Our enemy's religious bigotry, not ideas, is cause of war

Ralph Peters:


From 1789 and the French Revolution until the Soviet Union's disintegration in 1991, humankind took a bizarre historical detour through the Age of Ideology, when hundreds of millions — if not billions — of people accepted the notion that intellectuals and other charlatans could design better systems of social and political organization than had arisen naturally.

The arrogance of men such as Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong in believing that they could compress human complexity into their scribbled utopian visions may have been stunning, but the willingness of the masses to put their faith in such systems was a form of collective madness.

Inevitably, human beings disappointed the demagogues who tried to perfect humanity. Leaders responded by forcing men and women to fit the "ideal" pattern and the quest for utopia led inexorably to the gulag and Auschwitz, to Mao's Cultural Revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia or, at best, the poverty of today's Havana.

The Cold War was a battle of ideas. Iraq isn't.


The turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and that which we are bound to face elsewhere tomorrow, is asymmetrical not only in military terms, but in the motivations that stoke the violence. We have ideas, ranging from the universal validity of individual freedom and the power of democracy, to equal rights for women. Our enemies have passions — the ecstatic intoxication of faith and the Darwinian bitterness of the tribe — that give them a ferocious strength of will.

Iraq has been a terrible disappointment to many who believed in the galvanizing power of our ideas. Instead, we unleashed the killing power of faiths struggling for supremacy and the savagery of ethnic strife. This is the warfare of the Old Testament, of the book of Joshua, an ineradicable pattern of human behavior. For our part, we try to fight with lawyers at our elbows.

Our two major political parties may have different views on Iraq, but what's deeply worrisome is their shared view of the world as amenable to the last century's solutions: Negotiations first and foremost, with limited war when negotiations fail. But our enemies are only interested in negotiations when they need to buy time, while our limited approach to warfare only limits our chance of success.

Washington's unwillingness to face the new global reality is compounded by our ignorance of history — which lets spurious claims pass as facts. For example, talking heads somberly assure us (vis-à-vis Iraq) that insurgencies are virtually impossible to defeat. That's false. Over the past 3,000 years, insurgencies and revolts have failed overwhelmingly. It was only during the brief and now-defunct Age of Ideology that insurgents scored substantial victories — usually because imperial powers were already in retreat and anxious to leave the territory the insurgents contested.

The bad news here is that, while throughout history most insurgencies failed, they had to be put down with substantial bloodletting. Across three millennia, I can find no major religion-driven insurgency that was suppressed without significant slaughter.


Historically, the common denominator of successful counterinsurgency operations is that only an uncompromising military approach works — not winning hearts and minds nor a negotiated compromise. This runs counter to our politically correct worldview, but the historical evidence is incontestable.

When it comes to al Qaeda he is entirely correct. Al Qaeda and its followers must be destroyed. However in Iraq, we are seeing success in our new strategy of protecting the people and the people are responding in a positive way at this point. In either case, we have learned that we need to have more troops to make the strategies work. We also need patience. While his history lessen on insurgencies losing is correct, it usually takes nine years to finally defeat them. The American tendency to require victory or retreat in three years is not based on a realistic time frame.


  1. It is a big mistake to think the "Global War on Terrorism" is not fundamentally a battle of ideas, and I think this mistake is at the heart of our underachievement to date. The ideological battle in general terms is: capitalism and individual rights and secularism versus mystical statism. The latter is the central principle and motivation of our enemies. It is most certainly is akin to the mystical statists of Imperial Japan, and to the secular statists in the Cold War USSR and in the Weimar Republic. To lose sight of this and imagine that phenomena like "ethnic hatred" are ancillary or unrelated can only cause us to falter in defeating the mystical statists. Our treating of Tehran as only a *potential* threat during this time of war (!) is the best indicator that the West does not comprehend the nature and foundation of the threat facing civilization.


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