. . . And, On the Other Side: The Liberal Argument...

. . . And, On the Other Side: The Liberal Argument At Its Most Persuasive — Nay, Seductive.


(To be read with the preceding post)

When I read this at Jack Whelan’s After the Future, I was surprised by my own reaction: almost everything in me leapt to believe it.

I continue to be amazed at the paranoia that animates the right wing in this country and the way that paranoia creates the template by which certain information is selected and other information filtered out. It has this way of taking serious threats like Islamic terrorism and distorting them into something that bears little resemblance to what they really are. If you can’t see a problem clearly, you can’t develop the most effective solution for it. [ … ]

Sure there might be some loony-tunes, fringe Islamists sects which have fantasies of subjugating the world in the name of the prophet. But that’s not al Qaeda’s current mission, and even if it were, it’s not something they are even remotely capable of achieving. Al Qaeda has been clear that its primary objectives are to repel the western invader from the Islamic soil. This is primarily a nationalistic impulse that has more in common with the anti-colonial insurgencies of the the mid-twentieth century. Did the IRA in Ireland want to take over the government in London and make everyone a Catholic? Neither does al Qaeda have a similar interest regarding the U.S.

Their goal, consistent with the strategy of all such anti-colonial insurgencies, is to make the U.S. occupation cost more than it is worth for us, and if that means detonating a nuke on Wall Street or on Capitol Hill, they’ll do it. I have no doubt that they will try. And it’s clear that this is the kind of threat that we must bend all of our energies to prevent, and that this administration has been negligent in giving it the attention it deserves. Why? Because all of its energy and resources are bent on occupying the Islamic heartland. Which only increases the insurgents’ motivation to hurt us in ways that will surpass what we suffered in 9/11.

And so the question that never seems to be asked is why are we really there in the Middle East? Why is it worth the cost to us? What’s really at stake for us there that we are willing to sustain its enormous costs in blood and treasure and to risk inciting even worse terrorist attacks on our own soil? [ … ]

The reasons promoted by the administration for the invasion of the Islamic heartland make hardly any sense on the face of it, and it doesn’t have to because most Americans are oblivious of the long history that led to 9/11. They accept the administration’s blather about how the terrorists hate us because they hate freedom. But they hate us for the same reason they hated the Russians when they invaded Afghanistan. They hate us because of our bases and troop presence on Islamic soil. And they hate us for the long Anglo-American history as colonialist bullies. From the Muslim point of view, we’re the barbarians at their gates.

Now you could argue that they have it all wrong and that they’re really the barbarians and we have only the most benevolent intentions and that our occupation will benefit these backward Islamic societies in the long run. That’s always been the colonizer’s rationalization. But we’re not there as neo-Wilsonian missionaries to convert Muslims into a liberal society suffused with Western values.

That’s a justification promoted by the neocons, and it’s a smokescreen to hide the real purposes, which is that we are indeed involved in the next world war, a war in which we are the aggressors and the Muslim insurgents are the defenders. It’s a war over who’s to control the vast energy reserves of the middle east, and the sooner we face up to the fact, the sooner we can have a real debate in the U.S about how to develop a sane energy policy and a sane relationship with these Islamic societies that will support their struggle to find their way into the modern world.

Yes, of course! That’s the explanation! It was like waking from a nightmare: Our enemies are not these boogeyman caricatures of bearded, fanatical maniacs; they’re political men, shrewd, rational actors with specific, finite ends. And if we give them what they want, they’ll go away and leave us alone.

I am not being parodic. This is liberal reasoning at its genuine finest — at the furthest extreme from 9/11 conspiracy self-indulgence. And heaven knows there is truth in the assertion that, from our point of view at least, “we are indeed involved in the next world war [ … ] a war over who’s to control the vast energy reserves of the middle east.” That’s why it’s so necessary, and so difficult, to see the flaw in this view: it is projective. It looks in the mirror and thinks it’s the view out the window. It sees the enemy as us in a funny costume.

