Features » Politics And Society


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, 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. - let's talk european