USS Clueless - Arab traditionalism

Stardate 20020919.1450

(Captain's log): I am a bit stunned by both the kind of attention that yesterday's post has gotten, and by the kind of passion it seems to have excited. I suppose I shouldn't be, given what I said. Some have publicly or privately expressed strong support; some have disagreed with it and have tried to explain why, and some have recoiled in moral horror at the sheer inhumanity of what I say.

Much of the criticism of it seems to concentrate on details, showing places where I didn't fill in details (while in some cases simultaneously making comments about how long it was). And from some of the comments I've seen or received by email, it becomes clear that some may have misunderstood some of what I said, or made improper extrapolations from it to other things they think I believe.

It's not surprising that there should be some confusion. Aziz wrote his letter to me at about 9:00 AM PDT; I read it about a quarter after twelve, and then went out to get something to eat and my daily Starbucks. Sat around thinking and sipping coffee, and then returned and started writing at 1:29 PM. (Which I know, because the timestamp on a Citydesk article comes from when I first create the article, not from when I post it.) I wrote for a couple of hours, made an editing pass, and then posted the article about ten minutes after four. (And then made a couple of small revisions later to correct some clumsy prose and to make some things more clear.)

Something composed like that isn't going to have the rigor of a Ph.D thesis. Let's keep some perspective here: I'm just a guy sitting on the bridge of his starship, writing what he thinks about world events.

This post, then, will be an attempt to try to answer some of the questions which have arisen, and to correct some misapprehensions which I've seen, and to try to explain some things in greater depth. However, the response has been overwhelming, so it's inevitable that I won't mention everyone or link to every relevant post elsewhere.

I had intended to collect together all the different suggestions people have made for a term to describe what we're fighting against, but there have just been too many of them. "Traditional Evangelical Islam"; "Insecure Arab Supremacists"; "Arab Nationalism"; "Retrograde Islamism"; the suggestions just went on and on.

I've finally decided that the term I'm going to use for it is "Arab Traditionalism", partly because it isn't a loaded term, partly because it doesn't include any reference to Islam, and because it's perhaps a bit easier to use than some of the suggestions.

Of all the ways where I seem to have communicated badly, perhaps the greatest is in what I said about what we'd need to do. For instance, I said:

The existing Arab culture which is the source of this war is a total loss. It must be shattered, annihilated, leaving behind no more traces in the Arab lands than the Samurai left in Japan or the mounted knights left in Europe.

I also emphasized that we would have to impose change by force, and that it wasn't going to be possible to avoid the use of force. Some came away with the impression that I therefore believed that only force would be used and that it was my intention to totally annihilate Arab culture in all its manifestations, as well as annihilating Islam in all its manifestations, even to the point of seeking out and burning every copy of the Qur'an.

That's not what I was thinking. Part of the problem here is that my failure to actually choose a decent term (Arab traditionalism) forced me to use an inadequate one "Arab culture" which included too much. A typical example of this misunderstanding was posted by George Paine:

Den Beste ends up calling for what some call "cultural genocide" -- the complete destruction of Islamic culture. Think of Russia's occupation of Poland and the outlawing of all Polish culture and language. That's what Den Beste is talking about. He's talking about invading and occupying all of Arabia, outlawing Arabic and forbidding the studying of the Koran.

I regret giving that impression. That's not even close to what I'm proposing. I made reference to what we did in Japan after World War II, which is closer to what I was thinking of. That also caused enormous criticism by those looking for a reason to criticize me, since they tried to pretend that I thought that Arabs and Japanese were all alike and that we'd do exactly the same thing to the Arabs as we did with the Japanese.

Well, yes and no. I think part of the problem is that a lot of people don't actually know what happened in Japan after the war. We didn't make them "just like us". We just removed the most harmful influences from their society, leaving behind something less dangerous to the world. Before the war, Japan had a constitutional government and held real elections. The franchise was not broadly held, but it was certainly far more democratic than what you see in Iraq or Saudi Arabia or even Egypt. But the system had certain deep flaws, and by far the worst was the fact that the Constitution required that any government formed within the Japanese parliamentary system must include an actively serving Army officer and Navy officer. The effect of this was to give both the Army and Navy the ability to unilaterally bring down any government, and to prevent any government from being formed. The Navy never used this, but the Army used it heavily and the effect was that any government was forced to be seriously subservient to the desires of the unelected senior officers in the Army. Ultimately what happened was that the Army actually took over the government.