If you are a rationalist and/or a humanitarian, it’s almost impossible to imagine the mental world of someone who is not — your reason or your benevolence biases you toward giving your opponents the benefit of the doubt. Even more, that people might exist who are driven by forces unrelated to reason or humanitarianism — or, better put, who bend reason and humanitarianism to the service of an unforgiving God — is a threat to the very foundations of your worldview, to your entire structure of meaning. Just to avoid chaos and despair, you will want to believe what Jack says: that the image of hordes of paradise-bound fanatics is a creation of propaganda, designed to terrorize you and compel your compliance with a curtailment of civil liberties and ultimately, an ultraconservative coup d’etat.

  • Jack Whelan

    Amba, the burden is on you to make the case that Hezbolloah and Hamas are less sane than the IRA was in Ireland. Ask the Brits how they felt about the kind of terrorism they suffered for all those years. Do you think they thought of the IRA as any less brutal or nuts than you feel about Islamic extremists? You’ve got to come up with a better justification than it’s impossible for us who are sane to imagine what it’s like to be insane. Are you somehow privileged to make that judgment? Or is there some of your own projection going on here?

    You’ve been very fair in giving my view a fair hearing, and I am eager to talk it out with you. But if the argument boils down to these people are just crazy, that doesn’t cut it. Sure, there is an irrational component that is manipulated by the leadership in the same way that our leaders manipulate fear, religion, and patriotism. Is Ahmadinejad any more nuts than George Bush in that respect? It would be an interesting exercise to line up nutty things said by either of them side by side and then evaluate which one is the loonier. But whether individual leaders are crazy or not is not the issue. It’s the power structure behind them that provides ballast, and which is just about always geared toward rational self-interests. Hitler was the exception that proves the rule. The administration wants us to believe that we are facing the same kind of threat with Islamofascism, and the assertion is to me ridiculous on the face of it. I just don’t see the evidence; I think the analogy to the IRA is far more robust. But I’m open to your changing my mind about that.

  • http://www.warning1938alert.ytmnd.com Jimmy the Dhimmi

    You fail to recognize, Jack, that it is not a choice we make to determine whether Islamic radicals are sane or insane. They are extremely sane. That is what makes them so dangerous.

    Ask yourself this question: If the root cause of terrorism is Israeli agression into Palestinian lands, for example; then what is the root cause of Israel’s agression? Do you suggest that Israelis are racist, religious zealots who want control of Judea as a sort of Jewish Liebensraum, but Arab Muslims are immune from such desires as a Caliphate Including Jerusalem, and even Spain? Why? Because Jews are rich white people while Muslims are poor and brown?

    Enough of this Marxist, haves-vs-have nots B.S. Not every conflict is a symptom of class warfare. All fascist movements in history, without exception, ascend to power on a platform of social justice and fighting oppression. NAZI stands for the socialist workers party for crying out loud!

    If you want to understand the true root cause of Islamic terrorism, I suggest you go to the library and read chapters 5 and 9 of the Koran, all-the-while imagining that the commandments therein are being spoken to you by God Himself vocally in your own language.

    Enough infantalizing those ethnically exotic people of the third world, as if they are too uneducated to be burdened with the humanity of making moral choices. There are millions of poor Africans and Indo-chinese who do not attack us in the name of their pagan idols.

    Do you honestly believe that if this “colonial oppression” ends, and wealth and power are distribulted evenly amongst the Muslim world in some egalitarian socialist scheme, that Muslim fundamentalists will naturally abandon their “opiate of the masses” and become proper secular liberals like yourself?

    America is a very rich, educated nation with a growing christian fundamentalist population. Aren’t christian fundamentalists just as bad as Muslim extremists (so says Rosie O’Donnell)? How can that be happenning here? I thought religious extremism was just a misguided reaction of the oppressed against the oppressor? I guess not if Christians or Jews are doing it.

    The great Bruce Thornton owns people like you here .

  • http://sporkmonger.com/ Bob Aman

    Yeah, I sort of skipped past your preamble and started reading what he actually wrote, and the first thing that popped into my head was, “Yeah, great, he’s described things perfectly, but has come to a somewhat flawed conclusion.” In a nutshell, if we remove their current reason for hating us, what’s to stop them from finding a new one? Or holding a grudge? I don’t doubt it would purchase a temporary peace, but I cannot imagine it holding indefinitely. Terrorism is a fact of life. It’s not going away. I have a feeling the our withdrawl would be more of a matter of location than anything else — supposedly “we’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here”, but I think it’s more like, “we’re going over there and putting ourselves within their limited practical range”. Withdraw, and the only terrorists that can harm you are the ones with sufficient funding. And funding is much easier to track than buried IED control wires. That there is the real reason to leave Iraq. The War On Terrorism needs to be practically restated as the War On Specific Terrorists That Might Actually Hurt Us.

