The First Principle
The long discussion going on in the comments for this Micheal Totten post
(found via Demosthenes
), and this American Prospect article
by Paul Berman that Totten links to have reminded me of some essentials in the war that I wouldn't say that I've forgotten, exactly, but which I have let slip from front and center. The details of the war and occupation, both horrible and inspiring, can distract one from the big picture- or I should say they've been distracting to me lately.
The big picture is that we are facing another violent reactionary movement against liberalism and modernity. In this broad sense, the Islamists and Arab nationalists are akin to the totalitarians and fascists we fought and defeated in the last century. It is rationalism vs. irrationalism yet again. The ideals of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution must once again be defended against the reactionary forces which are threatened by it. Whether promising a return to an idealized past, as did the Nazis and as do the Islamists, or a utopian future, as did the Communists and as do the Arab nationalists, they are all essentially reactions to the success of the central modern idea of personal freedom and the sovereignty of the individual.
There should be no doubt that this is what Islamism, at least, represents. The limited range of liberty described in shariah should be enough to convince any respecter of human rights, in particular women's rights, of that fact.
Of course the majority of the left, defined for the purposes of this post as the 50% of the population that is left of center, supports the general propostion that personal liberty, capitalism, and democracy is the best way to run a society. You can say the same for the right, similarly defined.
For the sake of argument, let's say that the rightmost two-thirds of that left half, and the leftmost two-thirds of the right half are in agreement, to a large degree, on the central question of the supreme value of our rational and modern ideas of political freedom, individual liberty, and market economics. (Disagreements on the edges, over gay marriage or the minimum wage are less important than the wide agreement on the main ideas.) This has us with two-thirds of the population in the middle agreeing on the basics.
The outliers on the extremes therefore, are what distinguishes left and right, since there is mere squabbling over detail, and not disagreement over basic assumptions, in the great center when it comes to large questions affecting the existence of the society.
The extreme right contains theocratic, white supremacist, nationalist, fascist, and isolationist groups. Christian theocrats would be as oppressive as their Muslim counterparts. White supremacy is nearly as dead as Nazism, though both linger as discredited movements. Fascism, despite David Niewert's saber-rattling, is not raising its ugly head. Isolationism is not an option but rather a dream of a non-existent past.
The extreme left contains communist, socialist, minority separatist/supremecist, and transnationalist groups. Communism and socialism are discredited totalitarian nightmares. Racial separatists are little respected in the mainstream. Transnationalism would cede political power to authorities without respect for individual sovereignty.
None of these groups have any truck with classical liberalism or respect for individual rights. The extremists on both the left and right have more in common with our Islamist and Arab nationalist enemies than they do with their moderate cousins among the moderate left and moderate right. If it is indeed modernism and rationalism that we are fighting for, and I believe that it is, then it is essential that we recognize all of our enemies, both foreign and domestic, for what they are. It is equally important that we recognize all those who support the central ideas of liberalism and individual rights for what they are, even when there is disagreement on how best to achieve the victory that is minimally required.
For example, the Stalinists who recently organized some anti-war-in-Iraq protests are our enemies. Not because they opposed the war, but because they are communists and against the central ideas of liberalism that we live under and support. But one can have been against the war in Iraq while still supporting the central ideas of liberalism. It was a strategic error on the part of average anti-war Westerners of the left to partner with Stalinists, even if their immediate goal was the same. Their long-term goals are vastly different and incompatible. The moderate left should have taken this into account. Much of it didn't. This was a failure on the part of the moderate left.
It is equally important that the moderate right recognize the border between the irrational that we are fighting against, even on the right, and the rational that we are fighting for. (I can't come up with an equivalent example of a strategic error of the right as I did for the left in the preceding paragraph, but perhaps this is my bias. Let me know if you think something qualifies.)
I think the position people take on liberalism must be the starting point for analyzing their positions on the issue of the war. Not the Iraq War specifically but rather the broader "War on Terrorism", as poor a name as that is. There are indeed more nuanced issues. To name two: the problem of the dupe, who believes in liberalism but also believes that we can win by accommodation, or some other ineffectual means, and the problem of the opportunist, who believes that liberalism should win, but who would hold a liberal victory hostage to various concessions he seeks to win.
In any case, it is liberalism and modernism that is under attack. And it is the commitment to those ideals that should broadly define who is on our side and who is against us. A first principle.
I'll return to this later.