Paul Berman on “Terror and Liberalism”
Nowhere in his book does Berman define terror or terrorism.
in part from his internalized establishment perspective which allows
the presumption that we all “know” that suicide bombers are “terrorists” whereas
Sharon only “retaliates.”
However, Berman does define “liberalism.” Liberalism is “freedom”—“the idea that every sphere of human activity…should operate independently of the others, without trying to yoke everything together under a single guiding hand” (37) This definition serves him well because his basic frame is liberalism versus totalitarianism, with totalitarianism responsible for terror and rooted in irrational forces. The United States is the principal locus of liberalism—i.e., freedom—and it and Israel, also a bastion of freedom, are the targets of these dark forces. And the United States is also the main locus of the defense of liberalism/freedom and the ongoing war on totalitarianism and terror.
There are a number of problems with this framework, and with Berman’s attempted application of it. One problem is that U.S. liberalism is attached to an advanced., globalized, militarized capitalist political economy whose material interests might be a more important force shaping its external policies than liberal principles. Berman deals with this by complete evasion, both in theory and in his discussion of cases. He just takes it for granted that a liberal internal polity shapes external policy. He claims that “irrational” forces drive totalitarians and the “death culture” of Islam and the suicide bombers, but a “liberal” state like the United States is not driven by “irrational” forces like the desire of its transnationals for a corporate-friendly government in say Indonesia or Saudi Arabia : this country is only “liberal,” pursuing, even if imperfectly, liberal ends.
Berman does note that Noam Chomsky puts great weight on corporate power in shaping foreign policy, and he even mentions Chomsky’s (and my) Political Economy of Human Rights, which describes a “Pentagon-CIA Archipelago” rooted in the U.S. political economy. But Berman doesn’t have the intellectual integrity to cite its findings and criticize it in straightforward fashion. The Frontispiece of the first volume of that work shows the United States as a “sun,” with lines running to 26 client state “planets,” aided and supplied with weapons by this country in the 1970s, who used torture on an administrative basis. They constituted a great majority of the torture regimes of those years. In this same volume, and in my The REAL Terror Network , where I described the growth of National Security States, death squads, and disappearances in Latin America in the years 1952-1982, the U.S. support of regimes of terror was explained as a result of the desire for amenable regimes that would provide a “favorable climate of investment.” We showed that the business community loved Suharto, Marcos, and the Latin American generals for their resistance to “populism” and willingness to crush unions and open their doors to foreign investment. Berman mentions with derision Chomsky’s characteristic vast welter of facts, but he fails to mention that Chomsky also provided a coherent explanation for the U.S. support of state terror in Brazil, Guatemala, Indonesia (etc.). This explanation, and the supportive mass of facts, that show the creation of a Pentagon-CIA Archipelago to be a rational response to business interests, fly in the face of Berman’s portrayal of a United States fighting for liberalism and opposing totalitarianism, so Berman simply refuses to confront either facts or explanation.
I am not aware of Berman engaging in any serious analysis or criticism of U.S. support of the National Security States of Latin America and the continent-wide state terrorism that these brought to their victim populations. But while the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua never aroused him to anger and action, the relatively democratic Sandinista government that replaced it surely did. I was on a panel with him at the Socialist Scholars Conference in the 1980s, and recall his thrust then and in other writings, which was that Nicaragua’s suffering was a result of Sandinista mismanagement rather than the U.S.-sponsored contra war. Michael Moore was dismissed from the editorship of Mother Jones in 1986 following his rejection of a Berman report on Nicaragua that Moore couldn’t stomach. Even his ally and defender Eric Alterman expressed “profound disagreement with Berman’s evenhanded treatment of the contras and Sandinistas,” and others viewed his defense of the contras less kindly. The crucial point, however, is that Berman did not focus on and attack terrorism; instead, he assailed its victim, putting U.S.-sponsored terrorism in the best possible light. This is a pattern that culminates in the present volume.
