The essential lessons of the Cold War for the War on Terror.
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times of London from 1976 to 1982, during the height of the Soviet totalitarian period and he is the author of Age of Delirium: the Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, which is being made into a documentary film. His most recent work is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.
FP: David Satter, welcome back Frontpage Interview.
I’d like to talk to you today about the lessons of the Cold War for the War on Terror. What is the best way to begin this discussion?
Satter: I think we must begin by recognizing that, although it pretends to be a religion, radical Islam is an ideology. In this respect, it is the blood brother of atheistic communism. Both systems treat artificial dogma as infallible truth and seek to impose it on all of humanity.
Secretary of State Clinton recently reacted to a question about ideology by saying, “that’s so yesterday.” This point of view, however, is a great danger. An ideology is an idea applied to everything on the basis of its own inner logic. It spawns terrorism because its adherents are engaged in a constant war with the outside world in an attempt to substitute its precepts for reality.
To defeat Islamic terrorism, we must therefore discredit radical Islamic ideology. This will not be simple. An ideology is the product of a perverted spiritual quest and it fulfills basic psychological needs. It cannot be defeated with material incentives or by appealing to the fanatics’ better nature. It needs to be discredited in its own terms – as an idea – and, for the sake of our own security, we need to learn how.
FP: Well, scholars such as Robert Spencer have demonstrated that radical Islam is very much a religion, because it is rooted in Islamic theology. His new book, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran, shows the religious nature of radical Islam’s war on us. But this debate belongs in another time and place and we know the main arguments.
In any case, you are pursuing somewhat of a different argument here today, so for the purposes of this interview, yes, you are correct in that radical Islam does share much in common with communism. Paul Berman did a profound job on this in his work Terror and Liberalism, which shed light on how radical Islam is a cousin of communism as well as fascism.
So, let’s pursue your argument then. In order to defeat radical Islam, it is important to discredit the ideology. Well, let me ask this then: was the Soviet Union destroyed by the collapse of the Soviet ideology?
Satter: It was. The Soviet Union was doomed the minute its ideology began to unravel because the country was not based on anything real. It was the emanation of a deluded idea and when that idea was discredited, it lost its raison d’etre and only draconian mass terror would have been capable of holding it together. But it is difficult to resort to mass terror without the justification of an ideology.
FP: Is it possible that a superpower that intimidated the whole world was based on nothing real?
Satter: Yes. The Soviet Union did not exist to protect its own people or advance their welfare. It embodied no specifically national principles. Its purpose was to build socialism, not only on its own territory but all over the world. The socialism it sought to create envisaged the complete abolition of private ownership and this overarching goal was based on a false theory, Marxism-Leninism.
One of the reasons that Americans find it so difficult to understand the impact of ideology is that we have little experience of it. The U.S. is a pragmatic society and most Americans are totally uninterested in questions of abstract theory. Unfortunately, the world forces us to take an interest in ideology because it is ideological regimes which are our deadliest foes.
In the Soviet Union, Marxism-Leninism took the place of religion, class and nationality. Religion was not completely suppressed but it was marginalized. The average Soviet citizen was a convinced atheist (“How could there be a God?” he typically asked, “Yuri Gagarin went up into space and did not see him.”) Accordingly, he did not see himself as an individual but rather as a member of a collective and his criterion for right and wrong was not the Golden Rule but rather the progress of socialism. He belonged to no class, except the “hegemonic class,” which supposedly represented the whole people, the proletariat, and his real nationality was the nationality of socialism.
From the point of view of concentrating power, this deluded view of reality had definite advantages. Because socialism was the future of mankind as determined by the perfect science of Marxism-Leninism and the Soviet Union was leading the world to socialism, the Soviet regime’s actions had transcendent authority. They were not just the acts of a government but steps in the creation of an earthly paradise. Those who fought and died for the Soviet Union were not only fighting for their country. They were protagonists of a cosmic good. During the Second World War, this attitude was regularly manifested as Soviet soldiers volunteered for suicide missions and threw themselves under tanks, shouting “For Stalin!”
The ideology was fiercely defended because it gave a sense of meaning to often wretched and miserable lives but faith in it also depended on the capacity of the individual for self-delusion. Despite the censorship, the artificial world of the ideology was never air tight. Soviet citizens still had to be ready on a permanent basis to believe the unbelievable and every aspect of Soviet life was organized to facilitate the collective escape from reality.
The reason why the capacity to take appearance for reality was so important in the Soviet Union became evident after 1985 and the beginning of glasnost. Gorbachev decided to undertake reforms but found that he could do little in the face of the resistance of the entrenched party apparatus. As a result, he began to allow a flow of truthful information in order to mobilize the support of the general population against the apparatus.
