The struggle against the radical Muslim jihadis, as in the Cold War against Communism, is more than a struggle for power. It also is a war of ideas.
We Americans have disarmed ourselves in that war. We don’t advocate foundational American ideas—the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address—because we no longer have confidence in them.
We are so paralyzed by our internal culture conflicts that our official spokesmen dare not speak of religious or moral principles. About the only ideals they can uphold unequivocally are feminism, gay rights and recycling.
Andrew Doran reported, in an article in the current issue of The American Conservative, reported on how this played out. His article is largely based on interviews with two Army offices he calls Joseph and Brian about their service in Afghanistan.
“We lacked the confidence even to say, ‘You may not rape little boys.’ All we had to offer was administration and technology, and they sensed this.”
Joseph believes that, in a peculiar way, this parallels America’s institutional system. “We have no consensus either. Nobody can agree on any normative reason to do anything,” he says. “So we default to an institutional structure. Our tribalism is institutional. Afghanistan was an encounter between these two systems. The first lieutenant leading a foot patrol stands square at the pressure point between these two tribal systems: one fluid, personal and violent; the other rigid, impersonal and violent. A quarter mile away from any soldier is a guy in a grape hut who wants to cut his head off. Nine thousand miles away is a guy in an air-conditioned room with video screens contemplating his pension who wants to drop a bomb on the guy in the grape hut.”
“We were there writing checks and shooting people,” says Joseph. “It was as incoherent to me as it was to the Afghans. But building a soccer field isn’t building a civilization. The foundations for civilization, for reason, for the common good, for law, for science—all of it was missing. It’s still missing and no one seems to have a sense of how to build it.”
“The Afghans wanted to talk to us about what we value,” says Joseph, “But we had to censor ourselves.” They both recall the Afghan perception of Americans, largely shaped by the entertainment industry. “They thought we all lived in porno films,” Brian says with a chuckle. “One time they asked if I prayed. When I said ‘Yes,’ they laughed because they thought I was joking.” America’s institutional culture did nothing to alter this impression.
“If I’d been part of the British navy in the 19th century,” says Joseph, “civilizing would’ve been part of our mission. But for us, it was dialoguing about nothing, about projects, using words that mean nothing—sustainability, dynamism, governance, implementation, transparent, relevant, outreach, consolidate, force multiplier, cross-pollinate, trust-gap, legitimacy, capitalize, mobilize, incentivize, mandate, aftermathing, liaisoning, conflict-mapping, indices, unity of action. You see what I mean—the antiseptic, PowerPoint sociology speech.”
There are two ways a confident civilization spreads its values. One is by conquest, as was done by the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Arabs, the Spanish and, to a lesser extent, other European colonial powers. The other is by setting an example of a way of life that others want to imitate. The American way of life once had a strong appeal to the world’s peoples, and there is still an afterglow from that.
I don’t think we Americans are capable, at present, of spreading our civilizational values either by conquest (which I do not advocate) or by example. The answer to al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS and like movements will have to be in the best traditions of Muslim civilization itself.
Click on Absurd in Afghanistan: the Islamic world needs Avicenna, not America to read the entire article by Andrew Doran in The American Conservative. (Hat tip to Robert Heineman)