Freedom vs. Totalitarianism

Book cover
Terror and Liberalismby By Paul BermanW.W. Norton and Company. 216p $21

Why is there so little organized liberal opposition to the war? The writer George Packer asked this question in the New York Times Magazine eight months ago, before the occupation of Iraq dissolved into sniper attacks on American troops and rallies led by disgruntled clerics, before American tanks rumbled into Baghdad and before the French and Germans rallied much of the world in opposition to an Anglo-American invasion.

Perhaps the most impassioned answer to this question came from Paul Berman, a contributor to The New Yorker, The New Republic and other journals of opinion and author of A Tale of Two Utopias, a smart, witty history of connections between the cultural changes of the late 1960’s and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. (Vaclav Havel, Berman reminded us, learned to love Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground in the late 1960’s.) Berman insisted to Packer that a straight line ran from the war in Iraq to the events of Sept.11, 2001, that Pentagon officials such as Paul Wolfowitz had correctly characterized the coming Iraqi war as a battle for liberal civilization and that the United States should attempt to establish a “beachhead of Arab democracy.”


On the heels of this interview came Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, published just as the war began. Berman’s driving idea is a simple one: our instinctive dismissal of Osama bin Laden and Palestinian suicide bombers as Islamic fanatics is mistaken. Fanatics, yes. But Islamic (or better, simply Islamic), no.

Suicide attacks on public officials began, in a sense, with attacks by Russian anarchists on the Tsar in the late 19th century, and the monumental architecture, mass rallies and cult of personality so evident in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is reminiscent of Mussolini’s Italy. More directly, a pan-Arabist fascism became popular throughout the Middle East in the 1940’s, with early Baath leaders, the predecessors of Saddam Hussein, poring over the works of the same 19th-century racial theorists that inspired the Nazis and other European fascists. Even Sayyid Qutb, the leading theoretician of the Egyptian brotherhood in the 1950’s, derived his attacks on religious pluralism and flexible gender roles after personal experience living in the United States (in Greeley, Colo., where he received a master’s degree from the University of Northern Colorado). After an extended (and fascinating) exegesis of Qutb’s collected works, Berman concludes that Qutb’s use of Western ideas to reject the West is yet another example of “the European totalitarian idea.”

Viewed in this light, the 21st-century war against Saddam Hussein is another chapter in the 20th-century liberal battle against totalitarianism. Just as England and the United States rallied to defeat Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, so too should they strike against Saddam Hussein and Arab tyrants. “The entire situation,” Berman writes at one point, “had the feel of 1939.” George W. Bush becomes Dwight D. Eisenhower (although in Berman’s eyes a poor substitute, because Bush has proved incapable of voicing the idealism about Islamic democracy and American ideals necessary to sway world opinion.)

Berman’s enthusiasm about Islamic democracy is refreshing. After all, into the 1950’s, political scientists and sociologists gravely warned Catholics that their religious authoritarianism would prevent democracy from emerging in Spain, Italy and Latin America, a fear that after the 1960’s and the Second Vatican Council seems either quaint or insulting. Nonetheless, Berman’s absorption of Islamic radicalism into the history of the modern West seems too neat, too clever to explain the many Islams (radical and otherwise) stretching from Indonesia to North Africa.

More troubling is Berman’s separation of means from ends. Certainly the United States should attempt to foster liberal democracy in the Middle East, but this judgment begs the question of whether invading Iraq was a necessary first step. Granted that Terror and Liberalism was composed on a tight deadline, Berman’s reluctance to enter into the specifics of the decision to invade remains disappointing.

Assuming that the United States never finds the promised weapons of mass destruction, and assuming that hostility to the American occupation mounts in the coming months, the effort to create democracy in Iraq may well be overshadowed by debates over the morality of invading a nation posing no direct threat to American and British interests. (Anger over this issue in Britain may topple the government of Tony Blair, and the recent exposé in The New Republic of manipulations of intelligence data will feed growing unease within the United States.)

One wonders if the wartime alliance of anguished liberals (like Berman) and confident conservatives (in the Bush administration) will founder upon the paradox so often explored by the late Isaiah Berlin: that those most attached to freedom as a political goal so often, even if inadvertently, support ideas or policies that extinguish it.

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