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August 25th, 2004

  Zakaria's False Dichotomy

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Fareed Zakaria had a piece in last week's Newsweek arguing that, in his own words:

Kerry's answer [to the question: "Was toppling Saddam's regime a worthwhile objective?"] is that it was a worthwhile objective but was disastrously executed. For this "nuance" Kerry has been attacked from both the right and the left. But it happens to be the most defensible position on the subject.

Zakaria then goes on to suggest that: "Perhaps Iraq would have been a disaster no matter what. But there's a thinly veiled racism behind such views, implying that Iraqis are savages genetically disposed to produce chaos and anarchy."

This smacks a bit, to me, of wanting to have one's cake and eat it. Yes! — We were right to attack Iraq. No! — Everything we have done in Iraq since has been clumsy, wrong-headed, and counter-productive. It is, in fact, an ideal position for an anti-Bush American politician to take. (Well, perhaps not totally ideal There is always the possibility that by taking it, you might get elected into Bush's job. Then you will have to manage the Iraq issue yourself. But of course ambitious politicians never think like that. Their attitude is always that: "Maybe the horse will sing.")

What really got my attention, though, was that sneaky little sneer about "thinly veiled racism." If you believe that there are some longstanding population groups that can practice rational self-government and some that can't, you must have it in mind that the difference is "genetic." This makes you a racist! Racist racist racist!

Along with this goes a neat little dichotomy: Either you supported the Iraq war because you are a person of lofty moral ambition who wishes to see the Middle East democratized, or else you were opposed to the war because you are a RACIST! RACIST! RACIST! who does not believe democratization is possible for such benighted, genetically-deficient peoples. But alas! All those lofty-moral-ambition types — folk like, oh, Fareed Zakaria — had their ambitions dashed and their hopes betrayed by the stupidity and incompetence of Bush and the sinister neocons who follow (or manipulate, depending on your precise point of view) him.

Permit me to introduce myself to Mr. Zakaria. I supported the Iraq War from the beginning; I still believe it was an excellent idea; I don't give a fig whether the Middle East gets democracy or not; I am open-minded about the possibility that some longstanding population groups just might not be capable of rational self-government. I am, in other words, a living, breathing, sailing refutation of Mr. Zakaria's implied dichotomy.

Let's take the points one by one.

•  I supported the war, and still believe it was a good idea.  It seemed to me, after 9/11, that there were three possible lines we could take towards the Middle East and its fever swamp of crooked despots and ululating religious nutcases.

(a) Managerial.  We could go on with the policies we have operated for the past 40 years, trying to manage and contain the problem via a combination of appeasement, occasional threats, and what Daniel Patrick Moynihan (though in a quite different context) called "benign neglect."

(b) Isolationaist.  We could withdraw all our troops from the area, stand resolutely neutral in intra-Middle-Eastern disputes, and stop showing the mild favoritism (cheap loans, deals on military equipment) we show to Israel. If they attack us with 9/11-style terrorism, hit them back with brief, non-invasive one-time strikes. (But they won't, you know, because they just want us out of their affairs and off their land.)

(c) Proactive.  As I have said previously, one approach to the problem of a malfunctioning TV set, when gentler methods have been tried, is to give it a good smack. We need to show the Mid-East crazies that we are "the strong horse."

I thought, and still think, that (a) is not a real option, on the grounds that "if you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting." Option (b) I find temperamentally appealing, but unrealistic. "Why can't we just mind our business, like Switzerland?" correspondents whine to me. Leaving aside the certain fact that Switzerland would not even exist as an independent nation today if the U.S. had not been willing to wage war overseas 60 years ago, we are not Switzerland. We are vastly bigger, with a hugely influential culture, and great demands on resources belonging to foreign nations. As for those one-time responses — the Middle East would absorb them without noticing, like stones falling into a well. That leaves (c), and (c) is what I went, and go, for.

•  I don't give a fig whether the Middle East gets democracy or not.  It would be nice, but it wasn't in my mind when figuring out my support for the war. When the Twin Towers went down, people were dancing in the streets all over the Arab world. Clearly they hate us. Why do they hate us? I couldn't care less. The imperative thing (it seemed to me) was to show the Arabs, collectively, that if you do that kind of thing to us, or cheer those who do, there will be dire consequences. We are not the feeble, degenerate, civilization-in-decline that your propagandists have been telling you. If you smack us, we'll smack you back ten times as hard. Call this primitive if you like; call it racial revenge; call it cowboy arrogance; but I believe it's an essential foundation for any subsequent conversation between us and the Arabs. Mess with us, and this will happen to your regime. Now, let's talk.

•  I am open-minded about the possibility that some longstanding population groups just might not be capable of rational self-government.  In my darker moods, I think this might indeed be the case.

Only Anglo-Saxon countries can do democracy. The natural state of human society is despotism. If you tally up all the human lives that have ever been lived on this planet under organized systems of government, no more than five per cent were lived under consensual systems. Even to get up to five per cent, you have to include places like ancient Athens and Tudor England, which wouldn't pass muster as "democratic" by modern standards. In the last couple of centuries, practically all consensual systems have been Anglo-Saxon. Other cultures can fake it for a few decades, as France, Germany, and Japan are currently doing, but their hearts aren't really in it and they will swoon gratefully into the arms of a fascist dictator when one comes along.
             — "Unpleasant Truths," NRO, 8/2/02

Much more of the time, I am agnostic on the issue. History is full of societies going through sudden "phase changes," like ice turning into water. Some of these phase changes were from barbarism to civilization; and some, of course, were vice versa. Before we start bandying about suggestions of "genetics" (coming up fast as the most misused, mis-understood word in the American language: I recently wasted several e-mail exchanges trying to explain the difference between "genetic" and "congenital" to a reader who just couldn't get it), there are far more obvious, more testable ideas to look at. See, for instance, Steve Sailer's fine pre-Iraq-War article on the idea that the ingrained system of cousin marriage among Middle Easterners might have something to do with it.

So I am glad we did what we did, yet don't care whether it "brings democracy" to the Middle East or not, and have no strong opinion about whether democracy is possible in that place. Am I a racist, Mr. Zakaria?