Urgency on the Battlefield

Tuesday, January 30, 2007
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Last summer, the president and his senior advisers tried to define the adversary in the wider war on terror when they spoke, for a brief time, of “Islamo-fascists.” After the predictable catcalls from the predictable circles, the administration backed off. But it may have been onto something. For if there is not necessarily a tight ideological fit between Al-Qaeda and like groups and fascism, there is, nevertheless, a tight historical fit—and between Islamicism and communism, too. All the ideologies arise from a common historical upheaval. All have common pathologies. All three represent what might be called a dissent from the democratic consensus that individual happiness is the measure of social good, that popular sovereignty is the foundation of political legitimacy, and that protection of life, liberty, and property is the end of just government.

Like Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth, they are weird sisters—the weird sisters of modern history. From where do they come?

Today we see global strife in the last hundred years as four episodes: World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and the current conflict. Each involved distinct adversaries with distinct ideologies in distinct periods. But viewed through a broader lens, these wars all look to be part of a single global upheaval, a single cycle of conflict, what might be called a new Hundred Years War, which tells us a lot about the war in Iraq and the broader war on terror.

Global politics in the late nineteenth century was a story of six empires: German, Austrian, Russian, Ottoman, French, and British. America was rising across the Atlantic but largely indifferent to balances of power and global contests. And while this world spawned the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War, it was by and large peaceful and the players were stable. No player tried to deliver a death blow to another.

Many of the regimes and groups we now see as adversaries in the Middle East were once Nazi and Soviet allies. Their hatred of the United States is far from new.

All that ended with World War I. The ambition of a foolish kaiser, and the Prussian military elite with which he was aligned, to achieve lasting dominance over the decades-old “struggle for the mastery of Europe” (in historian A. J. P. Taylor’s words) led to the collapse of four of the six nineteenth-century players. By the mid-1920s, the empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottomans were no more. In each, the old monarchy had been abolished. Germany had lost the provinces (seized from France after the Franco-Prussian War) of Alsace and Lorraine, the industrial Ruhr Valley, and its overseas possessions, while Austro-Hungary had lost everything outside of Austria. The Russian Empire had collapsed into revolution and civil war. The Ottoman Empire was permanently off the global scene; in its place were seven countries and a League of Nations mandate.

Global and European history since then has been largely the record of democratic countries coping with pathological successors to these collapsed regimes, and with the countries of the “Great Game” region between the Russian and Ottoman territories. For from the upheavals that followed imperial implosion, in each case emerged autocratic or totalitarian and expansionist governments: nazism in Germany and Austria, communism in Russia and, after a period of monarchies, in the Middle East Nasser’s and now Mubarak’s Egypt, the House of Saud’s Saudi Arabia, Baathist Syria and Iraq, and Khomeini’s Iran. In the old Ottoman domain, only the core country, Turkey, and the post-World War II state of Israel established anything approaching popular sovereignty and, with it, a claim among their own people to governmental legitimacy. To this day, only Israel’s claim is entirely secure.

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Germany, Russia, and the various despotisms of the Middle East produced thuglike ruling parties, distinct in ideologies but common in attitudes, methods, and goals.

In each regime terror quickly became a prime instrument of power, as, sooner or later, did anti-Semitism. All the imperial remnants used hatred of minorities, particularly Jews, to prop themselves up with the majority groups on which they had such an uncertain hold.

In each region, cults of death became a grim norm. The Soviets and the Nazis had their concentration camps, purges, and holocausts, killing orgies mirrored in different forms in the Middle East from the 1970s to today. There also emerged a celebration of death similar to the “you love life, we love death” rantings of current terrorists. A particularly famous moment came in 1936, at a meeting at the University of Salamanca in Spain. In response to a speech by an adversary, Francoist General José Millán-Astray, a Nazi ally, shouted “Viva la Muerte!”—Long Live Death. The poet Miguel de Unamuno, the university’s rector, was presiding. His rebuke: “This is the temple of intelligence and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will succeed, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. To convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something you lack: reason and right in the struggle.”

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Like racism and terror, expansionism with global ambitions became the challenge in each region to the United States and its allies. The Germanic successor regimes brought us World War II. The Russian successor brought us the Cold War. And now the successors to the Ottomans and the rulers of the Great Game region have given us the war on terror. Iran’s pretensions are overt, as were Saddam Hussein’s—ambitions that gave them a unifying cry to marshal their peoples. In most countries of the region, promises to destroy Israel likewise offer ballast to unstable governments. And although not a state, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are part of this community of conquest. In part they serve as surrogates for states afraid to take on the United States too directly. But they are also state pretenders, like the Nazis or Soviets before their respective seizures of power, making the prospect of expansion and with it expiation of past humiliations part of their appeal.

But the links among the Nazis and Fascists, the Soviets, the Islamicists, and others in the Middle East go beyond shared pathologies. Hitler’s admiration for Stalin and the alliance of the two before Hitler decided to invade Russia are part of high school history texts. Less well-understood are the links of today’s Middle Eastern regimes and movements to the Nazis and Soviets.

For example, as detailed on the widely referenced website Palestine Facts, Haj Amin al-Husseini, the infamous mufti of Jerusalem during much of the British mandate, allied himself with Nazi Germany in the 1930s and received financing from the SS from 1936 through 1939. In 1937, after exposure of his role in terrorism within Palestine, he fled to Syria and from there to Iraq. In 1941, he helped organize a pro-Nazi revolt in Baghdad, after which he fled to Berlin. There he became an advocate of and cheerleader for the Holocaust. After the war, he sought exile in Egypt, where he was received and celebrated as a hero of Arab nationalism. Fear of Arab world backlash kept the Allies from prosecuting him for war crimes. On his death, his leadership in the radical nationalist Palestinian Arab community passed to his nephew and protégé, Yasser Arafat.

