[This essay first appeared as Underlying rationales on James' blog Often Right, Rarely Correct. --ed.]
Are we engaged in an existential war or an ideological conflict? The distinction is a crucial one to make.
In the February 20, 2007 edition of The New Republic Online (subscription required), William R. Gruver – a professor of business and international relations at Bucknell University – exhorts us to learn the lessons of the legendary fathers of military doctrine and theory, Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, and apply them to our evaluation of the situation in Iraq. I tend to agree with his general interpretation of their complementary doctrines and the conclusions he draws when viewing the war on and occupation of Iraq in material matters. He is quite right that, should we continue this campaign, it will not be won cheaply (in either material or lives), and it will be one long slog. He states:
“The Cold War lasted nearly fifty years, and, although the major protagonists never directly engaged in a shooting war, they did confront each other through proxies in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. Iraq is not the real issue today, just as the proxy wars of the Cold War were not the main concern then. The struggle in the Cold War was between two different ways of life--western liberal democracy and totalitarian Communism. The choice today is also ideological--western liberal democracy or repressive Islamist theocracy.”
We are engaged in an ideological conflict, though in weighing the evidence there is little indication that violent non-state actors driven by Salafism and their political wings, or even the millenarian Shi’a movement, present the level of threat we were confronted with in the fascist and imperial Axis or the totalitarian and expansionary Communist Bloc. Allow me to be clear: I completely agree with Professor Gruver’s analysis in almost all ways with respect to the situation on the ground; however, I disagree with his predilection for casting this conflict in an existential light. Professor Gruver’s assertion, “The long-term nature of our current ideological war has yet to be well explained or understood by the American public... We are facing an existential threat to our way of life, but we are trying to do so on the cheap,” is a convenient springboard to a larger issue: Whether or not we are truly engaged in an existential struggle.
An existential struggle, in terms of international relations, is a war for existence as an identified way of life or national group. It is perhaps fitting that the term may also be used elsewhere to describe the clash of two inimical philosophies: liberal, republican democracy and totalitarian, fundamentalist theocracy. In evaluating this threat, a heavy dose of starkly applied pragmatic realism is required. We must strip away our ideological blinders in order to accurately perceive the level of the threat we face, and how best to respond.
What is the actual ability of violent non-state actors to alter our fundamental functioning as a nation or our existence as a people? Desires aside, can they physically accomplish what many seem to believe they’ve set out to do: destroy America and liberal democracy? A realistic appraisal indicates not.
Where are their conquering armies, their technologically or numerically superior forces? Even with the ability to acquire nuclear material, can they acquire enough, and take it to the continental U.S., to deliver “death to America?” Can rigid theocrats actually conquer a continent-sized nation raised on a diet of the right to bear arms and weaned on movies like “Red Dawn”? A nation, further, in possession of the most highly-trained and efficiently destructive collection of citizen-soldiers ever? I believe the proper response to any such intimation that they can is a healthy dose of skepticism (if not outright mockery, depending on the level of histrionics).
The methods ultimately available to violent non-state actors are frightening; by the very nature of non-state actors, they must be. Without their psychological effect, they aren’t worthwhile. Terrorism is how weaker enemies try to level the imbalance of power when they cannot defeat their foe through military might. It is also important to note that there is only so much a nation can do to protect itself from men and women willing to use planes and other implements of modern convenience as weapons. The worst that a violent non-state actor can do is force a nation to change how it behaves. No matter how inimical their philosophy to our own, genocide and conversion by the sword are not options to the violent non-state actor; their physical actions make willing conversion, and even fearful conversion absent the physically present threat of the sword, unlikely – rendering the stark choice -- victory or annihilation -- presented by Professor Gruver and others moot. All “Islamists” can do is provoke a nation or ideology into changing its own character. Any existential threat, in the philosophical or physical sense, stemming from either version of totalitarian, fundamentalist Islam (either Salafism/Wahhabism or millennial Shi’ism), comes from the damage we are willing to do to our own way of life out of fear of the infrequent and terrifying acts of psychological guerrilla warfare.
Ultimately, ideological wars (if we are to accept the premise that we are engaged in one) are not won on the field of battle, despite the misleading moniker. Ideological wars are won, in John F. Kennedy’s words, in the hearts and minds of the people (see Robert Dallek’s excellent lecture series, “To Lead a Nation”). Fighting an ideological war through strength of arms is counterproductive – as with any fanatical movement, physical repression provides solidarity (see the works of Professor Bob Altemeyer and Eric Hoffer; or you can consult any available history of the Reformation era). A military response will only work to eliminate an ideology through irrevocable eradication; in the case of the Middle East, this would result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of native lives, as Americans lack the linguistic and cultural knowledge to ably discern who the foe is and to isolate them before striking.
