did do, later -- was to play off these different forces against one another.

This leads me back to differences in the Muslim world, which I must insist are both greater and more complex than you suggest. Take the case of Massoud, whom you mention. Like you, I too believe that we should have backed him against the Taliban before 9-11. But who did in fact back him, and indeed saved the last remnants of the anti-Taliban opposition from being crushed, and America after 9-11 from facing infinitely greater problems in Afghanistan? Well, it was the Iranians (and Russians) -- and precious little thanks have they received for this from us.

But the complexity of his example goes even deeper. Massoud was himself, as you know, a radical Islamist, and his followers in Afghanistan today are deeply conservative and religious Muslims who impose on their women the same crushing oppressions and restrictions common in most of Afghan society. Massoud fought first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and then the Taliban, not out of secular opposition to their views, but for two other reasons. The first was that they represented a form of foreign radical Islam -- Saudi-based Wahabbism -- that he saw as alien to local tradition. Much more important, however, was the fact that these forces represented renewed Pashtun domination, which he and his Panjshiri Tajik people were determined to resist.

Furthermore, the rise of the Taliban among the Pashtuns owed a great deal to the horribly brutal record of Massoud's forces and the other mujahedeen groups when they ruled Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Communists in 1992. Once again, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have supported Massoud against the Taliban; but in doing so, we would have picked not a "representative of Western universalism" in Afghanistan, but only the lesser of two evils -- a thoroughly realist strategy, in other words.

And the same kind of melancholy choice faces us across much of the Muslim world, whether it is a case of preferring Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad, the Assad regime to Syrian radical Islamist groups, or the Shia conservative populists in Iraq to the al-Qaeda-backed Sunni insurgency. If we fail to make these choices, then we will unite our enemies against us as Israeli actions have brought together Hamas, Hezbollah, and the radical elements of Fatah, and as the American invasion of Iraq has brought together al-Qaeda and the Baath.

When it comes to the very widespread Muslim hostility to Israel -- and by extension the United States -- we are never going to be able to abolish this, any more than we can abolish various national animosities elsewhere in the world. What we should aim to do is to reduce this from a central issue for many Muslims to a secondary one, and above all to limit the number of people who are prepared to put their hatred into action, rather than just grumbling about it. We will never get Pakistanis to like India, but we may be able to get them to stop attacking India. And in the case of Pakistan, it is of course deeply troubling that some 15 percent of the population support radical Islamist parties -- but what we should really be thinking about is how to prevent the remaining 85 percent from joining them.

The history of Afghanistan should also remind us of something else, which is the awful record of American and British) policy in so much of the Muslim world. Backing the Afghan resistance against Soviet occupation was justified. The way in which the CIA did this was blind, ignorant, and hatred-driven, and it contributed directly to the eventual rise of al-Qaeda. And equally bad mistakes have occurred in U.S. and British policy toward a good many countries. Given this record, how can we honestly expect Muslims simply to trust either our benevolence or our wisdom?

To return briefly to Iran: Our long-term hopes for progress and democracy in that country are identical. However, I am much less optimistic than you about the chances of liberal Iranian youth being able to do much to help our specific policy goals in the short-to-medium terms. Quite apart from the fact that secular Iranian nationalists may turn out to be just as committed to nuclear weapons as Islamists, in recent years Iranian liberals have been defeated, first by the frustration of Khatami, then by the victory of Ahmadinejad.

And they were defeated not just by state oppression, but also by the fact that a mixture of Shia Islamist populism and Iranian nationalism remains immensely popular among many ordinary Iranians -- as Ahmadinejad 's election demonstrates. Western observers did not predict his victory because they spend too much time listening to secular middle-class Iranians who echo their own views, and not enough time in the slums and villages where most Iranians actually live.

