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A War Against Totalitarianism? A War of Ideology?

There are those who make a case for viewing a war against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein as a war against a latter-day incarnation of 20th-century totalitarianism -- and who present it as part of a broader war against a kind of Islamic, or theocratic, fascism. Is this a war of ideology? Are there inherent dangers in embarking on ideologically driven wars to overthrow regimes? Where does one draw the line?

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-  Timothy Garton Ash
A fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, he is the author of several books on Central and Eastern Europe in the late-20th century, including History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s (2000), The Magic Lantern: The Revolutions of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin and Prague (1990).

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I think that there are two issues there. One is, what does the theocratic fascism of Osama bin Laden have to do with the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein? My view is that they are very different things. They're both very bad things, but they're very different things. And the connection between them has not been well established.

The other question is, are we -- whoever "we" are -- entitled, morally entitled, to intervene because a regime is fascist or totalitarian? And I think that the bar for intervention has to be set quite high. I think there has to be evidence of attempted genocide. And I'm prepared to acknowledge that a systematic attempt to get hold of weapons of mass destruction, particularly by someone like Saddam, who's already used them, is a further justification for intervention. Weapons of mass destruction do change, as it were, the terms of world order.

But I don't think we can -- much as I would, in many ways, like us to -- I don't think we can let ourselves in for an international order in which the mere existence of an unpleasant dictatorship justifies armed intervention by the international community. Much less by a single power. Because I think that sovereignty should be limited, but nonetheless, I think that sovereignty, a society of states, is an important element of international order, and that is imperiled by a too-liberal doctrine of intervention.

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- Paul Berman
A political and cultural critic whose writings appear in The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications, he is the author of Terror and Liberalism (2003) and A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (1996).

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Conventional wisdom imagines that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and their respective movements are utterly different and unrelated, and that war against Saddam has nothing to do with war against Osama. But I think the conventional wisdom is a little faulty.

In my view, Al Qaeda (and the broader radical Islamist current, of which it is the most radical part) and Saddam's Baath Party are two of the tendencies within a much larger phenomenon, which is a Muslim totalitarianism. The Muslim totalitarian idea arose in the 1920s and '30s, partly as a reflection of the European totalitarianism of those same years. The Muslim totalitarian idea can be summarized this way: liberal civilization is a fraud and a menace and is, in fact, the source of the world's unhappiness. Liberal civilization is attacking the Muslim and Arab worlds from within, in the form of liberal Muslims, and from without, in the form of Western imperialism and Zionism. These attacks are cosmic in character. They threaten to destroy the Arab or Muslim world, above all, by invading the Arab and Muslim mind. The attacks should be resisted with a revolutionary movement that will resurrect the glories of the Muslim caliphate of the seventh century, when the Arabs were conquering the world. But the restored caliphate will not be a return to the past. It will be a leap into a new kind of modernity, anti-liberal, cleansed of Jews, imperialists, and foreign bodies generally. It will be a modernity of the total state, based on total obedience, which is freedom.

The Islamists and the Baathists, both movements alike, share those ideas. They also differ from one another. The Islamists dream of theocracy and the reign of shariah. The Baathists think in more secular terms, though with a distinctly spiritual underpinning. Those differences have led the Islamists and Baathists into mutual massacres. And yet the two movements picture themselves as fighting the same war -- the war against liberal values, against Western imperialism, and against Zionism.

Until 9/11, I would have said that Baathism and Islamism were regional problems, and the regional problems were hugely unfortunate for people in the region, but not necessarily for anyone else. That view was naive. Muslim totalitarianism in its two principle currents has massacred millions of people. It should have been obvious all along that sooner or later people from those political tendencies were going to stage massacres in other parts of the world, too. A cult of mass death lies at the heart of both ideologies -- as is always the case with totalitarian movements. And the cult of death has no limits, none at all.

On that count, I look on the war in Iraq as part of the larger "war against terror" -- as one element in the broader war against totalitarianism. What threatens us is not a gang of thirty people, or two thousand people. It is the larger totalitarian impulse, which varies ideologically from group to group but is fundamentally the same. The end of the taboo against staging gigantic massacres in the United States, the rise of an extremely sophisticated international terrorist underground, the steady development of nuclear and other terrible weapons by the Baath and other wings of the totalitarian movement -- all of those developments signal, in my mind, the approach of gigantic calamities. That is why I think we do have to try to roll back the totalitarian movement, in each of its wings. Exactly how to roll back the movement is another question, of course. ...

