Ira Chernus  



Tom Friedman wants us to fight World War III. Tom is the influential foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. He takes the ideas of the liberal foreign policy elite and turns them into simple words that anyone can understand. "Simple" is the operative word here, as in "simplify," "simplification," "over-simplification."

Tom just published the first of a five-part series in the Times, about how to save our American lifestyle. Hereís what he wants us to believe:

We are now fighting Word War III. Just as we fought off the totalitarian Nazis and communists, we must now defeat totalitarian political Islamists. Itís a war of ideas. We believe in "certain bedrock rules of civilization." We think itís shameful to give up your life to kill people you hate. The Soviets believed that too, which is why we could deter them from hot war and force them to end the cold war.

But "today, alas, there is no bedrock agreement on what is shameful, what is outside the boundary of a civilized world." The militant Islamists hate us more than they love life. They are willing to commit suicide in order to "impose the reign of political Islam." So we canít deter them.

We can catch some of them before they act, by Improving our spying techniques. But the more power we give to government snoops, the more we lose our "cherished civil liberties" and stop trusting each other. That would "erode our lifestyle," which is precisely what we are trying to preserve. So, for quite a while, we must "learn to live with more risk," to maintain our open society."

The only way to escape from risk and protect our lifestyle is to "get the societies where these Islamists come from to deter them." "Their home societies have not stigmatized their acts as Ďshameful.í" So we have to "partner with the forces of moderation within these societies to help them fight the war of ideas. Because ultimately this is a struggle within the Arab-Muslim world, and we have to help our allies there, just as we did in World Wars I and II." In his next four columns, Tom will tell us how to do that.

Letís first see why Friedmanís own war of ideas is illogical. Then weíll get to why itís so scary.

It may feel good to see the "war on terrorism" as a clone of the great 20th century wars. It makes the U.S. look like the good guy and the inevitable winner. But every war has its own unique causes and consequences. To lump them all together is to over-simplify and falsify reality.

One obvious example: Osama bin Laden wants to impose the reign of political Islam in countries that are already predominantly Muslim. Contrary to what Friedman, Bush, et al. want us to think, there is no evidence that he wants to force us all to be Muslims, the way Stalin might have wanted us all to be communists. Nor has Osama set out about exterminating whole "racial" groups, as Hitler did.

Why was Stalin more "civilized" than Osama? Was he really ashamed of all his murders? Surely, he sent people on suicide missions for the sake of a higher ideal. Just as surely, the U.S. military has done the same. Read Catch-22. OK, technically most were not suicide missions. But U.S. military leaders are always ready to put their forces in deathís way, when they think it necessary.

And we make our dead warriors heroes, just as some Muslims do. We, too, are taught to admire self-sacrifice in defense of our ideals. To turn this fine line into a chasm separating the "civilized" from the "savages" just doesnít make senseóespecially when you are using it to justify a multibillion dollar war against the "savages," as Tom Friedman does.

Before we decide who is "civilized," there is the little matter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention Tokyo, Hamburg, and Dresden. And the Cuban missile crisis, when JFK could only figure the rough odds that he might make a decision to destroy civilization in the northern hemisphere, rather than remove some missiles from Turkey. And the torture chambers of the Shah of Iran, Pinochet, and all the rest that we funded and trained, including Saddamís. Do we get to be the "civilized" good guys because we are more willing to kill others than to kill ourselves?

Any good first-year philosophy student could go on ripping Friedmanís arguments to shreds. But it is more important to see why they are dangerous. Remember, he is a liberal. This is what we will get in the White House by using all our energy to oust George W. We will get a simplistic world divided into good guysóus and all those who support us (the "forces of moderation")óand bad guys who are not willing to play by our rules.

Our rules include freedom of religion and relatively free elections (as long as we are sure no bad guys can win). Those are blessings. But our rules also give multinational corporations and international currency traders the right to do pretty much whatever they damn please, wherever they damn please. In Friedmanís bible of global corporate capitalism, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he calls them "the horde."

He assumes that there is no way to prevent "the horde" from running the world. So we just have to make the world safe for them. Nations ruled by traditionalist Islamists would probably make life difficult for "the horde." That is why we must declare World War III against the Islamists and get Muslim "moderates" to join our side.

Of course, there is another way to avoid war, risk, and the loss of our civil liberties. We could tell other nations that they are free to make their own economic and social rules. That is all the anti-U.S. Islamists want. But then we would have to give up the great American dream of a unified corporate capitalist system free to run things in every corner of the globe. That might "erode our lifestyle." And remember, Tom says the ultimate goal of World War III is to preserve our comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

But between the lines, Tom suggests that there is another goal: to preserve our belief that we are rational, civilized, and morally pure; that we must teach the rest of the world how to be rational, civilized, and pure. Itís the same thing Englishmen believed when they started killing native Americans nearly 400 years ago. Some ideas just wonít quit, even after Hiroshima, the nuclear arms race, and the Shah.

In fact, that may be why Tom and the liberals he speaks for need so desperately to believe that we are civilized and the Islamists are not. The actual evidence is much more ambiguous. No, I wouldnít want to live in Osama-land, and I hope no nations choose to go his route. But if I were poor, or non-white, or uneducated, or more radical than I am, I might not want to live in the good old USA either.

Osamaís system sucks. Our system sucks in quite a different way. Osama urges exploited powerless people to fight because they are the only morally pure people. Tom Friedman urges the powerful exploiters to fight because they are the only morally pure people. That way, he can justify the exploitation, the injustice, and the killing needed to keep it going. And he makes it all sound so reasonable, so simple.

But the simple truth is that the more Americans believe Tom Friedmanís ideas, the more U.S. policy will alienate Muslims around the world. So the war, and the risk to our lives, are sure to continue.