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'on liberal grounds'
 an interview with paul berman

A political and cultural critic whose writings appear in The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications, Paul Berman is the author of Terror and Liberalism (2003), just published by W.W. Norton, and A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 (1996). Here, Berman explains why he draws a connection between the ideology of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime and the radical Islamist ideology of Osama bin Laden, and argues that those on the left should follow Tony Blair's lead and support the war against Iraq as a war against totalitarianism and on behalf of liberal-democratic values. Berman was interviewed via email by FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson between March 24 and March 31, 2003.

 
 

In your new book, Terror and Liberalism, you make a strong case for viewing a war against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein as a war against the latest incarnation of 20th-century totalitarianism -- a war on behalf of the ideas and values of liberal democratic society -- and in the process, you connect Pan-Arab Baathist ideology with the radical Islamist ideology of Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden, et al., referring to it all together as "Muslim totalitarianism." Much of the opposition to the current war has rested on emphasizing the essential differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but you're saying they're essentially the same, that they represent two versions of the same "totalitarian system." Do I have that right? Can you explain?

photo of berman

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.

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))) "Resolved: What Lincoln Knew About War,"
by Paul Berman
"We find ourselves in the midst of a Lincolnian war, a war for the liberation of others, yet led by people with Hobbesian instincts -- find ourselves plunged into a crisis of liberal democracy, in which our leaders do not know what Lincoln knew, which was how to appeal to the ever more radical principles of liberal democracy." (The New Republic, March 3, 2003).

 

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.

How is your vision of a struggle against Muslim totalitarianism, and on behalf of liberal democratic values, different from the neoconservative hawks' vision of using American power to remake the Middle East? Do both entail a kind of "liberal imperialism"?

I admire the neocons in one regard: their political ideas are very ambitious. I think the neocons are correct in supposing that something fundamental has gone wrong in the political culture of the Middle East, and that radical measures are required to set the wrong aright. They are correct to speak about liberal democracy, too. Liberal democracy is the only plausible and constructive alternative to the totalitarian impulses that have swept across so much of the region.

The neocon instinct is heavily tainted with an old-fashioned sense of realpolitik, though -- a love of unprincipled power, a reliance on force instead of persuasion, sometimes a romance of the ruthless. The neocons were in charge of a good amount of U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s, and, in Latin America, their record on democratic liberty was not good. I recognize that, in the end, Latin America did adopt liberal and democratic values and institutions, which ought to be acknowledged. But I think that the neocon contribution was mixed, at best. In many places, their actions only served to further the reign of fascist-like right-wing despotisms, instead of overthrowing or reforming those forces. I worry that, in the name of liberal democratic ideals, they will end up doing something similar in the Middle East.

The Bush administration's approach to global institutions and international law has reflected the old neocon zeal for realpolitik, and the neocon contempt for ordinary concepts of law and decent behavior (their romance of the ruthless). I see prefectly well that, in its present dreadful form, the United Nations is barely capable of action. But Clinton was able to get around this problem in Kosovo without doing violence to the larger ideals of the U.N. and of a law-bound community of nations. Bush could have done the same in Iraq, I believe. He didn't even try to do that, though, oweing to the neocon instinct for regarding such institutions and ideals with contempt.

I would like to see a left alternative to the neocon vision become prominent -- a left-wing passion for democratic and liberal internationalism, a left-wing passion for anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism, a passion to try as much as possible to square the means with the revolutionary liberal and humanitarian ends.

You ask if either the neocon idea or my own idea have anything to do with "liberal imperialism." I think imperialism is an unfortunate word. I don't think the neocons especially want to get hold of Middle Eastern plunder (though I know very well that some of the American corporations, who have influence at the White House, would like to do so, and may well end up doing do, because of the neocon cult of the "realistic" and of power). I myself reject the term and concept of imperialism altogether. Imperialism means domination. I don't want the United States to dominate the region. I want the region to change. A healthy, self-governing, liberal Middle East, freed of paranoid and apocalyptic doctrines, tolerant of minorities and of other religions -- that is my idea. That is not imperialism. I oppose imperialism, and I think it is a mistake to try to find a positive meaning for the term.

