Readers of these Chronicles know of my disappointment with our current president; elected as a figure who would heal our racial wounds and transcend partisan differences, he has implemented a victimocracy that is increasingly intolerant of even verbal opposition. Given this, I was taken aback to encounter former New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s thesis (“How Obama Thinks About Terrorism,” Atlantic Monthly, December 7) that the simplest explanation for Obama’s faith in history (most notably expressed by a quotation from Martin Luther King—really from the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker—that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice”) was that he is in fact a disciple of Francis Fukuyama (FF).
As my readers also know, I have continued to defend FF’s fundamental claim: that the Western creation of “liberal democracy,” a free market embedded in a democratic political system that can be described as a parallel market, is the “ultimate” form of large-scale social organization. For whatever the details of its specific implementation, and some are clearly more effective than others, its general design maximizes the chances for firstness in the economic realm and hence for technological innovation and economic growth, while in principle allowing the resentments of all factions, including the less successful, to be heard and their conditions improved. We have seen enough of “planned economies” to know they cannot outproduce even the most restricted of free markets.
FF’s thesis, enunciated just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was encumbered with the Hegelian idea of the “End of History,” seen through the eyes of Hegel’s most influential 20th century interpreter, the apocalyptic Russo-French quasi-Marxist Alexandre Kojève, which led FF to present it in what strike us today as embarrassingly literal terms. Thus he tells us that we are henceforth fated to live on, happy in our creature comforts, but permanently bored because nothing of historical significance will ever again take place. At least Marx thought that under communism we would enjoy hunting in the morning and fishing in the afternoon.
Fukuyama would be best served if we forgot the End of History. For there are indeed plateaus in history that, barring some apocalyptic catastrophe, we can be confident we will not descend from: human language and culture itself, agriculture, writing, monotheism, geometry, the steam engine… Then why not add to these liberal democracy, not as the “end” of anything, but the best general solution to nation-level human social organization? There remain plenty of other things for History to do.
There is nothing left-wing about so pro-“capitalist” an idea; FF’s admirers, most of whom have abandoned ship, were mostly on the right. FF’s thesis could in fact be taken as the basis for a neoconservative manifesto. The second Bush’s over-optimism about the chances for democracy in the Middle East—and who wasn’t impressed by those shots of Iraqi men and women showing off the purple stain on their finger?—can be understood as a corollary of Fukuyama’s thesis: if liberal democracy is the ultimate system, then it will eventually be that of all, so why not help the process along? Even today, can we really say that humans are so different that belonging to a particular society and religion makes some social groups intrinsically hostile to adopting the socio-political system shared by the most advanced societies?
However unexpected, Beinart’s thesis that Obama’s often-noted passivity in foreign affairs reflects a Fukuyama-like faith in the inevitability of liberal democracy seems truer to the president’s view than the fantasies that tempt us in our exasperation: that he is either a closet communist or a secret adherent of the Caliphate.
Indeed, a similar sense of historical inevitability may be said to be shared by nearly all “progressives,” at least in the US. With the end of Soviet communism, whose model the mainstream of the Western intelligentsia had in any case long rejected (first in 1956, and definitely in 1968), all but the most radical of leftist movements have presented themselves as “social justice warriors,” whose often intense resentments nevertheless remain internal to the West’s political system. No doubt these activists have even less tenderness than Obama for liberal democracy in its current state, but since the end of the Soviet era, there has been no move to offer a new social model, only to reject traditional social norms such as exclusively heterosexual marriage, and to the extent remotely plausible, economic ones (whence demands for a $15 minimum wage, but not $100), imposing the government’s political will on the market as far as possible, but never seeking to abolish it. However insistent their activism, post-Cold-War victimary groupings no longer challenge the liberal-democratic system as such.
The hypothesis of a Fukuyaman faith in the superiority of liberal democracy allows us to explain Obama’s application of “Girardian” wisdom in playing down the IS threat. Imitating the Others’ violence not simply intensifies the conflict but ratifies them as authentic adversaries. If only we pay minimal attention to them, contenting ourselves with letting local forces do the fighting and supporting them with occasional airstrikes, IS will not get what Beinart calls the “massive shot in the arm” that would be generated by the presence of American forces. Treating them as other than a “JV squad” would be to fall into a mimetic trap.
More generally, Obama’s sense of historical inevitability predisposes him to interpret the commission of any act of violence as a sign of weakness. We have already seen him describe in this way Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. He considers such military adventures as wastes of resources and above all as signs that one is “on the wrong side of history.” Obama’s judgment that, in Beinart’s terms, “the Islamic State is losing in the Middle East,” which is certainly far from the view of most observers, is of lesser significance than the a priori that presides over this judgment: violence is a sign of weakness, therefore the US should sedulously avoid mimetically doubling this violence by sending troops, lest our action lend our enemy greater impact and visibility, as Beinart puts it (quoting Obama), “allowing the Islamic State to use ‘our presence to draw new recruits.’”
