Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Islamic menace, attacking Iran, and the slippery arguments of Danny Goldhagen

Neil linked in a post earlier today to this article by Daniel Goldhagen: The Radical Politics of Islamic Fundamentalism: The New Threat The New Republic (TNR) Online 03/02/06 (behind subscription), citing it in support of a point he's making. [08/09/06 - a full copy is now available at Goldhagen's Web site.]

If I understand Neil's point correctly in his post and his comments, he's arguing that we in the Western democracies need to get a lot smarter about distinguishing between Islamic political movements that genuinely threaten our security interests from those Muslims who do not, the latter presumably the overwhelming majority of the followers of Islam. And in dealing forcefully with the former and improving relations with the latter. And the paragraph he quotes does make such a distinction:

The fight, it cannot be emphasized enough, is not a "clash of civilizations" with Muslims or Arab or Muslim countries. Rather, the fight is with annihilationist and totalitarian political Islam, its political leaders and regimes, and its unknown millions of political adherents across the Islamic world (who, let us not forget, broadly celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center). The West must make it clear that it will not treat totalitarian political Islam as legitimate, though it is happy to conduct normal, friendly, and mutually beneficial relations with the many Islamic peoples and countries that are not intolerant and bellicose. Political Islam must not be emboldened by appeasement. Its rhetorical and physical violence must not be tolerated at all.
As I'll explain below, I take a dim view of Danny Goldhagen's general approach to political analysis. And that paragraph looks like a signature "alibi paragraph" which Danny is careful to include. (my emphasis; see comment below)

Most writers who are trying to be careful in drawing distinctions will often use qualifiers like, "it appears that...", "based on the available evidence...", and so on. That way, when someone else brings up a point that doesn't support the argument you're making, it doesn't look like you've structured your argument so that any single piece of non-supportive evidence invalidates the whole argument.

Danny takes it a step further than most and throws in alibis, especially in footnotes in his books, that more-or-less blatantly contradict points that he's making in the body of the text. That way, when someone criticizes him for embracing a questionable analytical framework or for ignoring some significant feature of the problem or for not making enough distinctions, he can point to the alibi lines and say, Oh, no, I acknowledged that very point in footnote 325. The paragraph Neil quotes does support the point that Neil's making. But in the context of Danny's article, it looks like an alibi paragraph to me.

But nestled snugly in this definitely liberal-sounding alibi paragraph is a characteristic Danny-style whopper: "the Islamic world ... broadly celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center." Uh, no, Danny, they didn't. There was an unprecedented outpouring of sympathy for America among Muslims worldwide - including those in Iran, which was actively helpful to the US in the early months of the Afghan War. The invasion of Iraq, torture in the Bush Gulag, secret prisons and other intervening events effectively erased that goodwill, and more.

I'll provide some background on my grumpiness about Danny G. As I mentioned in my comment to Neil's post, I'm inclined to take a very dim view of Danny's work, for a whole variety of reasons. Not least of them is that he freely dissembles whenever he's challenged on questionable claims. Also one of his characteristic approaches is to sound reasonable and more-than-flexible in TV or public appearances. But even by the normal standards of academic competitiveness, he's rabid in his response to critics in writing.

For instance, if Neil were interviewing Danny on Air America and said to him, "Your argument takes the standpoint of the clash-of-civilization perspective, in the broad characterizations you draw of Islamic activism and in the sharp contrast you make to Western democratic values. Yet this remains a controversial approach among foreign policy analysts and most leading Western experts on Islam. Why do you embrace this viewpoint?" Danny could simply respond, "Oh, no, I reject the clash-of-civilizations approach and I argue explicitly against it in my article".

But if Danny were to respond a blog post like this taking him to task, his response would be something like this: (1) say that I was a naive admirer of Islamic terrorism and probably a Christian anti-Semite to boot; (2) accuse me of rank ignorance and sinful dishonesty in every single criticism I made of his article; and, (3) do so with at least 50% more words than the offending post.

To give you an idea of Danny's approach: His 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, the one that made him famous, was a bestseller but was heavily criticized on a variety of grounds by Holocaust historians in America, Europe and Israel. Intensely criticized, actually.