Recent Iranian history also reflects the fact that Iran is not a totalitarian dictatorship like (in their different ways) Saddam's Iraq or the Taliban's Afghanistan, but a very complicated mixture of theocracy and limited democracy. This is a thoroughly weird system to our eyes, of course, but that is all the more reason why we need to study Iran and other Muslim countries intensively -- rather than trying to cram their realities into our own rigid and sometimes quite irrelevant ideological frameworks.

BHL: I am not certain, dear Anatol Lieven, that our dissension is reduced as much as that. On Iran already, I find you too optimistic and quite imprudent when you speak about it as a “complicated mixture of theocracy and limited democracy” that has little to do with the model of the “totalitarian dictatorship.” Me, I see the multiplication of the public executions. I see the terrible document published in London last summer showing these three famous hangings in the north of the country. I see the number of imprisoned journalists. Women stoned for adultery. The homosexuals hung, as in Machad, in the Northeast. I see these constant violations of human rights on a grand scale throughout all the changes of government in the last 25 years. And I admit that it takes away my desire to reason on the nuances autocracy and totalitarianism and to speak about “semi-democracy.”

On Massoud, I also believe that you are mistaken. Of course, yes, there was an Islamist temptation of Massoud. Of course, in his youth, he was close to a movement that was similar to the Muslim Brotherhood. But only in his youth. After that, his evolution was very quick and led him to the antipodes. On the spiritual level, his intellectual guide is not Sayyid Qutb (whom he probably never read) but Abou-Hamed Al-Ghazzali (born in Iran in 1058; the Al-Gazel of the Latin scholars, the theorist of an “asceticism” that inspired the “cogito” of Descartes and the author of the admirable Alchemy of Happiness, which was, to the end, Massoud's favorite book and whose spirituality had nothing to do with the ultra-ritualistic pharisaism of the fundamentalists). And on the political level you can say what you want of the terrible years 1992-1996, of the tortuous plays of alliances he agreed to carry out or even the tactical coming together with Dostum or, at the very end, with Heykmatiar -- you can say what you want about his political errors at the time (even though speaking about the “horribly brutal record of Massoud's forces” seems to me historically exaggerated): It is still true that his action also consisted of defending, in the capital bombarded by the Hezbollah, then the Taliban, the secular constitutional order of the old Afghan monarchy. The female anchors on the television news kept their jobs -- and without the veil. All women who were professors, directors of hospitals, civil servants, kept their positions. Whereas in the cities controlled by the Taliban, they were briskly cutting off the feet and fists of petty and serious offenders, Massoud suspended, for four years, in the zone he controlled, the application of the punishments envisaged by Sharia. And I am not talking about the following years, those of his refuge in Panchir, where he still never deviated on the question of women, from this simple line he was going to reaffirm; for example, by signing, in 2000, the charter of the feminist organization Negâr: “The tradition is what it is; one cannot force women to abandon their burqa any more than one can force them to wear it; but my sisters have never worn the veil; my five daughters are studying or will study; I am in favor of the absolute right of women to work, vote,even to be even deputies or govern” … As far as “radical Islamist,” one cannot do better!

And then, especially, especially, there is again the substantive discussion that relates to our right, or absence thereof, to preach, in the world in general and in the Muslim world in particular, what you call “western universalism”; and there I fear that we are more than ever on two different wavelengths.

Because, in the end, what is it that you say?

If you say that it is necessary to plead, without humiliating and defending our values, and to avoid insulting or discrediting those of the others, of course, we agree.

If you say that it would have been more intelligent, for example, instead of uniting the rest of the world against the United States and the Occident, to divide it, to play on its internal contradictions and, for example, “get local nationalism on our side,” this is obvious.

If you say, in particular, that the first principle that must dictate a policy worthy of this name is the respect of the adversary, the science of the ideological and cultural ground where it operates, the knowledge of the traditions on which it relies and which are never completely monolithic, that goes without saying (and I even think that, on this topic, I would be even more severe than you on the crass ignorance of the neoconservatives as regards Muslim culture, or on the colossal blunder of the CIA, which I saw with my own eyes at the beginning of the 1980s, in Peshawar, when they merrily confused hardliners and moderates, by mixing up “Massoudians” and “hezbists ” under the same vague name of “Resistance”).

