Put the blame where it belongs: Bush, Reagan, Kissinger and the real history of the rise of ISIS

Conservative intellectuals are now trying to blame Marxism for ISIS. Time for a history lesson

Published April 3, 2016 9:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Scott Stewart/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/Scott Stewart/J. Scott Applewhite)

If you think it's a bit crazy when elite conservatives try to blame Obama for the rise of Donald Trump, you ain't seen nothin' yet.

Check out Damon Linker's establishment apologia, “The Marxist roots of Islamic extremism,” unfurled in the wake of the Brussels bombings, which seeks to stand history on its head, burying the actual anti-Communist roots of al Qaeda's genesis, and replacing them with their exact opposites. It's yet another case of envious reversal [I've written about this before here and here], which conservatives so often employ to cast themselves either as victims of liberals' illiberalism, or else as liberalism's true champions—touting anti-gay discrimination as “religious freedom,” for example. Although Linker is a conservative, he's not writing as one in this instance—he's writing on behalf of bipartisan elitism, in the name of liberalism no less—you know, the good old-fashioned John Locke, Adam Smith, just-don't-read-them-too-closely kind. But the envious reversal is still in full force.

To be fair, writers are not responsible for headlines, and Linker's argument is broader than that—it's a sweeping defense of the Western elite status quo. But it is a crucial part of what he's arguing, and it helps illuminate much of what's wrong with the rest of what he has to say, as well as what's wrong with a much wider chorus of status quo voices. So let's take out the headline absurdity first, and then survey Linker's argument more generally, to see what we can learn.

Linker warms to his subject, citing “totalitarian forms of political argument—and specifically the tendency of those influenced (sometimes unknowingly) by Marxism to embrace the goal of "heightening the contradictions,” but his real concern isn't political argument—it's actions:

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there haven't been a lot of doctrinaire communist revolutionaries running around. But that doesn't mean that the idea of heightening the contradictions has disappeared. On the contrary, it has spread like a virus to other forms of anti-liberal political extremism.

Radical Islam, for example, is a highly potent mixture of motifs drawn from the Muslim past and Marxist-Leninist ideas imported through the writings of such polemicists as Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi.

Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda don't think they can defeat the West through terrorism, Linker argues; they want to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash, which will radicalize persecuted Muslims to join in further terrorism:

Attack, crackdown, worse attack, more draconian crackdown, on and on, with the West eventually weakening enough that a resurgent Islam can rise as a triumphant global power.

Make things worse to make things better: a classic case of heightening the contradictions.

Some of what Linker says here is true, particularly what he says about the aims of ISIS and al Qaeda, which has been pointed out repeatedly by terrorism experts, as well both leftist and libertarian critics of U.S. interventionism. What's utterly false is the flimsy core of his argument, that Marxism is responsible for ISIS and al Qaeda, when the truth is almost entirely the opposite.

It's well-known that al Qaeda grew out of the U.S.-funded proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a war designed to give them their own Vietnam. ISIS, in turn, came out of our invasion of Iraq and subsequent actions, including the destruction of the Iraqi army. In the article linked to where Linker claims a Marxist heritage for “such polemicists as Sayyid Qutb and Abul Ala Maududi,” we find nothing more detailed to substantiate the claim. There is some truth in it, but as Mahmood Mamdani makes clear in his book "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror," it's equally true that their ideas gained a foothold in large part because they were useful in the Cold War fight against Soviet Communism. Moreover, the U.S. turned to supporting terrorism as a Cold War stratagem before things got started in Afghanistan. A summary of some of Mamdani's key arguments can be found in this like-named essay, where he cites 1975 as a turning-point year: America's defeat in Indochina, the collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa, and the shift in Cold War focus to apply the Nixon Doctrine, that “Asian boys must fight Asian wars,” in Southern Africa, both to prop up apartheid South Africa, and to partner with them:

South Africa became both conduit and partner of the U.S. in the hot war against those governments in the region considered pro-Soviet. This partnership bolstered a number of terrorist movements: Renamo in Mozambique, and Unita in Angola. Their terrorism was of a type Africa had never seen before. It was not simply that they were willing to tolerate a higher level of civilian casualties in military confrontations -- what official America nowadays calls collateral damage. The new thing was that these terrorist movements specifically targeted civilians. It sought specifically to kill and maim civilians, but not all of them. Always, the idea was to leave a few to go and tell the story, to spread fear. The object of spreading fear was to paralyze government.

