01/03/2007

Arrogance, analogy and Iraq

Gustav Seibt looks at the flawed reasoning behind the widespread intellectual support of the Iraq war

No war since 1914 has found so much support from the liberal public as the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Beyond the public justifications and journalistic explanations, a large number of writers, essayists and experts in the Western world opted to take strong opinions on this war, either standing solidly behind it or calling it the lesser evil, a bitter necessity. The difference from 1914 is that the masses on the streets, in Europe at least, were against the war, and they too had their spokesmen, but largely in the union-oriented political milieu.

Nonetheless, the motivations behind the powerful intellectual support of the war should be analysed in retrospect, and not only because the hopes that were invested in the Iraq War were so disastrously disappointed. We should be concerned, for one, with monitoring the success rate of our prognoses but more importantly, with exploring the argumentative basis of our war confidence in the West. Only then will the "war of ideas" between the Western public and the Islamic world that the essayist Paul Berman been demanding since 2001, seriously begin.

It's already started, here and there � even though it's a particularly internal conversation in the West, for example on the Internet site www.perlentaucher.de, where a noteworthy debate (English version here) on universalism and multiculturalism has been waged in the last few weeks, to which Ian Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash, Pascal Bruckner and Necla Kelek have contributed. But the discussion is concerned principally with the inner constitution of a liberal society, and not the civilisational conflict between the West and the entire Islamic world that the Iraq War has plunged us into, whether we like it or not.

But in this field in particular, the rubble of the Iraq War has to be cleared away before we can carry on with a modicum of credibility. Nobody should take pleasure in the fact that authors like Wolf Biermann and György Konrad, essayists like Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht and Karl-Otto Hondrich, "liberal hawks" like Paul Berman and Michael Ignatieff, and even considered observers like Ralph Dahrendorf and Herfried Münkler were wrong on so many counts. In fact, many of those named, and Konrad and Gumbrecht in particular, should be credited for admitting their mistakes.

Reading the articles of the intellectual hawks today, it's striking to note that the question asked so often today - whether the Iraq War was a good idea that was just badly executed or whether it was, as Jürgen Habermas and Ivan Nagel postulate, a violation of international law with an uncertain outcome � this obvious question doesn't get to the heart of the widespread errors in judgement.

Most of those behind the war � the exception being Herfried Münkler � didn't even concern themselves with Iraq, international law, the chances and risks of a war in the Middle Eastern context. The vast majority of arguments for the war were drawn from European experience of the last two or three generations. Thus, one wrote about the overriding issues such as pacifism and anti-Americanism, appeasement and anti-Semitism, rather than addressing the thing itself.

First and foremost was an attempt to draw broad historical analogies. The fall of Saddam, a desirable enough goal, was compared directly with the fight against Hitler, the democratisation of Iraq with the democratisation of West Germany and Japan after the Second World War and the chance for democratic change throughout the entire Middle East was compared with the end of the East bloc and the quick establishment of civilian democracies afterwards. But virtually nobody had anything to say about the actual domestic situation in Iraq today.

Things developed differently than the expectations of imminent success suggested. And therein lies an almost obscene arrogance that is occasion for a sharp criticism of the West. A country is subjected to absolute misery and with what justification? Memories of our own history. It's understandable that Iraqi intellectuals fall into a cold rage over this today. But we can assume that these Iraqis have other more pressing concerns. Of course the main responsibility for the disaster is to be borne by the political-military actors who initiated an adventure based on falsified information, unrealistic goals and absurd arrogance. No wonder it went spectacularly wrong. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that rarely was such irresponsible behaviour accompanied by so much empty talk.

The comparison with 1914 is all the more depressing because in 2003, we see again the syndrome of a "Literatentum" a term coined by Max Weber during the First World War, referring to the phenomena of a body of literature that used critical, aesthetic, definitely non-expert, uninformed superstructures to justify risky decisions in matters of war. A lot was at stake in the First World War as well: culture and civilisation, politics and music, the German spirit and the Western anti-spirit and vice versa and the "war goals" of an obviously unrealistic, in fact insane blueprint.

