Emulating the enemy

The similarities between neoconservatives and the Islamic radicals whom they seek to eradicate are numerous and glaring.

Topics: Washington, D.C.,

Reuters, today, concerning remarks from Iranian President Ahmadinejad:

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Friday Iran should not show weakness over its nuclear program, a day after Tehran ignored a United Nations deadline to stop nuclear work which the West says could to used for making bombs.

If we show weakness in front of the enemy the expectations will increase but if we stand against them, because of this resistance, they will retreat,” he said in a speech in northern Iran, Iran’s ISNA news agency said.

In the past, he said, compromise over the program, which Tehran says is intended solely for peaceful power supplies, had led to increased demands from the West.

Donald Rumsfeld in his farewell comments, December 2006:

“Today, it should be clear that not only is weakness provocative,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, standing at a lectern with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at his side, “but the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative as well. . . .”

“A conclusion by our enemies that the United States lacks the will or the resolve to carry out missions that demand sacrifice and demand patience is every bit as dangerous as an imbalance of conventional military power,” Mr. Rumsfeld said in a buoyant but sometimes emotional speech.


Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, July 24, 2006 (“It’s Our War”)

For while Syria and Iran are enemies of Israel, they are also enemies of the United States. We have done a poor job of standing up to them and weakening them. They are now testing us more boldly than one would have thought possible a few years ago. Weakness is provocative. We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.

The right response is renewed strength–in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions–and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.

Dick Cheney, yesterday, interview with ABC News (transcript via-mail):

If you’re going to advocate a course of action that basically is withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, then you don’t get to just do the fun part of that, that says, we’ll we’re going to get out and appeal to your constituents on that basis.

You also have to be accountable for the results. What are the consequences of that? What happens if we withdraw from Iraq? And the point I made and I’ll make it again is that al Qaeda functions on the basis that they think they can break our will. That’s their fundamental underlying strategy, that if they can kill enough Americans or cause enough havoc, create enough chaos in Iraq, then we’ll quit and go home. And my statement was that if we adopt the Pelosi policy, that then we will validate the strategy of al Qaeda. I said it and I meant it.

One of the hallmarks of the Bush presidency — arguably the central one — is that we have adopted the mentality and mimicked the behavior of “our enemies,” including those whom we have long considered, rightfully so, to be savage and uncivilized. As a result, our foreign policy consists of little more than flamboyant demonstrations of our own “toughness” because that, so the thinking goes, is the only language which “our enemies” understand, and we must speak “their language” (hence, we stay in Iraq not because it makes geopolitical sense, but because we have to prove to Al Qaeda that they cannot “break our will”).

Thus, any measure designed to avert war — negotiations, diplomacy, compromise, an acceptance of the fact that we need not force every country to submit to our national Will — are scornfully dismissed as “weakness,” which, in turn, is “provocative.” Conversely, war-seeking policies are always desirable because they show how tough and strong we are.

President Ahmadinejad’s comments yesterday summed up the mentality which drives the Bush administration perfectly, precisely because he shares the same mentality: “If we show weakness in front of the enemy, the expectations will increase, but if we stand against them, because of this resistance, they will retreat.” This is, in essence, the Neoconservative Anthem. It mistakes mindless chest-beating belligerence, panic and hysteria for strength and resolve, even though such behavior is really the ultimate hallmark of deep-seated weakness and fear.

When it comes to equating the United States with the likes of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nobody has done more to attempt to bring about that outcome than George Bush and his neoconservative mentors. And they have accomplished that by simultaneously elevating the legitimacy and significance of those petty tyrants and barbarians, while continuously lowering our own behavior to the depths of their savagery and by adopting their insatiable need for violent conflict.

None of this, of course, is new. Historian Richard Hofstadter, in his influential 1964 Harper‘s essay entitled The Paranoid Style in American Politics, described this dynamic perfectly (and, in doing so, he emphasized, accurately, that it “is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon”):

Emulating the Enemy

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said [John Birch Society founder Robert] Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack”).

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.

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Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.

The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

That description applies in equal parts to Osama bin Laden and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as to leading American neoconservatives, including some of the government’s most influential figures, and likely the President himself. At least in terms of these impulses, there really are virtually no distinctions between the mindset of the neoconservative Civilization Warriors and the Islamic extremists to whose eradication they are so devoted. While Dinesh D’Souza’s rancid book has been widely condemned as a result of its virtual endorsement of the worldview of violent Islamic radicals, identification with — and admiration for — the mindset and behavior of violent Islam is hardly confined to him.

Neoconservatives have long been speaking quite openly about the need for the U.S. to shed all of the values and constraints of civilization which have long guided and defined our country (at least aspirationally if not in fact) in order to match and copy the savagery of Islamic terrorists. The now infamous January, 2002 memorandum from Bush’s then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, addressed to President Bush, vividly illustrates this mindset. It was there that Gonzales helped lay the foundation for the array of the most extremist Bush policies by arguing:

As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war . . . In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions.

The political values and precepts of civilization long embraced and advocated by America — not only for itself but for the world — were now obsolete and dismissed away as “quaint” relics of the past. George Bush was fighting to preserve our civilization, our very existence, and — just as was true for our Islamic enemies — we cannot tolerate any limitations on the means we employ, and, in any event, both the urgency and Rightness of the mission justifies any means used to fulfill it.

Their obsessions with displays of power and their (quite related) intense fear of being perceived as weak are, as Hofstadter documented so conclusively, more psychological and personal than political, and it is what binds them to the Islamic radicals who are driven by the same impulses (as Andrew Sullivan recently noted in response to a horrific story of a British Muslim man killing his whole family because the women wanted to be “too Western”: “So much of Islam’s violence seems to stem from men’s fear of losing control of women”).

Those consumed by feelings of their own weakness are always desperate to find ways to be perceived as strong. Seeking out and fighting wars (or, in the case of George Bush and his neoconservative comrades, cheering them on from a distance), is an ideal way to accomplish that. Conversely, in this mental paradigm, a willingness to negotiate and explore peaceful ways of conflict resolution is nothing more than a pitiful sign of weakness to be avoided at all costs.

Thus, when one reads any speech given by President Ahmadinejad, it becomes apparent that his views on the dynamics of international affairs and the need to show “strength” — as well as his understanding of what “strength” means — are, at their core, indistinguishable from those who have been governing our country for the last six years. None of that means that there is (or is not) a moral equivalency between the U.S. and Iran. But it does mean that the efforts on the part of our political leaders to descend to the levels of Middle Eastern tyrants and to model our behavior after theirs are proceeding with full force.

Glenn Greenwald
Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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