In short, if your recommendation is, first, to be more erudite and better informed, and, secondly, more skillful, shrewder, better tacticians, better strategists; if you think that, in the face-to-face combat that opposes it to its enemies democracy must play more wisely, take advantage of all the faults or chinks in the armor of the adversary, “play off the different forces against each other” and, for example, instead of uniting the terrorists, isolate them -- then, well, it is ABC's of the art of war and I will certainly not tell you otherwise.

The question, on the other hand, is to know whether we are talking about tactics or principles.

The question is to know whether this is the statement of a kind of practical wisdom that would leave the question of the purpose open -- or if you really believe in your “melancholy choice” that would leave us no other alternatives in the Muslim world but those of Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, the regime of Assad or of the Syrian radical Islamists or, in Iraq, of the conservative populist Shiites or the Sunni insurrection supported by al-Qaeda.

I believe that there is, in each of these three situations, a third solution, which is that of democracy.

I believe that there is always, everywhere, and even if it is only at the horizon, people who believe, not only in the possibility, but also in the best quality of the democratic choice.

And I believe that the duty of the democratic states in general and the United States in particular -- as well as the duty of the intellectuals -- is to defend people who, even in minority, even repudiated by the life forces of their country, even and especially the defeated, have made this courageous choice.

In other words, I challenge the very expression of “Western universalism.”
I am very much afraid of what you call, concerning the Arab-Muslim world, your “melancholy choice.”

I absolutely reject the idea according to which, under the pretext that they were born there, human right and principles of secularism and of parliamentary democracy, would be ontologically and inevitably related to the soil of the Western culture.

I think, to put things brutally, that there is a true superiority of the way of thinking that recognizes to a soul's right not to submit, abody's right not to be wounded, a society's right to be represented in forms and by mediations that break away from communitarian rules.

All the rest is differentialism. In other words, it is contempt disguised as respect -- or violence embellished with the signs of an untrue and suspect “love of others.”

AL: Before dealing with our main theme, which is universal values and how best to promote them, let me return briefly to Afghanistan and Iran. Concerning Massoud, I'm afraid that you may have suffered the fate of many of your compatriots, a certain tendency to be dazzled by his ability to speak French, as well as his great personal qualities of leadership and charm.

Unfortunately, however, his followers did not speak French when dealing with their own compatriots, and were often singularly lacking in charm. My statements about the ideology and behavior of his followers are based both on the clear historical record and on my own personal experience of Afghanistan. Not part of the historical record, but universally acknowledged in private by Western officials and soldiers in Afghanistan, is the fact that -- as you must surely be aware -- several of his chief former lieutenants and political heirs are leading figures in the Afghan heroin trade today.

Don't get me wrong. As already stated, I think we should have supported Massoud against the Taliban. I strongly backed the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban after 9-11, and I believe that the West has a clear duty to keep its forces in Afghanistan until that country is stabilized and developed, even if this takes decades (which it probably will). But if American soldiers have a duty to risk their lives in Afghanistan, then experts in the West have a duty to help present our governments with a realistic and accurate assessment of that country, and not with comforting fairy tales.

On Iran. Like you, I certainly don't think that this country is a democracy today, and I hope that it will become so in future. My statement -- which is surely incontrovertible -- was only that it is vastly freer than was Baath Iraq, Taliban Afghanistan, and indeed some of our own allies like Saudi Arabia. Like military-dominated Turkey, it is a repressive system, but one in which there also exist possibilities of change and development as new generations come to the fore.

The question then is how best to promote, in Iran and throughout the Muslim world, the universal values of democracy and human rights in which we both believe.
As you said, these values are of Western origin (d'origine occidentale) but are no longer Western-defined or restricted to the West. I certainly did not suggest that non-Western peoples are incapable of democracy.