Ideological wars are best won through conversion. Look upon the example of John F. Kennedy, who battled an expansionist ideology (Stalinist Communism) and, faced with the potential that it might win adherents in the Third World, created the Peace Corps, wherein young Americans demonstrated the compassion and communal commitment that are hallmarks of the American spirit. When Kennedy’s conversion program was supplanted by violence – President Ronald Reagan’s support of Contra death squads in Nicaragua, are a prime example – America lost the good will it had engendered. The virulently anti-American (and resultantly anti-capitalism and anti-liberty) presidency of Hugo Chavez, and the burgeoning authoritarian, pseudo-Communist Bolivarian movement in South and Central America that he leads is the result. Leaders like Chavez present their own dangers, and the longer we confront the bugaboo of straw-man “Islamofascism,” the more entrenched they will become in a region far closer to our nation in terms of culture, resources, and geography.
The oft-derided “soft power” is much more useful in a long-term ideological struggle. American cultural creep – what some might call “cultural imperialism,” as though imperialism is by nature bad – is inexorable (and indeed, desirable if consumer culture is any indication), nor is it necessarily inimical to local culture in many ways. If certain panic-stricken elements of our society were to set aside their fears for a few moments and take a look at the society of Iran, they would find themselves encouraged by the presence of Gap stores and Justin Timberlake records (see Diane Sawyer’s recent trip to Iran for Good Morning America on ABC). American cultural outreach – and by extension the political philosophy that makes it possible – is attractive because it brings an improved style of living and self-worth. It sparks individualism in a region still defined by tribal, ethnic, and religious identity, a necessary hallmark for liberal democracy.
If the United States is serious about waging an ideological war and preventing an existential one (again, one I do not think can occur on a practical, living-breathing-bleeding level), it should actively encourage nascent liberal democracy, such as the Cedar Revolution government in Lebanon. Most people don’t really have the luxury to exist at an abstract, philosophical level – that is a vice of ancient Greeks and modern Americans; instead, they understand things like who helps them materially, with food, money, and building supplies. This is a lesson Iran’s millennial Shi’a leadership has learned, and is in large part why the violent non-state actor Hezbollah is so popular among the southern Lebanese Shi’a community. It’s not that these Shi’a necessarily buy what Hezbollah is selling, but rather that they perceive American dollars – and therefore America – as behind the bombs that wreck their homes and not the drywall, plaster, and wood that goes to rebuild them.
Waging a physical ideological war requires a national commitment to imperialism. If we want to impart liberal democracy to a part of the world that is culturally not ready for it, then we have to decide, as a national community, to have a large military footprint and to directly administer that society. The national industry must be prepared to supply the imperial effort. If we are not prepared to behave in this manner, we must fight by other means. Our current efforts in Iraq are insufficient and misdirected, and so we are in the middle of a sectarian war – one between Sunni and Shia – that distracts from the wider ideological conflict.
A nation’s military must be clear-eyed, pragmatic, and occasionally ruthless abroad so that it can afford to be liberal at home. This does not mean belligerence as a response to any threat. Efficient pragmatism requires that we know when not to act, or when to act via other means. Most importantly, it requires us to accurately weigh rhetoric versus capability. Opponents of a bellicose response to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran or violent Salafism are frequently challenged to “take the rhetoric seriously.” My response is: “So what?” This is a region of the world – not to mention a psychological type – frequently afflicted with a particularly bombastic and belligerently dramatic diarrhea of the mouth. Even as the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad (the political face of the arch-conservative wing of the Iranian mullahs) has increased, his popularity in that country has dwindled. If we must believe the rhetoric, the question still remains: What can and will they actually do to harm U.S. interests? Nothing of consequence to anything except our economy, in the form of an ability to destabilize oil production, a result we can mitigate with innovation.
I will be charitable and indulge the notion that violent Salafism and millennial Shi’ism want to destroy America as a society, culture, institution, political and economic philosophy, and physical entity. Unless they convert the whole of the world’s nuclear powers to their cause, there is simply no fashion by which they threaten our continued existence. Political and cultural tyrannies can and should be burned out at the roots with torches and pitchforks. But that is a long-term struggle, not one requiring our presence in Iraq, and certainly not in its current form. Nor does it require a belligerent posture towards Iran, when its popular culture is already primed for moderation and a philosophical renaissance. And it most certainly does not justify our leaders’ and their supporters’ fear and panicked responses; it is there that the existential threat lies, if it exists at all.
(A note on terminology: I prefer to be as specific as possible in describing our actual or potential opponents. The term “violent non-state actors” is a substitute for the generic term “terrorist,” because the latter term is far too emotionally charged and inaccurate. Salafism is the form of totalitarian, fundamentalist Islam espoused by al Qaeda’s principals and is confined to the Sunni sect, much like Wahhabism. “Millennial Shi’ism” refers to the apocalyptic“12th Imam” movement within the Shi’a sect of Islam, who are directly analogous to Christian Zionists and other “end of days” evangelical Christians. I hold the term “Islamofascism” in the deepest contempt, and find “Islamist” less helpful in analyzing the Middle East than the concomitant term “Christianist” is for American political culture.)