  • BrianOfAtlanta

    Jack, though the IRA committed terrorist acts which were as brutal as some of Al-Qaeda’s attacks, their stated objectives are very different. Nobody wondered at why the IRA were bombing the British. The goal of the IRA was limited to removing the British from Ireland. If the British had left Ireland, the IRA would have stopped their terrorist attacks.

    It’s a different story with Al-Qaeda. Nobody is occupying Al-Qaeda territory. In fact, Al-Qaeda doesn’t have territory to occupy. As you say, Al-Qaeda’s current stated mission is not to subjugate the world. Small comfort, given that their stated mission is to subjugate everything from Spain to Iraq. And, apparently, we’re somehow involved in that mission. That’s one of the problems with contemplating any action to placate Al-Qaeda. Their actions don’t match up with their stated objectives very well. What could we have given them prior to 9/11 that would have guaranteed they would not attack us? With the IRA, the answer is obvious. With Al-Qaeda, there doesn’t seem to be an answer.

  • http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ amba

    Jack —

    “Sane” and “insane” are your words, not mine. I am asserting that religion plays a major role in Islamist terrorists’ motivations. Sam Harris thinks that’s insane. I’m not saying that. From their point of view, no doubt it is “inspired.” But it is NOT all about territory and energy stores. It’s a battle between Gods, or maybe between siblings over who’s God’s favorite.

    Did the IRA ever talk about wiping England off the map? After all, the Celts were there first.

  • http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ amba

    Is Ahmadinejad any more nuts than George Bush in that respect?

    Actually, as Sam Harris points out, they’re both nuts in similar ways, if possibly to different degrees (coming from an undesperate background like Dubya’s would tend to make you a little more easygoing even in your millennialism).

  • http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ amba

    The other thing that’s omitted from both views is the central importance of wounded PRIDE in Muslim culture, and the surge in self-esteem many Muslims get every time the terrorists manage to wound the hide of the elephant America.

  • http://ambivablog.typepad.com/ amba

    read this and tell me it’s all about us withdrawing from the Middle East.

  • Jack Whelan


    Regarding the jihad against the pope: Isn’t that the point? That we’re dealing not with some kind of hard-to-understand irrationality here, but with a premodern mentality that sees Westerners as the barbaric horde invading from the west. I have not heard anything yet to dissuade me that repelling the invader isn’t the basic model that best explains what motivates these extremist groups. The Westerners coming in and setting up Israel on Arab lands is the primary offense. And let’s face it, they have some legitimate gripes when it comes to the way Israel was jammed down their throats in the late forties. The West’s basic response to the Palestinian’s cry of “foul” is why don’t you behave like good Indians and forget about it and assimilate. I wish they would, and I hoped fervently that the attempts to come to a settlement with them would succeed, but I can understand why they resist.

    Regarding sanity/insanity, I was responding to your comment about rationalists/humanitarians not being able to understand the mind of the extremist muslim. I’m willing to replace the pair with rational/irrational to make the same point. Religion as it was for the Protestants and Catholics in the Thirty Years war in the 1600s in Germany or the Irish in North Ireland in the 1900s has more to do with cultural/tribal identity than it has to do with with anything doctrinal or transcendent. A people which feels itself to be humiliated and powerless reacts much like the kids at Littleton. No easier way to feel big if you’re small than shooting people or blowing things up. That’s why this invasion from a social psychological point of view is the worst possible thing we could have done if the goal is the long-term assimilation of Muslims into a cosmopolitan global order.

    In response to the non-Amba comments: Jimmy–Sorry, but I don’t respond to ranters. Bob–Do your really believe that the Arabs are using our occupation and aggression as an excuse to hate us, and if they didn’t have it they would find some other excuse? Think about it. Do you really believe that the only thing that is motivating them is groundless hatred? Why should they be differrent in their motivations from every other culture in history?

