Hopefully Troppodillians will forgive me for tackling another Pearson piece only two weeks after my last effort. I’ll try not to make a habit of it, I promise.
With your indulgence, then, let’s proceed.
Is it relativism to hold our liberal democratic traditions to a higher standard than those of Islamic extremists? Do our actions over the years in the Middle East really have little to do with the growing emnity many of its inhabitants feel for us? Is it either useful or accurate to constantly label the narrative of grievance shared by a significant part of the Muslim world (and, it should be noted, many others) as irrational?
Noel Pearson seems to think so.
In a lengthy opinion piece this weekend, he ventures more deeply into the territory he introduced two weeks ago in United, Well Fight Terrorism. Pearsons views can be summed up as follows:
1. Despite many errors in its prosecution of the war on terror, some of them grievous, the liberal democratic West is in one camp, within the pale in Pearsons terms, while the Islamic extremists are in another. To obscure this distinction is not only wrong, but dangerous.
2. Those who oppose, in principle, the current policies for dealing with the Islamic threat hail from the Left and are generally immature and highly confused.
3. Even a radical change in Western policy would do little to reduce Islamic extremism because it feeds off an irrational attribution of real and imagined grievances to Western and Zionist conspiracy.
4. Deterring people from taking the step from the middle group [those who have some sympathy with the extremists] to the violent extremists, and controlling those who do take the step, must then be a very high priority for Western policy.
We can, I think, let this last one stand without too much further comment. It is, after all, little more than a commonsense wish, carrying a slight implicit policy prescription only in his use of the word deterring, rather than, say, encouraging. This, oddly enough, is as close as Pearson gets to an actual policy suggestion in the entire article.
The other three threads of his argument deserve a much less forgiving scrutiny.
At first glance, few would disagree with his initial point. Indeed, stated in such a simple form, its a truism. Pearson goes out of his way to acknowledge the many policy errors made in recent years and to restate the vital importance of argument and dissent within the West. First, though, he says, we must understand that we are we and they are not.
Fair enough, in many ways. Still, the effect of this line of argument, as employed by Pearson, is to discourage vigorous debate about the fundamentals of Western policy. Not the details, but the fundamentals. In fact, his whole piece (and most of the one two weeks ago) is devoted to confining such debate within boundaries he considers acceptable. The same is generally true of the writings of Hitchens and the signatories to the Euston Manifesto who Pearson so extols. In considering why it has this effect, we can at the same time cover his second point.
There are those within the West sufficiently embittered to blur, or even entirely deny, the distinctions between their own tradition and that of Islamic extremists. They are, however, few in number and weak in voice and so Pearson is, to a large degree, simply employing the straw man technique. What he ignores are all those who have a great love of their country and its traditions but are convinced these are being dangerously undermined, or even betrayed, by current policies. Most of these do come from the left, but roughly similar views on foreign policy and civil liberties are held by some conservatives, by liberals of a more classical persuasion (such as myself) and by many libertarians. It is these groups (many of whom are far more immersed in the traditions of liberal democracy than their critics), together with their principled concerns, that Pearson tries to exclude from the debate.
Lets consider two examples of his technique.
In the first, he extols Major Moris efforts on behalf of David Hicks as well as those of his colleague, Charles Swift, in bringing the case of Bin Ladens bodyguard, Hamdan, to the US Supreme Court. He then goes on to conclude:
Those who hold up Mori as a hero cant ignore that Moris commander-in-chief at the end of the day, is his countrys president, the reviled George W. Bush.
I was astounded at the chutzpah of this statement. Or is it possible, unlikely as it seems, that Pearson truly doesnt understand the full background? In any case, we should indeed praise Mori and Swift, and to some degree the system that allowed them, whatever its reservations, to proceed so vigorously. We can also praise the Supreme Court for hearing Hamdans case, although our enthusiasm ought to be tempered by the knowledge that the Court has so far been somewhat ambivalent in its willingness to deal with these fundamental issues. To claim any credit in these matters for President Bush, however, is to be absurd.