The new constitution formed under US supervision in Japan removed that weakness, and also contained guarantees of certain fundamental rights, but it wasn't dictated by America.

The Samurai and the formal caste system was broken by the Meiji restoration, but in practice the Samurai continued to rule in Japan and their ethos formed the basis for Japanese culture. it wasn't the Bushido, exactly; it was a new ethos in part based on the Bushido which was applied not just to Samurai but to everyone in Japan.

After the war, the political influence and power of the Samurai (who were no longer formally referred to as such) was broken, and the primary reform the US instituted was to give power instead to the merchant class, who have largely held it ever since.

But we did not, for example, try to kill the Japanese language. We didn't dictate the history books they used in their schools. And in fact, the degree of interference with Japanese culture was far smaller overall than most people realize.

Japan didn't become New America, it just ceased being Samurai Japan. But what it became was driven by forces already present in Japan. We didn't remake Japan in our own image. What we did was to find people and cultural influences already present in Japan which were more to our liking, and work to let them become the dominant strain in Japanese culture. And despite minor carping about the current Japanese economic difficulties, I consider the result to be a major success, in as much as Japanese militarism has never returned. (And despite Japan's economic woes, its people still have a higher standard of living than most of the people of the world, and even in recession Japan still has the second largest economy on Earth with a per-capita GDP higher than most of Europe. It's hard to call that a failure unless one assumes that anything short of absolutely perfect success must therefore be a total failure.)

The problem in Japan wasn't every single aspect of Japanese culture. It was the influence of the Samurai and their martial tradition. We didn't forbid the Shinto religion. We didn't force everyone to learn English and punish anyone who spoke Japanese. We didn't outlaw the kimono. That kind of thing would have been petty, but worse is that it would have been useless and counterproductive. We didn't do it in Japan and we equally won't do that in the Arab nations.

Nation building in Afghanistan is useful but not essential to us. We didn't fight in Afghanistan to create a new government there, we fought primarily to eliminate the Taliban and destroy the assets (human and otherwise) al Qaeda was keeping there under Taliban political protection.

However, once we've taken Iraq, it will be strategically necessary to "nation build" in Iraq, and I think we'll do so. But that doesn't mean forbidding the turban and burning every copy of the Qur'an.

Just as in Japan, there are segments of the Iraqi population who think more like us. Iraq was, before Baathist takeover, pretty industrialized and had a moderately decent capitalist economy and its government and university system were more secular than in other parts of the Arab world, and much of that still exists despite 20 years of Baathist misrule. Just as we were able to work with the Japanese merchant class, we'll be able to find groups within Iraq to work with afterwards.

We will have to impose martial law, initially. There will be real arms inspections, carried out by American soldiers. There's going to be a period where we'll be hunting for certain top officials.

But we'll also begin by straightening out their economy, and instituting something akin to a reasonable legal system and an honest court system, and in a few years when things are working more smoothly then people in Iraq will work on their own constitution, which will include more checks and balances, and also include guarantees of certain critical rights for individuals.

It's never possible to completely chart the course of a war from the beginning. All major wars involve a major element of improvisation. So I can't tell you precisely what will happen after that. What I can outline is the general shape of it, and I can tell you what our best weapon will be.

It's the Barbie Doll.

Barbie epitomizes much of what the Arab Traditionalists hate about us, because Barbie, and Nike, and Levis, and Rap Music, and a lot of other aspects of pop American culture, are irresistible to the majority of the people of the Arab world. The evidence of that is overwhelming. Part of why the Traditionalists hate us is because the infiltration of our culture into greater Arabia is seducing the people away from traditional attitudes and values, eating away at the roots of Arab Tradition like a million termites working on the foundation.

In the long run, we're going to win the hearts and minds of greater Arabia not just with Barbie, but also with the other things we do better than they do, like have fun. Like actually date who we want. Like making up our own minds about things, like going where we want, when we want, with whoever we want, without fear of being beaten by roving groups of thought police carrying canes. Like reading what we want, and saying what we feel like. These are yearnings all individuals feel, but they're violently repressed in the Arab nations. If we give young Arabs the chance to try these things, they're going to like them and not want to go back.

What we need is a lot more termites working on the foundation. That's how we're going to win, in

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004