In your chapter called "The Politics of Slaughter," you write: "In these ways, the Muslim totalitarianism of the 1980s and '90s turned out to have been fully as horrible as the fascism and Stalinism of Europe -- fully as murderous, as destructive of societies and moralities, as devastating to civilization. The victims numbered in the multiple millions. And yet -- how do we explain this? -- Muslim totalitarianism, both Islamist and Baathi, somehow remained invisible, relatively speaking, to the Western countries." Isn't one explanation, perhaps, that the "Muslim totalitarian" forces, unlike Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, have never been great powers? Isn't the comparison to Nazism and Stalinism complicated by the fact that the Baathists and Islamists have never represented an existential threat to the West? Or are you arguing that they now do pose such a threat?

You ask whether Muslim totalitarianism has failed to be taken seriously in other parts of the world because it has never possessed the kind of power that Nazism and Stalinism did. The short answer is, yes. Muslim totalitarianism did not used to pose an existential threat to the liberal world. But that was the past. Today, with the possibility of terrorism joining together with nuclear and other terrible weapons, Muslim totalitarianism does indeed pose an existential danger. I have no doubt that if bin Laden gets hold of a nuclear bomb, he will use it. Nor is al Qaeda the only organization capable of doing so.

The world is drifting toward a nuclear calamity. This should be obvious, though many people seem not to see it. The reason for this drift is not that America has the bomb, or that France has the bomb. The reason is that forces opposed to any kind of rational politics at all are likely to get their hands on the bomb. This must be prevented. I don't understand why more people fail to see the necessity of acting on this measure. Twenty years ago, millions of Westerners marched in the streets to protest nuclear weapons and an impending nuclear war. Today the danger is even greater than it was then. The millions should be marching again -- against Saddam, against North Korea, against the mullahs of Iran, and against the radical Islamists within the Pakistani military, and doubtless against the Indian government, too. Those are the people who are most likely to use such weapons.

You end Terror and Liberalism with the following words: "... freedom for others means safety for ourselves. Let us be for the freedom of others." That's stirring stuff. It almost sounds like Tony Blair. And it's the kind of appeal you call attention to in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address -- where Lincoln argued, as you put it, that "a liberal society must be, when challenged, a warlike society; or it will not endure." Now, you've criticized Bush for failing to make the case for this war as a struggle against totalitarianism, for failing to make it a "war of ideas," a war about liberal-democratic values, rather than merely a war about "credibility" and brute power. (Bush has, of course, presented the war in such terms, but you seem to say it's been too little, too late.) Has Blair done a better job of making this case? You've referred to Blair as the "leader of the free world." What does Blair represent, what kind of figure is he, for divided liberals, especially here in the U.S.? At this particular moment, in the terms of your argument in Terror and Liberalism, is Blair the heir to Lincoln?

Blair has done an infinitely better job than Bush at describing the problem and explaining the reasons for war. Bush's inarticulateness, his brutish demeanor, his lack of education, his uncultured air, his obvious inexperience in world affairs, his lack of ability to hear or understand the arguments of his critics, his air of intolerance -- all of this has proved to be a calamity. Virtually any other American president would have succeeded in securing a much higher degree of support for the present war. Bush alone has turned the world against the United States.

I admire Blair tremendously. I do regard him as the leader of the free world. I think that Blair has put too much stress on the one issue of weapons of mass destruction. I think the larger issue is ideological. Terrible weapons pose terrible dangers; but even box cutters can pose terrible dangers. That is why it is important to speak about the paranoid and apocalyptic nature of the totalitarian mindset, and not just about weapons. Blair doesn't put much emphasis on the ideological issue, though -- definitely a pity, in my eyes.