    Brian: al-Qaeda has been clear about its objectives. You can read Bin Laden’s statement here: http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/docs/980223-fatwa.htm. When you get past all the rhetoric, it boils down to the offfense of “crusader” soldiers based in Saudi Arabia and now in Iraq, and the need to get them out of there. Pretty much the same as the IRA wanting the Brits to get their troops out of NI. There are going to be local differences in describing any popular front movement, but the basics tend to be pretty similar.

  • http://modleft.blogspot.com Jeremy

    You know what weirds me out about this blog? It’s not centrist or moderate or anything, it just schizophrenically veers from spouting a hardline left wing/anti bush position to a hardline anti democrat position. There’s no attempt to find a vital middle, to explore nuances of an issue, to criticially question the current piece that is being quoted, to look at the other side, to go beyond the standard straw-men attacking talking points of either side. I think that’s what I hoped when this thing started and what has continually disappointed me.

    Like this post, you take a guy like the one you quoted and use that to confirm the big picture Repub “Dems/leftists are soft on terror! They don’t get it!!!1!!1” argument without any acknowledgement that the argument is simplistic at best.

  • Alan

    I don’t think any of the writers here are hardliners of one sort or another. And while some discussions here fall into left vs. right cliches, I find a lot of writers and readers here are very much interested in finding views and ideas that exist outside the usual divides.

    But “vital middle” does not mean being squishy and never challenging the worldviews of one side or the other. On the issue of Islamic terrorism, the mainstream liberal viewpoint, in its most nuanced form, is lacking. So is the mainstream conservative viewpoint.

    In this case, it is not a Republican-talking point to look at Whelan’s post and say “yes, there’s truth there but there’s a big hole in the middle.” The debate then becomes “is the liberal viewpoint lacking?” That’s not an attack on liberals, that’s just a debate. After all, given Iraq, it’s pretty clear that the conservative ideas aren’t working particularly well. The much more interesting debate is whether or not the liberals have a better idea worth trying.

  • http://modleft.blogspot.com Jeremy

    On the issue of Islamic terrorism, the mainstream liberal viewpoint, in its most nuanced form, is lacking.

    Perhaps this is true, but can we actually have an analysis of such a viewpoint rather than:

    Our enemies are not these boogeyman caricatures of bearded, fanatical maniacs; they’re political men, shrewd, rational actors with specific, finite ends. And if we give them what they want, they’ll go away and leave us alone.


  • Jack Whelan

    Regarding “simplistic”. I don’t know if that was in reference to my argument, but I would be happy to move the discussion to a discussion of historical evidence, if that’s where people want to go. There are indisputable facts that I sense many readers of this blog are unaware of.

    It’s not job to educate here, but there are two steps to any argument. First establish some baseline of agreement that we’re talking about the same historical phenomena. Then talk about what we think it means. We tend to talk past one another because we’re on the second level without first having established agreement on the first.

    I’d also like to say that I don’t consider myself a liberal, and my postion on war is no more liberal than that of conservatives like Jim Webb, former Reagan secretary of the navy, Andrew Bacevich, West Point grad, writer for National Review and Weekly Standard, and even paleo conservatives like Pat Buchanan. The point is that you don’t have to be liberal to hate what the neococns, Cheney and Rumsfeld are doing in the Middle East. And the criticisms of these conservatives are not about competency, but about the grandiosity of the original war aims. If you want historical nuance and detail, read Andrew Bacevich’s two books.

  • http://modleft.blogspot.com Jeremy

    I wasn’t referring to you, I was referring to

  • http://modleft.blogspot.com Jeremy

    (sorry if double post)

    I wasn’t referring to your argument (which i haven’t read), I was referring to amba’s description of it, which I quoted in my 2nd post.

  • http://www.warning1938alert.ytmnd.com Jimmy the Dhimmi

    Sorry, but I don’t respond to ranters

    That was no more of a rant than what amba has said above. I asked pertinent questions and made valid points that you can’t respond to because you don’t have an answer. Such as the question about the root causes of Israels military actions, or the point about other 3rd world contries and pagan religions that dont use terrorism against us.

    Have you read chapters 5 and 9 of the Koran yet? Do you honestly think that if we disengage from the middle east because of terrorist demands (not neccessarily what the majority of Muslims want, mind you) do you honestly think peace will be achieved? Does that mean disarming Israel and watching another holocaust? Because apparently, thats non-negotiable for the radical Muslim groups.

