One kind word should to be said for the foundering US president: George W. Bush seems to be the last person in public life to think that genocide is an unacceptable outcome (except, of course, for Pope Benedict XVI, who sadly has no divisions).

Time was that the g-word was unpronounceable by critics on the right or left. It is a measure of how much the world has changed since September 11, 2001, that the prospect of genocide shocks neither. For example, prominent journalist and humanitarian activist David Rieff believes that if genocide is inevitable in Iraq, we should stand back and watch. He asks (in Rod Dreher’s must-read Crunchy Con weblog) why the US should remain in Iraq at all: [1]

The usual answer is that because if we leave [Iraq] there will be a genocide … The deeper questions are (a) whether short of open-ended colonization, the US has the power to prevent the genocide whose preconditions we ourselves created through our hubris, (b) whether the future of the Iraqi polity should be one of the main foci of our concerns, and (c) whether the cost of preventing genocide is one we as a polity can afford to pay. My answer to all three questions is no.

Rieff penned the above words to defend Democratic Senator Barack Obama’s statement that the danger of genocide is not sufficient cause to keep US troops in Iraq. On the conservative side, Father Richard Neuhaus in the September issue of First Things takes President Bush to task for having “pledged America to the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world,” as Bush said in Prague on September 6. Father Neuhaus writes:

The claim that we are imposing our values, says the president, is refuted by the fact that every time people are given a choice, they choose freedom. It is by no means evident that the people of Iraq, for instance, who bravely turned out in the millions to participate in elections, were choosing freedom. It is more likely they were voting for the dominance of their tribes determined to dominate them. It would seem that freedom, as the liberal-democratic tradition construes freedom, is, in fact, un-Islamic.

He asks whether the United States can “present its purposes to the world in a manner friendly to Muslims seeking to institute governments that, in a believably Muslim way, derive their powers from the consent of the governed,” and concludes, “It is possible that the answer to that question is in the negative. If so, it would seem that there is no alternative to bracing ourselves for the escalation of an open-ended clash of civilizations.”

Before September 11, 2001, I published a brief essay titled “In defense of genocide,” with intent to shock. [2] Now, as the surrealist enfant terrible Andre Breton repined at the end of his life, it is no longer possible to outrage anyone. The single-mindedness with which Shi’ites and Sunnis slaughter each other makes us take civilizational conflict for granted. The few score of deaths each day in an Iraq occupied by US forces, where sectarian killers remain underground, has inured the public to the millions of deaths that will ensue after the Americans leave and the death squads can emerge in the open, drawing support from Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. What this might imply for Pakistan and Lebanon is not hard to imagine.

A million deaths, more or less, ensued from Sunni-Shi’ite warfare during the 1980s after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. A rematch fought out not only between armies but between neighborhoods might add a zero to the score, in part because the United States would not permit Iran in effect to annex the oilfields of the Iraqi south, and almost certainly would try to restore a military balance by reinforcing the Sunni side, and supporting unrest among the non-Persian half of the Iranian population. Wars in which antagonists are equally balanced but equally determined turn out to be by far the bloodiest – the Catholic-Protestant civil wars of the 17th century and World War I stand out as examples.

Only naivety verging on simple-mindedness could envisage a genocide in Iraq to which the world’s powers would stand indifferent. It is not merely that oil is at stake, but that the ambitions of the Shi’ite world could not be contained at the Saudi border. Rather than attempting to “colonize” Iraq, to which David Rieff objects, the United States and its friends would intervene in a score of smaller ways. In fact, even Bush’s most embittered opponents do not object to such interventions. In a television interview on January 22, Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader of America’s upper house, intoned that Washington should “take nothing off the table” regarding prospective intervention against al-Qaeda in Pakistan, currently America’s most diligent ally.

The desire to instill a rational order into a violent world persuades historians and political scientists to suppress the most obvious fact about the modern era, namely that genocide is the norm, rather than the exception. The French state, universally hailed as first exemplar of the modern era, was born from a sea of German blood. Roughly half of Europe’s German speakers and a great many others perished in the terrible Catholic-Protestant conflict that endured for the 30 years between 1618 and 1648. Under the guidance of Cardinal Richelieu and later Cardinal Mazarin, France financed one Protestant challenger after another, notably Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, and sent its own troops when no proxy was available for purchase. French policy kept the conflict suppurating until not enough Germans were alive to challenge French hegemony in Europe.

Europe’s first full-dress genocide was committed against the Germans, by France, assisted of course by the stupidity and fanaticism of the Austrian imperial court as well as the venal ambitions of the Protestant princes.

So much for the birth of the modern state. By the same token, the birth of the modern democratic state, the United States of America, required another genocide, and I do not refer to the reduction of the native Americans, which may or may not have been a genocide or the unintentional result of epidemic smallpox. I refer to the American Civil War. As I wrote in the cited 2001 essay:

The great genocide of American history is not the destruction of the [aboriginals], but rather the slaughter of the manhood of the American south during the Civil War. One-quarter of all military-age males residing in the 11 states of the rebel Confederacy died in military action between 1861 and 1865. The south surrendered only when insufficient men could be found to fill the ranks.

In this case genocide was not a bad thing but, on the contrary, an act of moral splendor unequaled in recorded history, in which the Union made awful sacrifices to destroy the heinous institution of slavery. But that is an aside; what is important to accept is that the two decisive events of modern history, the foundation of the “modern” state and the foundation of the modern democratic state, were born of genocide. We know that genocide was normative in prehistoric society (in that regard I have referred on past occasions to research summarized in Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn).

In the conceit of reason, we bridle at the obvious, unavoidable fact that genocide has been normative in modern history as well. I am not referring to such horrors as the Nazi genocide against Jews, or the (far more limited) Turkish genocide against Armenians, or what some might call a Russian genocide against Chechnya. On the contrary: genocide defined the shape of the West from the beginning. Modernity, even in western Europe and America, does not look modern at all under close examination. Why should we expect anything different from the Middle East?

Against its will, and in violation of all its altruistic instincts, the United States will emulate Cardinal Richelieu, stoking the conflict in the Muslim world until it burns itself out – and that could last a century and produce casualties on a scale never seen before. So-called Kissingerian realism, modeled on the balance of power after the Napoleonic Wars, is a child’s game of tin soldiers compared with the machinations of Richelieu. Nonetheless, the US is going to get a crash course in realpolitik on a scale that few now in power can visualize.

Is genocide therefore inevitable? Of course it is not. Before September 11, a word-association exercise would have elicited the word “Africa” as a response to the word “genocide,” as surely as a 25-cent piece will produce a gumball from a vending machine. Yet African genocide – except for the genocide perpetrated by Arabs in Sudan – has abated almost miraculously during the past half-dozen years. Part of this, of course, is due to the determination of Western powers to stop the civil wars that horrified the world a decade ago. But a great deal of the credit, I firmly believe, goes to Christian evangelists who have won tens of millions of Africans to a “religion of peace,” if that expression still has currency, as opposed to tribal loyalties. Sociologist Philip Jenkins is the West’s most industrious reporter of this phenomenon; I reviewed his book on the subject last year. [3]

Father Neuhaus is correct to observe that US notions of freedom may be un-Islamic, but they are not un-African. There is great hope in the part of the world that many had given up for dead only a decade ago. No, genocide is not inevitable. But it seems very unlikely that the African solution, namely Christian evangelization, will have much effect in the Middle East.

1. Iraqi genocide: A case against trying to stop it, July 22.
2. In defense of genocide, Asia Times Online, January 4, 2001.
3. A new Jerusalem in sub-Saharan Africa, ATol, December 12, 2006.