The New York Times

April 15, 2004


Will the Opposition Lead?


he war in Iraq may end up going well or catastrophically, but either way, this war has always been central to the broader war on terror. That is because terror has never been a matter of a few hundred crazies who could be rounded up by the police and special forces. Terror grows out of something larger an enormous wave of political extremism.

The wave began to swell some 25 years ago and by now has swept across a big swath of the Muslim world. The wave is not a single thing. It consists of several movements or currents, which are entirely recognizable. These movements draw on four tenets: a belief in a paranoid conspiracy theory, according to which cosmically evil Jews, Masons, Crusaders and Westerners are plotting to annihilate Islam or subjugate the Arab people; a belief in the need to wage apocalyptic war against the cosmic conspiracy; an expectation that, post-apocalypse, the Islamic caliphate of ancient times will re-emerge as a utopian new society; and a belief that, meanwhile, death is good, and should be loved and revered.

A quarter century ago, some of the extremist movements pictured the coming utopia in a somewhat secular light, and others in a theocratic light. These differences, plus a few other quarrels, led to hatred and even war, like the one between Iran and Iraq. The visible rivalries left an impression in some people's minds that nothing tied together these sundry movements.

American foreign policy acted on that impression, and tried to play the movements against one another, and backed every non-apocalyptic dictator who promised to keep the extremists under control. The American policy was cynical and cruel. It did nothing to prevent those sundry movements and dictators from committing murders on a gigantic scale.

Nor did the policy produce anything good for America, in the long run. For the sundry movements did share a common outlook, which ought to have been obvious all along the paranoid and apocalyptic outlook of European fascism from long ago, draped in Muslim robes. These movements added up to a new kind of modern totalitarianism. And, in time, the new totalitarianism found its common point, on which everyone could agree. This was the shared project of building the human bomb. The Shiite theocrats of Iran pioneered the notion of suicide terror. And everyone else took it up: Sunni theocrats, Baathist anti-theocrats of Iraq and Syria, the more radical Palestinian nationalists, and others, too.

The Sept. 11 attacks came from a relatively small organization. But Al Qaeda was a kind of foam thrown up by the larger extremist wave. The police and special forces were never going to be able to stamp out the Qaeda cells so long as millions of people around the world accepted the paranoid and apocalyptic views and revered suicide terror. The only long-term hope for tamping down the terrorist impulse was to turn America's traditional policies upside down, and come out for once in favor of the liberal democrats of the Muslim world. This would mean promoting a counter-wave of liberal and rational ideas to combat the allure of paranoia and apocalypse.

Some people argue that anti-totalitarian revolutions can never be brought about from outside. The history of World War II says otherwise. Some people respond with the observation that Germany, Italy and Japan are nothing like the Muslim world. In Afghanistan, the American-led invasion has nonetheless brought about an anti-totalitarian revolution. A pretty feeble revolution, true but even feeble progress suggests large possibilities.

The whole point in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, from my perspective, was to achieve those large possibilities right in the center of the Muslim world, where the ripples might lead in every direction. Iraq was a logical place to begin because, for a dozen years, the Baathists had been shooting at American and British planes, and inciting paranoia and hatred against the United States, and encouraging the idea that attacks can successfully be launched against American targets, and giving that idea some extra oomph with the bluff about fearsome weapons. The Baathists, in short, contributed their bit to the atmosphere that led to Sept. 11. Yet Iraq could also boast of liberal democrats and some admirable achievements in the Kurdish north, which meant there were people to support, and not just to oppose. Such were the hopes.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company