In the end, what remained was a destabilised continent in ruins, the cultural phantasms vanished as though they had never even existed. And today the political feuilleton is faced with the humiliating recognition that an old warhorse and travelling reporter like Peter Scholl-Latour understood the situation in the Middle East better than the most erudite essayists in New York and Paris.

Behind the dashed hopes and errors of 2003 lurks the perpetual question of what we can learn from all this. The classic thesis has become that we can't learn anything from it, because contemporary history, with its irrevocable changing of the basic conditions of existence, prevents the return of similar constellations and situations, rendering all wise principles of past historical experience invalid. History has ceased to be the instructor of life because it has sucked all life into its vortex.

But this thesis has never prevented the same old far-fetched parallels from being drawn. The historically-thinking person needs some kind of orientation. Strangely, however, the little bits of wisdom for example, that it's better not to irritate your friends - are often forgotten. Expansive, far-fetched analogies enjoy greater popularity among historical thinkers.

This explains why the liberal public misread the Russian Revolution for decades after 1917; they saw it in the mold of the French revolution. And a bit of "terreur" was absolutely acceptable because in the end, a civilian constitution came out of it and then later, a dictator who brought order.

Mussolini and his squadristi posed as the Roman Ceasar who marched on Rome like Sulla or Octavian, and then later as the mature ruler like Augustus who created a new empire of peace. Half of Europe, including Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud, believed him. And when Hitler came to power soon after, Europe had grown accustomed to the Italian "Heros of culture" and was not too concerned about the "German Mussolini": if it worked in an old nation of culture such as Italy, it'll be alright in Germany.

Those are the errors of the past. Today, every second dictator gets compared to Hitler and every fight against him is bound to be victorious, just as National Socialist Germany was ultimately overcome. But Islamic fundamentalism is positioned as "Islamofascism" and that makes the phenomena comprehensible. The decisive difference that European fascisms have been, for the most part, anti-religious, in other words have broken with cultural traditions while Islamicism depends on the authority of a thousand-year old religious tradition - is brushed aside. It makes the problem infinitely more complex! Max Weber's "Literatentum" gains an entirely new layer of relevance with such wild twists in historical thinking. This method of mapping entire regions of the world according to our own experience betrays a hubris that has to be eliminated if we are truly going to enter into a debate at the level of ideas.

Defeats are known to give rise to reflection, and lessons are best learned from stories that don't end the way we expected them to. A lesson from this recent history is, the more expansive the historical analogy, the more likely it is to be misleading. Another lesson is: little bits of conventional wisdom can be helpful. Two examples: If you're planning to occupy a large country, take a lot of troops. And if you're going to dissolve an army, be sure to keep the weapons and give the men work.

*

This article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday February 19, 2007.
Gustav Seibt, born in 1959, studied literature and history. He was editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has written for Die Zeit and currently writes for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. His most recent book "Rom oder Tod" deals with the founding of Italy in 1861.

Translation: nb.

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

This kiss for the whole world

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who actually owns "intellectual property"?  The German media that defend the concept of intellectual property as "real" property are the first to appropriate such rights, and they are using this idea as a defensive weapon. With lawmakers extending copyright laws and new structures emerging on the internet, intellectual property poses a serious challenge to the public domain. A survey of the German media landscape by Thierry Chervel
read more

Suddenly we know we are many

Wednesday 4th January, 2012

Why the Russian youth have tolerated the political situation in their country for so long and why they are no longer tolerant. The poet Natalia Klyuchareva explains the background to the protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow on December 10th. Image: Leonid Faerberg
read more

The Republic of Europe

Tuesday 20 December, 2011

Thanks to Radoslaw Sikorski's speech in Berlin, Poland has at last joined the big European debate about restructuring the EU in connection with the euro crisis. The "European Reformation" advocated by Germany does not mean that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation will be established in Europe, but instead – let us hope – the Republic of Europe. By Adam Krzeminski
read more

Brown is not red

Tuesday 13 December, 2011

TeaserPicFilmmaker and theatre director Andres Veiel disagrees with the parallels currently being drawn between left-wing and right-wing violence in Germany. The RAF is the wrong model for the Zwickau neo-Nazi group, the so-called "Brown Army Faction" responsible for a series of murders of Turkish small business owners. Unlike the RAF, this group never publicly claimed responsibility for their crimes. Veiel is emphatic - you have to look at the biographies of the perpetrators. An interview with Heike Karen Runge.
read more

