Foreign Policy

Paul Berman's Wars



Liberal journalist and influential interventionist Paul Berman has a long, solipsistic, and interesting essay for The New Republic's 9/11 anniversary issue, attempting (among other things) to compare the collapse of communism to Arab Spring. Excerpt:

Once the communist system had lost its legitimacy, every country in the old Soviet bloc found itself caught in a three-way battle over the shape of the new society. The heroic anti-communist dissidents, basking in their glory, stood in one corner, upholding the principles of liberal democracy, although not always in a well-defined form. Ethnic haters stood in another corner, trying to incite pogroms and wars—the ethnic haters, whom the old communist regimes had always invoked as the justification for communist dictatorship. The communists themselves occupied still another corner, vacated of any doctrine but in no rush to vacate their offices, too.

In each country, the three-cornered battle yielded its own result: a mostly brilliant liberal success in the Czech Republic, besprinkled for a little while with fairy tale elements; an unexpected alliance of liberals and reformed communists in Poland, who succeeded in tempering the ethnic haters, who maybe were not so dangerous to begin with; a catastrophic fusion of ethnic haters and old communists in Serbia, supported by Russia; a communist continuity in Russia itself, with the ideology shrunken to nostalgia and a cult of the state; and so forth. The successes have been marvelous. As for the failures, we have not yet even learned the basic facts, given that the grisliest failures of all took place not even in the Balkans but along Russia's southern border, simmering even now, more than twenty years later, where very few reporters have ever been.

You don't know how long it took to find an '89 revolution picture that looked anything like a violent confrontation

The Arab anti-authoritarian revolts are likely to produce a range of experiences something like this, except without the fairy tale aspects. The three parties are going to be the Facebook liberals and their friends, basking in glory; the old mukhabarat or secret police and military regimes, in the role of the de-ideologized East Bloc communists; and the Islamists, mainstream and ultras, in the role of the ethnic haters (though collective hatreds take other forms, as well). Only the whole weight of forces in the region appears to tilt more ominously than it did in Eastern Europe.

It is cheering to reflect that nowhere at all did Islamists lead the revolutions, which suggests that something in the Islamist movement may be out of step with the times. And it is doubly cheering to reflect that Islamism's most extreme wing played no role at all. Nowhere at all did Al Qaeda or its allies look like a revolutionary vanguard.

Even so, the Islamist advantages are painful to enumerate[.]

Nuanced over-simplification is surely preferable to the usual sloganeering by analogy, so I guess we can be grateful that the intellectual debate (the real subject of Berman's essay) is in better shape than it was six years ago. But even a to be sure-ridden comparison between East Bloc '89 and Arab World '11 brings forth a flurry of counter-objections: There is no lone superpower capable of overnight regional transformation through imperial withdrawl. There is considerably larger correlation in Europe between nation and state. There is next to no usable history or muscle memory of governing liberalism in the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. And, contra Berman's bizarre assertion at the end of his piece that "in the intellectual and cultural worlds of the West, Islamism itself, the doctrine, has won [intellectual] victories," fundamentalist Islam has nothing like the comparable heft that communism had in the liberal west and indeed that Marxism still has in western academia.

No American pinkies were lifted in the making of this picture

And as you'd expect, where there's a Cold War analogy in modern foreign policy discussion, there's a call (however strangled) for more robust American interventionism:

In the visible zones, the Arab Spring has aroused in the Western countries almost none of the enthusiasm that greeted its Eastern Bloc antecedent. We will lift a pinky. In Syria, perhaps not even that much. Is it true that, militarily, we and our allies are stretched to the limit, or beyond, or worse? It must be true. The news from different fronts aches the heart. Still, the longer the tyrants of Libya and Syria go on murdering their own people, the more disastrous for everyone, and not just their own people. I know that President Obama has other problems. But why he is so reluctant to try to influence the international mood?

Just like the Velvet Revolution! Except for not.

Though it's hard to hack through the haze of world-weary resignation here, there's an active obfuscation behind the passive voice. Assuming that the "we" refers to U.S. power, it just ain't true that there has been less application of the stuff on the Arab Spring than on the collapse of communism. There is no "Eastern Bloc antecedent" to our six-months-and-counting war against the Qadaffi regime, and we weren't exactly sending drones to kill 30 people at a time in, say, Albania. The truth is that no outside government–and very few inside governments, either–could control the torrent of events from 1989-91 even if they wanted to, and back then American appetite for meddling was significantly lower than it is today. (As for being allagedly "stretched to the limit," let us not soon forget that the only imperial superpower with scores of thousands of boots on the ground in the revolutionary region right now is us.)

Recommended Berman-related reading from the Reason archive: Tim Cavanaugh's classic November 2004 piece "Twilight of the Liberal Hawks," Michael Young's review of Berman's latest book in February 2007, and Michael C. Moynihan's March 2008 survey of liberal-hawk apologetics. I wrote about "the perils of using Cold War analogies in the twilight struggle against Islamic extremism" in December 2005.

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  1. Mr. Dictator, tear down this hijab!

