The Iraq War, Isaiah Berlin, and the Next Counter-Enlightenment
by James P. Pinkerton
America will triumph in Iraq. But for how long? And what unintended consequences will Americans and Israelis discover a decade from now? A century from now? Those are questions provoked by the work of Isaiah Berlin, a man who lived long enough—and saw far enough—to understand the contradictions of grandiose idealism.
Berlin, born in Riga, Latvia, in 1909, witnessed the disaster of World War One up close. Moving to England, he then lived through the Depression, the rise of fascism, another World War, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Such experiences left him, by then an Oxford don, profoundly suspicious of absolutes and, more to the point, absolutists. His big idea was that there should be no big idea. To be sure, he was no defeatist; he served in the British government during World War Two. But his life’s work left him skeptical of ambitious solutions; he had seen how huge movements gave rise to their opposites, and eventually to their own demise.
Berlin’s writings on the Enlightenment and the Counter-Enlightenment illustrate his worldview. In the 18th century, Berlin notes, the rationalist, anti-clerical views of Voltaire and Rousseau captured the imagination of intellectuals across Europe. And after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, it seemed that the moment for a continental political restructuring, based on universalist principles of reason and justice, had finally arrived. Nowhere was enthusiasm for an Aufklärung greater than among German thinkers. As Berlin observes, “Almost without exception, they began by welcoming the French Revolution rapturously, planting trees of liberty and denouncing as obsolete and brutally oppressive the rule of the three hundred German princes.”
But then the wheel turned. “Horrified by the Terror and wounded by the national humiliation of Germany by the armies of Revolutionary France and, still more, those of Napoleon,” those same Germans, Berlin writes, “turned into patriots, reactionaries and romantic irrationalists.” One such German was Beethoven. Living at the time in Vienna, Beethoven originally intended to dedicate his Third Symphony to Napoleon, but after the French leader crowned himself emperor in 1804, he tore up the “Eroica” dedication. Less than a decade later, he composed a celebratory piece entitled “Wellington’s Victory.”
To Francophiles turned Francophobes, it mattered little that the French were still, more often than not, reformers, abolishing serfdom, establishing new legal codes, emancipating Jews. But in the first decade of the 19th century, the backlash to French universalism—the Counter-Enlightenment---took two forms. The first was a sense of a particularist German identity; the second was a yearning for German national unity. Millions of Frenchmen died in the furious wars to come, and tens of millions of others.
The paradigmatic case was that of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, born in Saxony in 1762. As a young man, Fichte was a true son of the Enlightenment; in 1799, accused of atheism, he was forced to resign a university position. But whereas he might have spent the rest of his life mocking ministers, he was soon radicalized in a much different direction; from his new academic post in Berlin, he began celebrating the Volksgeist, the unique and defiantly non-Gallic spirit of the German people. In 1807-8, he delivered a series of lectures, soon published in a wildfire of a book, Appeal to the German Nation. Of course, there was no German Nation at the time. That was the point: Fichte argued that only a united Germany could both repel foreigners and find its true soul.
Not everyone noticed Germany’s upsurge all at once. Napoleon was ultimately defeated, not by German romanticists, but by a familiar collection of crowned heads. Most likely, Napoleon went to his grave in 1821 without thinking much about the deep geysers of sentiment he had helped uncork on the other side of the Rhine. But even as Bonaparte moldered in St. Helena, Germany was rallying around the most militaristic Teutonic state of all, Prussia. And in 1871 came the defeat of Napoleon’s country in the Franco-Prussian War. That victory was sweet revenge, German nation-builders proclaimed, for the humiliations of the past, and it heralded a new Ordnung in Mittel Europa. And of course, those passions led to another seven decades of disaster.
As Berlin sums up, “The French Revolution was founded on the notion of timeless truths given to the faculty of reason…it preached a peaceful universalism and a rational humanitarianism.” But the ideal and the real, to be sure, proved to be much different. The extended consequences of the Revolution, Berlin explains, “threw into relief the precariousness of human institutions…the clash of irreconcilable values of ideas, the insufficiency of simple formulae; the complexity of men and societies; the poetry of action, destruction, heroism, war.” The Enlightenment-Counter-Enlightenment dynamic, he concludes, demonstrates “the feebleness of reason before the power of fanatically believed doctrines; the unpredictability of events, the part played in history by unintended consequences.”
And so to the present. America, a country without much history and without much knowledge of other countries’ histories, is poised to launch a great experiment. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell made an overwhelming legal case that Iraq has, indeed, violated U.N. Resolution 1441. But in light of all the failures of past American military expeditions—most obviously Vietnam, but also including such Muslim misadventures as Lebanon and Somalia—Powell failed to make the practical case that “liberating” Iraq would prove successful in the long run, let alone that it would lead to a net increase in world security.
But it’s probably too late for such concerns. The Bush Administration is operating from theory, not from prudence informed by historical experience. Such abstract idealism is exactly what Berlin, who died in 1997, warned against. According to the Bush Doctrine, America must go beyond the removal of Saddam Hussein and the disarmament of Iraq; it must seek to transform the political and religious life of the Muslim Middle East--all according to Western universalist principles of enlightened rationality. Indeed, words such as “liberation” and “reformation” are on the lips of the bright-eyed Doctrinalists, most of whom have probably never heard of Isaiah Berlin, let alone Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Will these efforts at a New Regional Order succeed, despite their origins in ahistoricality?
Here’s a Berlin-influenced bet. Going into Iraq in 2003 will be easy--just as it was for the French going into Germany in the 1790s, just as it was for the Israelis going into Lebanon in 1982. But then will come the hard part, the bloody part, the heartbreaking part. And meanwhile, the backlash will gain momentum. American-style “globalization” has already generated plenty of enemies worldwide; globalization achieved at swordpoint will generate yet more. And so somewhere in the world, just as surely as strong action causes strong reaction, the rough beast of a new or rejuvenated counter-ism, schooled in asymmetrical tactics and technologies, is going to rise up, and it will come slouching our way.