Tuesday, February 20

History's greatest midwife to change

"We are losing our wars in the Muslim world because our vision of history is at odds with reality, " Michael Vlahos writes in, of all places The American Conservative.

Vlahos adds: "In fact, what empires have most in common is how their sacred narratives come to rule their strategic behavior—and rule it badly. In America's case, our war narrative works against us to promote our deepest fear: the end of modernity."

As I interpret it, Vlahos's argument goes like this: Our success as an empire leads us to believe that we embody the endpoint of history: American-style liberal democratic capitalism where religion is personal and not societal. When a group comes along to challenge that way of organizing the world, we regard it not as a political and philosophical disagreement, but as a mortal threat to The American Way of Life.

"The attacks were not simply a violation of the national person --as in 1941-- but an affront to all that was right and true. Yet its emotional symbolism had a darker side too -- the suggestion, felt but unvoiced by Americans, that the attacks were the first black sign of The Fall of the City, the beginning of the end of the American sacred narrative," Vlahos writes.

As we overreact, our opponents gain adherents. As they gain adherents, we tighten our embrace with authoritarian, corrupt regimes like those that run Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As our hypocrisy becomes clearer and clearer,our opponents gain more adherents. And as we attack them and they survive, they draw even more admirers. Eventually, their ideas will win many adherents. Maybe their ideas will prevail over ours.

Vlahos seems to say simultaneously that it didn't have to be this way because we could have reacted differently, and that it was inevitable that we would react this way because of our status as the world's dominant empire.

We lose our moral authority, Vlahos says, because we shut out the world's poor and dispossessed from our shiny vision of modernity. In addition, we strengthen our opponents when we demonize them. And we pick the wrong military fights, so when we lose, observers note that we are an emperor with no clothes.

We can't defeat our opponents by killing them, because most of our opponents are ordinary, unarmed civilians who disagree with our way of life, and disagree with our support for totalitarian regimes. We demonize groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr's followers. So when they win political legitimacy among their own societies, we have no one to talk to.

"America's destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan mobilized the Muslim world against us, but more than that it put the global other on notice. For much of the West and most of Islam, the lie of modernity as American altruism is dying in Iraq. Americans care about the death of their soldiers but barely a whit for the destruction of a society wrought in the name of 'democracy,'" Vlahos writes.

Eventually, maybe after we're dead, he says, we will "birth a changed world" and "cast off [our] claim to the universal." And maybe that won't be so bad. "No longer the object of all attack, we might productively rethink our national purpose."