  2. That doesnt make any sense at all dude.

    1. You been reading White Injun again, too, Anon Bot?

  3. Paul Berman is the most sophisticated and interesting writer on the “Left” today. Hitchens is more entertaining but Berman I think is the better writer overall.

    1. Tallest midget is still a midget.

  4. Amazing. Despite the fact that no one had any idea that it was coming 9 scant months ago, now everybody knows that a) it was Bush’s fault/vision, b) it is directly comparable to the fall of Communism, and c) WE MUST DO SOMETHING!!!!

    Here’s a thought: maybe, just maybe, the people who didn’t see it coming at all don’t actually know what the hell is going on, because they’ve spent most of their lives in thinktanks and academic bubbles that focus disproportionately on the political leadership and Westernized elites of these nations, rather than the people being “governed”.


      I think you’re right about this.

    2. I knew we shoulda bombed da Kremlin way back when?!

  5. I know that President Obama has other problems. But why he is so reluctant to try to influence the international mood?

    You know, I keep asking if Obama has done anything right since he took office, but I have never paused to consider that there are literally more than 200 nations on this planet that he has not invaded/bombed/occupied yet.

    So I guess he has succeeded in abstaining (or failing) to kill people on as many distant horizons as he potentially could.

    1. He has his evil eye on all the rest of them.

      1. …Down Mexico Way. Generalissimo Obama might forgo military expeditions in Middle Africa for now and chose Ol’ Mejico instead. He has already armed his potential opposing force (the Sinaloan Drug Cartel) with assault weapons, thus giving him a good excuse to “help” the Mexican government in their fight against the cartels. Transportation costs would be much lower.

        Side note: recently vacationing in Mexico City, I happened to go into a Bodega (Walmart-style store). I walked over to a stack of boxes of bicycle pumps. The stickers on the boxes said “Made In China”.

        1. Under Operation Fast and Furious, the BATFE and Justice Department has already started their good work in Mexico by arming the Sinaloa resistance movement (aka the Sinaloa cartel, and facilitating its funding operations.

  6. This seems article-length. Why didn’t it get that level of coverage? Matt, I’m looking at you. My B&N run this weekend to buy your book may depend on it!

    1. Oh, and there was this Matt Welch meets Mark Zuckerberg guy in last night’s episode of Torchwood Miracle Day. Downright creepy.

  7. There is no lone superpower capable of overnight regional transformation through imperial withdrawl.

    Besides America, right?

    1. I think what he’s getting at is that when if the US pulls out, there is no other power that will be able to pick up and fuck our sloppy seconds in the developing world.

      They would just fall into the hole and never be seen again.

  8. I didn’t know that America got 30 AQAPs dead! Yeah America!

  9. Twilight of the Liberal Hawks

    How about Twilight of the Machines?

    Henry Kissinger referred to the anti-globalization protests of
    1999 and 2000 as “early warning signals” of a “potential political weight” in the industrialized countries and the Third World, as a threat to the world system itself. A CIA report that became public in spring 2000, “Global Trends 2015,” predicted that the biggest obstacle to globalization in the new millennium would be a possible joining together of the “First World” protest movement with the struggles of indigenous people to maintain their integrity against encroaching capital and technology.

    excerpt from:
    Twilight of the Machines
    by John Zerzan
    (free download)…..chines_859

    Join with your City-Statist brother-in-arms Henry Kissinger, libertarians propertarians, for we are here. Political Weight. Now.

      1. Is this your way of doing penance for claiming nuclear bombs are a result of biological evolution?

        P.S. I have an unused microbiology coloring book. Need it this fall?

        1. It’s fun watching you struggle. Please, do keep at it. You’re converting minds to your way of thinking at an unbelievable rate. Which makes it even funnier:

          Who received even less attention than libertardians in [anything you want to insert here]?
          The Hunter Gatherers!

          “The Hunter Gatherer – There Can Be Only One!”
          You have a good day, Pale Derp.

          s/Native American First Person Almanian (I was born here, as were my parents, as were their parents, as were their parents, as were their parents…I can keep going, but I, unlike you, with your superior lifestyle, have things I want to do)

        2. Pls don’t break up your world class coloring book collection!

  10. I’ve found android Aps for all kinds of things. I utilize the Droid everyday.

  11. It’s ridiculous and hopelessly ethnocentric of Berman to compare the fall of European communist states with the so-called Arab Spring. The Arab states are hardly nations all; they merely describe borders agreed upon by European powers to delineate their respective spheres of influence following WW I. The Arab allegiance has historically been to their tribe, and most Arabs still think this way. The leader of any particular Arab state is generally the meanest mofo from the biggest and baddest tribe. His tribe’s members are usually supportive of the state since its goodies flow to them. Members of other tribes tend to resent the state for the same reason. Islamic militancy is an outgrowth of this phenomenon, and it is directed at the US and Europe because the West created these oppressive Arab states following WW I.

  12. The Arab Spring has reached Israel. The tent protests have grown over the summer. Saturday nights protests included about 400,000 Israelis (5% of the population) according to most estimates.


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