Just how good is American liberalism's inner ear?
Defending an open
society in the wake of September's attacks demands that we strike the right
balance between security and liberty, between the first of the Declaration of
Independence's inalienable rights and the second; and that we remind our
countrymen that in a battle of ideals with a closed society, liberty and
tolerance can be the most potent weapons in our arsenal. Even so, we'll also need
some more conventional weapons along the way.
This insistence on openness, on the primacy of liberal ideals, stands
in clear contrast to those, within the administration and without, who see the
conflict as fundamentally military. And it is largely beside the point to those
on both the right and the left who view the attacks as less an external threat to
us than a divine or historical judgment upon us. As both Jerry Falwell and
various left-wing activists and critics see it, America truly is the Great Satan,
and our current course of action must be to abandon our sinful ways. Indeed, some
of what I've read over the past three weeks--critiquing the U.S. role in the
world and stopping the discussion right there--seems a little like responding to
the start of World War II by acknowledging that Britain and France should never
have imposed those ruinous reparations on Germany in the Treaty of Versailles of
1919. To be sure, that draconian policy helped fuel the rise of militant
totalitarianism. But the question (then and now) is, how do we oppose it? How do
we defend our values and our lives?
The terrorism that burst upon us this September
cannot be understood, solely or even preponderantly, as a reaction to U.S.
global or Middle Eastern policy.
The theocratic ultranationalism to which the terrorists adhere is an outgrowth
of the indigenous politics of the Middle East--in particular, of the political
underdevelopment of the region. Much of the problem is the regimes themselves,
almost all of which prohibit the normal practice of politics--the formation of
parties, unions, and associations free from state sponsorship; in short, civil
society and parliamentary democracy. These regimes range from repressive
monarchies in the Persian Gulf to the secular totalitarian states of Syria and
Iraq to the theocratic republics of Iran (where theocrats have been compelled to
battle with more pluralistic forces) and Afghanistan (where they haven't).
None of these regimes has an interest in fostering a genuine domestic
politics. Instead, they either promote or tolerate a kind of regional/global
metapolitics, invariably anti-Israeli and in some cases anti-American.
Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat wasn't kidding when he said that he
had to consult with Arab heads of state about the proposed settlement he was
offered at Camp David. Though the completion of the Oslo process would be a big
step toward peace, a genuine Israeli-Palestinian accord could also prove
destabilizing to various Arab regimes for whom opposition to Israel has been both
a safety valve for mass political expression and a bond linking them to their
The suppression of worldly politics (and the absence of a civil society, which
gives rise to such politics) in much of the Middle East contributes to the rise
of an unworldly politics--one of racial and religious utopianism--bent on
creating a world where one faith and one people live according to a clear set of
precepts, untainted by outside ideas or infidels. ("We fed the heart on fantasy,"
Yeats wrote. "The heart grew brutal on the fare.") Such a creed certainly defines
the Taliban, who, in the halcyon days before the September attacks, were forcing
the Hindus among them to wear identifying insignias reminiscent of yellow stars
when they appeared in public. There are more secular variants of this creed, too;
and some of September's terrorists may not have been theocrats but certainly
believed that ruthlessly eliminating the West from their part of the world was a
transcendent cause and panacea.
But developing an effective military/policing
deterrent against these
ultranationalists, while clearly essential, will not transform the region's
underlying dynamics. Given the absence of the institutions of civil society from
much of the region, U.S. options are limited: This is not Serbia, where
indigenous democratic opposition groups could be fairly easily identified and
cultivated. By any democratic criteria, even our allies are nothing to write home
about. Indeed, our national policy is to back one regime (the Saudis), which
denies women the right to vote, against the threat of another (Iraq), where
women can vote all they want so long as their votes go to Saddam; meanwhile, we
plot the destruction of yet another (the Taliban), which denies women the right
to schooling and employment.
To recount the limited options for genuinely democratic reforms in the
region, however, is not to excuse the United States for failing to press for
those reforms. All too often, U.S. policy in the region has been dictated by our
oil industry. And in the Bush presidency, we now have an administration that can
accurately be described as the energy industry vested with state power. To say
that we've been an uncertain trumpet for liberal democratic values in the Arab
and Middle Eastern world is to put it charitably. Decoupling our approach to the
region from the drill-we-must worldview of the Bush White House is one key
challenge. Making clear to the world that America protects and welcomes its Arab
and Muslim citizens and residents is another.
