With the war against the Taliban winding down, the United States is poised before two distinct crossroads. The clearly marked intersection is the Iraq question – whether the United States should use the 9-11 attacks as a pretext to overthrow a vicious dictator who may one day threaten various regimes in the Middle East, but who poses at most a very modest threat to the United States.
The other, less clearly marked but of at least equal portent, is whether the United States ought to consider itself at war with the Arab world as a whole, or indeed with the entire Islamic world. Now that several months have past since 9-11, one can see emerging in the leading neoconservative journals and elsewhere the enthusiastic celebration of this expanded "war of civilizations."
A stunning new entry appears in the latest City Journal – a brightly-edited neoconservative quarterly heretofore devoted to the (now comparatively mundane) matters of urban governance and public morals. Victor Davis Hanson's excoriation of Muslim backwardness and gleeful anticipation of the coming struggle bears comparison to the war fever that swept through the literary and ruling classes of Europe in August 1914. Not for lack of trying does Hanson fail to reach the standard of war enthusiasm set that fateful summer by Walter Rathenau, Thomas Mann – and of course Rupert Brooke:
"Honour has come back, as a king, to earth And paid his subjects with a royal wage; And nobleness walks in our ways again; And we are come into our heritage."
A CASE FOR TOTAL WAR?
Hanson's main point is that Muslim civilization is decidedly inferior to the West, it can now invent and produce virtually nothing, and it will soon find that it has created in the United States "a very angry and powerful enemy that may be yours for a long, long time to come." To round out this picture, City Journal adds a piece (by Peter Huber and Mark Mills) on the snazzy new digital technologies will allow Americans to watch, track and kill anything that moves, thus ensuring our victory over Muslim terror.
Hanson's arguments are not entirely groundless: there clearly is a Pan-Islamic malaise – that of a once resplendent civilization which has in the past four centuries been outstripped, first by the West and now by North Asia, in every educational and technological measure. The result is a fair portion of resentment, and whose extreme end is the cult of Osama bin Laden and jihad ideology. The question is whether this resentment adds up to a case for total war – or, whether (far more realistically) anti-Western sentiments coexist with admiration and a desire for emulation. If so, that segment of Islamic resentment which is actively terrorist can be surgically removed from the whole.
Hanson's conclusion that the entire body of Islamic civilization is ill and terminally hostile requires him to argue his way past a few inconvenient facts. According to him, because the Muslim world is unwilling to admit its civilizational "inferiority" it has to look about for excuses. Hence all those tiresome complaints about Israel. In a key passage Hanson writes, "If Israel did not exist, the Arab world, in its current fit of denial, would have to invent it . . . For the Middle East to make peace with Israel would be to declare war on itself, to admit that its own fundamental way of doing business – not the Jews – makes it poor, sick, and weak."
The point here is to submerge discussion of specifics – Sharon, the Israeli occupation, the intifada, the settlements, the lack of a Palestinian state – as if they have nothing to do with anti-Americanism in the Arab world. Arab concern with the Palestinians, Hanson claims, is but a mask.
You have to wonder whether anyone actually believes this. It would require believing that Arab diplomatic expressions of frustration with America's one-sided support for Israel are insincere, a lie, an "excuse." It requires believing that – after the Arabs have developed an independent mass media which gives a disproportionate amount of coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian war – the media's fascination with Palestine is not genuine, but a sort of Freudian displacement. We are meant to accept that al-Jazeera broadcasts programs that its producers don't care about and its viewers aren't interested in.
A FEW FACTS
In the latest New York Review of Books, Tony Judt sets down a few facts of the kind which Hanson believes interest Arabs only because they don't want to face facts about themselves. Fact: since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, there have been 172 Israeli civilian deaths, roughly half in Israel proper. 2194 Israelis have been injured.
During that period, the Palestinians have suffered 592 civilian deaths, and 17,000 Palestinians have been wounded. The disproportion is noteworthy – especially perhaps the wounded. The infliction of that much suffering on a civilian population can only inspire hatred and rage.
The Israelis have carried out extra-judicial executions as a matter of policy. Thirty Palestinian suspects were killed in the latest Israeli occupation of Palestinian towns. Many of the Palestinians subject to the extra-judicial killings were suspected of involvement in the group that assassinated an Israeli cabinet minister, Rehavem Zeevi. Zeevi had called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their homeland, and was the government's main cheerleader for a racially pure "Greater Israel." Why such a figure was appointed minister in the government commonly described as "America's main ally in the Middle East" is a question worth asking. Were such a figure a cabinet minister in any European government, the American response would be first vitriolic condemnation, then sanctions.
OUT OF BOUNDS
As one who has spent an entire adult life in the conservative movement, it is vexing that reasoned discussion of Israel and the Israel-American-Arab triangle is far more likely to be found in the liberal journals like the New York Review. In the conservative press, barring a few isolated exceptions, the topic has been pushed entirely out of bounds. As a substitute, readers are fed disquisitions on Muslim inferiority.
Last month the British papers were astir over published reports that the French ambassador had said – regarding Israel – it would be terrible for the entire world to be dragged into war because of that "shitty little country." The scatological description of the Jewish state was callous and ugly, heedless of Israel's considerable achievements.
But who – honestly – would disagree with the ambassador's underlying thought? Any number of people have said to me that they have no interest in becoming victims of terrorism related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a war in which they have no stake and little interest in. Yet thousands of Americans have now been killed because of that conflict – assuming that the rage that created and sustains Osama bin Laden is partially fueled by it. How many Americans care so deeply about Israel's right to settle the West Bank and deny the Palestinians the state promised them by the relevant United Nations resolutions that they are willing to give up their own lives? Heretofore, such questions could not really be asked in conservative circles. Perhaps that will change. A small sign: Ron Unz, the California-based education activist (and sponsor of anti-bilingual education referendums) and one of the least dogmatic figures on the American Right, recently published a letter to the editor of Commentary which was breathtaking in its readiness to challenge the regnant taboos.
Duly noting that his grandparents helped found the state of Israel, he presented a very pessimistic view of the conflict. Israel faced two unsatisfactory choices – it could expel or exterminate the Palestinians (the position of the outlawed Kach party, and roughly that of the late minister Zeevi) or follow the pattern of the Crusader kingdoms of the Middle Ages, last 70 or 80 years, and gradually succumb as its citizens immigrated to more peaceful and hospitable places. Unz correctly notes that the dominant raison d'etre for Zionism has waned: Jews face serious anti-Semitism or barriers to their own security and prosperity nowhere in the Western world. The flow of Israeli immigrants to the United States is large and growing – and if the conflict with the Palestinians continues, is not likely to abate. He believes Israel would never carry out the Kach option.
NOT WORTH IT
In my view, Unz is far too pessimistic about the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution – a peace settlement that would give the Palestinians a home and the Israelis a real shot at making themselves accepted in a hostile region. But if I'm wrong and Unz is correct, how terrible would it be if Israel collapsed? We could assume the collapse was not the result of military defeat – virtually unthinkable because of the Israeli nuclear arsenal – but followed from the cumulative individual decisions of thousands of Israelis that fighting the Palestinians over land in the Mideast is more trouble than it's worth.
I'm not particularly in favor of transporting a good part of Israel's population to the United States, but it depends what the actual choices are. If that is the alternative to an unending war of terror and counter-terror with the Arab world, nuclear bombs smuggled into American cities, etc. – the war of civilizations with all the trimmings that the neoconservatives pine for, Israel is simply not worth it.