Posted: July 30, 2018
o accustomed are conservatives to ridiculing the Left’s cognitive dissonances that it is almost disconcerting to read Michael Walzer scolding his comrades for supporting radical Islamists, apologizing for tyrants, and blaming America for all the world’s ills. “The left needs to begin again,” writes Walzer in his new book, A Foreign Policy for the Left. “[I]t must never become the comrade of tyrants, oligarchs, or terrorists” but should “support the use of force sometimes…opposing wars of conquest and supporting wars of defense.” It should also support “internationalization of agency” to advance “the relief of global poverty and the repair of global injustice.” And it “must resist the political regression that religious zealots seek to impose, and defend the ‘Western’ values they attack—which we insist are universal values.”
A professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, Walzer exhorts his fellow leftists to recognize and honor America’s special contributions: “Wasn’t America a beacon of light to the old world, a city on a hill, an unprecedented experiment in democratic politics?” He is critical of “capitalism and imperialism” but acknowledges the former’s “productive force.” He would like a world government that takes responsibility for the people of Darfur or Rwanda as much as governments take responsibility for their own citizens but allows that, in practice, most calls for world government are mere posturing. Only nation states—and powerful ones at that—can be made to pursue the Left’s objectives.
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Walzer frequently sounds like a cautious neoconservative. I doubt he would disagree in principle with President George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural, which declared America’s foreign policy ought “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” “We have confidence,” Bush added, “because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul…. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.”
Walzer wants the same outcome, but is somewhat more reticent about the application of force. Although he supported the war against Serbia over Kosovo, he opposed the Iraq War “because regime change…has never struck me as a just cause for sending an army across an international frontier—except when a rebellion is already in progress and there is a government-in-waiting.” He quotes Michael Kazin’s observation that since Woodrow Wilson, “liberals had ardently promoted wars to preserve and advance democracy,” but prefers “a more minimalist liberal and left defense of war,” namely “humanitarian intervention…not to promote democracy but to stop mass murder, rape, and ethnic cleansing.”
The Left remains beguiled by “the lingering effects of the Marxist theory of imperialism,” Walzer observes. In addition, it is embittered at its powerlessness and does not “expect to exercise power, ever.” Instead the Left indulges in the “moral purism of blaming America first,” and does not feel entitled to “say anything critical about people who are poorer and weaker than we are.” Walzer scorns leftists who make common cause with jihadists, and praises Paul Berman, whose 2010 book The Flight of the Intellectuals exposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s Nazi roots and drew attention to the terrorist ties of Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the Brotherhood’s founder.
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Walzer’s reasonableness runs into a hard stop, however, when it comes to Israel, which the Left hates more than anything else. Twice Walzer draws an equivalence (theologically and, by implication, morally) between ISIS and the Israeli right. “The doctrines of ISIS derive from a possible interpretation of the Qur’an and the traditions that follow from it—just as the doctrines of the messianic Zionists of the Israeli settler movement can plausibly be described as interpretations of the Jewish tradition.” Elsewhere he condemns the Israeli government’s “refusal to suppress Jewish thugs and terrorists on the West Bank.” The equivalence is vile: “messianic Zionists” do not systematically murder Arabs, let alone take their daughters for sex-slaves. The political party with the strongest support among Israeli residents of Judea and Samaria, The Jewish Home, is led by individuals who in the United States would be considered Modern Orthodox. Sometimes a few radicals put a mobile home on an unoccupied West Bank hilltop and declare an (illegal) settlement—before being evicted by the army.
Walzer’s slur is understandable, if not forgivable; serving on the Jewish Review of Books’s editorial board, he’s at pains to establish his leftist bona fides. And he writes, “I myself live with a general fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, messianic Zionists in Israel, and rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I am most afraid of Islamists.” Coming in the midst of an otherwise reasonable presentation, though, Walzer’s slur is jarring. He seems sane, but the underlying lunacy pokes through.
One is reminded of the tale that begins Book II of Don Quixote, of a young man committed to a mental institution. He claims that his relatives put him there to steal his inheritance, and a delegation of notables comes to investigate. They are moved by the man’s lucidity and disposed to free him. In the next cell, a lunatic rants that he is the god Jupiter and threatens the visitors with lightning. “Don’t mind him,” says the apparently sane young man. “I’m really the god Neptune, and I’ll send him an earthquake.”
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By attributing such impulses to radical fringes in all societies Walzer dodges the question of what causes certain societies, but not others, to destroy themselves. He has no framework with which to address the self-destructive, suicidal impulses that govern the behavior of some peoples whom the Left deems oppressed. Making understanding more difficult, the leaders of the “oppressed” exploit Western sensitivities—or at least squeamishness—in order to advance goals repugnant to the West. Ancient barbarism and postmodern manipulation of Western sensibilities converge on Israel’s borders; the “modern” world that eschews the national particularity of the past in favor of universal values is manipulated by pre-modern adversaries who stage humanitarian disasters in order to compel the West to accept their demands.
An egregious example is Hamas’s use of human shields during the 2014 rocket attacks on Israel. I know of no precedent for a combatant seeking to maximize casualties among its own civilians, the better to manipulate third-party opinions. Of the more than 2,100 Gazans killed by Israeli responses to terrorist rocket fire at least 1,000 were civilians. Israel charged that Hamas committed a “double war crime” by firing rockets from civilian areas at civilian targets. Hamas conceded that it had made the “mistake” of firing close to civilian targets—in fact, it fired from schools and hospitals. Only the Israel Defense Force’s exceptional caution limited civilian casualties.
This may be prelude to a far higher civilian death toll. In Lebanon, Iran’s ally Hezbollah has approximately 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, enough to destroy its core infrastructure. “Lebanon has some 200 villages in the south used as civilian shields for Hezbollah weaponry. All the villages and military targets in those villages will be hit,” according to Gabi Siboni, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. Such a war would cause tens of thousands of civilian deaths, as Hezbollah and its Iranian masters well know. That might be the point of the war to begin with.