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Elsewhere in the formerly Ottoman world, Hitler was also having an influence. In his recently published volume, The Foreigner’s Gift, Lebanese-born scholar Fouad Ajami writes of the 1930s and 1940s: “There was a Berlin-Baghdad corridor. It brought to Iraq the ways and culture and hysteria of the Third Reich and inspired, if that is the word, a generation or two of political men to ideologies of absolutism and violence.” As a young man, the founding ideologist of the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties, Michel Aflaq, was caught up in this stream of intellectual poison. The results can be seen to this day. The Baath Party, according to columnist David Brooks, writing in the Weekly Standard in November 2002, while inspired at its origins by Leninism, “is not quite like the communist parties.” Instead, he says, “It bears stronger resemblance to the Nazi Party,” based as it is on a Nazi-like doctrine of racial superiority.

Meanwhile in Egypt, a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna was founding the Society of Muslim Brothers, the radical group behind so much Islamicist terrorism in recent years. Banna created a paramilitary arm to the brotherhood, modeling it after the Nazi SS. As University of London professor Efraim Karsh writes in his 2006 volume Islamic Imperialism, “Banna was an unabashed admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, who ‘guided their peoples to unity, order, regeneration, power, and glory.’” Following the examples of the Nazis and fascists, he was perhaps the Middle East’s first modern synthesizer of the tactic of terror, the cult of death, and the lust for conquest. Banna wished, Karsh notes, to inculcate Egypt’s young people “with the virtues of death and martyrdom in the quest of Allah’s universal empire. ‘Death is an art,’ he famously wrote, ‘and the most exquisite of arts when practiced by the skillful artist.’”

The history of the past 100 years is largely the record of democratic countries coping with pathological successors to the regimes that collapsed in the early twentieth century.

After Hitler’s defeat, many of these erstwhile Hitler allies and enthusiasts found a new supporter and model in the Soviet Union. Despite Russia’s current dislike of Islamic terrorism, particularly in Chechnya, the old Soviet state was a prime financial backer and trainer of terrorists in the Middle East. By then in opposition to the United States as well as Britain and Israel, these groups passed the Cold War decades in alliance with the Soviets. Many of their leaders spent time in Moscow, and all appear to have stayed in close touch with Soviet operatives.

Thus, many of the regimes and groups we now see as adversaries in the Middle East were once Nazi and Soviet allies. Their hatred of the United States is not a new thing. Earlier generations of leaders were equally intent on our humiliation and defeat.

So what does this history tell us about going forward in Iraq?

First might be a lesson of skepticism about resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a key to stability in the region. Israel is the product of populations fleeing early twentieth-century Russian oppression and later German oppression, with no place willing to receive them after the mid-1920s. They moved into a post-Ottoman political vacuum under supervision of British caretakers who were incapable of reconciling the rising Jewish nationalism of the refugee newcomers with the rising Arab nationalism of many indigenous locals. Yet if this now eight-decade-old conflict were to go away tomorrow, the region’s regimes of inadequate legitimacy would have to find a substitute. Opposition to Israel is useful, even necessary, for many of them—and will be so long as they lack a stable footing in popular sovereignty.

Second, the conflict in Iraq is a life-and-death challenge to other regimes in the region, particularly Iran and Syria. Our success would be their catastrophic failure. They have responded accordingly. Our strategic planning should recognize their roles and give first priority to answering the question: How do we take them out of the Iraqi game? Opening talks with them, as many have suggested, cannot in itself be enough. An American labor leader once said that in high-stakes negotiations, to make the other side see the light, it is sometimes necessary to make them feel the heat. What is the heat here? What will burn through generations of political pathologies? Would it be encouraging opposition groups within Iran? Or military incursions into Syria? Or working with the Saudis to drive down oil prices, as was done with the Soviets, if, indeed, the Saudis want us to prevail in Iraq?

“Death is an art,” wrote Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, “and the most exquisite of arts when practiced by the skillful artist.”

Third, we should fix in our minds that the current conflict is the latest and, if successfully resolved, the final stage in a Hundred Years War, which, while often global, has focused on the fallen empires of World War I. From the perspective of a century, the present episode will be over soon if it ends a decade hence. But in the other phases of this extended conflagration, victory came when our leaders proceeded with a sense of urgency. That sense of urgency is needed now. On the battlefield, Lincoln should be our example. When a general didn’t deliver, he replaced him. We need results. We may not get a perfect resolution to the war, but we must get an acceptable one. After a century of struggle, the stakes are too high to give up trying.

Finally, while recognizing that we are in the last stage of a hundred-year conflict, we should not beguile ourselves into believing this is the war to end all major wars. Maybe it is, but maybe it is not; there is North Korea, of course. But even more serious could be a rising China. The China of today bears an unsettling resemblance to the rising Germany of the late nineteenth century. In both, a limited opening of the economic and political systems produced remarkable economic growth. In both, the enormous growth enabled military buildups unimaginable in prior decades. In both, the opening of the policy-making process that developed in domestic affairs failed to develop in the process for making foreign policy. So each military establishment retained or retains largely unfettered sway. In Germany, the consequence was an assertiveness that blew apart the nineteenth-century international norms and produced the First World War. In China, who knows?

All of which underlines that a sense of urgency in Iraq and throughout the Middle East should be the order of the day. Challenges are following close behind Iraq and Iran. Among the many things that have broken our way during this Hundred Years War is that we could take on challenges one at a time. We should resolve to pass that gift to the next generation.