Where Rumsfeld is right – and where he isn’t

December 15, 2006

In his last speech as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld was, as always, forceful and direct. All but quoting my own diagnosis of our predicament, he said in his farewell address that “The long struggle we are in is complex, it’s unfamiliar, and it’s still little understood.”

Not surprisingly, his analysis of the way forward was deeply rooted in that very same absence of understanding that he referred to in his speech. The solution is still to be achieved by the military means alone, through the endurance and sacrifice of America’s men and women in uniform. “You are the ones who live the successes and who endure the setbacks of this struggle” – he told them – “and you are the ones who, above all, know that the cause of freedom is well worth the price.”

But if we did have the adequate understanding of our enemies, which the Secretary admits to not having, we’d see that, first of all, the terrorists are not evil, but simply wrong – which of course makes no difference as far as the results of their violent actions go, but makes all the difference in the world in dealing with the problem of terrorism. Error is much easier to deal with that “evil.” Actual “evil” can only be destroyed by killing its bearer. But an error is adequately dealt with by simply exposing it as such. The terrorists commit a fundamental error when thinking that they can know what is the “True Faith” and what is not; and once they are disabused of their self-aggrandizing delusion and realize that there can be no such thing as “True Faith,” that claims to having it is mere idolatry, that there can be only the plain, hopeful, humble, not at all certain “faith” – the terrorism inspired by the non-existent “Truth” will be gone, too.

Some three and a half centuries ago, English poet William Davenant observed that “you can conquer when you but persuade.” Ultimately, this is how every conflict that ever was resolved, got resolved. This is how the Soviet Union ceased to be an “evil empire” – by realizing that Communism was wrong. Today’s Germans are not just Nazis who were forced to embrace democracy, but people who live in democracy because they rejected Nazism. Today’s Japan is peaceful not because the Japanese are militarists living under democratic rules, but because they abandoned militaristic thinking. Today’s Southerners are not the rabid racists civilized by democracy, but people who rejected racism itself. And tomorrow’s Arabs will not be the today’s fanatical “True Believers” who adopted voting, but Arabs who will have realized that their “True Faith” is nothing more than an idolatrous chimera, and will have rejected it.

Had the conflict been less “little understood,” as Secretary Rumsfeld put it, we would have known that the Moslems are sickened today by the very same virus of “Truth” which made the Soviets, and the Nazis, and the Japanese, and the Southerners cheerfully sacrifice themselves for their “cause,” and so we would have clearly seen the need to debunk the “cause” itself. When Iran’s Ahmadinejud sent to the White House his 17-page philosophical treatise aimed to “persuade” us, the White House should not have dismissed it out of hand, but ought to have sent him – a 17-page xerox copy of a couple of chapters from my own “The Pitfall of Truth”, to show the Mr. President of Iran where he’s got it wrong.

Davenant was right – “you can conquer when you but persuade.” And that is why it is vital that we not only send patriotic Americans overseas to fight and die for us, but that we fully understand the presently “little understood” motivations of our terrorist adversaries, and debunk their ideas – so ideas that motivate people like Mullah Omar, Ayatollah Khomeni, Sheik Nasrallah, and President Ahmadinejud do indeed wind up in the ash heap of history, and no longer threaten us with terrorism, nor prevent the Middle East from being another habitat of freedom.

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