Friday, September 22, 2006

Analogies: Cold War and Jihad

A month ago, Ross Douthat wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal cleverly dividing pundit opinion on whatever-we-are-currently-calling-the-conflict-with-Islamic-nutbars based on the year the pundit thinks it is. Most familiar from bar debates is 1938, the year of the Munich agreement between Chamberlain and Hitler, but Douthat pointed to partisans of 1914, 1919, 1941, 1948 and 1972.

Analogies to Hitler and fascism flow freer than cheap beer at a frat party, but analogies to the Cold War have the advantage of being (somewhat) predictive. If a person is the sort of person who was a dove in the Cold War, then the probability that they are a dove now is >.5, and mutatis mutandis for hawks. We can all think of interesting counter-examples, but that's the way to bet.

Which is interesting, because in the Cold War, there were really two cross-cutting fights. We don't talk about it much nowadays, but there really were people in the West who sympathized with the other side. They were never as numerous in the English-speaking world s in Italy or France (where the Communist Parties were the principal vehicle of industrial working class politics), but a substantial group of intellectuals were in or around the CPs up to 1956. After '56, outright preference for the USSR became an eccentric thing in the Anglosphere, and the Western European parties drifted towards Eurocommunism, irrelevance or both. But lots of people were inspired by Leninist revolutions and revolutionaries in less melanin-deficient places. Even now, we still see this about Cuba from the likes of Sacha Trudeau.

To any thinking person, that debate ought to have been resolved long ago. Even to the unthinking, 1989 settled it. Communism sucked. It was unbelievably murderous, destructive of human freedom, culture and virtue, and was just plain awful and grey. Those who hated it were absolutely vindicated.

But there was another debate, in which neither side was so definitively shown to be right. This debate was (or ought to have been) confined to those who wanted to resist Communist encroachment. It was whether the Communist states and movements should be viewed as roughly rational actors, with their own interests, and much less monolithic than they seemed, or whether they should simply be fought as hard as possible at every opportunity. Very right wing people -- George Kennan and Enoch Powell, for example -- saw the Soviet Union in its external dimension as willing to play the great power game. They thought it should be treated roughly like Tsarist Russia -- potentially dangerous, but with its own legitimate interests. Domestically, a number of politicians knowingly blocked with Communists for limited purposes, and won out: Roosevelt and Mitterand come to mind. Nixon going to China is the perfect metonym for this tendency, although Churchill going to Moscow would do as well. Both of these examples involved devoutly anti-communist politicians finding common interests with Mao and Stalin themselves.

The original neo-conservative intervention in international politics was not against sympathizers with the Communist system, but against those willing to make pragmatic deals. In this, the neo-conservatives joined the earlier fusionist right. But the neoconservatives turned out to be wrong: wrong that a "totalitarian" nation, unlike an authoritarian one, could never undergo internal change and wrong about the military size of the threat.

One key difference between now and then is that the jihadists are not very much like the Leninists. Another is that only the strategic/tactical debate exists in the West (outside the Muslim enclaves within it). There just are no sympathizers of the jihadis among secularists, Christians, Jews, Hindus or Buddhists. They don't exist. But much of the polemic used by the neoconservatives, the template for which was developed in the Cold War, ignores this.

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