Buruma on Berman

Ian Buruma has a nice critique of Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism in the current NYRB. Tom has assailed Berman's formulation of "islamo-fascism" as water-carrying for the neocons

Buruma assesses some differences between European and American liberalisms, and where the analogies between radical islamism, Ba'athism and fascism break down. "Islamist groups may be able to do us much harm, but are not about to invade our countries, infiltrate our institutions or take over our governments," whatever you hear to the contrary. And even a nuclear-armed Iraq couldn't have won a war with the US.

Even as the stated aims in the Iraqi war are to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, other dictatorships (Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and an assortment of other Stans) are coddled as prized allies; the Russians are barely criticized for demolishing Chechnya; human rights in China are hardly even mentioned anymore; and when Turks or Brazilians exercise their democratic rights to vote for leaders or policies that the American administration doesn't like, they get chastised for doing so. Clearly democratic revolution is rather a selective business.

This is sometimes unavoidable. Even, or indeed especially, the United States, as a superpower, needs to make shabby deals, bribe unsavory leaders, and compromise to protect its interests. It would, of course, be desirable if the US did more to promote freedom and democracy, wherever and whenever it can, but it is precisely the penchant of the current administration to blur realpolitik with revolutionary zeal, to bribe and twist arms with trumpeting blasts of self-righteousness, that provokes so much resistance in the world. The idea, moreover, that democracy can be established by military invasion is not bolstered with much historical evidence.

Apologists for the current US government keep on reminding us of Germany and Japan, but these examples are widely off the mark. To start, both countries attacked the US with their own military forces first. The Allies did not fight to build Japanese and German democracies, but to defend themselves. Secondly, the US did not create German or Japanese democracies from scratch. Both countries were modern nation-states, which once had flawed but functioning democratic institutions, with parliaments, political parties, independent judges, vigorous newspapers, and so on. Things went horribly wrong in the 1930s, to be sure, but what was needed in 1945, and indeed carried out with great American humanity and skill, was a restoration job, not a revolution.

Again, one does not have to be a hard-boiled "realist" to see that bringing democracy to Iran, Saudi Arabia, or North Korea with military force would be a very different proposition. The US may be exceptional in many respects, but the belief of its more zealous officials, and intellectual cheerleaders, in a national destiny to dispatch American armies to remake the world in its own image is by no means unique. Others have been down that route, and not everything they did was ignoble: think of Napoleon's emancipation of the Jews. But eventually such missions always come to grief, leaving ruins where they meant to build utopias.
Worth a look as our masters contemplate reshaping the world in their image.

- bruno 4-11-2003 8:10 pm

Salon did a follow-up interview with Berman yesterday where he whoops it up (accompanied by a picture of an Iraqi attacking a statue base with a hammer--not sure whether he later had to ask a US tank driver for help). Here's a letter in response, that echoes my complaint about libs blindly going along with Bush's plan (it's a bit harsh in tone, but these are tough times):

Paul Berman is an ass. The left has always been about international, non-governmental solidarity, the building of civil society and the extension of the good things in life to those who previously lacked them. Or rather, the serious left has always been about that. The left that writes letters every day, or spends its money on organizing and solidarity work. The left that campaigned and voted for Nader, sick-to-death of the spineless Democratic and Republican parties. The left that was against sanctions for 12 years and against this war for both short-term humanitarian reasons and long-term strategic reasons. That left, the left that receives so much abuse from the lazy and ignorant, from the New York Times and the New Republic, from the Paul Bermans and the Michael Kinsleys, has been serious about building civil society from the beginning. That's why we could imagine winning without war, for instance, because we had some idea what spending time and money on talking to people and building alternative institutions could accomplish.

For the present, though, that's a moot point. Paul is correct that the left should do its best to make sure Iraq comes out of this a truly free and democratic place. There are two complementary ways of doing this. The first is to keep informed, articulate, and politically threatening pressure on the Bush administration and their rubber-stamp Congress to really rebuild Iraq, a minimum 10 year and $100 billion commitment.

The second way is the harder way because it will require that the self-important liberals who feel good about not being radicals get off their ass and get involved. I don't think that liberal America, the mass of people who vote Democratic because they're scared of Republicans, who are afraid of guns but not of bombing Third World countries, this mass of well intentioned but alienated people, are capable of making a space in their lives for rebuilding Iraq.

If they are, if we all are, then the challenge is before us; what are we going to do? I'll pass on that one, and let our intellectual leaders, like the heartfelt Paul Berman, give us a list of non-governmental organizations that he is supporting in the new Free Iraq.

And no easy outs; Doctors Without Borders doesn't count. Mere humanitarian aid would, after all, be merely "bleeding heart" liberalism. Let's hear the names of the many groups who are dedicated to building a free, democratic and wealthy Iraq. I look forward to seeing some names and addresses. If Paul doesn't know any off the top of his head, I'm sure he could ask someone like the much-maligned Noam Chomsky, who'd probably be glad to provide a short list of 30 or 40 groups we could start with.

-- Joseph Witt

- tom moody 4-11-2003 8:57 pm

add a comment to this page:

Your post will be captioned "posted by anonymous,"
or you may enter a guest username below:

Line breaks work. HTML tags will be stripped.