The history of India is a very good example of the connection between democracy and nationalism (or patriotism). A point made repeatedly by Zbigniew Brzezinski is that for a democracy to be stable and successful, a given people have to feel that they "own" it: that it is their creation and reflects their national values, their national interests, and their national pride.

Indian democracy is the paradoxical synthesis of two elements: the institutions and values created, over a very long period of time, by British imperial rule; and those created, over a period of more than half a century, by Indian nationalist struggle against that rule. If the British had clapped democratic institutions on India in 1900 and then departed, that democracy would have collapsed, as the British democratic legacy has across most of Africa.

Equally, if the Indian National Congress under Gandhi had adopted the violent strategy of Algeria's FLN, then India like Algeria would have ended up under some form of military dictatorship in national revolutionary guise. Instead, the Congress Party developed democracy through 50 years of democratic mobilization for independence from Britain.

What India also illustrates therefore is that the creation of successful democracy usually takes a very long time. In the case of France -- if one dates the beginning of democratization to the Revolution of 1789, and ends it in 1871, after the Paris Commune -- then this took more than 80 years. The South Korean and Taiwanese democracies are founded on the economic miracles created under decades of authoritarian dictatorship. Malaysia and Thailand have experienced decades of democratic progress, but a progress that has been slow, halting, and subject to some very severe reversals.

In the long run, I do not believe that we should make some existential choice between our foreign-policy goals and the spread of democracy. The latter remains our long-term historical goal. Promoting democracy in the Muslim world as part of our short-term foreign policy strategy, however, faces a central problem: Many of the aims we have set -- rightly or wrongly -- for our policy are detested by vast majorities of the population across the Muslim world, including in existing Muslim democracies like Malaysia and Bangladesh.

If we present democracy to the people of Iran as part of a package that includes their giving up, without compensation, what they see as their legal right to at least a potential nuclear deterrent, then democracy in Iran will fail. Surely you can see how the Iranian theocratic conservatives are successfully using just this appeal to nationalism in response to Western pressure to mobilize mass support and preserve their rule?

If we give the people of Pakistan the idea that we equate the creation of democracy in their country with submission to India over Kashmir and Indian hegemony in South Asia, then democracy in Pakistan will fail. And of course, if we give the Arab peoples as a whole the idea that democracy involves their agreement to an Israeli-dictated settlement with the Palestinians and Israeli military domination of the Middle East, then we will have done terrible damage to any prospect of ever establishing successful democracy in that region.

My own view is therefore that the promotion of democracy and the promotion of our security interests are best pursued separately and at two levels. Unless we are prepared to fight war after war -- and Iraq has shown not just the folly but the impossibility of that -- then the latter requires the kind of pragmatic deals with existing regimes that I have described.

But that does not mean that we are abandoning our promotion of democracy any more than a whole set of pragmatic deals with the Soviet regime meant that we had abandoned the promotion of democracy in the Soviet bloc. For the fact is that by far the best promoter of democracy throughout the world is the power of our example. During the Cold War, we had to contain Soviet Communism by military means, and we had to appeal to the rebellious nationalism of its subject peoples. But what brought that system down in the end was that our system so very obviously worked much better than the Communist one: It was vastly freer, richer, less oppressive, more stable, more tolerant, and more just.

This means that we have to be careful that the local examples of democracy that we support are visibly better than their authoritarian neighbors. This is something that we have failed to do in much of Latin America in recent decades, resulting in a series of populist and semi-authoritarian backlashes against corrupt, brutal, oligarch-ruled pseudo-democracies.

But above all, we must preserve our own democratic model as one that visibly defends freedom at home, guarantees basic economic security to the mass of its population, defends the weakest elements of society, and pursues peace, cooperation, and development abroad. If we do this, then in the end people all over the world will want to abandon their own failed systems and adopt ours, just as the Eastern bloc peoples did.

