Saturday, January 24, 2004

The Next Stage of History

Ten Months ago, in what Orrin Judd called what "may have been the best thing written last year about the role of America in the present danger," Lee Harris set out a truly clearheaded delineation of the world that we have before us, and how 9/11 made it obvious to all who would see how our world has changed, forever. He points out how the Classical Liberal worldview that we have come to know and love is in danger of becoming a Hobbesian state of universal war. We have come to the edge of this precipice by allowing the status of sovereign nation to be applied to those who refuse to play the game of geopolitics by the same rules by which the rest of the world plays.

Harris posits the question: what would we do if Chicago disappears in a nuclear explosion and we do not know exactly who transported the bomb?
Could we really count on being able to find its "return address" if in fact it was the work of a "rogue" state? We know that, in fact, the answer is no; and we know that "they" know this as well; and they know we know - all of which only begins to suggest the surrealism that is characteristic of the crisis with which we are faced. For it means that if they chose to delegate such a horrendous act to an entity like Al Qaeda, they would force us into an impossible choice: Either we accept such an attack without retaliating, or else we are forced to lash out blindly - and in the same spirit of blood feud and vendetta with which the attack was made. And either choice transcends our present categories of comprehension. The first "rogue" nuclear strike - a strike from an unknown and even unknowable source - is a genie that once out of the bottle can never be put back in. It would cause an overnight catastrophic transformation of the world. In many ways we must be grateful that Al Qaeda's fingerprints were over all 9-11. For what if we had had no clue - even today - who had perpetrated such an act?
Would the world we have come to know still exist, or would it change, that moment, into something entirely different? And, more important, can we allow that to happen?

He points out some other uncomfortable situations, such as:
What Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have in common is that they became rich because the West paid them for natural resources that the West could simply have taken from them at will, and without so much as a Thank You, if the West had been inclined to do so. They were, by one of the bitter paradoxes of history, the pre-eminent beneficiaries of the Western liberalism that they have pledged themselves to destroy. Their power derives entirely from the fact that the West had committed itself, in the aftermath of World War II, to a policy of not robbing other societies of their natural resources simply because it possessed the military might to do so.
and therefore
This gives a sense of Greek tragedy, with its dialectic of hubris and nemesis, to what has been unfolding in the Islamic world. If they continue to use terror against the West, their very success will destroy them. If they succeed in terrorizing the West, they will discover that they have in fact only ended by brutalizing it. And if subjected to enough stress, the liberal system will be set aside and the Hobbesian world will return - and with its return, the Islamic world will be crushed. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. And the only way to avoid this horrendous end is to bring the Islamic world back to sanity sooner rather than latter.

Nothing but force can break them from their illusion. Not because there is something wrong with them as a race, but simply because they are acting like any other individual who has been permitted to live in a dream world - they continue to fantasize. And who can blame them? It is only brute fact that shakes any of us from the single most cherished of our illusions - the myth of our own grandeur and omnipotence. And this is as true of a culture as of an individual.
and further
An illuminating metaphor here is a game of chess between two equally skilled players: no matter how bitter the conflict between them, each can understand the rationale and motivation behind the other player's moves - and in fact, if the other player appears to make an irrational move, his opponent will be hesitant to conclude that the move was a mere mistake, and will be far more likely to suspect that it is a trap and act accordingly.

But what happens when you a playing chess with someone who refuses to accept the rules of the game? How do you respond if your opponent begins to jump his knight in all sorts of bizarre zigzag patterns, so that you cannot predict where he will land or what piece he will seize?

In a game of chess the answer is obvious: You stop playing with the madman and go your separate way. But this, unfortunately, is not an option in dealing with genuine conflicts arising in the real world.
and then
But that precisely is the nature of the crisis we are facing. The liberal world system has collapsed internally: there is no longer a set of rules that govern all the players. And here I do not mean ethical rules, for that cannot be expected, but what Kant called maxims of prudence, those regulatory principles that enforce a realistic code of conduct on all the participants in a well-ordered system, and which allows us to know for a near certainty what the other players will not even conceive of doing. Such rules, once again, are trans-cultural, and must be trans-cultural if they are to permit all the players to participate in them. They constitute the precondition of any politically stable system, for without them there is the danger of cognitive anarchy - a situation in which no one can any longer predict with confidence what the others will do. And that is the gateway to disaster. For when you do not know what to expect, it becomes prudent to expect the worst; but when all expect the worst, the worst is bound to happen.
Harris brings clarity to the Palestinian problem, with
There is, of course, nothing to keep one from applying the purely honorific title of "state" to the Palestinians, for example, just as the English are perfectly entitled to dub a popular singer a Knight, though it would be dangerous to rely on him to defend the realm. But merely to call the Palestinian community a "state" does not and cannot transform it into a viable subsistent entity if those who govern and decide its course are utterly lacking in a sense of what is realistically available to them. And nothing highlights this more than the official explanation, on the part of Palestinian spokesmen, for those acts of terrorism committed by the suicide-bombers, the assertion that these are acts of war. For the bitter truth is that if the Palestinian people were indeed a genuine state fighting a genuine war, they would have long since been annihilated root and branch - or else they would have been forced to make a realistic accommodation with the state of Israel, based on a just assessment of the latter's immense superiority of resources, both military and political. And the reason for this superiority, by a paradox typical of history, is not American aid or funding, but the fact that the state of Israel has been forced to struggle for every moment of its existence from the very day of its birth - and it is this struggle that has made them into what no assembly of nations can ever bestow - a viable state. And unless the Palestinians as a people can set aside their fantasies of pushing a vastly superior enemy into the sea, instead of seeking out a realistic modus vivendi with him, they may demand a state, and even be "recognized" as a state. But it will exist as a viable entity only by virtue of the liberal conscience - and seemingly inexhaustible forbearance - of the Israeli people.
But, not only does Harris show us the problem, he offers the solution. There is so much here. I agree with Orrin Judd, this is truly "the best thing written last year about the role of America in the present danger," and it was written before the USA attacked Iraq. Please read this clearheaded delineation of where we are, and where we have to go, if you value the world we live in, and want to participate in the debate as we move forward.