Peter Robinson, a Reagan speechwriter in the last years of the Cold War, posed an interesting question on “The Corner” the other day. He noted that on February 22, 1946, a mere six months after the end of the Second World War, George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat in Moscow, sent his famous 5,000-word telegram that laid out the stakes of the Cold War and the nature of the enemy, and that that “Long Telegram” in essence shaped the way America thought about the conflict all the way up to the fall of the Berlin Wall four decades later. And what Mr. Robinson wondered was this: “Here we are today, more than six years after 9/11. Does anyone believe a new ‘Long Telegram’ has yet been written? And accepted throughout the senior levels of the government?”
Answer: No. Because, if it had, you’d hear it echoed in public — just as the Long Telegram provided the underpinning of the Truman Doctrine a year later. Kennan himself had differences with Truman and successive presidents over what he regarded as their misinterpretation, but, granted all that, most of what turned up over the next 40 years — the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam war, Soviet subversion in Africa, and Europe, Grenada, and Afghanistan — is consistent with the conflict as laid out by one relatively minor State Department functionary decades earlier.
Why can’t we do that today?
Well, one reason is we’re not really comfortable with ideology, either ours or anybody else’s. Insofar as we have an ideology it’s a belief in the virtues of “multiculturalism,” “tolerance,” “celebrate diversity” — a bumper-sticker ideology that is, in effect, an anti-ideology which explicitly rejects the very idea of drawing distinctions between your beliefs and anybody else’s.
Less sentimental chaps may (at least privately) regard the above as bunk, and prefer to place their faith in economics and technology. In Britain in the 1960s, the political class declared that the country “needed” mass immigration. When the less enlightened lower orders in northern England fretted that they would lose their towns to the “Pakis,” they were dismissed as paranoid racists. The experts were right in a narrow, economic sense: The immigrants became mill workers and bus drivers. But the paranoid racists were right, too: The mills closed anyway, and mosques sprouted in their place; and Oldham and Dewesbury adopted the arranged cousin-marriage traditions of Mirpur in Pakistan; and Yorkshire can now boast among its native sons the July 7 London Tube bombers. The experts thought economics trumped all; the knuckledragging masses had a more basic unease, convinced that it’s culture that’s determinative.
To take another example, on CNN the other night Anderson Cooper was worrying about the homicide rate in Philadelphia. The city of brotherly love is the murder capital of the nation, and CNN had dispatched a reporter to interview the grieving mother of a young black boy killed while riding his bicycle in the street. Apparently, a couple of cars had got backed up behind him, and an impatient passenger in one of them pulled out a gun and shot the kid. Anderson Cooper then went to commercials and, when he returned, introduced a report on how easy it is to buy guns in Philadelphia and how local politicians are reluctant to do anything about it. This is, again, an argument only the expert class could make. In the 1990s, the number of guns in America went up by 40 million but the murder rate fell dramatically. If firearms availability were the determining factor, Vermont and Switzerland would have high murder rates. Yet in Montpelier or Geneva the solution to a boy carelessly bicycling in front of you down a city street when you’re in a hurry is not to grab your gun and blow him away. It’s the culture, not the technology.
Very few members of the transnational jet set want to hear this. They’re convinced that economic and technological factors shape the world all but exclusively, and that the sexy buzz words — “globalization”, “networking” — cure all ills. You may recall the famous Golden Arches thesis promulgated by the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman — that countries with McDonald’s franchises don’t go to war with each other. Tell it to the Serbs. When the Iron Curtain fell, Yugoslavia was, economically, the best-positioned of the recovering Communist states. But, given the choice between expanding the already booming vacation resorts of the Dalmatian coast for their eager Anglo-German tourist clientele or reducing Croatia and Bosnia and Kosovo to rubble over ethno-linguistic differences no outsider can even discern (“Serbo-Croat”?), Yugoslavia opted for the latter.
As I wrote in my book, the most successful example of globalization is not Starbucks or McDonald’s but Wahhabism, an obscure backwater variant of Islam practiced by a few Bedouin deadbeats that Saudi oil wealth has now exported to every corner of the earth — to Waziristan, Indonesia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Toronto, Portland, Dearborn, and Falls Church. You can live on the other side of the planet and, when Starbucks opens up in town, you might acquire a taste for a decaf latte, but that’s it: otherwise, life goes on. By contrast, when the Saudi-funded preachers hung out their shingles on every Main Street in the west, they radicalized a significant chunk of young European Muslims: they transformed not just their beverage habits but the way they look at the societies in which they live.
So many of the administration’s present problems derive from a squeamishness about ideological confrontation that any effective “Long Telegram” would have to address. When the president declared a “war on terror,” cynics understood that he had no particular interest in the IRA or the Tamil Tigers, but that he was constrained from identifying the real enemy in any meaningful sense: In the fall of 2001, a war on Islamic this or Islamo that would have caused too many problems with General Musharraf and the House of Saud and other chaps he wanted to keep on side. But it’s one reason, for example, why the Democrats, as soon as it suited them, had no difficulty detaching the Iraq front from the broader war. If it’s a “war on terror” against terrorist organizations, well, Saddam is a head of state and Iraq is a sovereign nation: the 1946 “Long Telegram” was long enough to embrace events in Ethiopia and Grenada 30 years later, but the “war on terror” template doesn’t comfortably extend to Iraq. Nor to the remorseless Wahhabist subversion of Europe. Nor to the Palestinian Authority, where Condi Rice is currently presiding over the latest reprise of the usual “peace process” clichés designed to persuade Israel to make concessions to a populace which largely believes everything the al Qaeda guys do. The state-funded (which means European- and US-taxpayer funded) Palestinian newspaper published a cartoon this September celebrating 9/11 as a great victory.
Perhaps we need more investment in jobs. Or maybe guns are too easily available in Gaza. Or, if guns aren’t, self-detonating schoolkids certainly are. This is the ultimate asymmetric warfare: We’re trying to beat back ideology with complacent Western assumptions. Not a good bet.
© Mark Steyn 2007