No doubt were we faced by the kind of existential crisis posed by Pearl Harbor, Obama would have to abandon this ideology; violence that truly threatens destruction or defeat cannot be experienced as an epiphenomenon. But precisely, when Pearl Harbor took place, we were not yet at the End of History, which WWII prepared. The defeat of the Axis, which led to the end of colonialism and other forms of ascriptive hierarchy, was indeed the second last great “historical” act before the finale—significantly, a peaceful one: the defeat of communism as a world force. Following the End of History, apparent dangers to the polity cannot by definition be more than illusions, rounding errors. Now that we have reached the ultimate social system, inferior ones such as that being created by the “Caliphate” cannot possibly threaten it; threats can come only from within the ultimate system itself, which alone has historical agency.
Hence such incidents as the San Bernardino attacks, however regrettable, should not be taken as signaling a new level of danger. On the contrary, they give proof that the jihadists can do no more than organize the kind of mass shootings with which we are already all too familiar. Rather than compare this with the Paris incident, we should see it as a demonstration of “JV” IS’s inability to organize operations on the scale of 9/11. Referring to the conflict with IS as a “war,” as a number of Republican presidential candidates seem willing to do, not only “gives ISIL what it wants” but risks undoing the End of History’s finality, since as the agent of the world-spirit, Western civilization alone, in particular the United States, has the capacity to take us beyond the End to total destruction.
Now that History in the strong sense is over, with regard to the mopping-up operations that remain, the key is to “lead from behind,” to stand back and rely on the residual force of the historical “arc.” The US has above all to be careful not to do “stupid s…,” seeking to impose History instead of letting it take its natural course. When Obama judges the postwar exercise of American power as on the whole oppressive, the chief point is not that this reflects the evil of capitalism and of Western civilization as such, but that it is counterproductive. Our past abuses of power do not contradict our being essentially on the “right side of history.” But we must not rush things; we must give our Others the time and opportunity to choose freely the democracy that we attempted, notably in the second Iraq war, to cram down their throats.
Obama’s often-referenced 2009 Cairo speech made clear that, as opposed to Samuel Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations pessimism about the affinity of the Arab/Muslim world for liberal democracy, Obama agrees in principle with George W. Bush that we all really do have the same basic goals of individual freedom and economic development. The difference is merely that, now that the US has sought mistakenly and unsuccessfully to impose these goals by force, it must redeem itself before the Muslim world by apologizing for its arrogance and seeking to promote development through voluntary cooperation. Because Obama is far more familiar with the culture of Islam than most Americans, he felt at the time of the Cairo speech, and perhaps still feels, that he is ideally suited to heal the wounds inflicted on both sides by our Middle East wars.
Beinart’s final point is that “[b]ecause Obama sees violent jihadism as ideologically weak and unattractive, he thinks that few American Muslims will embrace it unless the United States makes them feel like enemies in their own country—which is exactly what Donald Trump risks doing.” For Obama, Islamic jihadism, as opposed to Nazism or Soviet communism, cannot be attractive in itself. It has no pretensions of offering a “better life” to its citizens but is merely a resentful reaction to our heavy-handed intervention in the Middle East. Faithful to his Fukuyaman-Hegelian roots, Obama dismisses the specifically religious appeal of IS; religion, as a preliminary embodiment of the World-Spirit, is destined to give way to Reason at the End of History.
No doubt the present interpretation presents Obama’s foreign policy as both more patriotic and less antithetical to that of his predecessor than one would imagine from the visceral opposition it inspires in most conservatives. But the difference between Bush and Obama is that the former took being “on the right side of history” as an encouragement to action, whereas the latter, in reaction to his predecessor’s activism, and no doubt believing that his is the authentic form of historical faith, sees History’s verdict rather as a sign that action is not needed, or as little as possible.
Yet to think that one can defeat adversaries by declaring them “on the wrong side of history” is to commit a category error. Obama’s idea that his refusal to seriously engage American power in the fight against IS helps its ideology remain “unattractive” is a contresens. American inaction, or minimal action, is interpreted by IS’s potential recruits as a sign of weakness, not of strength—as proof that they, not we, are the “strong horse” on the right side of history.
Whence my final point. I think, in contrast to Beinart, that Obama’s strategy of dismissal does not simply reflect a Fukuyaman faith in Western democracy. The faith is real, but it is conflated in Obama’s worldview with the victimary arrogance of such movements as “Black Lives Matter.” Obama treats IS with the same contempt that campus leftists show for the bearers of “white privilege.”
Beinart fails to see that the model for Obama’s dismissive attitude toward “ISIL” is not a Hegelian vision of the End of History but victimary faith in “social justice.” The president’s sense of the historical inevitability common to both cases leaves him unaware that his disrespect for IS expresses not the contempt of the strong for the weak, but that of the weak for the strong. This was originally a heroic attitude shared by Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement in the South. Today’s campus activists parody this heroism, extracting concessions from supine administrators terrorized by the victimocracy, but their tactics remain, at least in principle, those of non-violent “witnessing” rather than physical coercion.
But the crybullies triumph because their vision of history is sustained by higher authorities. The idea that the same smug conviction of moral rectitude that wins victories over “white privilege” in the Twitterverse and on campus will succeed in enlisting the forces of not only the West but Islam itself against the jihadist radicals—who are attacking this very same Western “white privilege” on an international scale—is a textbook example of mimetic blindness. We can only hope that, if nothing else, the pain inflicted by history itself—a pain no doubt still in its early stages—will force the US and the West to demonstrate before it is too late how much they really do believe in the historical superiority of liberal democracy.