February 08, 2006

Walking into the Iran Trap, VI: Messianic Zealotry as Foreign Policy -- "Our Children Will Sing Great Songs..."

[Part I: A Decision of Policy -- and the Intelligence Won't Matter

Part II: The Folly of Intervention

Part III: Mythic War, and Endless Enemies

Part IV: The National Myth that Sustains Us -- and Its Inevitable Racism

Part V: Flashback: Endless War, and the Destructive Search for "Meaning"]

In Part III, I discussed certain of Chris Hedges' observations about "mythic war," as well as Robert Merry's thoughts about the Western "Idea of Progress." I showed how these aspects of Western thought make up part of the foundational context out of which the Bush administration's approach to the fatally ill-conceived "War on Terror" and the attack on Iraq arose. In Part IV, I explored how a very dangerous racist element is inextricably and necessarily implied in these ideas. And in Part V, I identified some additional elements of this same overall tapestry: the conception of war, destruction and death as "a serious moral adventure" and a "crusade" in the name of certain "ideals," and the profoundly destructive search for "meaning" by means of violent conflict.

I will return to this article by Ray McGovern in the next part, when I discuss the actual nature of the threat that a nuclear Iran might represent. McGovern's piece and several other articles I will excerpt puncture completely the "conventional wisdom" that has already taken hold for so many, and that views a potentially nuclear Iran as "the largest threat" to the world. If you read McGovern's entire article in the meantime, it will provide you with some of the highlights of a realistic assessment of the danger Iran might represent.

Now, I want to fill in a bit more about the mindset that predisposes so many to fall for the Iran propaganda, in the same exact manner that so many fell for the Iraq propaganda only a few years ago. You would think that witnessing an identical propaganda campaign being waged so soon after the Iraq onslaught would give people pause -- especially since we now know to a certainty that every single point of importance in the Iraq propaganda was entirely false. But as I documented in Part III, even some liberals and progressives -- many of whom opposed the Iraq invasion -- have fallen for the Iran propaganda. It is obvious that other factors must be involved. As I have indicated, those factors involve parts of the entire Western perspective -- the basic methodology that almost all of us bring to questions of great significance, including those implicated by foreign policy debates. All of us absorb this basic framework, whether we are aware of it consciously or not. And that framework determines how we view countries like Iraq and Iran, the kinds of threats we think they represent, and how we conclude we need to act in relation to them.

At the end of his column, McGovern mentions the Richard Perle statement that I noted the other day. McGovern writes:
On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist insisted that Congress has the political will to use military force against Iran, if necessary, repeating the mantra " We cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear nation." Even Richard Perle has come out of the woodwork to add a convoluted new wrinkle regarding the lessons of the attack on Iraq. Since one cannot depend on good intelligence, says Perle, it is a matter of "take action now or lose the option of taking action." One of the most influential intellectual authors of the war on Iraq, Perle and his "neo-conservative" colleagues see themselves as men of biblical stature. Just before the attack on Iraq, Perle prophesized:

"If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war ... our children will sing great songs about us years from now."

Those songs have turned out to be funeral dirges for over 2,250 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
I remember that statement of Perle's from the time he first offered it and, in fact, I recall writing about it in a long-ago post. "Our children will sing great songs..." That phrase has haunted me ever since. [In fact, it was Michael Ledeen who made this particular statement, although the identity of the speaker in this instance makes no difference at all for the analysis that follows.]

It has haunted me because of the almost incomprehensible danger contained in such a worldview. Note the complete disdain for "clever diplomacy" -- i.e., peaceful, non-violent solutions to international conflicts. In the place of "clever diplomacy," we have the full embrace of war -- and not simply war, but "total war." And in a turn of phrase that we would expect from a Roman emperor -- or from an Adolf Hitler, heralding an empire that would last a thousand years -- but words that are deeply unsettling coming from an American who is very influential in foreign policy matters, "total war" is embraced for the sake of adulation from future generations: "our children will sing great songs about us years from now."

This is the language of the genuine zealot, a religious combatant devoted to bringing about a new world through sacred violence and death. It is the language of the apocalyptic crusader. In that essay, I offered some thoughts from James Carroll:
For George W. Bush, "crusade" was an offhand reference. But all the more powerfully for that, it was an accidental probing of unintended but nevertheless real meaning. That the president used the word inadvertently suggests how it expressed his exact truth, an unmasking of his most deeply felt purpose. “Crusade,” he said. Later, his embarrassed aides suggested that he had meant to use the word only as a synonym for struggle, but Bush’s own syntax belied that. He defined crusade as war. Even offhandedly, he had said exactly what he meant.


