Will Bush’s Idealism Lead U.S. To Lose ‘War With Islam’?

Posted June 3, 2005 at 5:00pm

It certainly is no summer beach read, but you’ll be edified — and lots of people will be angered — by Robert Merry’s new book, “Sands of Empire,” a rich and deep critique of President Bush’s alleged “Crusader State” foreign policy.

I think that Merry, president and publisher of Congressional Quarterly, is far too pessimistic in saying that Bush is leading the country toward “calamity” by pursuing a policy of “humanitarian imperialism.” But Merry not only argues his case forcefully, he also bases it on intellectual history dating to the 17th century.

It was then, in the writing of a now-forgotten French social philosopher, Charles-Irenee Castel-de Saint-Pierre, that the “Idea of Progress,” already developing in the West, was raised to a new level, with the notion that governments and social systems could actually improve human nature.

[IMGCAP(1)]Merry contends that Bush is operating in the tradition of Saint-Pierre and other “dreamy” utopians extending from French philosophers René Descartes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau through Woodrow Wilson to contemporaries Francis Fukuyama, Thomas Friedman, Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz, in trying to impose Western democracy on the world, especially the Islamic world.

“Idea of Progress” thinkers, Merry writes, believe that history is a tale of physical and social improvement, that it’s possible to foster a “universal culture” across the globe, that (in Fukuyama’s formulation) the 20th century triumph of liberal capitalist democracy is the “end of history,” that (Friedman’s idea) that economic and cultural “globalization” can end war forever. They also tend to believe in the superiority of Western culture.

These reasonably benign Wilsonian ideas have been combined in the Bush era, especially since Sept. 11, 2001, with a “new neoconservatism,” different from the original version, holding that America must do everything possible “to ensure that its post-Cold War hegemony will continue throughout the world and into the future as far as the eye could see.”

Merry, previously the author of a first-rate biography of journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, clearly holds an opposing world view, namely the “Cycles of History” theory. It was expounded in the 20th century by German intellectual Oswald Spengler in “The Decline of the West” and Arnold Toynbee’s multi-volume “A Study of History.”

It, too, is rooted in the 18th century conservatism of Edmund Burke and set forth as an alternative to post-Cold War Wilsonianism by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs and in a 1996 book forecasting a “clash of civilizations.”

In contrast to the “Progress” idea, the “Cycles” theorists hold that human nature can’t be changed, that evil is a fact of life, that conflict is inevitable, that cultures differ fundamentally, that civilizations rise and fall and that there is no “end of history.”

Merry’s book doesn’t break new intellectual ground so much as it vividly and clearly explores the history of ideas about human history and draws out their implications today. His book is made especially readable by its character sketches of the major thinkers and players.

He is particularly caustic toward the neoconservatives, whose original leaders, notably Irving Kristol, were critical of ideas about the perfectibility of human nature but now, in such publications as son Bill Kristol’s The Weekly Standard, are promoting forced democratization of the planet.

Merry gibes that “these restless intellectuals” — the neocons — “have a tendency to make their way to whatever watering hole they can find to quench their need for a rhetorical argument of the moment.” He says there is now nothing conservative about them.

By contrast, writes Merry, Huntington’s is “an intellect that focuses laser-like on human nature as it really is and not on dreamy ideas about the ideal society or how proper arrangements can transform mankind and spawn peace and happiness.”

Merry believes, with Huntington, that the West is not in the ascendancy, but rather in relative decline. He advocates establishment of a kind of balance of power among the “core states” of the competing civilizations, including China, Russia and India. Unfortunately, Islam lacks a dominant “core state.”

“Writing before 9/11,” Merry notes, “Huntington suggested that the dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from ‘the intersection of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance and (Chinese) assertiveness.”

Echoing Huntington, Merry believes that the West is “at war with Islam,” not just with Islamic radicalism, and that Bush is in danger of losing the war by inserting U.S. troops into the Islamic heartland (Iraq) and trying to westernize an alien culture. In the process, he fears that the United States could lose its own soul and, like Rome in 88 B.C., cease to be a republic and become an empire.

I agree with the conservative notion that human nature can’t be changed and that there’s an ongoing struggle to contain and channel man’s evil tendencies. That’s what the U.S. Constitution is all about.And I buy the notion that America and the West may decline someday. But should we assume that’s happening right now? U.S. military superiority, the spread of U.S. culture and technology and the fact that English is the world’s semi-official language suggest that our civilization is not yet in decline.

I’d also hope, as Bush believes, that the desire for freedom is a universal yearning of mankind that the United States can foster as long as it does so skillfully. After all, the Iraqis did brave death to go to the polls Jan. 30. We should not keep troops there longer than necessary, but we can’t abandon Iraq to terrorism.

Moreover, the evidence suggests that Islam is not uniformly hostile to the West. Indonesia isn’t Taliban Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia.

Merry argues that to fight the war with Islam, we should have allied with Saddam Hussein against Islamic radicals (as if that were possible), that we should be making peace right now with Iran and should protect Saudi Arabia’s reactionary regime. He also thinks we have to limit Muslim immigration and population growth in the United States, because it represents a potential base for terrorism.

This is a provocative book. I think it’s too gloomy and ignores the possibility of a middle ground between naive utopianism or U.S. imperialism, on the one hand, and the “realist” policy of preserving despots in the name of stability, on the other. Still, this is a rich read that deserves to kick off a summer of learned argument.