- Historic Sites
“The Shah Always Falls”
A soldier-historian looks at how the world has changed in the past decade and finds that America is both hostage to history and likely to be saved by it
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
I personally feel that we’ve made a grotesque mistake aligning ourselves with the most oppressive of the Arabs, with the Arab world’s Beverly Hillbillies. Other Arabs built Damascus, Córdoba, Baghdad, Cairo. The Saudis never built anything. The fact that they came into their oil wealth was a disaster, not for us but for the Arab world, because it gave these malevolent hicks raw economic power over the populations of poor Islamic states, such as Egypt. The line about Al Qaeda that’s absolutely true is that Saudis supplied the money and Egyptians supplied the brains. So Saudi money, spent to support their gro tesquely repressive version of one of the world’s great religions, has been a disaster for the Arab world.
What do you see as the historical origins of our strength?
Freedom of information originates in two things, the movable type printing press and the Protestant Reformation. The latter benefits everybody, irrespective of his or her religion, because it breaks down the idea of there being just one path to the truth. The printing press makes the Reformation possible, because suddenly the one true church can no longer contain heretical movements. Information travels faster than it can be suppressed. And the Protestant Reformation is the seminal event in the rise of the West. It opens the door for the last great Western religion, the secular religion of science. Without that fissure, without that breakdown in the one path to the truth, you can’t have science.
“Within 10 years of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, a prince, astronomer, mathematician, and poet, Ulûgh Beg of Samarqand, built a great observatory. He’s a genius, their Galileo, but the mullahs murdered him, and I take that moment as the point at which it all started calcifying.”
In Islam the historical symmetry is chilling. Within 10 years of Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, a prince, astronomer, mathematician, and poet, Ulûgh Beg of Samarqand, built a great observatory. He was a genius, their Galileo, but the mullahs murdered him, and I take that moment as the point at which it all started calcifying. There are myriad factors in the Islamic decline, but the decline itself has been irreversible. Muslims never turn it around; they never have their reformation that breaks down the one true path. You’re either Sunni or Shiah, or perhaps a Sufi offshoot cult. And the reason Indonesia has a chance is that it’s never signed up for one path.
You’ve argued that nineteenth-century concepts of international relations may be outmoded. In fact, aren’t you pretty skeptical about national sovereignty, international organizations, and international law?
The idea of absolute state sovereignty is relatively new, and it derives from agreements among kings, emperors, kaisers, and czars for their mutual benefit. What we’re left with from the state making of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe is a legacy that tells us we cannot intervene in states as they slaughter their own citizens because they’re sovereign. By that logic, Hitler would have been perfectly legitimate as long as he killed only German Jews. It’s patently flawed logic. Any state that benefits only a dictatorship, oligarchy, or clique, that oppresses, brutalizes, and even massacres elements of its own citizenry, has no legitimate claim on sovereignty—period. Sovereignty is fine for contemporary Japan, the European states, or, for that matter, India. Mexico is now coming along and trying very hard. But states like Iraq, Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, and a number of African thugocracies have no legitimate claim on sovereignty.
This is part of your pushing for a revolution in American military ethics. One of your most controversial points is that it is wrong for us to refuse to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces.
“People from developing countries see only the wealth, not the long struggle to create that wealth, and they make the comforting assumption that Americans are rich because they have stolen it.”
Yes, we have a prohibition against assassination. We tend to trace it to CIA excesses, but it’s an older tradition, and it again goes back to the mutual agreements of kings not to hurt one another: “We’re in a fight, and we’ll take Burgundy, we’ll take Flanders, but we’re not going to depose you, we’re not going to kill you, because then you might kill us.” It was a gentleman’s agreement. Today it should be obvious that if the problem is Saddam, the solution isn’t targeting the Iraqi people, who are suffering far worse than we are. The solution is targeting Saddam and his clique. Again, you have the limits of inherited language. Assassination is a loaded word, and we don’t have a better one. What we’re starting to have is the technology to leap over intervening armies and go after the sponsors. Wouldn’t that be far more moral than plowing our way through the conscripts who don’t want to be there in the first place?
Ten years ago you were far more skeptical about U.S. military intervention in the developing world. Why the change of heart?