    As for your marxist, material determinist philosophy, you know I got you pegged.

  • BrianOfAtlanta

    Jack, the IRA is Irish. They are based in Ireland and have the support of the local population in their neighborhoods. In other words they have a legitimate claim to the interests of Ireland. Though Bin Laden is Saudi, his 2nd in commad is Egyptian and his soldiers are from all over. Al-Qaeda set up headquarters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not the Arabian peninsula. They have no legitimate claim to anything in Saudi or anywhere else in Arabia. They just think they have a right to stuff that others have, and the right to attack anyone who is on their imagined turf. And no, Al-Qaeda has not been clear at all on its objectives. In July, Al-Zawahiri stated their objectives stretched from Spain to Iraq. Who knows what their objectives will be in the future?

  • http://afterthefuture.typepad.com/ Jack Whelan

    Brian– Its not about national boundaries, most of which were drawn by Europeans in the Middle East, but about Muslim identity in the same way that the IRA is about Irish identity. As far as the grandiosity of Al Zawahiri goes, it’s meaningless because such terrorists are effective only insofar as they have local widespread local support. The best way to remove that support is by getting out of the crusader mode.

    Along these lines I’d like to quote the self-proclaimed liberal and very sensible Kevin Drum in response to the the Sam Harris article that Amba wrote about:

    In fact, it’s sort of ironic that Harris chooses this particular time to make this point, because the conversation has moved on. Granted, I don’t spend a lot of time hanging out with A.N.S.W.E.R. activists or participating in peace marches, but in the liberal circles I do participate in, virtually no one subscribes to the “economic despair” argument anymore. What we do believe is that the terrorists themselves â€â€? usually middle class and decently educated â€â€? are small in number and limited in capability unless they have broad support among the rest of the population. Without that support the creed of militant jihadism withers and dies.

    It’s that broad support that we need to target, and that’s why we should focus our efforts on things like public diplomacy, economic engagement, and working seriously with multilateral institutions. It’s not because liberals don’t understand the threat, it’s because liberals seem to be the only ones who do understand the threat these days â€â€? namely that public opinion in the Muslim world is our biggest problem, and conventional military action only makes this problem worse. Harris has some catching up to do if he wants to join the conversation. Read the rest here: http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2006_09/009516.php

    My own feeling about the Harris article is that it reflects the fundamental distrust that secular liberals have about religion as being the source of everything evil in the world. Hitchens is another in this mold.

  • http://kevinrobinson.wordpress.com/ Kevin

    Jack, It is thinking like this that leads me to reject the left’s view of foreign policy as much as I reject the right’s. We, meaning the US and Western Europe, are not the cause of all violence in the world, of all the injustices. There are numerous other 3rd world nations who fought against colonialism and embraced nationalism without embracing an ideology that calls for the subjugation of parts of Africa, Asia and Europe. They also did it without advocating theocratic rule and laws based on pre-enlightenment thinking. Oddly enough, many of those movements did pretty well.

    However the problem was started with radical Islam, and I’m completely unwilling to buy the “it’s all the West’s fault� argument, it’s a problem that will not go away if we simply leave and try to make nice with them. Much like communists before them, they are actively trying to export their ideology and are maniacally focused on finding external enemies to parade in front of their own people. Because of our history in the Middle East and because we’re still the biggest kid on the block, we will continue to be an inviting target whether or not we beat our swords into plowshares.

    BTW, as other have pointed out, your comparison to the IRA is poor. The IRA, while employing similar tactics, hasn’t advocated anything more than the British leaving Ireland. To my knowledge, there has been no call for laws based on the bible and no grandiose claims of re-conquering all lands once inhabited by the Celtic people.