Another problem for Berman in making the global struggle one between freedom and the United States, on one hand, and Islam and totalitarianism on the other hand, is that the United States has often aligned itself with some of the most regressive forces in Islam. It has long supported the fundamentalist and reactionary Saudi government along with the other Emirates, and it played a key role in collaboration with Saudi Arabia in building up the mujahaddin, Al Qaeda, and Bin Laden for a holy war against the Soviet-sponsored regime in Afghanistan. It supported the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s, and the Clinton administration helped transport some of the thousands of mujahaddin brought in from Afghanistan and elsewhere to fight in Bosnia, and U.S. officials were surely aware that Bin Laden himself was friendly with and supportive of both Bosnian fundamentalist leader Alija Izetbegovic and the KLA in Kosovo.
This frequent support of aggressive and regressive Islam seriously compromises Berman’s attempt to counterpoise liberal America against totalitarian Islam—the good guy doesn’t seem that opposed to the forces of evil, and has encouraged them on an opportunistic basis (as has Israel, which for years supported Hamas as a means of undermining the more secular PLO). Berman glosses over the problem, and in the case of U.S. support of the Bosnian Muslims even uses this to show that the United States is not biased against Islam! The opportunism in this support and its real reasons escape him entirely (see Diana Johnstone, Fools’ Crusade, 45-46).
Berman also dismisses or ignores the view, widely held by students of Islam and terrorism, that the combination of U.S. support of regressive Islamic regimes, the undeviating half century-long U.S. backing of Israel’s occupation of Palestine and brutal ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in opposition to an international consensus, its “sanctions of mass destruction” against Iraq and then the invasion and conquest of that country , have produced both widespread hatred of the United States and an upsurge in attachment to the Islamic religion. In this perspective, the Islamic religious revival has been a result of frustration at the failures of the Arab states, their reactionary character and inability to serve their citizens, and their deference to a foreign power that has protected these regimes and caused their leaders to behave in a manner contrary to the desires and interests of their own people. Berman can not tolerate such an analysis—he prefers that their totalitarian tendencies and the associated “culture of death” arise from the fundamentalist strands of Islamic religion. This is complete nonsense, as every religion has many strands, and those that come to be adopted by significant numbers are accepted because social, economic and political forces make them attractive (a theme made famous by Max Weber and Richard Tawney in their writings on religion and the rise of capitalism).
Berman’s treatment of the Islam tradition is selective to a purpose , failing to take account of its great diversity and the long debates and disagreements over questions like the use of violence (see Karim H. Karim, Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence [Black Rose, 2000). He also misrepresents the position and influence of Sayyid Qutb, to whose writings he devotes much attention. As was pointed out by Hamid Algar, who has translated several of Qutb’s articles, Berman has “failed to show any line of filiation from Qutb, executed in 1966, to Al Qaeda, established in the 1980s. Nowhere in Qutb’s writings..can one find a parallel to Al Qaeda’s advocacy of mass slaughter. Conversely, Osama bin Laden’s statements show not a trace of Qutb’s distinctive philosophy. Berman’s article exemplifies the tendency to conflate into a malevolent blur all Muslims regarded as troublesome” (Letter in the NYT, commenting on a Berman article in the NYT Magazine, March 23, 2003).
It is notable that Berman never mentions the fundamentalist religious strands so important in the United States and Israel and their possible influence on U.S. and Israeli policy. The Christian Right is a force in the Bush administration, and it constitutes what Berman would call an “irrational” influence on policy-making if found in an enemy state. The importance of fundamentalist religion in Israel is far more important, and numerous Israeli leaders and analysts have stressed the power of the idea of “redemption of the land” as a driving force in Israel’s long policy of territorial expansion at the expense of non-Jews (see Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion [Pluto: 1994]) . This irrational influence is unmentionable in Berman, whose apologetic for Israeli policy is comprehensive.
Israel only Retaliates
Berman’s discussion of Israel and terror is a centerpiece of his book, and I suspect that the book itself is designed in large measure to put Israeli policy in a good light. But his truncated history, marked by staggering evasions and distortions, is crude to the point of laughability.
