TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Anti-Fascist War

In his presentation to the press on August 6, President Bush again starkly distinguished his foreign policy from what prevailed in the past. His own democratization agenda faces resistance, he argued, because of the legacy of former U.S. policies that, opting for regional stability at all costs, entered into alliances with repressive regimes, particularly during the Cold War when competition with the Soviet Union led to the embrace of local dictators who could deliver on an anti-Communist agenda. That history, according to Bush, continues to stoke resentment and feeds into anti-Americanism and terrorism. In his words:

“And as far as this administration is concerned, we clearly see the problem and we’re going to continue to work to advance stable, free countries. We don’t expect every country to look like the United States, but we do want countries to accept some basic conditions for a vibrant society—human rights, human decency, the power of the people to determine the fate of their governments. And, admittedly, this is hard work because it flies in the face of previous policy, which basically says stability is more important than form of government. And as a result of that policy, anger and resentment bubbled forth with an attack, with a series of attacks, the most dramatic of which was on September the 11th.” (emphasis added)

The watershed in U.S. foreign policy has long been discussed, but this statement is valuable for its clarity; it certainly separates Bush from his father, but not only from him. It also gives expression to the notion that a genuine realism (pursuing stability) cannot do without values, and that while the national interest may be larger than democratization, it cannot be understood as separate from democratization.

Foreign policy is sure to play a crucial role in the mid-term elections, and the jockeying for the 2008 presidential contest is well underway. Whether the Democratic candidates (or the Republicans, for that matter) will choose to distinguish themselves from Bush on a level of principle remains to be seen. The conduct of foreign policy under Condoleezza Rice, in any case, has evidently put to rest the accusation of unilateralism. So will the opposition to Bush, or his policies, go so far as to entail an explicit rejection of the democracy agenda? That would imply backing off from support for political transitions and welcoming instead whatever forces of stability can keep world trade flowing: back to “realism.”

As this discussion unfolds, it is important to clarify what is at stake in “democracy” as a goal. During the Cold War, after all, the Soviet Union claimed that the regimes in its orbit were “peoples’ democracies,” and while the Nazis surely did not claim to be “democratic,” they did come to power through elections, and they insistently claimed to represent the “folk” (understood in a particularly racist way). Like the Communists with the “peoples’ democracies,” the Nazis too therefore provide an important foil in understanding what we might mean by “democracy.” For despite their constant rhetorical invocation of the people or popular will, the Soviet and Nazi models lacked the specifically liberal principles of individual rights—the importance of defending a private sphere against the tyranny of the majority—and moreover those dictatorial majorities, in Russia and Germany, were typically a result of merely ritual and controlled elections. A propagandistic appeal to the “people” does not make democracy.

Recalling this distinction between liberal democracy, with individual rights and rule of law, and its totalitarian opponents in the twentieth century is crucial in the face of today’s jihadist and terrorist enemies. The objections that the government in Iran and the Hamas majority in the Palestinian Authority were elected, and therefore democratic, reduces the meaning of democracy to a solely quantitative proceduralism and omits questions of individual rights, let alone practices of political compromise-building and an institutional balance of power. In addition, to misrepresent Hamas and Hezbollah simply as political parties within an electoral framework misses the point that they are armed political parties, hostile to the legitimate political rules that could frame a free society. If historical analogy is useful, they are comparable to the Nazis who were elected to the Reichstag during the Weimar Republic: their presence had a certain democratic sanction, although they were sworn opponents of democracy and pursued a politics that would eventually destroy it, including the use of violence. They participated in the legislature, but they opposed the rule of law. On this point too, Bush’s comments were right on the mark:

“As young democracies flourish, terrorists try to stop their progress. And it’s the great challenge of the United States and others who are blessed with living in free countries. Not only do terrorists try to stop the advance of democracy through killing innocent people within those countries, they also try to shape the will of the western world by killing innocent westerners. They try to spread their jihadist message—a message I call, it’s totalitarian in nature—Islamic radicalism, Islamic fascism, they try to spread it as well by taking the attack to those of us who love freedom.”

In light of Telos‘ recent considerations of totalitarianism, this statement cannot pass unnoticed. The arguments of a few years ago about the nature of Baathist Iraq, on which Kanan Makiya’s Republic of Fear remains the authoritative account, were somewhat different: in that case there was an arguably totalitarian state in power. However, following Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, one has to understand Hamas and, especially, Hezbollah as totalitarian movements before (or on the verge of) assuming state power. That could generate something like a comparative study of fascisms in the contemporary Middle East.

