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Ancient armies with edged weapons first gave meaning to the term “asymmetrical warfare,” much misused by armchair fanciers of anti-colonial warfare. Alexander killed 230,000 Persians at Gaugamela in 331 BC against 4,000 Greek and allied dead. In ancient warfare the pursuers slaughtered the pursued, and the side that ran took all the casualties. Whole civilizations melted away before the onslaught of superior forces. The great error in Western policy is to imagine that anything fundamental has changed. We throw around the term “cutting edge” lightly, too often forgetting that the edge always lands on someone’s back.
For three years I have excoriated George W. Bush as a tragic character who always wishes to do good, but always ends up doing ill. Promoting democracy in the Middle East instead will lead to perpetual warfare. Nonetheless I sympathize with Bush, and reject as nonsensical all the conspiracy theories concerning the supposed motives for US intervention in Iraq. What you see is what you get: the United States wishes to promote its own interest by making the Muslims more like Americans. That the effort is doomed to catastrophic failure is a different matter.
Much as I have ridiculed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, I also sympathize with her point of view. Like Jimmy Carter, she can only interpret events in the Middle East within the frame of her own experience, which is the bitter experience of racism in the US south. She stated on October 11 in her speech to the American Project on Palestine:
I know that sometimes a Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel must seem like a very distant dream. But I know too, as a student of international history, that there are so many things that once seemed impossible that, after they happened, simply seemed inevitable. I’ve read over the last summer the biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. By all rights, America, the United States of America, should never have come into being. We should never have survived our civil war. I should never have grown up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, to become the secretary of state of the United States of America.
In her view the Palestinian Arabs are a disadvantaged people struggling for their rightful place in the world. If the Palestinians fail, Rice cannot help but know, the West will react with racism, the same sort of racism that white Americans exude when speaking among themselves about the failure of American blacks. No matter that as Christians, American blacks relived Israel’s journey to freedom during their bleakest moments, and triumphed by appealing to the Christian conscience of southern whites.
The Palestinians are not the victims of empire, but rather the remnants of a defeated empire that cannot admit to its defeat without accepting final and complete deracination. They cannot help but return to the chant they raised when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Tel Aviv in 1990: “The Jews are our dogs.” No viable economic basis exists for a state of 5 million Palestinians without massive subsidies from the West, and the Palestinians have voted emphatically against becoming the subsidized dogs of the US and the European Union.
Why do whole countries in the modern world show economic results as lopsided as Gaugamela’s casualty list? Little more than a decade ago the former Soviet Union and its satellites wrote off virtually their entire capital stock, and the aspirations of most of their population. By mid-century the population of a political entity that in 1980 seemed destined to rule the world will have fallen by a half (in the case of Ukraine and Moldova) to a quarter (in the case of Russia). What remains of Russia stalks the world scene like a man whose terminal cancer leaves him no motivation save amusement and revenge.
Americans could look on the Soviet Union as an evil empire and communism as an evil ideology because it claimed to replace tradition with the dictatorship of reason. “No more tradition’s chains shall bind us!” intoned the anthem of the Paris Communards, adopted by revolutionary Russia.
Appropriately, the communist empire’s last military misadventure pitted it against the most traditional of societies, namely Afghanistan. The Russian quagmire in Afghanistan had little to do with communism’s ultimate failure, which stemmed from the Russian military’s realization that it could not compete with the United States in high-technology weaponry. Despite its internal rot, Russia might have triumphed if it had succeeded in turning Western Europe into an economic tributary, and harnessing European productive power. Nonetheless, Russia’s calamitous encounter with tradition symbolized the collapse of the arrogance with which communism set out to remake the world on the supposed foundations of science.
Islam was America’s ally in the final struggle against Soviet communism. It is insufficient to say that Islam is traditional; more precisely, Islam is the apotheosis of traditional society. Christianity appeared as the gravedigger of traditional society, calling individuals out from their nations into a new people of God. Where it compromised too deeply with traditional society, through syncretic adoption of pagan elements, ultimately Christianity failed, as in the ex-Christian, neo-pagan continent of Western Europe. Where Christianity liquidated the languages, culture and memories of its converts, it flourished, uniquely in the case of immigrants to the United States.
Issues that seem trivial and even grotesque to Westerners, such as the veiling of women, are life-and-death matters for the survival of Islam, as Muslims in the West know better than their Western critics. Christianity recruits individual souls into a new Israel: Islam enlists converts into an army to defend traditional life against the depredations of encroaching empires. Islam cannot withstand the final dissolution of traditional society that comes with the triumph of globalization. Its entire raison d’etre is a stubborn refusal to adapt, in the fashion that the Chinese have adapted, to a new world with new ground rules. To intervene in the Islamic world is to hasten the dissolution of traditional society and with it the world of Islam. For all his good intentions, Bush appears to Iraqis as the worst thing to visit them since the Mongols in the 14th century.
Christianity, even in its purest, US form, never has quite come to grips with its role as the exterminator of paganism. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but Christians are. They must live in this world. Except in passing moments of inspiration they must make accommodations to it. Europe’s solution was to make Christianity into mere Christendom, in which Christian observance settled into a supporting role within the ambient culture. Less by design than by circumstance, US Christianity has not done this, but only because the US lacks an ambient culture to begin with.
By and large American Christians do not understand what it is that makes them Christians, and why their religion has flourished while European Christianity has perished. Once having abandoned their own culture by becoming American, Americans cease to understand why others will die rather than let their culture be stripped from them. Because American Christians do not quite understand what they are, they cannot understand what makes Muslims so different. Bush, Rice and other well-meaning American Christians will operate on the presumption that Muslims can be persuaded to act like them, with tragic consequences.
It is not what the United States does that threatens Islam, but rather what the United States is: a global avalanche of creative destruction that rips apart the bindings of traditional life. The US has offered a world in which traditional society has no place. The portions of the world that have turned their back to the sword’s edge face chaos. An endearing quality of the Americans is that they find the truth too horrible to contemplate.