It’s never a good idea to refight the last big war. But perhaps one can learn a lesson from it. The atmosphere of American politics since September 11 bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of the cold war, particularly during such anxious episodes as the Cuban missile crisis, the Tet Offensive, and the conflict over Euromissiles. Once again, grim-faced federal officials vow to defeat totalitarian evil-doers and fret about how to counter the enemy’s appeal to poor and angry people in the third world. Once again, leftists point to a long history of U.S. policy blunders and brutalities to explain, if not excuse, the mass sympathy that allows networks of violent men to thrive.
The beliefs of Muslim terrorists who long to reestablish the caliphate obviously clash with those of Leninist revolutionaries who fought for an egalitarian, secular utopia-and even more with those of Brezhnev-era bureaucrats who acted mainly to secure and extend their creaky empire. In fact, if Afghan communists, with Soviet backing, hadn’t taken power in Kabul in 1979, Osama bin Laden might be known, if at all, only as a fierce opponent of the Saudi regime that rules his homeland.
But there’s no escaping the irony that the United States is now engaged in a new kind of global struggle against would-be saviors of “the wretched of the earth,” who helped speed the demise of the last historical forces to claim that title. And, again, it will be difficult to separate (and foolish to minimize) the battle of ideas from the military confrontations in which Americans mistakenly define victory as the ability to destroy targets and kill soldiers.
Michael Walzer understands this. Toward the end of his argument, he mentions the ideological work to be accomplished, the undermining of the friendly environment that makes cold-blooded murderers appear like “freedom fighters,” or at least like symbolic redressers of wounds that never heal. But the main purpose of his piece is to rebut leftists in the United States and other rich nations who seek to shift blame from the stateless bombers of the twin towers and Pentagon to the statesmen who have directed the bombing of Kabul and Kandahar.
Much of the response to the attacks of September 11 on the part of the American and West European left has indeed been myopic and shameful. Nothing the United States has done or failed to do in the world can mitigate, in the slightest, the utter malevolence of that high-speed, well-organized slaughter of innocents. Yet, one does not defeat a political enemy merely by establishing the immorality of his acts. The short-sighted left only repeats, albeit in secular language, a list of grievances against Euro-America and Israel that Arabs and other Muslims have been updating for decades. That critique is, in many particulars, masochistic, bigoted, and one-sided. But, it remains, at root, a critique of imperialism and, as such, is not so different from the arguments h...
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