Berman starts right in with suicide bombers—“Our current predicament was brought upon us by acts of suicide terrorism—and it is worth taking the trouble to glance at the political landscape of those acts, beginning with the agonies of the Israelis and the Palestinians.” But he hardly discusses at all the agonies of the Palestinians, and the choice of suicide terrorism as the starting point of the discussion rather than the long prior occupation, expropriations, humiliations and abuses of the Israelis, reflects profound bias. Berman never mentions the first intifada, during which over a thousand Palestinians were killed protesting the occupation, but with no Israelis hit by suicide bombers—and no relief from the occupation by Israel and its superpower supporter. He fails to discuss the thousands of demolitions of Palestinian homes to make way for Jewish settlers, the scores of thousands of olive and fruit trees uprooted, the seizure of land for settler “security” or road construction exclusively for settler convenience, and the periodic “closures” paralyzing Palestinian economic activity and movement. He never mentions the Israeli takeover of West Bank water resources and diversion of over 80 percent to Israel and the settler minority.
Berman ignores the daily humiliations that the subject people have been forced to undergo by their overlords, which causes the honest and non-racist Israeli reporter Amira Hass to suggest that the Israelis should look into a mirror and see what they have become in a regime of subjugation and ethnic cleansing. Numerous Israeli reservists have refused “to fight on the other side of the Green Line with an intent to control, expel, starve and degrade an entire people”; and scores of horrified foreign observers denounced the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian cities and refugee camps for the “deliberate destruction and disrespect for human life,” the fact that “the Israeli military did not seem to regard Palestinians as human beings,” and the “morally repugnant” 11 day refusal of the Israeli authorities to allow search and rescue teams into Jenin. None of this touches Berman. Former Shin Beth head Ami Ayalon can say that Palestinian violence “is not madness but [is based on] a bottomless despair,” and that the intifada explosion “was spontaneous, against Israel, as all hope of ending the occupation disappeared,” but Berman finds it puzzling that the suicide bombing should be attributed “to how oppressive were the Israelis” (134). He has blocked out all inconvenient facts.
He is even impressed with the Israeli restraint—“the killings on both sides were sizable,” and Israel’s policy represents “a breakthrough in relatively civilized army tactics.” He never mentions that Jenin, Nablus and other Sharon targets were not military but virtually defenseless civilian sites assaulted by a powerful army. At no point does Berman ever mention the ratios of killings by the Palestinian “terrorists” and Israelis, which slowly changed in intifada 2 from 1 to 20 to the current 1 to 3.
Berman notes allegations that Israel is a racist society imposing apartheid on its victims, but he implicitly rejects such claims by once again refusing to confront inconvenient but obvious facts, here on the double standard in laws and treatment of Jews and non-Jews, within Israel as well as in the occupied territories. Even a cursory review of these topics, including a history of the occupation, would quickly explain the emergence of suicide bombers, as scores of observers and participants like Ami Ayalon have done .
Berman cannot admit that Israel has had a long-term interest in taking over Palestinian land for Jewish use and that it has been engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing, because that would suggest a dynamic stemming from Israeli actions, not irrational Palestinians. It would interfere with his systematic ideological usage that requires that in the “deadly pong” it is “Palestinian terror and Israeli reprisals” (177), never Israeli terror and Palestinian reprisals.
In one amazing tour de force of misrepresentation, Berman even suggests that the suicide bombers came along to disturb an improving scene for the Palestinians. He speaks of “the many authentic indications of Palestinian progress during the years since the Oslo Accords in 1993, the expansion of the Palestinian middle class, the new businesses and tourist hotels, the joint ventures with Israelis, the ever-increasing number of muncipalities where the Palestinian Authority had taken over administrative responsibilities, the visible approach of a fully recognized Palestinian state—all of these fragile achievements of the 1990s collapsed, flattened by Israeli tanks” (142). This Big Lie by omission ignores the fact that under the Oslo “peace process,” Israel doubled its number of settlers on the West Bank by systematic expropriations, demolitions of over 1,000 Palestinian homes, the destruction or removal of some 10,000 Palestinian olive and fruit trees, the construction of some 300 miles of highways and bypass roads to serve the settlements but which interfered with Palestinian traffic, and several hundred devastating “closures,” all of which helped reduce Palestinian per capita income by more than 25 percent (Jeff Halper, “The ‘Peace Process’ As Seen From the Ground,” Feb. 2001)..