And this, in the end, is my most bitter accusation against the neoconservatives and the Bush administration, one in which I believe you may well wish to join: that by a whole set of actions at home and abroad, they have badly damaged the image of American democracy in the world. By doing so, they have also damaged the attractiveness of democracy in general, and strengthened the arguments of democracy's enemies. This has been their fundamental betrayal of the ideals of which they profess to be the arch-defenders. For this, I believe, they will be cursed by posterity.

BHL: I definitely think that we will not be able to abandon this agreement, which we both want.

I'll skip Afghanistan, which you are familiar with, as am I -- and if I concede everything that you want on these matters of drug trafficking, about which, incidentally, I had not spoken with you, I maintain that Massoud was, to the very end, the incarnation of this moderate Islam, open to women, fairly democratic and constitutionalist, all of which the Taliban didn't want and which, by the way, cost him his life.

I'll skip what you call the inevitable slow progress of the building of a democracy in a country that is emerging from the darkness of totalitarianism or extreme poverty: I was talking about this not long ago in Washington, D.C., with William Kristol and Francis Fukuyama; as it happens, it's one of the reasons for my fundamental disagreement with the neoconservatives. I believe I am more than aware (for that matter, like Fukuyama) of the terrible dangers that can be presented to a society by the messianic democracy of the neoconservatives, their manner of ideological progressivism, and their idea that it is sufficient to stand back, push a little, so that the miracle can materialize.

And with regard to the idea according to which, as shown by the history of India, it is better, in order to make it work, to have a “connection between democracy and nationalism” with respect to the idea of a necessary synthesis between the “institutions” remotely stemming from the empire and the values created by the “nationalist struggle” against the rules of the aforementioned empire; with respect to this need for a synthesis between the democracy in question and the sentiment of “national interest” and “national pride” of the country where it is going to take root; all this is obvious and I, myself, have also spent enough time in India. I love this country, its people, and its destiny enough to take the exact measure of what you are saying now.

That said, in your last letter there are three ideas, or three presuppositions, which seem to me to be quite problematic and which, I realize, condense fairly well, in fact, our recent differences of opinion.

1. To pursue at the same time, you say, meaning “separately and at two levels,” these two distinct objectives, which are “the promotion of democracy” and “the promotion of our security interests”… To combine them in another manner, say the interventionist and Wilsonian utopia (of which the neo-conservatives give only a quite vague and distorted idea) and the cautions of a realist diplomacy taking the states as they are and undertaking to “deal” with them … I don't think that this works. In reality, I even think that it's either one or the other, and that complacency with regard to “murderer” states always turns against their people. You cite the example of the former U.S.S.R. You say, to support your thesis: We succeeded well, at the time, in establishing a series of “pragmatic deals with the Soviet regime” without, however, abandoning “the promotion of democracy in the Soviet bloc.” That's just it! I don't see where you get that we continued, despite our “deals,” to occupy ourselves with promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. Because the reality of the time is, as you well know, that we abandoned the Soviet people like dogs and that we resigned ourselves, truly resigned ourselves, to their poor destiny. We put on airs for their leaders. We rambled on about their tendency to quarrel, and we speculated about the destabilizing virtues that international commerce would have there. But the real people, the real victims -- the dissidents, for example, who turned up in the West and came to knock on our doors, we wrote them off as a loss. The same goes today. I guarantee you, if we decide to take Iran as it is and to negotiate with what it could be while waiting for the best days of democracy, society will pay the cost, along with its reformist elements that we are abandoning to their fate. That's the law. That's how it happened yesterday. And that's how it will happen tomorrow.