There was nothing Islamic here, even in pretense, much less was there any thread of Marxist influence on the U.S./South African side. It was pure Nixon/Kissinger realpolitik. Nothing intellectually deeper than that.  And what began in South Africa in the mid-'70s then spread:

In another decade, the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted to Central America, to Nicaragua and El Salvador. And so did the center of gravity of U.S.-sponsored terrorism. The Contras were not only tolerated and shielded by official America; they were actively nurtured and directly assisted, as in the mining of harbors.

The shifting center of gravity of the Cold War was the major context in which Afghanistan policy was framed. But it was not the only context....

The grand plan of the Reagan administration was two-pronged. First, it drooled at the prospect of uniting a billion Muslims around a holy war, a Crusade, against the evil empire.... Second, the Reagan administration hoped to turn a religious schism inside Islam, between minority Shia and majority Sunni, into a political schism. Thereby, it hoped to contain the influence of the Iranian Revolution as a minority Shia affair.

It was a strategy Nixon and Kissinger would have been proud of, both “realist” and intoxicated with visions of limitless power:

This is the context in which an American/Saudi/Pakistani alliance was forged, and religious madresas turned into political schools for training cadres. The Islamic world had not seen an armed Jihad for centuries. But now the CIA was determined to create one. It was determined to put a version of tradition at the service of politics. We are told that the CIA looked for a Saudi Prince to lead this Crusade. It could not find a Prince. But it settled for the next best, the son of an illustrious family closely connected to the royal family. This was not a backwater family steeped in pre-modernity, but a cosmopolitan family. The Bin Laden family is a patron of scholarship. It endows programs at universities like Harvard and Yale.

The CIA created the Mujaheddin and Bin Laden as alternatives to secular nationalism. Just as, in another context, the Israeli intelligence created Hamas as an alternative to the secular PLO.

Secular nationalism isn't Marxism, of course. But throughout the Cold War era the two were inextricably linked as perceived threats with much in common—including figures like Iran's Mossadegh and Guatemala's Arbenz, the first two targets of CIA coups under Eisenhower, who were not Marxists themselves but were willing to engage with them independently of American control. In addition, Marxist ideas about the exploitative logic of international capitalism helped provide a framework secular nationalists could draw upon in resisting Western domination. At any rate, it was anti-communism, above all, that linked secular nationalism and Marxism together as its enemies, and then lit the fires of terrorism in response.

This is material, real-world history of where ISIS and al Qaeda came from. It came not from communism, but from anti-communism—our anti-communism. It was not these shadowy others, but as Jung would have it, our disowned shadow projected onto the others, which gave birth to the terrorist threat we now face. The thread of Marxist influence Linker calls out can surely be found, if one looks hard enough. But they only came together in the way that they did, in actual attacks on the West, because of this much broader, powerful dynamic put in motion by exactly opposite-minded people, like Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan, fighting their shadowy inner demons out on the world stage.

So much for the argument that terrorism has Marxist roots. But, as always, there's a larger purpose. Marxism is being demonized once again for the same old-fashioned reason: to shut up gripes about things as they are. As Linker would have it, “Anti-liberalism is having a moment. And it's happening at all points of the political spectrum”—everything from “suicidal religious fanatics” to “anti-liberal forms of nationalistic populism” (Trump, Le Pen, etc.) and “an anti-liberal left (think the socialist Jacobin magazine)” which “has risen from the dead to challenge the liberal order, using concepts and categories derived from the Marxist tradition of social theory.” Hence, the terrorism-is-Marxism's-fault argument is Linker's ace in the hole in defending the rotten status quo as “the liberal order” against a wide-ranging grab-bag of others.

One of the most basic things wrong with Linker's way of describing things is his underlying belief in simplistic, ahistorical, true forms of things. Immediately following the above, he says “True liberals have plenty to say in response to the critics that increasingly encircle them.” But what does “true liberals” mean, setting aside that it's coming from a conservative intellectual? Linker assumes it has a clear, forthright meaning, and he's hardly alone in that. He quickly mentions “the importance of upholding such liberal norms as equal respect for individual rights and tolerance of disagreement.” Of course, the Bush administration's war on terror made a mockery of claims to respect individual rights, and Obama's drone assassinations of U.S. citizens has taken this breach of liberal norms even further. But that's the thing about true forms—they free us from having to think, care about, or even notice the grimy little details of actual people's real lives.

