In the midst of his polemic against Ron Paul and the concept of “blowback” as the progenitor of Islamist terrorism, Kevin D. Williamson, writing in National Review Online, avers I’m “an intelligent man” – but after reading his jeremiad, I’m not sure I can return the compliment.
“None of the individual terrorists who struck that fateful day would’ve even been in the country but for the fact that France established an African empire in the 19th century.”
Omitted from this terse citation is my account of the history of French imperialism in Africa from the nineteenth century to the mid-1950s, a history that includes France’s outright annexation of its North African colonies – and the conferring of French citizenship on the conquered inhabitants. “Invade the world, invite the world” has always been the hallmark of European empires, a point understandably sensitive in a magazine filled with dire warnings about the “Islamization” of Old Europa – while entirely ignoring the role empire-building played in creating the culture clashes they decry. When Bill Buckley declared that National Review‘s mission is to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” surely he didn’t mean conservatives ought to stop paying attention to history. Is it really necessary to point this out to Buckley’s epigones?
“Blowback is about the apportionment of blame and opprobrium, and nothing more,” declares Williamson, who claims I do “indeed want to blame the French – long-dead French – for the Paris attack.”
Am I blaming the chefs of France? Its cheese-makers? Its cartoonists? That a leading writer for National Review must be instructed in the difference between a government and its long-suffering people is a sad commentary on the intellectual decline of contemporary conservatism, which has apparently abandoned methodological individualism, and elides the difference between the rulers and the ruled. The “slander” referred to in the title of Williamson’s piece is merely a case where the perpetrator projects his own crime onto the victim.
Blowback has little to do with “blame and opprobrium,” i.e. moralistic posturing: it is merely the clear-headed expression of an idea that ought to be familiar to conservatives, succinctly summed up in Richard Weaver’s aphorism that “ideas have consequences.” The idea of France’s “civilizing mission” in North Africa – the French version of the “white man’s burden” – did indeed have deadly consequences, and these continue to plague us all to the present day.
In his frenzy to evade this, Williamson takes his nihilistic denial of history to its ultimate absurd conclusion. To hear him tell it, I know “full well that there have been many other sources of Islamic immigration beyond European colonial projects, prominent among them Islamic colonial projects. If we’re going to go back to the 19th century in our blame game, why stop there? There wouldn’t have been any Muslims in Algeria for the French to conquer in the 19th century – or Muslims to be annoyed with us in Iran, or much of the rest of the world – if not for a fairly brutal campaign of conquest launched under the caliphate of Umar ibn Al-Khattāb. Hell, there wouldn’t be any Frenchmen in France if H. sap. hadn’t cruelly driven the Neanderthals to extinction.”
If history is irrelevant, then the events of the seventh century are just as meaningless as those of the nineteenth, the twentieth, and an hour ago. That was then, this is now – the criminal nihilist’s perfect defense. Except that no jury would ever fall for it, unless it consisted of twelve clones of Kevin Williamson.
Williamson prefers not to hear of the war in Libya – now a terrorist nest — where France took the lead (while we paid the bills). Mention of French intervention against the Tuaregs of Mali, a former French colony, would also invite disdain. And as for those French jets dropping bombs in Iraq – cited by Amedy Coulibaly as motivating his murderous rampage – the whole matter is best left alone. The Williamsonian view is that the French campaign to reestablish its colonial empire under the guise of a “war on terrorism” has little to do with the Paris events. Yet one wonders: does he really believe what he is saying?
Which raises the question: what, exactly, is Williamson saying? At one point he — reluctantly –acknowledges that yes, of course, “blowback” is a factor, it just isn’t the only one. He doesn’t explicitly mention what these other factors might be, but we get closer to the real issue as Williamson stumbles on, writing:
“Raimondo insists that Islamic militants would not be able to recruit violent jihadists ‘without pointing to Western intervention in the Middle East,’ which ignores the history of Islam in most of the world. India has a problem with Islamic extremism, and it’s not because Mohandas K. Gandhi wasn’t a nice enough guy.”
Williams’s essentialist argument that Islam is per se violent, expansionist, and the embodiment of evil in the modern world here comes to the fore. It is the same argument made by those neoconservative theoreticians who characterized the Middle East is a “swamp” needing to be “drained” – and that this vast social engineering project could be carried out by American force of arms. The dominance of that worldview within the Bush administration led to the invasion, occupation, and ongoing break up of Iraq, and much of the region, just as critics of that war predicted. The neoconservatives who ceaseless agitated for war – notably in the pages of National Review – are directly responsible for the chaos presently overwhelming the Middle East. It is by no means an overstatement to credit Bill Kristol and his fellow neocons with fathering ISIS.
India’s Muslim “problem” is a red herring that Williamson just throws out there, hoping the sticky mass will adhere. It doesn’t. Rather than blaming Gandhi, it seems to me that the drawing of an arbitrary line by the British Foreign Office demarcating Muslim Pakistan from Hindu-dominated India had a bit more to do with it than Williamson is prepared to admit. But then again the status of Kashmir is not something he seems equipped to address.
National Review comes fairly late to the essentialism behind the idea that we must wage ceaseless war against “radical Islamic extremism.” When the Kosovo war was in full swing, William F. Buckley, Jr., declaimed: “If I were voting on the Kosovo matter, I’d vote yes: Get on with the bombing.” In the cause of establishing a Muslim state in the midst of Europe, he called for “a saturation bombing along the fighting front, followed by a peacekeeping cordon of NATO soldiers.” And never mind the distinction between civilian and military targets:
“The one obstinately unsatisfactory aspect of the current analysis is the business of what we are determined not to do, which is to bomb other than the fighting front. The reasons we give are conventionally acceptable – you don’t endanger ‘innocent people.’ There are two difficulties with that formulation. One of them is that there really aren’t significant differences between civilian Serbs who are simply going about their duties in Belgrade, making shoes, or serving pasta, and other Serbs who are firing artillery into Kosovo villages.”
Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard chimed in – or was it Buckley chiming in with Kristol taking the lead? – demanding that now is the time to “kick [Serb] skulls in,” and declaring his impatience with Republican reluctance to go along with Clinton’s war. When Republican members of Congress voted to defund the Kosovo adventure, Kristol threatened to walk out of the GOP. The same useful idiots who signed all those Project for a New American Century “open letters” demanding a US invasion of the Middle East signed equally numerous public declarations of support for the Kosovar cause.
Yes, those were the good old days – when National Review and Osama bin Laden were on the same side!
The War Party changes its “principles” to suit the occasion – another manifestation of the nihilism that lies at the heart of its faux “conservative” veneer. They reject the lessons of history, even to the point of hoping we’ll forget their own history. Alas, some of us have long memories.