In a recent Weekly Standard essay, "The Age of Conflict," David Brooks writes that the terrorist attacks on America constituted a "hinge" event in history that will reshape our culture, our politics and our understanding of ourselves. He is at his best in the following passage:
"Life in times of war and recession reminds us of certain hard truths that were easy to ignore during the decade of peace and prosperity. Evil exists. Difficulties, even tragedies, are inevitable. Human beings are flawed creatures capable of monstrosity. Not all cultures are compatible. To preserve order, good people must exercise power over destructive people."
Brooks borrows from the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr in trying to resolve the internal conflict between what Brooks labels the "bourgeois" virtues of compassion, tolerance and industriousness and the "classical" virtues of courage, steadfastness and a ruthless desire for victory. He appeals to what he calls Niebuhr's "humble hawkishness," which the great theologian displayed during the Cold War when he said, "We take, and must continue to take, 'morally hazardous' action to preserve our civilization." Niebuhr goes on, "We must exercise our power," which Books distorts by appending, "to forcefully defend freedom and destroy its enemies while seeking forgiveness for horrible things we might do in pursuit of that cause."
Niebuhr proposes a "morally hazardous" course of action; he does not suggest a "reckless" course. We must exercise power judiciously in pursuit of well-conceived objectives, which precludes lashing out just to settle old scores. We know with certainty that when we unleash our power, some innocent people will be harmed or killed inadvertently.
We cannot let that fact dissuade us from using our power, but we should recall the observations of the 19th century English philosopher Edward Sidwick: "A good general is a moral man who keeps his soldiers in check so they don't run amok among civilians ... and sends them to fight only after having thought through a battle plan, and his plan is aimed at winning as quickly and as cheaply as possible."
Niebuhr's dictum doesn't give us license to act out of animosity or revenge, seeking absolution in advance. If we do, we run the risk of slipping into the abyss of rationalizations the terrorists use to excuse the killing of innocents.
Brooks represents a view that mistakes moral clarity between right and wrong, good and evil, for empirical clarity about what's what in the real world. The two aren't the same, and one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.
Having the moral clarity to recognize that we can no longer tolerate states sponsoring and harboring terrorists does not automatically translate into a clear course of action about what to do where Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Sudan or Saudi Arabia are concerned. We must think strategically about the consequences of spreading the bombing or expanding the ground war throughout the region. There is no way to know the reaction of the Muslim world if we invaded Iraq. The entire Muslim world could explode over an attack on Iraq for anything less than unambiguous complicity in the terrorist attacks.
We cannot win the war on terrorism or secure the peace without the support of the Muslim world. Turning the war against terrorism into a crusade against Islam and bombing the region back into the seventh century would only play into hands of Osama bin Laden. Taliban-style Islamism ultimately will not survive in an enlightened modern society. Therefore, our overall strategy must be to wage a determined but well-targeted war that not only is successful in the immediate term but also allows us to bring liberal democracy to the Muslim world when the fighting ceases.
Brooks tries to convince us that we have moved into an age of conflict rather than a temporary state of war that could, if we do it right, usher in a new golden age of democracy and freedom. The real distinction, he claims, turns on whether one "give(s) higher priority to destroying all terrorist states or to preserving our alliances." But that's not the real choice.
The international community must come to the awareness that terrorism threatens every country in the world, so every country in the world must act in concert to defeat it. This isn't starry-eyed multilateralism that gives undue priority to alliances; it is a clear-headed recognition of reality.
In the world view Brooks represents, the choices are simple: Draw up a list of terrorist states and destroy them. If a state won't help us destroy any state on the list, put them on the list and go after them. This is imperialism that results in neocolonialism, not the path we want to travel. We want to help bring the Muslim world into the 21st century, not revert America back to the 19th century.