Ruth Bettina Birn, an attorney with the Canadian justice ministry who specialized in war crimes cases, went to the German archives and researched some of the original documents Goldhagen had used in his book. And she challenged his interpretations of specific documents as well as some of his methodology.

Danny's response was to sue her for libel in a British court, because British libel laws are more open to that sort of thing. I never heard how it was resolved. But it was an extremely unusual way for a professional scholar to respond to what was clearly a scholarly critique by a genuine professional in the field.

In Danny's TNR article on radical Islam, the real point of the article is to argue for preventive war against Iran. Just to be clear here, since our American vocabulary has become scandalously impoverished when talking about war and its justifications, a "preventive war" is a criminal act of aggression under international and American law. The defendants at the Nuremberg Trial were charged, imprisoned and some hanged for the crimes of planning an "aggressive war", the meaning of which in international law is the same as "preventive war".

To use a Second World War reference - a reality-based one and not a Victor Davis Hanson-style hack construction - Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 was a preventive war. The alleged cause of war was a Polish cross-border attack on a German radio station. It was just as fake as the Bush administration's claims of WMDs in Iraq. The Germans took some prisoners, dressed them up in Polish army uniforms and shot them so that their bodies would provide "evidence" of the perfidious Polish attack. (The uniforms, by the way, had been secured by a Sudeten German agent named Oskar Schindler, whose support of the Nazi government was to decrease greatly in coming years.)

To give the devil his due, the German attack on Poland had been prepared by a barrage of propaganda from Goebbels' propaganda ministry about the persecution of the German ethnic minority in Poland, which did have some basis in fact. The Bush administration's causes for war again Iraq weren't even that much reality-based. (Please, some Danny-friendly troll, tell me how I'm equating the US to Nazi Germany here.)

Danny's TNR article covers a lot of ground. But the bottom line for Danny is that the United States should wage a preventive war against Iran. The last paragraph of his article reads:

So the most pressing questions are: With what unity and determination will the West respond to political Islam? And on battlefields of whose choosing? (Preferably, ours to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons - most likely by destroying its nuclear production facilities.) Since World War II, the military operation that was most critical to the well-being of the world was, without a doubt, the Israeli destruction of Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 (which was, at the time, hypocritically condemned by virtually all countries). Had Israel not, in a timely manner, chosen the right battlefield, we could never have dislodged nuclear-armed, mass-murdering Saddam from Kuwait ten years later. A mass-murdering conqueror, bent on using unconventional weapons to destroy Israel for the greater glory of Islam, and bristling with hostility for the West, would have had the world in an oil stranglehold and been in the position to start more wars and kill millions more. Sound familiar? (my emphasis)
Just reading this paragraph cold, a lot of readers might answer, "Well, no, it doesn't really sound familiar." But it's clear from the article that he means us to see an obvious parallel to the Iran right now.

The idea that Israel's attack on Osirak is the post-Second World War military action "most critical to the well-being of the world", and according to Danny that is so "without a doubt", is just plain loony. More critical than the Berlin Airlift? More critical than confronting the USSR over the Cuban missile crisis? More critical than forming the NATO alliance as a counterweight to the Soviet Union? More critical than the Korean war? The Vietnam War? Even the Iran-Iraq War? More critical than the current Iraq War? More critical than the 9/11 attacks? (Some of those would be "critical" in the negative sense of their implications, and there could be some discussion about which of them are "critical"-negative versus "critical"-positive.)

Look at what he says here. In 1981, the pro-Western Saddam, then seen by the Reagan administration, liberals and "realists" alike as an unpleasant but secular government that was a vital counterweight to the fundamentalist fanaticism of Shi'a Iran, was obviously blooming into an unstoppable, nuclear-armed aggressor who could never have been deterred from military aggression against Kuwait, Israel or anyone else.

In fact, Saddam's behavior throughout his long rule showed that he was cautious when it came to actions that would put his regime at risk, and was deterrable. And, of course, the post-Gulf War sanctions against his "weapons of mass destruction" were, well, entirely effective in their goal.