Legacy of denial

Tuesday 29 November, 2011

TeaserPicGermany has been rocked by the disclosures surrounding the series of neo-Nazi murders of Turkish citizens. In the wake of these events, Former GDR dissident Freya Klier calls for an honest look at the xenophobia cultivated by the policies of the former East Germany, where the core of the so-called "Brown Army Faction" was based. And demands that East Germans finally confront a long-denied past. (Photo: © Nadja Klier)
read more

Nausea in Paris

Monday 14 November, 2011

TeaserPicIn response to the arson attack on the offices of the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on November 2, Danish critic and semiotician Frederik Stjernfelt is nauseated by the opinions voiced against the publication, especially in the British and American media. Why don't they see that Islamism is right-wing extremism?
read more

Just one pyramid

Monday 10 October, 2011

Activist and author, Andri Snaer Magnason is among the Icelandic guests of honor at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair. His book and film "Dreamland" is both an ecological call to action and a polemic. "The politicians took one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland and offered it to unscrupulous companies," says the author in a critique of his native country. By Daniela Zinser
read more

Dark side of the light

Monday 3 October 2011

In their book "Lügendes Licht" (lying light) Thomas Worm and Claudia Karstedt explore the darker side of the EU ban on incandescent bulbs. From disposal issues to energy efficiency, the low-energy bulb is not necessarily a beacon of a greener future. By Brigitte Werneburg
read more

Lubricious puritanism

Tuesday 30 August, 2011

The malice of the American media in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a symptom of sexual uptightness that borders on the sinister, and the feminists have joined forces with the religious Right to see it through. We can learn much from America, but not when it comes to the art of love. By Pascal Bruckner
read more

Much ado about Sarrazin

Monday 22 August 2011

Published a year ago, the controversial book "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (Germany is doing away with itself) by former banker and Berlin Finance Senator Thilo Sarrazin sparked intense discussion. Hamed Abdel-Samad asks: what has the Sarrazin debate achieved beyond polarisation and insult? And how can Germany avoid cultivating its own classes of "future foreigners"?
read more

Economic giant, political dwarf

Wednesday 3 August, 2011

Germany's growing imbalance between economic and political competence is worsening the European crisis and indeed the crisis of Nato. The country has ceased to make any political signals at all and demonstrates a conspicuous lack of responsibility for what takes place beyond its own borders. This smug isolationism is linked to strains of old anti-Western and anti-political, anti-parliamentarian sentiment that is pure provincialism. By Karl Heinz Bohrer
read more

Sound and fury

Monday 11 April 2011

Budapest is shimmering with culture but Hungary's nationalist government is throwing its weight about in cultural life, effecting censorship through budget cuts and putting its own people in the top-level cultural positions. Government tolerance of hate campaigns against Jews and gays has provoked the likes of Andras Schiff, Agnes Heller, Bela Tarr and Andre Fischer to raise their voices in defence of basic human rights. But a lot of people are simply scared. By Volker Hagedorn
read more

The self-determination delusion

Monday 28 March, 2011

TeaserPicA Dutch action group for free will wants to give all people the right to assisted suicide. But can this be achieved without us ending up somewhere we never wanted to go? Gerbert van Loenen has grave doubts.
read more

Revolution without guarantee

Monday 21 February, 2011

Saying revolution and freedom is not the same as saying democracy, respect for minorities, equal rights and good relations with neighbouring nations. All this has yet to be achieved. We welcome the Arab revolution and will continue to watch with our eyes open to the potential dangers. By Andre Glucksmann
read more

Pascal Bruckner and the reality disconnect

Friday 14 January, 2011

The French writer Pascal Bruckner wants to forbid a word. Which sounds more like a typically German obsession. But for Bruckner, "Islamophobia" is one of "those expressions which we dearly need to banish from our vocabulary". One asks oneself with some trepidation which other words we "dearly need" to get rid of: Right-wing populism? Racism? Relativism? By Alan Posener
read more