Still, when Bush says something, I don't believe a word of it. If I happen to agree with Bush on something, I regard my own agreement as sheer coincidence. But I listen to Blair with respect.

Does this mean (I am asked) that Blair should be regarded as in some respect the heir of Lincoln? Lincoln's merit was to understand that democratic societies do have to fight in order to survive. And, yes, Blair does seem to be the Lincoln of our moment just now -- the single large figure on the international scene, the giant in an age of midgets. But then again, Blair would do better if, like Lincoln, he put a bit more emphasis on the ideological aspect of the war.

Are there inherent dangers in embarking on ideologically driven wars to overthrow regimes, as opposed to limited interventions on behalf of humanitarian causes or human rights (which, of course, are also ideologies) or wars fought in self-defense? In other words, where does one draw the line? How does one decide when and where to go to war? Should we follow the invasion of Iraq with an invasion of Syria?

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.

You ask if we should invade Syria. And you ask: where do we draw the line in regard to spreading the war? I think the question is ingenuous. The reasons to invade Iraq are numerous, old, and, because of the weapons, acute. But that doesn't mean we should invade half the countries on earth.

Still, I remark that Syria's government is horrendous in the extreme. Syria does promote terrorism. Syria occupies Lebanon. Syria propounds the worst sort of paranoid and anti-Semitic doctrines. The overthrow of the Syrian Baath is much to be hoped for. And likewise the mullahs of Iran. One of the arguments in favor of the invasion of Iraq, however, is that, by establishing a liberal Iraq, revolutionary liberal forces will be encouraged in those other countries. Whether that turns out to be the case or not, we who think of ourselves as the left in the Western countries ought to be doing everything we can to encourage and defend the liberal forces in those other countries. Obviously the goal should be velvet revolutions and mild evolutions. It's just that, in some cases, the dangers are so great, and the possibilities of political action so limited, that war is unavoidable. Still, let us be for velvet revolutions and mild evolutions -- be for those things sincerely and actively and with energy, and not just rhetorically. Let us turn to the Germans and the French, for instance, and say: OK, you oppose the war. What specifically are you doing to advance human rights and a rational political outlook in the Middle East by means other than war? Are you active in these causes -- or are you just complaining about the Americans and the British?

And regarding Blair as Lincoln, he's also been compared to Gladstone (Timothy Garton Ash described him in The Guardian as a "Gladstonian Christian liberal interventionist.") What about this almost missionary aspect of Blair's foreign policy? His religious faith is often seen as something he has in common with Bush. Is Blair a crusader?

You ask if Blair is a "crusader," meaning, I think, a zealot for the reform of other people -- which is to say, someone dangerous and meddlesome. I look at Blair's record in the Balkans and elsewhere and, in my judgment, it is a fairly good record, by modern standards. I see no reason to look down our noses at him or to bedeck him with patronizing expressions and mild contempt. You ask if his religious faith motivates him. I have no idea. I do know that a religious faith is not in the slightest bit necessary to feel the impulses that evidently drive his most important foreign policies. I think that a sturdy adhesion to liberal values is enough.

In your Sept. 3, 2001, New Republic article "The Passion of Joschka Fischer" -- about Germany's foreign minister, the first Green to hold a ministry-level job in the German federal government -- you write about Fischer's journey "from the radicalism of the '60s to the interventionism of the '90s." And near the outset, as you describe the scandal that erupted in early 2001 over Fischer's apparent role in a violent 1973 street battle between leftist radicals and police, you note that the Paris newspaper Libération referred to the Fischer affair as "the trial of the generation of 1968." That idea, that phrase, seems to take on a whole new meaning in the context of Sept. 11, and now Iraq, and especially in light of your argument in Terror and Liberalism. Fischer, who went on to defy his own party by supporting NATO intervention in Kosovo, is now (along with just about everyone else in Germany and the rest of Europe) staunchly against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. And so I'm wondering, if one looks at Tony Blair on the one hand and someone like Joschka Fischer on the other, is it possible to view the current war as another, perhaps more profound, "trial of the generation of 1968"?