Certainly, nothing could promote liberal-democratic values in the region more
clearly than a genuine resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The case
for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a
Palestinian state--together with a formal peace treaty between the Arab nations
and Israel and the stationing of U.S. and other forces along the new borders--has
long been clear. On its own terms, such a settlement would be a boon to both
Israel and Palestine and would surely strengthen the less nationalistic elements
within the nations. At the same time, however, and precisely for that reason, it
would also be met by fierce resistance from ultranationalist groups on both
sides--just as the mid-1990s rapprochement between Arafat and Israeli Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin was countered by Rabin's assassination and a wave of
terror bombings from Hamas.
Today, it's not even clear to what degree Osama bin Laden and his followers
identify with the Palestinian cause, since the Palestinians are among the most
secular, or at least nonfundamentalist, of Arab nations. But even if an
Israeli-Palestinian accord will not reduce--and may, for a time, actually
increase--the incidents of terror, it is hard to envision the forces of liberal
democracy advancing in the Middle East in its absence. The continuing conflict
provides rulers throughout the region with an excuse to stay on a war footing
that suppresses the development of more democratic politics within their states.
Here at home, W.'s White House has remade itself
overnight. The go-it-alone
cowboys now talk of global coalitions, the right-wing sectarians now talk of
national unity, and W. plants smooches on both Senate majority leader Tom Daschle
and House minority leader Dick Gephardt.
But liberals have reason to beware of so disabling a smooch.
Certainly, the administration cannot be given a blank check to make war,
especially when the success of any military action depends so heavily on its
proportionality. In the current conflict, proportionality is both a moral and a
strategic concern, for the moral and strategic are inextricably intertwined. As
we learned in Vietnam, you don't win a war in which public sentiment is
ultimately crucial by destroying a village--or a nation, or a region--in order
to save it.
Nor do you win a war by throwing money at the most dim-bulb Pentagon projects.
Nothing about the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made the
administration's missile-defense proposal any less dangerous, costly, or
unworkable, but congressional Democrats backed off their qualified opposition to
the project nonetheless. Now, emboldened by its early success and eager to
exploit the sense of national emergency, the administration is floating other bad
ideas that have nothing to do with the current crisis in hopes that the Democrats
will find this a difficult time to oppose the president on anything.
Thus, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has argued that one response
to the Trade Center bombing must be the reinstatement of the president's
fast-track authority. A more stunning non sequitur is hard to conceive; whatever
it is the world needs in the wake of the bombings, it sure isn't more
laissez-faire economics. One would hope that congressional Democrats would
maintain just enough judgment not to surrender their vision and their obligation
to the working people who elected them on this matter. The fact that they
acquiesced in airline-bailout legislation that did not include government aid to
laid-off airline-industry workers, much less a planning process to strengthen the
whole transportation system, doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence.
None of this is to dismiss a range of security measures that liberals can and
should embrace. The Democratic leadership's proposal to federalize airport
security--which some Republicans oppose because it runs counter to their dogged
reliance on the market--is just such a measure. But liberals also have to be wary
of the security apparat's historic difficulty in distinguishing between threats
to the public safety and threats to the conventional wisdom. It is one thing to
be exasperated at the myopic inability of some within the antiglobalization
movement to recognize any evil of non-American origin. But myopia is a far cry
from complicity, and this is a distinction that some commentators on the right
already have had trouble making.
Besides, it's in defending an open and egalitarian society that liberals make
their most valuable contribution to national security. By the standards of
earlier American wars, both the government and the media have admirably broken
new ground by their condemnation of discrimination during this crisis. Partly,
that's a strategic reaction: We are endeavoring to win friends and influence
people throughout the Middle East. But it's also a reflexive reaction: Within a
couple of hours of the attacks, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and all the network
news anchors were cautioning against blaming Arab Americans and Muslims--less out
of global calculation, I think, than out of conviction.
These reactions stand in welcome contrast, of course, to our government's
policies toward German- and Japanese-American citizens in the two world wars. What
differentiates America now from the America that interned hundreds of thousands
of Japanese Americans is the widespread acceptance of civil rights and abhorrence
of racial discrimination. That is the legacy of the civil-rights movement of the
1950s and 1960s. In what is ultimately a battle of conflicting visions of
civilization that we must wage against adherents of a monolithic society, our
own commitment to diversity and equality may be the strongest weapon we possess.
That weapon was forged by liberals and radicals in their campaign to make America
live up to its liberal values. In the name of national security, today's
liberals must do no less.