The cult of martyrdom, even to the point of suicidal valor, was institutionalized in the Crusades, and it is not incidental to the events of 9/11 that a culture of sacred self-destruction took equally firm hold among Muslims. The suicide-murderers of the World Trade Center, like the suicide-bombers from the West Bank and Gaza, exploit a perverse link between the willingness to die for a cause and the willingness to kill for it. Crusaders, thinking of heaven, honored that link, too.

Here is the deeper significance of Bush’s inadvertent reference to the Crusades: Instead of being a last recourse or a necessary evil, violence was established then as the perfectly appropriate, even chivalrous, first response to what is wrong in the world. George W. Bush is a Christian for whom this particular theology lives.
Carroll quoted Robert Jay Lifton on the same theme:
We are experiencing what could be called an apocalyptic face-off between Islamist forces, overtly visionary in their willingness to kill and die for their religion, and American forces claiming to be restrained and reasonable but no less visionary in their projection of a cleansing war-making and military power.
This touches on a point I will explore in more detail in future essays. It would take me too far afield to go into it in depth here, but I will offer the following observation. Many commentators, and many people who subscribe to the notion of a "clash of civilizations" to one degree or another, view the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition and that of Islam as being profound enemies: as representing fundamentally opposite points of view, in irreconcilable conflict with each other.

In fact, that is entirely wrong -- theologically, philosophically and historically. Thousands of years ago, a great shift occurred in the development of Western civilization -- and all three religious traditions grew out of that shift, and they all share the same philosophic foundations. As Carroll points out, Christianity and Islam also share the same positive view of the "cult of martydom." In this sense and with regard to many derivative issues, Lifton and other writers who make the same point are entirely correct: in terms of their basic worldview, and with regard to the underlying dynamics that give their ideas such emotional force, the militant Islamists and those who now direct and support our foreign policy are mirror images of each other. They oppose each other only with respect to one question: who will triumph, and who will rule. It is a struggle for power, not an ideological conflict in the deepest sense.

Because these issues are enormously complex, and because there are those who will remain determined to misunderstand what I am saying, let me clarify an important point. I am obviously not saying that there is no difference between the founding principles of the United States and the militant Islamists. The differences are innumerable and vast. And as I said the other day, I have great reverence for the founding principles of this nation. But those founding principles do not represent what this country is today -- nor are they embodied by those who lead our nation at present. We are now in the middle stages of a neofascist corporate statism, which metastasizes daily. And if Bush's domestic political program were to achieve its full aims, we would be in the grip of a full-fledged authoritarian police state, as Paul Craig Roberts states with admirable clarity and directness.

In terms of its original constitutional design, this nation was an intentionally secular one. See The Godless Constitution for an excellent discussion of this point and the relevant history. That was one of the founding fathers' most profoundly admirable achievements, and it is one that is also now under daily attack. But it must be remembered that this country has always had a quasi-religious conception of itself. That is not true in the strictly political sense -- but it is certainly true in the equally important cultural sense. From John Winthrop's invocation of the Puritans' new community as "a city upon a hill," to politicians' repeated appeals using the same phrase, to many other instances of the same phenomenon, many Americans have always had a strongly religious sense of personal and national identity, even if our founding political document intentionally eschewed any such entanglement.

This returns us to the "Idea of Progress," as Merry discusses it in Sands of Empire. You should consult Merry's book for the full explanation; here I will offer only a few relevant highlights of the Idea, and how it developed. The first point is to distinguish between two kinds of Progress: we are not concerned here with the idea of intellectual progress, or mankind's acquisition of knowledge. Obviously, we all recognize that knowledge has increased immeasurably through the ages, and that it has grown exponentially in the last several hundred years. With the exception of a few unhappy, dedicated Luddites, everyone enthusiastically welcomes such progress.

But the progress that concerns us at the moment is of a different kind. Even though his name and work are little known today, the idea was first announced by a French social philosopher in the early eighteenth century, Abbe Charles-Irenee Castel de Saint-Pierre. He saw a future where man not only achieved greater understanding of the physical universe: he saw "inexorable progress toward social perfection, human happiness, and world peace. He foresaw nothing less than 'a golden age,' as historian J.B. Bury puts it, 'a paradise on earth.'" In other words, human nature itself could be changed and brought closer to perfection -- and the major agent for achieving this end was government. Merry notes that this conception of the Idea of Progress is a dominant one in Western thought, and that Saint-Pierre's view of achievable "social perfection" is now largely viewed as indistinguishable from Progress itself.