Apart from the alleged irrationality and Islam-fanatic basis of suicide bombing, the other arrow in the Berman quiver of obfuscation and explanation of why the Palestinians and Islam rather than Israel and the United States are to blame for “our current predicament” is the Palestinian rejection of a Clinton peace proposal in 2000. According to Berman, Barak had agreed to this plan that would have given the Palestinians an entirely contiguous territory, except for Gaza, with “most” of the settlements to be evacuated, and there would have been a Palestinian capital in a “shared Jerusalem.” Berman got this from “Clinton’s principal negotiator, Dennis Ross, “ who he takes as an objective source, just as Berman considers the United States to be an honest broker in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians. Ross is a well-known protagonist of Israel, who moved straight from the pro-Israel thinktank (Washington Institute) to the State Department, and then back to the Washington Institute and to work at the Jewish Agency. Only a man with a similar bias could consider Ross an objective spokesperson and believe the United States, which has funded and protected Israel from international law for decades, was unbiased.
The Berman-Ross version of the diplomatic process rests on a vague Clinton statement and late negotiations that ended when Barak, not the Palestinians, called off the meetings. (An alternative account of the source of this breakdown, by another member of the Clinton team and a colleague, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, “Why Barak is Wrong” [The Guardian, May 27, 2002], is unmentioned by Berman). The last-published Clinton-Barak demands included a vastly expanded “Jerusalem” extending virtually to Jericho and cutting the West Bank in two. Barak had never before accepted an “almost” total evacuation of the settlements and I don’t believe Clinton ever proposed that he do that (and if he did, it wouldn’t have been accepted or put into effect). The contiguous territory, if actually offered, would still have contained numerous and sizable Israeli settlements, presumably protected by the IDF. Would this tiny little enclave have its own armed forces? Would it have control of the water supply seized and allocated by Israel? Would the “shared capital” be a sharing of Jerusalem proper or would the Palestinians just have a few little towns East of Jerusalem now labeled a part of Jerusalem?
One thing Berman would never do is to suggest that maybe the U.S.-Israel collective was imposing a bad deal on an overmatched Palestinian delegation, and that justice would call for the Palestinians to have the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem intact, rather than ratifying the huge post-1967 Israeli encroachments in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and international consensus. Berman never mentions the Fourth Geneva Convention, in accord with the U.S.-Israel party line that he follows undeviatingly. Justice is what the U.S. and Israeli leadership offer, just as “terrorism” is what these leaders say is terrorism.
U.S. Benevolence in the Balkans
Berman uses the Balkan wars to show how Europe and the UN have failed to implement liberal principles, requiring the United States to come in to resolve matters satisfactorily. This is another case where he follows a party line and myth structure without deviation to come to the desired ideological conclusion. There were the bad “nationalist” Serbs who were violating human rights in Bosnia and Kosovo, but those weak Germans and French, depending on a paralyzed UN, couldn’t stop them. It took the United States to offer the “steadying arm” and to prevent genocide, etc.
This is baloney from beginning to end. The Serbs were no more nationalist than the Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, or Kosovo Albanians, and the killing among them was mutual. What is more, the Germans in particular, but also the French and other NATO powers, encouraged and sponsored the breakup of Yugoslavia, while failing to follow this up with means of preventing violence. The U.S. entry actually encouraged further violence as it repeatedly blocked a peaceful settlement in Bosnia (as documented in Lord David Owen’s Balkan Odyssey, which you may be sure Berman never consulted) and eventually entered into an alliance with the KLA in Kosovo that assured an international war rather than any peaceful settlement there as well. Berman fails to mention that neither Bosnia nor Kosovo have democracies, and that Serbia is a conflict-ridden Western client state with rapidly shrinking civil liberties and no more democracy than in the Milosevic years (for background, Diana Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade, and my review of Johnstone: Z Magazine, Feb. 2003).