2. Before promoting them, begin to strengthen the democratic principles at home. Make sure that it is clear that these principles serve to “defend freedom at home,” to “guarantee basic economic security to the mass of the population” and to protect “the weakest elements of society.” Good. Nobody, especially not me, can disagree with that. And the more democracy there is, even in our countries, the better we will carry ourselves. But you seem to say that as if we fell short of the target. You seem to say: “Wait, before you consider exporting it, until your own democracy is in good order.” You act as if democracies had to be quite certain that the laboratory is impeccable before “pursu[ing] peace, cooperation and development abroad” and especially before, seeing the enslaved peoples experience ecstasy in face of the superiorities of the democratic systems.

It's a joke, I hope. Because democracy, being what it is, an interminable social and political regime of literally infinite perfection … [o]ne can wait a long time if waiting for it to be perfect. And, especially, I hope it is very clear, in your spirit as it is in mine, that, even in the most imperfect, the most underachieved, even the most egotistic, the least compassionate, the most “Bush-ist” of democracies, the concern for the “weakest” and the will to defend “freedom at home” is already a billion times stronger than among the Sudanese, the Syrians, or the Chinese. And if they don't want to have it today, they don't want it at all, and that if their spirits don't evolve, they won't want more when we have perfected our own system even more. My objection, in other words, is that you sin, there, by optimism. My objection is that you are in the process of missing this true anti-democratic passion that, unfortunately, sometimes animates people and that is another obstacle to spreading human rights. The passion of ignorance. Voluntary servitude. Drunk with the submission and burden of freedom. This true religion, positive and consistent, which is the totalitarian religion and which is against that which we also must fight. This is not the exclusive privilege of the West. In Iraq also; you need to reread La Boétie and Spinoza.

3. And then, finally, I cannot accept your kind of democracy that should avoid denouncing, for example, the building of arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Because this requirement, dear Anatol Lieven, is evidently part of the package. The renunciation, in Iran, of the will to wipe Israel off the map is an integral part of its democratic culture in formation. The comprehension, by the Pakistanis, that reform of their secret services that are corrupted by Islamism and by nuclear-istic ideology is the prerequisite for building (even a rough outline of) a serious state of law is an obligatory point of passage for the country where Daniel Pearl died, in order to rejoin the community of civilized nations. And I am not even talking about the Palestinians, to whom I am absolutely convinced that it is necessary to say, very clearly, that they have brought themselves to this impasse, letting themselves be led by men who believe in terrorist violence, practice kamikaze actions, and inscribe in their government charter our good old “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Let's consider for an instant the case of the Palestinians. You have two possible attitudes in response to the recent victory of Hamas. The attitude that, in effect, consists of saying: “It's already enough that they voted; we are not going to, in addition, ask them to adapt to our standards by objecting to, for example, the anti-Semite folly of their most radical elements.” Or you have the attitude, which is mine, which says that by reasoning thus you mock the Palestinians, you take them for morons or subjects of no definitive law, and on top of it you accept, bordering Israel, the third point of a triangle of death whose other two points are Iran and Syria: if you reason like this, then you must immediately say to the people of the West Bank and Gaza, without waiting, that they have brought themselves to an impasse, that there is no democracy at all that is even thinkable on such a putrid basis and that they have to take responsibility by getting rid of, as soon as possible, these bad leaders, who are kind of like Nazis. It is not about “giv[ing] the Arab peoples as a whole the idea that democracy involves their agreement to an Israeli-dictated settlement.” But it is about clearly establishing that the will to destroy Israel, the will, in a general way, to take control of one state in order to destroy another, and state-sponsored anti-Semitism are -- I was going to say even in the Arab world -- everywhere the sign and the annunciation of the worst. Democracy is the opposite of Nazism. That is what must be said without delay. You cannot be half democrat and half Nazi; this is the message that the international community, the intellectuals, and the people, must send out without delay. Will this slow down the process again? Maybe in the short term. But probably not in the long term. Because the moral code of truth is really the best ally of the democratic will.

Bernard-Henri Levy is the author of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, among other works. Anatol Lieven is the author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. His next book, Through Humility to Victory: Ethical Realism and the Great Capitalist Peace, co-authored with John Hulsman, will be published this fall by Random House.