As I noted in a post of 01/24/06, when Israel struck the Osirik reactor in Iraq in June 1981, the Reagan administration joined in the unanimous UN Security Council Resolution of 06/19/81 condemning the Osirik bombing. Now Danny Goldhagen tells us that this illegal act of preventive war was the "most critical to the well-being of the world" since V-J day in 1945. Based on this counterfactual assumption, it's perfectly obvious, at least to Danny, that Iran's nuclear program and the anti-Semitic remarks of its president make a preventive war against Iran absolutely necessary. And anything else is cowardly appeasement and absolutely immoral.

If we're willing to base foreign policy on worst-case fantasies treated as imminent threats, we will be a country constantly at war. Danny, I know it seems awfully "reality-based" and not nearly as pretty as abstract moralistic theories founded on imaginary assumptions. But the capacity of the United States to attack Iran is seriously limited, no matter how invincible the rightwingers think the US is. (For an excellent summary of the problems and very real risks involved in the war Danny wants, see Contemplating the Ifs by Patrick Lang and Larry Johnson National Interest Spring 2006.)

Danny explains that the "really bad news is that Al Qaeda is not the main problem. Iran is." You mean Iraq is not the Main Front in the War on Terror this week? And he explains that the Khomeinist regime in Shi'a, Persian Iran, which has significant differences in its understanding of governance and the role of Islam in government than its close allies in Shi'a fundamentalist Iraqi government, is actually representative of the grand strategy of international "political Islam":

What is political Islam's game plan for triumphing? In Iran - political Islam's greatest power - the leadership's pronouncements lay out the contours of its aims. Like Al Qaeda, the current Iranian regime, led by Ahmadinejad, thirsts for revenge against the "arrogant" West. To them, the West has, for centuries, constricted, humiliated, divided, and dominated the Muslim nations. Ahmadinejad's desire for revenge is coupled with a belligerent and global missionary zeal. A renascent and ascendant Muslim world would first acquire nuclear weapons and thus attain parity of power with the West. Then it would annihilate Israel. Aided by global Islamic forces (there are an estimated 1.2 billion Muslims in the world), which are already showing their strength in Europe, political Islam would proceed to assail the West, weaken it, and ultimately subdue it. (my emphasis)
I'm sure there are Hindu cult groups or Mormon splinter groups out in the Utah desert and others who have world-conquering fantasies, too. But, no one other than Al Qaeda admirers and warmongering rightwingers really think that a few bands of Salafist terrorists actually have the ability to establish a world-conquering caliphate. Is there any kind of real evidence that Hamas, Hizbollah, SCIRI and Da'wa in Iraq, the Iranian clerics, or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood even have an serious notion of conquering the world? The idea of Iran at the head of a ferocious worldwide intifada is like something out of the Onion. Or a Victor Davis Hanson column.

Note also in this paragraph, Danny makes it clear that he sees "global Islamic forces" as basically all 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, despite what he says in his alibi paragraph.

Annihilate Israel? Let's see. Israel has at least 100 or so nuclear weapons of their own. If Iran nukes Israel, Israel nukes Iran and both are annihilated. It's not a hard calculation: if we wipe them out, they wipe us out. It's called deterrence. A general Middle East nuclear disarmament regime would be much preferable. But that's just a dream right now too with the current Israeli and US governments that are in power. There are many reasons why it's necessary to oppose an Iranian nuclear weapons program. An unshakable Iranian commitment to destroying Israel at the cost of its own obliteration is not one of them.

Having looked fairly closely at Danny's slippery manner of argument in the Hitler's Willing Executioners discussion (better known as "the Goldhagen controversy"), I'm not inclined to unpack more of his argument in his TNR article to the extent I have above, at least in this post. Because these grandiose assumptions and moralistic postures are painfully typical of his whole approach.

I'm going to quickly comment on some of his points here. I suppose I don't need to say that the summaries aren't especially sympathetic.

Most importantly in looking at arguments like this, though, I have very much in mind the recklessness, dishonesty and incredible damage to American interests that have been involved in the Iraq War, and most of all the needless loss of human life that it has involved. I don't want to see that repeated with Iran. The Lang/Johnson article linked above gives the perspective that I think is the right basis for considering any such war. Apart from the legal and moral issues - and those are very important and substantial - if the Bush administration isn't willing to have massive conscription to dealing with the aftermath, even aerial attacks on Iranian missile sites would be at minimum, at minimum, at least as reckless an act as the invasion of Iraq. Pretty words and grandiose moralizing from Danny Goldhagen aren't substitutes for a realistic view of the threats and the risks in this situation.