Can one sustain the characterization of the jihadist movements as fascist or totalitarian? The fact that they are able to command considerable popular allegiance, whether measured in recruitment numbers, public demonstrations, or opinion polls, is obviously not an adequate counter-argument: Hitler and Mussolini were also crowd-pleasers and had, at times, high popularity ratings. Similarly, the jihadists’ role as de facto welfare states, delivering various social services, which is touted in the press to soften their terrorist image, does not disprove the fascism thesis. On the contrary, as the German historian Götz Aly has argued, the Nazi state depended on a significant social component and bought loyalty through benefits. In his classic, Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek drew a similar connection between totalitarianism and the social expansion of the state as a threat to individual liberty. In any case, the welfare-state agenda of the jihadist movements obviously does not disprove their fascist character: if one follows Hayek, the contrary would be true.

However, to make a positive case for the fascism of the jihadists, one has to go beyond these points. Nor are embarrassing visual overlaps, such as Hezbollah’s borrowing of the fascist salute adequate.

Two substantive features stand out. The first is the annihilationist agenda: the goal is not to force a political settlement but to kill the enemy population. Hezbollah’s military strategy so far involves the use of Katyusha rockets loaded with ball bearings: the ball bearings are intended to maim or kill, and the missiles themselves are notoriously imprecise, raining down randomly. They kill soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs indiscriminately. Hezbollah’s willingness to accept Arab deaths in its war against Israel is telling, but only a small version of the larger scandal hanging over the Middle East. Ahmadinejad’s stated goal of eliminating Israel, coupled with his pursuit of nuclear technology, introduces the threat of a deployment of weapons of mass destruction. Yet “unconventional” violence against Israel would also take a massive toll in Palestinian (and presumably Jordanian and Lebanese) lives. Supporters of Palestine—whether in Lebanon or London—ought to be voicing protest against the Iranian threat. Their silence reveals their genuine priority: eliminating Israel is more important than building Palestine, anti-Semitism displaces Palestinian democracy.

Anti-Semitism? But is this not merely anti-Zionism? No, the goal is truly genocidal, not political. That is too large a topic for these remarks, but it is worth noting how the jihadist rhetoric has begun to make increasing references to “Khaibar”—the name that Hezbollah has given to an Iranian rocket in its arsenal, and a leading Lebanese cleric has called for a “new battle of Khaibar.” The Battle of Khaibar took place in 629, when Mohammed led forces that destroyed an ancient Jewish settlement outside of Medina. Evidently Hezbollah’s choice of name has nothing to do with an anti-Zionist objection to the State of Israel and expresses instead the symbolic mobilization of archaic cultural elements directed at the extermination of Jews.

The second totalitarian or fascist feature (arguably less “fascist” in a specifically Italian sense and more Nazi) is the hostility to the establishment of stable state structures. This is a crucial piece of Arendt’s account: the goal of totalitarianism was precisely not stabilized states, which might then decline into some routinization as “normal” dictatorships, but instead to pursue a perpetual radicalization in order to prevent “normalcy.” This sheds light on Hamas’ behavior, to be sure: the refusal to moderate its rejectionist position toward Israel, even after it came to power (in contrast, to use another analogy, the development of Sinn Fein). But the case is even stronger for Hezbollah, whose behavior has damaged prospects both for the Palestinians and for the democratization of Lebanon as well—and that was probably precisely the point.

A debate has ensued within the Arab world. Of course, Hezbollah finds its defenders, but interestingly voices are being raised that deny that Hezbollah has engaged in legitimate resistance. On the contrary, both Hamas and Hezbollah are seen as indulging in destructive extra-legal military activities that damage Arab political institutions. One among many such critics is Yahya Rabbah, former PLO Ambassador to Yemen, writing in the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida:

“The Palestinian resistance forces [i.e., Hamas] took political decision[-making] hostage from the Palestinian political framework [i.e., the PLO]; the Lebanese resistance forces—Hizbullah—took political decision[-making] hostage from the Lebanese [government]. The resistance forces here [in the PA] and there [in Lebanon] led to both of the political regimes, the Palestinian and Lebanese, having to pay a high price, even though they did not know what was going on, and even though they were not given even the smallest chance to manage the crisis that was caused by the two actions.”

The debate is larger and nuanced. Other Arab critics even deny Hezbollah the designation of “resistance” because of its irresponsibility. However for our purposes here, the core point is the political anti-institutionalism of jihadist totalitarianism: its behavior and probably its intentional goals include a hostility to any political conclusion.

This returns us then to Bush’s account: on the one hand, the pursuit of an array of stable liberal democratic governments, on the other a deep-seated hostility to the modernity of liberal democracy, as evidenced by a genocidal program and a hostility to political regimes as such. The characterization of jihadism as fascism is (allowing for the standard usage of that term as proximate to totalitarian) evidently justified. The war on terror, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon is the anti-fascist war. As this case is made more effectively, the question becomes whether the West really has the will to fight it or whether it will succumb to the allure of this fascinating fascism.

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