Totalitarianism Revisited

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the debate over the American war in Iraq, revived talk of totalitarianism among liberals and leftists thinking about radical Islamists and Middle East dictatorships. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, respected former dissidents such as Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik and distinguished intellectuals in Europe and America such as Paul Berman, André Glucksmann, Richard Herzinger, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, as well as Nobel Peace Prize recipient José Ramos-Horta justified, if not military intervention, then an aggressive and principled policy toward Saddam Hussein’s regime—largely on liberal-humanitarian grounds, invoking the imperative of resisting totalitarianism. Though he explicitly opposed the unilateral use of military force, Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, spoke of a “third totalitarianism”—after Nazism and communism—“as the major challenge facing the international community in the twenty-first century.” In December 2004, in “An Argument for a New Liberalism, a Fighting Faith,” Peter Beinart, editor of the New Republic, complained that “three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not been fundamentally reshaped by the experience.” British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw called terrorism the “new totalitarianism,” the world’s greatest threat to democracy. The return of this term is instructive, because its history is not at all as luminescent as its advocates would have us believe.The term “third totalitarianism” was first used by Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer. For a survey of antitotalitarian arguments for the war, see Thomas Cushman, ed., A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq (University of California Press, 2005).

With some justice, commentators such as Berman and George Packer argued that the overthrow of “secular totalitarianism” and the establishment of an Iraqi democracy might halt the spread of Islamist totalitarianism and possibly lead to a democratization of the Middle East; it would certainly rid Iraqis and the world of a murderous tyrant. The genocidal eruptions of the late 1970s and early 1980s (especially in Cambodia) had turned former ’68ers into liberal humanitarians opposed to totalitarianism in all its forms. The anti-Soviet dissidents in Eastern Europe further inspired this shift. Then, after the fall of communism, the horrors of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda made some of those leftists and liberals committed humanitarian interventionists. Many of the same people who called for a new post–cold war human rights foreign policy turned to the term “totalitarian,” after 2001, to describe not only al-Qaeda and the threat of political Islam but also Saddam’s Baathist regime. Even if the Bush administration was unable or unwilling to acknowledge it, we were, as Berman put it, “i...

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