I tend to get wordy when the subject is Danny Goldhagen. If you read much of his stuff, you'll quickly see that Danny makes me look like a model of brevity. But here are some brief (really!) comments about other aspects of his article:

1. Danny explicitly identifies his term "political Islam" as a preferable synonym for "Islamofascism" (a rightwing favorite), "militant Islam" and even "Islamic fundamentalism". Despite his alibi paragraph, he's basically describing any kind of Islamic party or activist group that deals with politics. He's really trying to put his own spin on the rightwing's general demonizing of Muslims, which of course he sweetly disavows like a good little boy in the alibi paragraph.

2. Danny claims that "political Islam" - he might just as well call it The Enemy - has a "common ideological foundation" that transcends other, lesser difference like Shi'a/Sunni, Arab/Persian and "et cetera". The various factions in the Iraqi civil war would probably be surprised to hear of the strength of their ecumenical bonds.

3. What is "totalitarian, aggressive, conquering, cocksure about its superiority and destiny to rule, intolerant, bristling with resentment, and only tenuously in touch with aspects of reality"? Christian Rightists? Neoconservatives? Hardcore Bush cultists? BRRM-MMP. Wrong answer. It's The Enemy, of course.

4. Who suffers from "an archaic bloodlust"? Republican fans of torture? Mad Annie Coulter? Freepers who fantasize about murdering evil liberals? BRRM-MMP. Wrong again. It's The Enemy, stupid!

5. Danny specifically identifies "political Islam"/The Enemy as including the following: Shi'a Iran; Sunni-fundamentalist Hamas; Saddam Hussein's now-deposed secular, Sunni-dominated Baath Party regime; the secular, Shi'a-Allawite Baath Party regime in Syria (which notoriously wiped out a entire city several years back to crush the Sunni-fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood there); Shi'a-fundamentalist Hizbollah; Sunni-Salafist Al Qaeda; British Muslims (at least a lot of them); and, Al Jazeera. Well, at least they're all Muslim in some way or another. Danny's concept of "political Islam" really seems to have little content other than, this Muslim group is The Enemy at the moment. The Shi'a-fundamentalist regime in present-day Iraq somehow didn't make the cut in this article. Danny may be a little behind there, with the US lately trying to distance itself from the Iraqi government and tilt at least somewhat to the Sunnis.

6. Political Islam/Islamofascism/The Enemy seeks "to spread its sway and impose its orthodoxy abroad". Chechnyan rebels, Kashmiri separatists, and Iraqi Sunni insurgents want to invade and conquer France and Canada and Australia to make them Islamic? Good Lord. Get real, Danny.

7. "In the last 100 years, there has been no equal to [The Enemy's] cult of death in major political movements, except Nazism and perhaps imperial Japan". Should we refer him to Robert Pape's Dying to Win that studied suicide attackers from 1980-2003. "Pape shows that in the past 20 years Islamist groups were responsible for less than 35 percent of suicide attacks and that the leading perpetrators have been the Tamil Tigers, a Marxist-Leninist group adamantly opposed to religion." (Max Abrahms) Danny's not one to let pesky facts get in the way of his favorite points.

Some of Danny's claims are such whoppers that it's surprising that the editors at TNR let them go through in this form.

In regard to Muslims protests and violence over the anti-Muslim cartoons in the rightwing Danish newspaper: "Yet Western politicians and commentators have mostly indulged this outpouring of violent hatred." Say what? (I doubt Danny reads my blog posts, but my own take on the cartoon protests is here.)

"Many Europeans fantastically believed that Jews duped the U.S. government into attacking Iraq for Israel's sake." What the [Cheney]? I've posted a number of times about Old Right isolationist conspiracy theories about Israel and US foreign policy, one of which I linked above. But I don't recall seeing any poll results that reflect such a sentiment in Europe, and Danny doesn't cite any. I would say with confidence that most Europeans are quite capable of imagining the United States doing stupid or even criminal things on our own with any Jewish Conspiracy arranging it.

And, as I also mentioned in the comments to Neil's post, don't be surprised if Danny comes out in a couple of weeks with a new article that takes a drastically different and incompatible position on the same issue!


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