March 21, 2007

Letter to the Paper LIV

Bjoern Staerk asks What Went Wrong taking Bernard Lewis' book in a different direction. He disclaims a discussion of Lewis but he disclaims too much because one cannot productively discuss the West's own errors without clearly understanding the larger situation in the Islamic world. The paper is very useful as an examination of the pro-war fallen away. Here is my comment.

I have to say that I disagree with the essay and much of the commentary here. For someone who has heard of (and presumably read) Huntington's "What Went Wrong" this is a remarkably unreflective essay. Several hundred years of civilizational decline are to be quickly and easily reversed by the US, how? It is not that the Islamic civilization had its bubble pricked once but again and again and they have fallen further and further behind in a process that started well before 1776 and arguably before 1492 as the Spanish Reconquista was an early harbringer. Either Islam must die or a new Islam must arise. Since they have the nasty habit of killing their reformers, such a change inevitably must be violent and, yes, quite a bit chaotic.

But *why* these are the only two choices before us gets rare coverage. The plain fact is that even in the most disconnected corner of the world, people are becoming more empowered. The rates of growth in power are highly variable but cell phones, access to electricity and other signs of modernity are reaching out across the globe. The power necessary to create a mass casualty event, however, remains flat and will continue to remain flat. Hardening our society to meaningfully raise that threshold is largely beyond us. Thus we face a growing number of entities, first subnational then down to individuals, who have the capacity to do serious harm. Absent their integration into the world system, a significant number, much more than we can tolerate, will turn to terrorist methods and create those mass casualty events. Civilization may be able to shrug off a certain number of mass casualty events a year but past a certain point, the cool will shatter. How many of our dead must we sacrifice until we reach that breaking point? How many until we turn fascist and brutal or simply give in and bend our neck to our new masters?

As well, the multi-century Islamic decline outlined in Huntington's book does not allow for meaningful integration with its root causes unaddressed. Regressive recent trends, like the rebirth of aggressive veiling dating from the 1970s in Egypt are making the situation worse, not better.

In the US Civil War, Bull Run I was a high point of northern delusion. The ladies of Washington, DC came to picnic as "our boys" were going to give the rebels a thrashing. Reality turned out very differently and the results were infinitely worse than Iraq. But this was not a cause to abandon the war but to get serious about it. In the US Civil War it took several years and many changes in leadership before the project of actually getting good enough to win was accomplished. Rivers of blood were shed and entire cities of the dead were created in the meantime. The very real wastes and lost opportunities of the Iraq War and the wider war on Terror pale in comparison (though by no means are they trivial). They were worth the eventual victory in both cases.

Where did we go wrong is a useful question. We've gone very wrong on tactics, on logistics, on any number of small things and we've paid in blood and treasure. But the very large question of fight or not, we got it right. The battlefield of Iraq was also picked well. Both Sunni and Shia *must* pay attention to Iraq in a way that they do not have to in Afghanistan or some hypothetical battlefield in the Maghreb or southern or central Asia.

Today, the stakes are raised on all sides. In this too, the essay is a bit unreflective. When you rouse the troops and plant the flag, the stakes grow. To retreat in Iraq now is to give the green light to all sorts of schemes and plots that we barely perceive exist and certainly have not counted the cost. There are no pleasant choices. The Sudanese, for instance, have made the calculation that the US is too busy, and everybody else is too incapable or spineless to prevent genocide in Darfur. They are not alone in making such calculations, just the most imprudent.

Posted by TMLutas at March 21, 2007 08:33 AM