Saddam the Beast Stopped Just in Time
Given the fact that Saddam Hussein was an immediate U.S. target in 2002-2003, and with Israel also eager for his removal, Berman naturally devotes much space and rhetoric to his evil character and immense threat. No cliché or exaggeration in demonization eludes him, and his account parallels the public relations work of the Bush warriors in both claims and suppressions.
In the Berman fairytale, Bush 1 failed to do the job right in 1991, Saddam subsequently “yielded not at all” in seeking arms, the United States began to “show fear” as Saddam “grew stronger” and eventually “threw the inspectors out.” Saddam made a specialty of chemical and gas warfare, and minefields, and his war on Iran caused a million deaths. The Saudis had been “rescued” from the Saddam threat, which kept growing and instilled “mortal fear in the Americans.” But the French and Russians were preoccupied with their “business interests” and could not see this horrible threat, for which the U.S. responded with “pinpricks.” So the earlier victory required “a second round, graver and more dangerous than the first.”
The “pinpricks” from the United States included the “sanctions of mass destruction,” estimated to have led to the death of over a million Iraqi civilians, and we may be sure that Berman did not cite Madeleine Albright’s statement that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children from those sanctions was “worth it.” Berman asks “where were our high-minded friends of the Third World” when Saddam used chemicals in the war with Iran, but again we may rest assured that the high-minded Berman never mentions that the United States gave him active support during that war. He fails to point out that Saddam didn’t use chemical weapons during the Gulf War, knowing that U.S. retaliation would be massive, and Berman’s claim that Saddam “grew stronger” and posed a threat with his growing weapons stock has collapsed alongside of the overlapping Bush-Blair lies in the wake of the easy defeat of the frightful enemy who once again failed to use his fearsome weapons. Berman’s assertion that Saddam “threw the inspectors out” has been well established as a lie—they were withdrawn in 1998 in preparation for U.S.-British air attacks on Iraq--but it can still fly in the mainstream so he repeats it (and may not even be aware that it is a lie). The same is true of the alleged threat to the Saudis, exploded as a lie but still viable in the mainstream. It never occurs to Berman that the U.S. “fears” were contrived and that the desire and plan to overthrow Saddam were based on economic, political, and geopolitical factors, along with the absence of any containment threat. For Berman only the French and Russians have underhanded motives like “business interests,” not the heartland of liberalism.
Berman’s Terror and Liberalism has done extremely well in the Free Press, with numerous mostly flattering reviews and Berman invited to give his views in the New York Times and on national TV. He is the kind of “leftist” that the imperial establishment wants to encourage, who attacks the real left for its failure to commit to the crusade against terror and totalitarianism—as defined by the imperial establishment—and ignores or gives support to the approved terror, which is called counterterror, retaliation and response. His work, like that of his predecessors Claire Sterling, Kanan Makiya and Judith Miller, collapses upon close inspection on any topic that he addresses, but that is irrelevant in the mainstream where the ideology, premises and message are congenial and lend support to ongoing policy.
As the “war on terror” and other strands of ongoing policy
are eroding liberty at home and serve as a cover for a war on poor people
both in the United States as well as on the West Bank and in many other
places, Berman’s book is, ironically, supportive of both really
serious state terror and an assault on the liberalism he claims to favor.
He mentions that “war and hysteria” are instrumental for
dictators like Saddam Hussein, but he is completely oblivious to the
service of war and hysteria to a reactionary regime in his own country,
and to his own contribution to that regime’s program. In short,
Berman is a very model of a cruise missile leftist.
First published in Z Magazine
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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