Had Bush and his administration had their way, what few avenues of effective appeal still survive would have been long gone. They have been resolutely obstructionist, have gamed and abused the court systems within the US and have sought, wherever possible, to arrogate power to themselves at the cost of the other two branches of government. Pearson is either being terribly disingenuous or needs to do some serious study. The move towards an imperial presidency has been underway for many decades but the Bush administration, far more than any other, has accelerated the pace and shown a brutal disregard for both convention and the checks and balances that have so far guarded America.
Pearson (perhaps trying to slip away from being tainted) insists that he wants to make it crystal clear that he is not seeking to defend the policy and strategic decisions of Bush and John Howard and their respective governments and that those who oppose their policies [may] be enemies in many senses of the word, but they are not enemies in the same sense as violent extremists. Has anyone serious claimed otherwise? Does this really need saying, or is it once again a largely rhetorical device?
As for the second example, consider this statement:
I believe that in the struggle against terror and in many other contexts we can and should divide the world according to a dichotomous rule: on the one hand the community of states characterised by liberal democracy and the rule of law, on the other, those who would prosecute their ideological, political and religious agendas outside the parameters of democracy and law.
Again, on the face of it, all well and good. And yet, and yet. If we are the community of states characterised by . . . the rule of law, how is it then that we invaded Iraq, entirely unprovoked and against the wishes of most of the worlds liberal democratic nations, and that the US is now considering bombing Iran, to take but two examples? Is this not acting more like the other in the above statement? I fear our use of phrases such as liberal democracy, rule of law and freedom has, post 9/11, veered perilously close to becoming Orwellian. They can all too easily become mere banners to march under, fig leaves with which to cover our nakedness.
What is most vital is surely to guard our own traditions from inner corruption, not to conjure up ghostly fears about fifth columns. Here too, Pearson tries to walk both sides of the track by dissociating himself from the specific policy disasters that have characterised the last five years, and by emphasising that internal criticism is vital. Only, though, once his dichotomous winnowing process is complete. Its hard not to wonder what purpose is served by Pearsons continual emphasis on the need to distinguish between us and them when the population of those in the West who dont entirely accept this distinction (if only viscerally) is trivial.
Finally, a brief look at the third thread of his argument. Pearson claims, again and again, that theres little point in considering serious changes in policy towards the Muslim world because it wont make much difference anyway, because the more extreme Muslim beliefs in regard to the West are irrational and rooted in perceptions of Western and Zionist conspiracy.
Remarkable as this assertion is, both in its sweeping judgement and its effects if accepted as true, those who read his piece searching for evidence to back it up will do so in vain. That Muslim perceptions of the West (and of the US in particular) have steadily and profoundly worsened in the wake of the Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Americas support for the extensive Israeli bombing of Lebanon last year, the growing belligerence directed at Iran and so on ad nauseam, is of no account, it seems. All these clear indications that actions have consequences are ignored. So too is the much longer history of Western interference in the Middle East over the last century, its continual support for authoritarian regimes, little if any of it bringing any good. How can anyone of imagination wonder that Muslim (and other) opinion about our bona fides has taken a sharp turn for the worse? With such a history, of course many who once were entirely unpolitical will wake to powerful new passions and others will be drawn towards radical action out of some combination of anger, or despair, or ideology. Is this really so difficult to grasp?
Certainly, there is some truth to his claim that the paranoid Islamist narrative is not amenable to reason. There tends to be at least some truth in most of Pearsons arguments. Unfortunately, in their overall effect so far on this debate, they distort and confuse far more than they illuminate.
Only he can know why he chose to move in such a fashion into this new field of proselytising, but I do wonder if the cause may not be rooted in a deep frustration with the left gradually acquired over the years of trying to better conditions for his own people. Perhaps he has experienced them as naïve, ill informed, unrealistic, counterproductive, superior in manner, and that sense of the left has been carried over to whatever other policies they tend to support. Like civil liberties and a more humble foreign policy, for example. Perhaps he has found it impossible to separate the actual issues from his perception of their most active sponsors.