There is definitely an inherent danger in an ideological war. The present war is ideological because it is ideology that drives the terrorists and the totalitarians --ideology, not material interests. The war is ideological because, in order for the totalitarians to be defeated, their own followers and supporters in the general population have to be persuaded to adopt different ideas. That is why the war ought to be ultimately a war of ideas -- even if, in the neocon concept, ideas play a relatively small role in world events.

But it is certainly the case that, in prosecuting an ideological war, we could easily turn into fanatics of our own cause -- zealots in the cause of anti-zeolotry. Let us be aware, then. A little self-interrogation will do us good, on this point. Let us not be hobbled by the belief that all wars are the Vietnam War. But let us not forget the lessons of Vietnam, either. ...

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- David Rieff
An American writer and foreign-policy analyst currently at the American Academy in Berlin, he is the author most recently of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2002) and Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995).

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Is Saddam Hussein really the incarnation of totalitarianism? He is a totalitarian dictator, but does that mean that all the other totalitarian dictators should be overthrown by us? Should we go after various African tyrants? Should we invade Cuba? I mean, is it really the case that it is the duty of the United States, as a country with the military might, to do this? To undo regimes, particularly when we have nothing to put in their place?

For me a vital distinction, for example, between an intervention in Bosnia, which I supported, and this, is my support for the Bosnians had to do with the fact that I felt Bosnia was a genuine democracy. And that I wanted my country, a democracy, to side with this other democracy against their fascist enemies. But it seems to me people are saying, in effect, we know how to build democracies in these places. Or, alternatively, these democracies are waiting to germinate, if only we could get rid of the totalitarian tyrant.

And I don't buy it. I've got to say, I don't see any evidence for this. And I'm very skeptical of the ability of the United States to create democracies in places like Iraq, which have never had a democracy. ... These just seem to be utopian constructs. And I'm very puzzled by them. ...

This is the question, I think, intelligent opponents of Blair have asked him, which is why is it the duty of Britain or the United States, why is it the duty of our people to kill and die to create democracy out of whole cloth in Iraq?

It seems to me the people who say that, you know, who choose to view the war against Saddam Hussein as a fundamentally moral crusade, are in effect saying that it's the job of the United States, in principle, to be the sword bearer of the anti-totalitarian struggle. But is that really true? I mean, the Soviet Union posed a clear danger to us, in my view. Again, I'm not at all of the left view in this. Our national survival was at stake in the Cold War. Is our national survival really at stake now? And if it's supposed to be a war of values, then is it really our fate -- and should we agree to this fate if we have any say in it -- to fight endless wars of altruism? ...

It seems like Rumsfeld, and Blair for that matter, are saying that the combination of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism does pose some kind of existential threat. Whereas you seem to be saying that on an ideological level, the threat of Baathist fascism, or whatever, isn't really a threat to our way of life.

I don't think there's any chance of Saddam Hussein making converts out of the Mexican government. ... I understand the existential threat. ... I'll be very candid. ... Don Rumsfeld may be right, and I may be wrong. This may be a big enough security threat to warrant doing it. I'm not sure. My sense is it is not, but I could be wrong, which is why I've never taken a strong anti-war stance, and why I can't support the demonstrations and all this, because I do feel that these people may be right about it, purely in terms of a threat. ...

Frankly, I think the right is more honest than the left. The neoconservatives want, or at least some of them want, an American empire. That's a coherent position. You know, at least I can understand that. ...

I mean, one thing that always strikes me about the neoconservative wing of the Bush administration is how much they remind me of May '68 ultra-leftists. They're like those people. They're totally persuaded that they're on the side of the angels. And they're not very particular about the means they use on the way toward doing that angelic work.

I consider myself, in every sense, someone who is a friend of the American military and sympathetic to its concerns. But when I hear the secretary of defense complaining about American soldiers being put on television, and I think of Guantanamo and the disgraceful policies of the Pentagon about captured Taliban, I'm afraid it does stick in my craw. But, of course, if you're a true believer, if you're an old Bolshevik, you know what matters is that you're on the right side; law is just an instrument. Again, these people strike me that way.



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posted april 3, 2003

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