Merry offers an unusually absorbing history of how the Idea developed. One particular twist in the tale merits our attention: St. Augustine's contribution to the Idea of Progress. Bury does not think the Idea held sway to any significant degree during the medieval period, because it was completely overshadowed by the Idea of Providence. But another historian, Robert Nisbet (History of the Idea of Progress), doesn't agree:
Nisbet reads St. Augustine far differently--and finds fundamental seeds embedded in his text that would eventually grow into seedlings of the Progress Idea. He cites Augustine's vision of the unity of all mankind, the role of historical necessity, the image of progress as the slow unfolding of a design stretching back to the beginning of man's history and his confidence in a future that would encompass "the spiritual perfection of mankind ... a golden age of happiness on earth."


Once again the Bury-Nisbet debate illustrates an important point about this persistent Western Idea of Progress. Bury is clearly correct in saying that the medieval mind never conceived, much less embraced, the Progress Idea as it later developed in European thought, whether in conjunction with Christianity or in entirely secular garb. At the same time, Nisbet has a point worth pondering--namely, that elements of Christian theology were later incorporated into the Progress Idea as it emerged in an increasingly secular culture. This is an observation of profound significance--that as Providence waned as a powerful idea holding the Western mind in thrall, it was replaced by its secular counterpart, Progress, which in various guises has manifested its own capacity to hold the Western mind in thrall.
Merry then identifies "two great contradictions" in the Progress Idea. As Merry says, many advocates of the Idea were disenchanted with the notion of endless Progress, where nothing is constant except change. So they began to talk of Progress toward "a particular end point" -- "the end of history," in Hegel's phrase. For many intellectuals today -- and for many of those who shape our foreign policy -- that end point reveals itself in Western democracy, and even more particularly in the form of governance to be found in the United States. In other words, they believe in Progress -- but only to the particular solution that we have found. Progress then stops -- or should be made to stop.

And here is the other problem, which has equal if not greater relevance to matters of foreign policy:
The other great contradiction centers on the concept that this Idea of Progress applies to all mankind--a legacy of the Augustinian heritage, as we have seen. And yet the actual progress that is the focus of this Idea has taken place almost exclusively within Western civilization. It is all about Western science, Western technics, Western methods of inquiry, Western philosophy, and, in the end, Western political and economic ideals. Nisbet offers a penetrating insight into all this when he notes that the Idea of Progress has always been essentially "Eurocentric." By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he writes, "the spell of the idea of progress--and with it the Eurocentric view of the entire world--had grown to such proportions that little if anything in the world could be considered in its own right. Everything had to be seen through the West and its values." Implicit in this was the view that other cultures were inferior to the West, and hence universal progress required that these inferior cultures embrace the Western heritage.
And Merry goes on to ask: "If Western ideas, developed via the intellectual progress of which Western minds are so proud, clash with those of other cultures, what does that say about the universality of the Idea of Progress?"

I think we can begin to see how all these elements flow together, and combine to form a cohesive worldview. I will be returning to many of these themes in future essays, but I want to note one issue that should be kept separate from the other concerns. For the moment, I am not focused on the ultimate philosophic truth of one worldview or another -- nor do I want to be seen as endorsing a multicultural subjectivism, where truth and facts are ultimately dependent upon where one lives, and the culture in which one has grown up. I think there are certain universal truths, which no one can reasonably dispute. But those truths are so general that they are of little assistance here -- and they do not help us determine a sound and effective foreign policy.

Human lives and human societies are infinitely more complex than is suggested by those general universal truths alone. And when societies and cultures that are profoundly different begin to interact, the complexities grow by many factors. But what is of great moment in this particular period of history, as it has been at different times in the past, is one particular idea: the conviction held by many that we in the West, and that we in the United States more particularly, have the ultimate solution -- and that this solution is of universal applicability. Many of us further believe that, since our solution is indisputably best for everyone, if some people don't yet see that -- well, then we shall have to enlighten them, using military force as required.

When you add to this perspective the kind of "mythic reality" that Hedges talks about, the stage is set for catastrophe. Anyone who does not subscribe to our worldview is viewed as Evil. Certain of our enemies may view us as The Great Satan -- but many of us view them in fundamentally the same way. As I have suggested, and as Merry discusses, one need not be religious to hold this worldview: it arises from the secular Idea of Progress, as it has developed in the West. This is the cultural atmosphere in which all of us have been raised, and it affects our views and our prescriptions for action in countless ways.

In the next part, I'll turn to the "Iran problem" specifically, examine what it actually is and what it may be in the future -- and then consider how we might deal with it most effectively, in a manner that avoids military conflict altogether.