Can this current crisis be regarded as a "trial of the generation of 1968," in the same way that Fischer's political troubles in 2001 were regarded as the trial of a generation? I would say not. Fischer in 2001 became the focus for all kinds of conservative attacks on the rebellions of the 1960s. The radicals of the '60s were blamed for the many woes of modern life. There were even people who blamed the pedophile scandals of the Catholic Church on the radicalism of the '60s. Those accusations added up to a "trial," in the phrase of Libération, the Paris newspaper. But the trial of the generation of 1968 was, after a few months, brought to a close. The generation of 1968 was acquitted, at least in Europe -- though I do notice that, in The Washington Post, a columnist recently did his best to revive the accusations against Fischer. Some things will never go away, I guess.

I am, I must say, disappointed that Fischer has held back from supporting the war in Iraq. But I blame this partly on Bush. If only Bush had presented the Iraq war as something of a continuation or extension of the Kosovo war -- a war against totalitarian and genocidal manias -- I think that many more people in Europe would have given their support. Instead, by emphasizing a doctrine of pre-emptive strikes and by defending his policies with a series of more-or-less mendacious arguments, Bush succeeded only in frightening a lot of people, as could have been predicted. Still, Fischer could have arrived at an interpretation of the war on his own, regardless of the many foolish and off-putting things said by Bush.

You say that "just about everyone else in Germany and the rest of Europe" has opposed the war in Iraq. That is not true. The supporters of the war include Vaclav Havel, Adam Michnik, and George Konrad among the East Bloc dissidents of yore. They include the French '68ers Pascal Bruckner and Andre Glucksmann. And the supporters of the war include Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders and the former NATO administrator in Kosovo (and, incidentally, the most popular politician in France, according to some polls). In short, a good number of the moral leaders of Europe have endorsed the war. In France, the polls have shown that perhaps a third of the population supports the war, as well.

A war that had been justified on liberal grounds -- a war that was described as a war of humanitarianism and anti-fascism and was conducted in a suitable fashion -- would, I believe, have attracted a great more support. Bush was intellectually and ideologically unable to propose any such justification, though, and Blair, with his emphasis on weapons of mass destruction, could not overcome the immense handicap of having Bush as his ally.

On the other hand, serious-minded people could wrest themselves free of their loathing for Bush even now, and could come up with their own analyses, and get themselves to see what ought to be obvious, namely, the progressive aspect of overthrowing a hideous fascist tyranny. The consequences of the war will depend, after all, in large part on who is supporting the war and with what arguments. Are people with liberal or left-wing instincts pressing for progressive war aims? They should be. If we press, we might have some success.

What's different about this war as compared to Kosovo, when Blair, Fischer, and certain others on the left, were able to agree on military intervention? After all, that was another war against totalitarianism, a war on behalf of liberal democracy and human rights (and Blair certainly cast it in those terms then). Is Kosovo somehow key to understanding the divide among liberals over Iraq?

The great difference between the Iraq war and the Kosovo War is that Saddam is much worse than Milosevic, and Saddam poses a much greater danger not only to his own people but to the rest of the world. Many people on the left did support the Kosovo War (though even then there was a very large number who were incapable of seeing the anti-fascist aspect of the war, and mistook it for an imperialist adventure). But today, when the danger is much greater, the left is failing in a much greater degree. Why is that? I harp again on Bush's limitations and unattractiveness. If Clinton were still president, the political situation would be very different, I am sure. Then again, mature people ought to be able to overcome their personal dislikes and to analyze the situation coldly. And a cold analysis, I believe, ought to lead liberals and people on the left to support the effort to overthrow Saddam, and to push for a genuine campaign to establish a liberal society in Iraq and elsewhere, in countries that have fallen into the totalitarian trough.

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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