Why We're Winning
by Robert Tracinski
The events of the past month—the Iraqi elections (with a non-victory by Islamist parties), followed by the uprising in Lebanon, Syria's continuing retreat under domestic and international pressure, and the first glimmers of a new political freedom in Egypt—do not yet constitute the collapse of America's enemy in the War on Terrorism. But they represent a clear indication—which is becoming increasingly obvious even to the Bush administration's harshest critics—that such a victory is possible.
Indeed, with reports of newly emboldened criticism of the Baathist regime within Syria and universal contempt for Iran's theocracy by its own subjects (see item #1 in today's TIA Daily), it seems that the only remaining questions are: how long before these two regimes fall, and which one will go first?
I am naturally a bit giddy with excitement at recent developments—who expected change to come so soon, so dramatically, and in such an unexpected place as Beirut?—so let me add the required cautions. A lot could still go wrong, and although the positive developments are beginning sooner than even the more optimistic commentators (such as myself) believed, they may ultimately take longer than we hope.
Nevertheless, now that we can sense that the enemy's collapse is possible, we need to ask: why?
As with the collapse of Communism in the late 1980s, the answer is not that America pursued an overwhelmingly strong and unwavering foreign policy. President Bush's foreign policy, like President Reagan's, has frequently been strong in its rhetoric and it has certainly been stronger than what was demanded by critics on the left (who demanded unilateral disarmament against the Soviet threat in the 1980s and unilateral retreat from Iraq in 2004). But the Bush policy has not been nearly as strong, either in its rhetoric or in its execution, as it should have been. Readers will remember Bush's frequent declarations that Islam is a "religion of peace" and his refusal to name the Middle East's largest sponsor of terrorism, Iran, as our main enemy in this war. And those who have been reading TIA Daily from its launch will remember my despair at America's shameful surrender in Fallujah last April.
So given the many weaknesses of America's war strategy, the only reason we can be winning is that our enemy is much, much weaker.
Here, again, the lessons of the Fall of Communism are important. In that conflict, the enemy's anti-mind philosophy made him materially weak, unable to match the economic and technological development of the West. But it also made him spiritually weak—that is, unconfident in the intellectual and moral superiority of his own doctrines. This was masked for many years by the strident bluster of the Soviet propaganda apparatus—a false front that obscured the real views of the people and even the leaders of the Communist countries, making the Soviet collapse seem that much more sudden and dramatic.
That our enemy in the current war is materially weak has been clear from the beginning: terrorism is by its nature a weapon employed by the weak, by those who are unable to fight with tanks, warships, and missiles. But this enemy has also put up a wall of strident-sounding propaganda that has obscured his profound spiritual weakness.
There are many causes of that weakness, including the failure of certain secular collectivist dogmas that have long influenced the Middle East, such as the great fantasy of fascist Arab Nationalism. But today I want to focus on the spiritual weakness of Islamic fundamentalism.
The intellectual weakness of Communism is easier to diagnose. Communism was a materialist creed that promised to make men rich on this earth, creating a paradise for workers in the Communist world while their counterparts starved in misery in the capitalist countries. When precisely the opposite result occurred in reality—and, by the 1980s, became too obvious for even the most doctrinaire Communist to evade—they no longer had the moral confidence to forcibly suppress dissent.
But religious dogmas seem not to have the same weakness. They promise spiritual, not material rewards, and the victory they promise over the infidels is a victory not in this world but in the afterlife. What I think we are learning from recent events, however, is that no ideology can seal itself off from comparison to reality. Even religious dogmas make statements about the nature of this world—statements whose falsity can be definitively demonstrated by the course of history.
To begin with, Islamic fundamentalism makes one major material promise that can be measured: it promises victory in battle, a promise it seemed to fulfill in its early centuries. For the past several centuries, however, it has disastrously failed to deliver. The scientific, technological, and industrial revolution of the Western world so increased the military power of the West that the Arab and Muslim lands became Western colonies in the early 20th century. Still, the Islamists clung to a fallback position. The West may be technologically superior, they argued, but they are so spiritually weak and decadent that they can be defeated over the long term by a determined guerilla resistance—just as the Soviets were defeated in Afghanistan and the Americans were defeated in Beirut (in the early 1980s) and Somalia (in the early 1990s). That is why I think we are starting to see results so soon after the re-election of George W. Bush. It sent a signal that Americans were not going to withdraw in retreat from Iraq, that we were authorizing our leaders to stay as long as it takes to finish the job there. It is a blow to the Bin Laden myth that the West is spiritually weak.
But the problems of Islamic fundamentalism don't just relate to their interaction with the West. The Islamists also make another claim that can be tested in this world. They claim that theocratic rule will guarantee the rule of virtue on this earth. The religious police in these countries always have comical names like the "Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue." Yet in one country after another, and most especially in Afghanistan and Iran, Muslims have been able to observe that theocracy actually leads to rule by the most evil, vicious, and corrupt men. The Taliban are global synonyms for sadistic brutality, and the mullahs in Iran are notorious for running a literal mafia devoted to the looting of the country's wealth. And in Iraq, as the insurgency has increasingly targeted Iraqi civilians, Muslims can observe that the "holy warriors" they are supposed to admire have degraded into plain, brutal, senseless mass murderers.
(This can be compared, incidentally, to the state of the Catholic Church in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance—an institution infamous for the greed, debauchery, and corruption of its priests, its cardinals, even its popes.)
Finally, there is one myth that is crucial to the perpetuation of any theocracy—a myth without which no creed of religious sacrifice can long survive. If a religious creed promises no advantages in this world, only an unverifiable paradise in the afterlife—then it must convince its adherents that paradise is not achievable in this world. Every religious viewpoint has held to some variation of the notion that this world is a "vale of tears," a malevolent realm in which enjoyment is rare and fleeting, always to be followed or balanced out by suffering and guilt. And every theocratic system does its best to make this prophecy come true, by making this world a living hell for its victims.
And such a society might be able to survive for many centuries, as it did in Europe during the Middle Ages, if its unfortunate subjects never see any indication that a better life is possible.
But what if they do see that a better life is possible? What if they see that people in other nations—people who are infidels—are prosperous, self-confident, guiltless. What if they see that these others seem to live in a paradise on earth—a paradise that can be observed every day through the signals being beamed to the Middle East's satellite TV dishes, or in movies smuggled in on bootleg video tapes? That is the significance of the famously avid Iranian viewers of "Baywatch," or the stories of young Afghans furtively watching smuggled copies of "Titanic."
The people who see this will not know how such a life is possible or why it is impossible under Islam. A great deal more will be required for them to identify the secular philosophy at the root of Western life or to understand how the doctrines of Islam necessarily lead to misery. But they will be able to grasp that life in this world is not a vale of tears and that a benevolent, prosperous, happy life on this earth is possible.
That is the one basic truth that no code of religious sacrifice can survive.
Now add one more element. What if the subjects of the theocracy also see that other people are free to speak their minds, to change their government, and even to rise up in bloodless revolutions against a tyrannical government, as they did just months ago in Ukraine?
The result, I submit, is precisely what we are seeing today in the Middle East. And I suspect that what we have seen so far is just the beginning of a process that will ultimately see all of the region's worst dictatorships consigned, like their Communist predecessors, to the ash heap of history.