The impact of truthful information on the ideological structure of the regime, however, was beyond anything that Gorbachev had imagined. The fault lines in Soviet society were suddenly exposed. As Soviet citizens in the national republics learned about the crimes of the regime against members of their nationality, nationalism surged. As the facts of party privilege became known, Soviet workers revolted and the party itself splintered. When Marxism-Leninism was subjected to doubt, the result was a wrenching spiritual crisis in the lives of millions, thoroughly demoralizing the society. Even the elite units of the KGB were affected and when, in August, 1991, hard line procommunist elements staged a coup in order to try to hold the Soviet Union together, those units were no longer reliable. They refused to carry out an order to arrest Yeltsin and the coup failed. Four months later, the Soviet Union collapsed.
FP: Does the role of the fall of the Soviet ideology in the collapse of the Soviet Union mean that the defeat of the radical Islamist ideology would defeat Islamic terrorism?
FP: Well, how can radical Islamic ideology be defeated?
Satter: First, we need to confront the terrorist ideology. This means answering the challenge at the level at which it is posed. All totalitarian ideologies claim to be systems of total explanation and reject universal morality, arguing instead that right and wrong are determined by the interests of a specific group, whether it be the master race, the working class or the umma.
Our answer is traditionally to point out that totalitarian regimes destroy freedom. Freedom, however, is a contingent rather than an ultimate value. Freedom creates the conditions for moral action but is not a guide to it. If we answer the claims of an ideology that promises a utopia on earth by saying that we are defenders of freedom, we immediately raise the question of “freedom for what?” We also leave the aims of totalitarian ideology and its rejection of universal morality completely unchallenged.
Instead of treating “freedom” as an alternative to ideology, we should be attacking ideology as an outrage to sanity. In this way, there is a chance of shaking potential adherents of the terrorist ideology out of the stupor in which social and economic conditions as well as their own shortcomings are driving them. The Islamic world is not cut off by an iron curtain from the information and opinions of the outside world. The internet, a recruiting tool for terrorists, can be used to counter the zombification that radical Islamic ideology seeks to impose. But this must be done by confronting the claims of ideology rather than seeking to defend freedom and thereby giving the impression that, at the level of ultimate values the terrorists have values and we do not. It is important to remember that the failure of the West during the Cold War to challenge the claims of communist ideology was always taken by the communists to mean that the West did not believe in anything.
In the case of the Islamic terrorists, one way of answering their claims is to point out the similarities between the terrorists’ “religion” and the communists’ “atheism.” Both rely on man made doctrine. (Even if one believes that the Koran comes directly from God, the decision on what to emphasize is a human decision.) And both divide the world into believers and infidels and, in relation to the latter, justify any crime.
The fact that Nazism, communism and Islamic radicalism rely on the same inversion of values – the replacement of genuine transcendent values with values that are man made - and the same psychological mechanisms – the rejection of reality and destruction of free will - is the reason that the members of the Iranian opposition, to combat the theocratic regime, are immersing themselves in the works of such principled opponents of the communist ideology as the late Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, even as we speak.
FP: Well what is the role of military strength in all of this? Is it possible that fighting the terrorists militarily is not that important?
Satter: The war against terror will be won not by destroying the terrorists but by discrediting their ideology. Part of that effort is military, however, and consists of destroying the terrorists’ faith in ultimate victory.
A visitor to the Soviet Union in the 1970s or 1980s could not help but notice that ordinary Soviet citizens, although they lived in poverty, tended to think globally and demonstrated a serene self confidence about the course of world events. Eastern Europe was socialist, Afghanistan was occupied. The revolution was successful in Vietnam, Nicaragua and Cuba. Victory was imminent in El Salvador. Events seemed to bearing out the prediction of Soviet ideology that the victory of socialism was inevitable. In the opinion of the KGB, “the world was going our way.”
In 1983, however, the U.S. overthrew the communist regime on Grenada, an island of 100,000 persons. The action was widely ridiculed in the West but it was the first time that a communist regime had ever been overthrown and this small defeat resonated seriously in the lands where communism had supposedly been established “forever.” In fact, it was a psychological event that helped make further defeats possible and, before the eyes of an astonished world, they came in rapid succession. The Soviets first withdrew from Afghanistan and then from Eastern Europe. Finally, Russia withdrew from the non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union itself.
The Islamic terrorists, like the Soviets, are confident of ultimate victory. That confidence was shaken in Iraq but has been renewed by the Taliban’s successes in Afghanistan. In this respect it matters little whether the Taliban and al Qaeda are linked or whether the Taliban intends, in the event of victory, to reinvite al Qaeda to set up shop in Afghanistan. What matters is that they share the same ideology and a victory for the Taliban is a victory for the system of thought that was responsible for the terrorist attacks on the U.S.
The antidote to this is a U.S. presence in the region that is predicated on the absolute inadmissibility of a terrorist victory and nothing else. It is this, in combination with an ability to explain and defend our values that, in the long run, will make our victory possible.
FP: David Satter, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.