  • Mikkel

    Jack your points echo some facts that I have pointed out on various occassions but miss a couple things. First of all it is my understanding that creating a caliphate (either Sunni if Al Qaeda or Shia if what Iran suppossedly wants) is merely the immediate goal before challenging modernity across the globe. Also, Islamicists that are immigrants (especially in Europe) have explicitly said it’s their goal to take over those societies from the inside. I think the radical muslims of any stripe are bent on eventual clash of the civilizations no matter what and think they can win through militaristic, political and religious means. However, I think the average Muslim doesn’t feel this way at all, and only supports (or in most cases merely tolerates) these groups because of the reasons you propose. If we no longer were thought of as invaders, then the popular support would dry up especially because it would become clear that Al Qaeda’s aims involve basically destroying the entire middle east as well as genocide of Shia and give us the ability to do cooperative strikes against targets. Incidentally, no one talks about how the vast majority of the Middle East supported our invasion of Afghanistan, especially as it coincided with removal of our troops of Saudi Arabia. If we had just stayed out of Iraq we might have been able to start changing the tides.

    Personally I think Israel has finally assumed the right (mostly) response towards the terrorist groups attacking them. They have reached out to the masses and expressed desire to help them once they are no longer under attack, but defend themselves when they are. Even though Israel was really stupid tactically during this last Lebanese War (like using cluster bombs and killing a lot of civilians without clearly accomplishing their goals) — something that Israel is in consensus about — it still looks like it has a good chance of marginalizing Hezbollah, especially if the international community steps up. Also, I think it is very clear that Hamas was elected on a domestic platform and since they’ve made things even worse there are (albeit sketchy) signs that the pragmatists in that party might overcome the ideologues and make peace with Israel within the next 5-10 years.

    The fact is that until recently America as a symbol was well loved even in the Middle East. Yes there were some doubts about our troops in Saudi and some anger at our support of Israel, but our core philosophy was well embraced and longed for. However, due mainly to Iraq, this seems to have dried up and even the ideals of a secular-liberal-democratic-capitalist state have been successfully conflated with warmongering and an attack against Islam. The “democracy” in Iraq surely hasn’t helped our case in arguing for those ideals. I question whether we will have to act like Israel and withdraw from the region — not to completely stop the attacks or the incorrect blame — but to have a free hand to retaliate when attacked, and to let the region fester in its own mess until they realize that it really is an institutional problem and they need to reform themselves.

  • http://warning1938alert.ytmnd.com Jimmy the Dhimmi


    Incidentally, no one talks about how the vast majority of the Middle East supported our invasion of Afghanistan, especially as it coincided with removal of our troops of Saudi Arabia. If we had just stayed out of Iraq

    The dismantling of the Saudi military base at Tafir and the removal of troops from that counrty was due to the invasion of Iraq, not Afghanistan. Besides, thousands of foreign fighters, including arabs, have been killed by coalition forces in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban. Muslims chanting “death to America” always mention the occupation of Afghanistan along with Iraq in their hateful diatribes.

    If we had just stayed out of Iraq we might have been able to start changing the tides…

    Thats wishful thinking. America has always been hated, especially in the middle east well before Iraq. What about the true freedom-loving moderates who were happy to see their country liberated from tyranny? They are now enabled to run their own country, and can use their power to fight radical Islamist ideology. We can at least celebrate that.

  • Mikkel

    You completely missed my point — the “death to America” people will blame us no matter what, I acknowledged that. I’m arguing that they are not in the majority and we can create a wedge. And yes I was wrong about the Saudi withdrawal.

    I’m also not explicitly saying that people like the US — that’s why I said America as a symbol. I meant the perceived ideological base that our country was founded on. We have been hated as a country for a long time in the Middle East but still loved as an ideal. Opinion polls have always shown strong support for the concept of democracy and individual freedom for example. However support for those is falling because now it is associated with insecurity and hypocrisy. And yes I also agree, that we should have been able to celebrate the moderates who were enabled to run their own country. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that somewhere the ball was dropped — I’m not sure whether it was just our incompetence about reconstruction or whether it was the deliberate targeting of intellectuals and moderates that started almost immediately after the invasion ended (back when people were saying the violence was low scale crime and random I was looking at icasualties.org and noticing that the vast majority of murders were obviously targeted) — and I don’t think that Iraq can be said to be run by true freedom-loving moderates.

  • pst314

    “In a nutshell, if we remove their current reason for hating us, what’s to stop them from finding a new one?”

    They don’t have to find new ones. They have plenty of old ones–1300 years old–such as scripturally mandated hatred and contempt for non-Muslims, scripturally mandated oppression and subjugation of same, scripturally mandated killing of dissenters and apostates, etc etc ad nauseum.