Moral blackmail through self-immolation is an effective policy tool. A photograph of a drowned boy on a Turkish beach displayed on the front page of major newspapers in September 2015 reportedly convinced European leaders to open their borders to a mass influx of refugees. Next month Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened European officials with thousands more drowned migrants:
We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses. What will you do with the refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees? The E.U. will be confronted with more than a dead boy on the shores of Turkey. There will be 10,000 or 15,000. How will you deal with that?
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The refugee crisis of the past several years will seem trivial in comparison to what we will face a generation from now. At constant fertility, over the present century the number of people aged 20 to 30 years will grow from 1.2 billion to almost 4 billion. Nearly all of the growth will occur in Africa, with some contribution from South Asia (notably Pakistan, where total fertility is 3.6 children per woman versus 2.4 in India). Abysmal governance and dwindling resources portend a humanitarian catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.
In 2016, roughly 5,000 Africans died trying to reach Europe by boat. The United Nations estimates that 2 million have attempted the journey since 2014. What will the West do when not thousands, but millions, of desperate people appear on its borders? Last year the liberal media excoriated presidential advisor Steve Bannon for citing Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, in which Europe succumbs to an inundation of desperate immigrants. We are not far from such circumstances.
Most of the pre-modern cultures straining to come to terms with the 21st century are extremely fragile. Islamists have come to prominence not because they draw upon residual religious sentiment, but because the socialist modernizers of the post-colonial era—Nasser, the Baathists, Sukarno—gave their people nothing but poverty and humiliation. Washington’s well-intentioned efforts to free the peoples of Mesopotamia and the Levant from oppression exchanged the deadening stability of the old tyrants for perpetual sectarian warfare.
Leftist apologists for the most abhorrent aspects of pre-modern cultures, including female genital mutilation, earn Walzer’s contempt, but there is a perverse logic to their position: traditional social constraints held together societies that disintegrate when modern demands, like self-governance by majority rule, are placed upon them. If one single event in the past 20 years elicited consensus approval from enlightened opinion it was the Arab Spring, celebrated by the Obama Administration as ebulliently as by the Bush wing of the Republican Party and the neoconservatives. Yet it led to perpetual civil war with half a million civilian casualties in Syria and a reversion to military rule in Egypt.
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Ignorance and poverty are not the causes of Muslim despair. Iran, the first Muslim country to achieve full adult literacy, has passed from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood. On the eve of the 1979 Islamic Revolution the average Iranian woman had seven children; by 2015, according to the World Bank, the average had fallen to just 1.68. That means Iran will age faster than any country in demographic history, and by mid-century will have an elderly dependent ratio higher than that of Western Europe—with perhaps a tenth of the per capita income. Iran’s aggressiveness, I argued in How Civilizations Die (2011), arises from well-founded despair.
The Muslim world’s fragility helps explain the Left’s fixation on Israel, the perpetual object of opprobrium among leftists who apologize for public executions of gays, honor killings of women, female genital mutilation, and the habitual use of torture and rape by Muslim regimes. The State of Israel’s success is a great humiliation to the Muslim world, looming as a demonic apparition in the Muslim imagination. The collapse of Muslim societies into cultural despair and suicidal anomie is an affront to the theological foundation of leftist ideology, which holds that the New Man will emerge once institutions are created that encourage man’s inherently wholesome impulses.
Cultural suicide horrifies us. Postmodern Islamic radicals understand this, and have framed the Israel-Palestine issue as Grand Guignol theater, with real cadavers. The object of this disgusting exercise is to persuade people like Michael Walzer to support intervention on the model of Kosovo, Walzer’s oft-cited example of a just war. Times of Israel journalist Haviv Rettig Gur, for example, quotes the Palestinian writer Mohammed Daraghmeh:
Palestine is an international issue. [The issue] won’t be decided in a flurry of knives or acts of martyrdom [suicide attacks], or in protests or demonstrations. It will end only when the world understands it has a duty to intervene and to draw borders and lines, as it did in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo.
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The staging and exploitation of horrific events to manipulate Western sensibilities is decidedly postmodern. But it arises from primeval despair: outside of Southeast Asia, most Muslim-majority countries have derailed en route to modernity. The ancient specter of extinction haunts the Muslim world in a uniquely modern way. That explains why so many Muslims choose to immolate themselves to kill (mainly) Muslim civilians, and why Hamas seeks to maximize casualties among its own civilians.
The theatrical use of suicide is a horrible innovation. It mocks Enlightenment pretensions with a Satanic leer, and persuades the Enlightenment’s heirs on the left to humor despairing Muslims until such time that they may be reared to the standards of social democracy. Walzer asks what “a genuinely leftist movement against oppression and poverty might look like—in the Islamic world or anywhere else…? First of all, it would have to be a movement of the oppressed, not of some vanguard claiming to speak for the oppressed…its aim would be the liberation or, better, the self-emancipation of those people.” In the meantime he allows that the religious settlers of Judea and Samaria are “terrorists” and “thugs,” granting at least a modicum of justification to the likes of Hamas.
Implicit in Walzer’s encomium to the Left is the premise that all peoples and cultures are predestined to succeed, so that their failure is a stain upon the conscience of civilized men and women who should have intervened to ensure such success. Where the evidence weighs overwhelmingly against that premise—as in the case of Israel—the Left indulges in the perverse thinking Walzer deplores. The madness of the Muslim world has metastasized among the Left, and even Michael Walzer must howl at the moon in passing to fit into the pack. The founding questions of the West—what makes people flourish or fail, persist or perish—remain with us.