Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Edwards weighs in on the "Clash of Civilizations"

I am not a big fan of John Edwards. Ever since the Carter years, there's just been something about grinning Southern politicos that rubs me the wrong way. Being Southern, I can get away with saying that. We produce gifted writers and other eccentrics who make for interesting acquaintances and quirky guests at cocktail parties. But as Presidential material, well...., Southerners are just godawful. There hasn't been a decent Southern President since Andrew Jackson (Think about it: Wilson? Johnson? Carter??? Clinton? Bush the Lesser? And Truman doesn't really count as Southern). So, I am especially not buying what this particular pandering Southern demagogue is selling.

Edwards gave a speech the other day, here, at the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he took the administration to task for its use of the term "global war on terror." This is a legitimate criticism, as numerous commentators have long noted the inadequacy of this nonsensical phrase. For "terror" is not a thing, but a tactic, or a specific weapon in an enemy's arsenal. It would be the same thing as saying that there is a global war on, say, aircraft carriers. Edwards goes on to note that this approach " has strained American military resources and emboldened terrorists," and that it is "little more than a bumper sticker slogan used to justify everything from abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison to the invasion of Iraq." I would not argue with his assessment up to this point.

But then Edwards goes too far, in my view, and falls into the very same thing he accuses Bush of doing, by engaging in a little "bumper sticker," sound bite sloganeering himself. He says:

"By framing this as a war, we have walked right into the trap the terrorists have set – that we are engaged in some kind of clash of civilizations and a war on Islam."

One of my pet peeves is the rampant misuse of Huntington's "clash of civilizations" concept. Both camps are guilty. Briefly put, the thesis is that there are civilizational groupings in the world, that these broad civilizations have their own particular commonalities, agendas and self-interests, and more to the point, that there has been, is, and will be conflict along the civilizational fault lines. The theory provides no cover for the aggressive interventionism and nation-building of the Bush presidency, as Edwards charges. Rather, it informs a cool realism about where a civilization's real interests lie. In my view, it provides a helluva better way to read both past and present than this simplistic idea that everyone in the world really just wants to be like us. They don't.

Edwards' accusation is a cheap shot aimed at the sound bite. But Edwards also accuses Bush of a "war on Islam." Hardly. In my view, Bush has been too hesitant, from the very beginning, to make any linkage of this supposed "war on terror" to its ideological base (Islam). The terrorists are not absolute nihilists. Theirs is not a terror disconnected from ideology, but the fruit of a particularly virulent (and reoccurring) strain of Islam. At some point we coined the now-dated phrase, "Islamofascism." At the time, I thought this was a small step in the right direction, as it at least attempted to describe the virulent nature of the terrorism nourished within Islam. But in retrospect, this term is as unsatisfactory as the "war on terror."

Any leader, or prospective leader, should recognize the very real civilizational dimensions of our current difficulties, as well as its long, long historical context (which places 2001 in line with 732, 1071, 1291, 1389, 1453, 1571, 1683, 1923, 1948). One who doesn't is either ill-informed or foolish.


Fr. David said...

But as Presidential material, well...., Southerners are just godawful.

You are correct, sir. However, none of the Yanks in this upcoming election year command my attention, either...

Steve Hayes said...

Thank you.

Whatever the faults of Huntington's "clash of civilisations" model, it provides a better framework for interpreting the post-Cold War world than the old "Three Worlds" model, which is rapidly becoming outdated.