TCS Daily

When Ideologies Bleed

By Kenneth Silber - April 3, 2003 12:00 AM

It is sometimes suggested that "you can't kill an idea." But actually some ideas can be killed-literally, on the battlefield. In particular, ideologies that glorify military conflict tend to fare poorly after their exponents suffer crushing military defeat. And this bodes well for the aftermath of the Iraq war, as well as for the broader war against terrorism.

Political ideologies can be divided, roughly, between those that believe "might makes right" and those that do not. Nazism, Fascism and Japanese militarism all were in the former category; each extolled its own military prowess and saw it as an indicator of racial or national superiority. Hence, losing World War II took away not only the institutions and resources of these might-makes-right ideologies but also their intellectual legitimacy. Their claims to superior power were refuted by Soviet tanks in Berlin, American planes over Japan, and so on.

By contrast, many political ideologies, including some very unpleasant ones, do not stake their claims primarily on military prowess. The diverse ideologies of World War II's victors-Soviet Communism, New Deal liberalism, Tory conservatism-all claimed legitimacy on other grounds. These ideologies would have been brutally suppressed if the Allies had lost the war, but they would not thus have been refuted. Had the Soviet Union collapsed before the Nazi onslaught, Communism might still have retained a hold on people's minds (though its claims to historical inevitability would have needed revision).

"Know your enemy" is sound advice, and some American intellectuals have made laudable efforts to understand the ideologies of America's current enemies. David Brooks has written for the Weekly Standard about Saddam Hussein's Baathist ideology. On March 23, the New York Times Magazine published a fascinating essay by Paul Berman about Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian philosopher who served as inspiration for Al Qaeda. Such analyses are valuable, even if they carry a danger of overrating the importance and coherence of an enemy's ideas.

Yet it is important to recognize how ideas can be a source of weakness as well as strength. Both Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda have a discernible element of might-makes-right in their ideologies-of extolling brutal power as an end in itself. This is particularly evident with regard to the Baathists, with their insistence on perpetual conflict and revolution. But it is also a feature of Al Qaeda's cult of death, as was made explicit when Osama Bin Laden likened his movement to a strong horse and noted that people naturally prefer a strong horse to a weak one. Virtue and power are inextricably bound together, for both Saddam and Osama.

But the vulnerability of might-makes-right ideologies is that they have nothing to say when it turns out that they are not as mighty as their enemies. Saddam has no better claim than Hitler to be a champion of the oppressed or a defender of non-martial virtues. Osama's pretensions to religious purity make him a less clear-cut case, but he too is bound by an ideology that invites contempt upon displaying its own military weakness. Might-makes-right ideologies can be quite powerful and frightening-until they lose.

Opponents of the war in Iraq, as well as the war in Afghanistan, have often argued that taking military action will only lead to more recruits for Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. But it may well be that killing terrorists and dictators is actually an effective method of killing their ideas as well.

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