"Since the events of 9/11," observes Lee Harris, America's reigning philosopher of 9/11, "the policy debate in the United States has been primarily focused on a set of problems - radical Islam and the War on Terrorism, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein in Iraq."
We sense that these three problems are related, Harris notes in an article at TechCentralStation.com, but we can't quite figure out how. He proposes a subtle link between these seemingly disparate issues - and it's not specifically their common Muslim identity. Rather, it has to do with their unearned power.
"All previous threats in the history of mankind have had one element in common. They were posed by historical groups that had created the weapons, both physical and cultural, that they used to threaten their enemies." States achieved power through their own labor and sacrifice, developing their own economies, training their own troops and building their own arsenals.
The same cannot be said of the threats emanating from the Muslim world. Al Qaeda destroys airplanes and buildings that it itself could not possibly build. The Palestinian Authority has failed in every field of endeavor except killing Israelis. Saddam Hussein's Iraq grew dangerous thanks to money showered on it by the West to purchase petroleum Iraqis themselves had neither located nor extracted.
How, despite their general incompetence, has this trio managed to guide the course of events as if they were powers in the traditional sense?
The cause of this anomaly, Harris replies, is that the West plays by a strict set of rules while permitting al Qaeda, the Palestinians and Saddam Hussein to play without rules. We restrain ourselves according to the standards of civilized conduct as refined over the centuries; they engage in maximal ruthlessness.
Had the United States retaliated in kind for 9/11, Harris tells me, the Islamic holy places would have been destroyed. Had Israelis followed the Arafat model of murderousness, the West Bank and Gaza would now be devoid of Palestinians. Had the West done toward Iraq as Iraq did toward Kuwait, the Iraqi polity would long ago have been annexed and its oil resources confiscated.
While morally commendable, Harris argues, the West's not responding to Muslim ruthlessness with like ruthlessness carries a high and rising price. It allows Muslim political extremists of various stripes to fantasize that they earned their power, when in fact that power derives entirely from the West's arch-civilized restraint.
This confusion prompts Muslim extremists to indulge in the error that their successes betoken a superior virtue, or even God's support. Conversely, they perceive the West's restraint as a sign of its decadence. Such fantasies, Harris contends, feed on themselves, leading to ever-more demented and dangerous behavior. Westerners worry about the security of electricity grids, computer bugs and water reservoirs; can a nuclear attack on a Western metropolis be that remote? Western restraint, in other words, insulates its enemies from the deserved consequences of their actions, and so unintentionally encourages their bad behavior.
For the West to reverse this process requires much rougher means than it prefers to use. Harris, author of a big-think book on this general subject coming out from the Free Press in early 2004, contends that Old Europe and most analysts have failed to fathom the imperative for a change. The Bush administration, however, has figured it out and in several ways has begun implementing an unapologetic and momentous break with past restraints:
- Pre-empt: Knock out fantasist leaders (the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat) before they can do more damage.
- Rehabilitate: Dismantle their polities, then reconstruct these along civilized lines.
- Impose a double standard: Act on the premise that the U.S. government alone "is permitted to use force against other agents, who are not permitted to use force."
In brief, until those Harris calls "Islamic fantasists" play by the rules, Washington must be prepared to act like them, without rules.
This appeal for America to act less civilized will offend some; but it does offer a convincing explanation for the inner logic of America's tough new foreign policy.