On the other hand, Marxism has a true form as well—defined by “the goal of 'heightening the contradictions,'” and it's the citing of this goal which Linker uses to tar “Islamic extremism” and other anti-liberals—even Tea Party Republicans—as the creatures of evil Marxist roots. Linker makes a play for framing things in terms of historical grand theory. The idea of “heightening the contradictions” had its inadvertent origins in Hegel, describing historical progress as “a dialectical process in which social, cultural, intellectual, and economic contradictions emerge and resolve themselves, only to produce new contradictions, crises, and resolutions, and so on down through the centuries and millennia.” As Linker notes, “Hegel thought that this process ultimately culminated in the modern liberal nation state,” and Marx disagreed—arguing that there are still more contradictions—specifically class-based economic ones—yet to be resolved.

Whole bookshelves have been written about this disagreement, but one point seems important to underscore here: The liberal state Hegel was defending then looks nothing like liberal democracies as we know them today.  It's a backwards, archaic artifact, that almost no one alive would vote for today. Indeed, throughout most of the 19th century in Europe, democracy itself was seen as inimical to the sort of “liberal order” that Hegel was defending, and Marxists, along with other socialists, were a driving force in opposing, and ultimately defeating that view. Other significant aspects of “the liberal order” as we know it today were utterly foreign to Hegel: women's suffrage—much less holding elective office—and gay rights, for example. Not to mention the rights of racial and ethnic minorities, though there's still tremendous variation in exactly what this means across all the different political jurisdictions that claim to be part of this “liberal order.”

In short, there's a great deal of messiness involved in the simplistic notion of a “liberal order” that Linker seeks to defend, along with a similar messiness in the Marxist tradition, and a good deal of overlap between them. If “the liberal order” of today is being challenged by an array of “anti-liberal” forces, as Linker would have it, there's nothing terribly new or surprising in that. All sorts of things “we” now strongly support and identify with were not long ago seen as dangerously other. That's the whole point of dialectics, without Hegel's self-satisfied assumption that now we've reached the end of the line.

The real task before us is not to pass judgment on things based on artificial labels, which is what status quo warriors demand that we do. We have to get down into the grimy details, where the rosy tales the elite keep peddling to us increasingly fall to pieces, and very rightly ought to be challenged—whether in Flint, Ferguson, Gaza, or the fast-food joint just down the street. Bernie Sanders is not “challenging the liberal order” in the same way that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen or ISIS do, and simplistic efforts to lump them all together only further undermine the credibility of those, like Linker, who claim to shed light and speak for reason. Nor is the heterodox Jacobin magazine simplistically “anti-liberal left,” as if to erase self-identified left-liberals, whose very existence Linker's taxonomy cannot admit.

In early March, Nando Vila wrote a very telling analysis of the Sanders/Clinton divide, exactly the opposite of the sort of obfuscating “analysis” Linker provides. Vila explains that the underlying divide between Clinton and Sanders is an ideological one: Clinton wants to perfect the existing meritocracy, “breaking down barriers” to individual achievement. Sanders wants to create a substantially more equal distribution of rewards for all. Neither of them is a Marxist or even some other sort of “anti-liberal,” though Linker or others like him would dearly love to tar Sanders as such. But Sanders does represent a fundamental break with the elite consensus that Linker masks with his “liberal order” rhetoric. As Vila writes: "You can make the case that the 2016 election is dominated by the public’s realization that the bipartisan and unquestioned faith in the meritocracy is collapsing."

There are many reasons for this, but they surely include the incompetence and corruption of the elites—the presumed cream of the crop in the meritocracy. It's the past 15 years of elite rule, more than anything, that has heightened the contradictions in the meritocracy's sales pitch. And the more they try to change the subject (“the liberal order”), the more they blame-shift onto others (“The Marxist roots of Islamic extremism”), the more the public's faith in meritocracy is shaken.

Linker is right in one respect: We do live in perilous times. But a great deal of what is driving that peril is the relentless elite refusal to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror. It's not just their hair that needs fixing. It's their shadow.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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