Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Losing the war of ideas

How did we win the Cold War? Because people in East Germany preferred McDonald's to communism, to put it simply.

How are we winning the War on Terror? Can we win it by blowing more and more shit up? Or is it really a war of ideas, the same as the Cold War? The ideas are different, and the difference between cultures is greater, but this is still more a war over whose ideas are m more compelling--western civilization or whatever the alternative is. What is it that makes western civilization so great? Maybe, just maybe, it is not self-evident to every human being on earth that western civilization is the model that should be followed. And maybe the reason for that is not a flaw in the message, but in the messenger. Maybe our actions in the Middle East fail to effectively demonstrate all that is worth emulating about western culture.

What is so great about western culture, anyway? I could list about a thousand things or more, but here are a few:

  1. Habeas corpus - Protecting us from government overreaching since 1215.
  2. Separation of church and state - America has it, and churches are overflowing. Europe doesn't, and churches are not overflowing at all. Do the math.
  3. Freedom of the press - Sometimes "reporting the good news from Iraq" is just a polite way of saying "propaganda"
  4. Freedom of speech - It was difficult for Soviet citizens to overcome those pesky communists, largely because they tended to kill people who didn't say nice things about them
  5. George Washington - In 1781, he could have taken his Continental Army and made himself a king, but he didn't. That changed the whole course of human history.
  6. The Fourteenth Amendment - What good does it do to protect you from infringement of your rights by the federal government if the states can do as they please?
  7. The Ninth Amendment - We do too have rights, Mr. Gonzales.
  8. Women's rights - Wouldn't it get boring pretty quickly if all women were subservient?
  9. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Marshall, etc. - They had their flaws, to be sure--they were human, after all--but they were also freakin' geniuses. No other country in history has ever been so lucky as to have so many wise people working together.
I could go on and on and on and on, but you get the picture.

These are the tools that will ultimately win the war on terror. And we seem to be dismantling them one by one. In the minds of many who support the tactics of the Bush administration, a decent summary might be that it was necessary to destroy our freedoms in order to save them (ironic analogy to Vietnam intended). We have seen much jingoism, but very little progress. And are no nearer to a clear picture of victory than we were yesterday.

This war is not about freedom, or democracy, or safety from terrorism, or defeating extermist ideologies wherever they may be found, or whatever other rationale is offered as old ones are shown to be false. It is about power. I would say American power, but I'm not even sure that is entirely correct. And lest I sound like a tinfoil hat crackpot, it is not some global conspiracy run by a SPECTRE-like syndicate. It is much more disappointingly mundane than that. A group of people, generally accustomed to getting what they want without much effort, found an opportunity to experiment with power in upsettingly predictable ways (at least in hindsight for most), and now they can't bring themselves to admit how bad they've f---ed things up. We're America, dammit, and if America does it, then by definition it is the right thing to do. Anyone who says otherwise is a traitor (and possibly a child molester, or a drug addict, or a habitual Zima drinker, and so on).

I'll end with words from a more artful blogger than I:

The first plan the Pentagon geniuses came up with was to intimidate the Iraqis into submission by demonstrating our invincible might, kind of like a huge fireworks display in which only very narrowly targeted, and deserving, victims would be killed--presumably the bombs would serve as judge, jury, and executioner only for resolute followers of Saddam, and if we could label other victims as "collateral damage", we could get away with the inevitable mistakes. What the geniuses were aiming for was some sort of veneration by the Iraqis, as if the US were God-like in its power. But the Pentagon could not pull off the plan because technological war is by nature vast and messy. Technological war could not help killing, wounding, and alienating civilians, missing the well-protected ruling class and Saddam himself, and being the first demonstration for the Iraqis and the rest of the world, of who the Americans were--heartless, careless, murderous, robotic aliens intent on interfering in a country that was not generally agreed to be the Americans' business, no matter what the Americans themselves asserted.

Let me end on the most positive note I can think of at the moment: I hope I'm wrong.

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