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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

March 11, 2003

Our World-Historical Gamble

I came to this long and very important overview of the forth-coming war against Iraq via Instapudit. The article by Lee Harris suggests a major shift, stated thusly "Of the many words written for and against the coming war with Iraq, none has been more perceptive than Paul Johnson's observation in his essay "Leviathan to the Rescue" that such a war "has no precedent in history" and that "in terms of presidential power and national sovereignty, Mr. Bush is walking into unknown territory"
[...] we are dealing with the world-historical changes that have not yet given birth to the new order of possibilities.

It is this fact that explains why all world-historical undertakings are inherently and irreducibly fraught with risk and uncertainty. Each one of them, by its very nature, is a crossing of the Rubicon, from which there is no turning back, but only a going forward - and a going forward into the unknown.

But it would be a terrible mistake to conclude that such gambles are reckless ventures. In fact, the whole point of a world-historical gamble is that it offers the only possible escape from the kind of historical impasse or deadlock in which the human race presently finds itself. It emerges out of a situation where mankind cannot simply stay put, where the counsels of caution and conservatism are no longer of any value, and where to do nothing at all is in fact to take an even greater risk than that contemplated by the world-historical gamble.

It is because this historical deadlock must be broken that the unavoidable conflict arises between the old order caught up in its impasse and the new order erupting through it. And, as Hegel observes, "It is precisely at this point that we encounter those great collisions between established and acknowledged duties, laws, and right, on the one hand, and new possibilities which conflict with the existing system and violate it or even destroy its very foundations and continued existence, on the other…." This fact explains why the old concepts and categories are of so little use in guiding us to an understanding of such transformative events, because the essence of the world-historical is the disclosure of new and hitherto unsuspected historical possibilities - it is their absolute novelty, their quality as epiphanies, that accounts for their inevitable collision with, and transcendence of, the old categories of understanding.

Today we are in the midst of this collision. It is the central fact of our historical epoch. It is this we must grasp. Unless we are prepared to look seriously at the true stakes involved in the Bush administration's coming world-historical gamble, we will grossly distort the significance of what is occurring by trying to make it fit into our own pre-fabricated and often grotesquely obsolete set of concepts. We will be like children trying to understand the world of adults with our own childish ideas, and we will miss the point of everything we see. This means that we must take a hard look at even our most basic vocabulary - and think twice before we rush to apply words like "empire" or "national self-interest" or "multi-lateralism" or "sovereignty" to a world in which they are no longer relevant. The only rule of thumb that can be unfailingly applied to world-historical transformations is this: None of our currently existing ideas and principles, concepts and categories, will fit the new historical state of affairs that will emerge out of the crisis. We can only be certain of our uncertainty.

Harris explores how we got to this turning point and what some of the possibilities might be. He has this telling remark on how we can judge the outcome of this major change in history
But merely to call the Palestinian community a "state" does not and cannot transform it into a viable subsistent entity if those who govern and decide its course are utterly lacking in a sense of what is realistically available to them. And nothing highlights this more than the official explanation, on the part of Palestinian spokesmen, for those acts of terrorism committed by the suicide-bombers, the assertion that these are acts of war. For the bitter truth is that if the Palestinian people were indeed a genuine state fighting a genuine war, they would have long since been annihilated root and branch - or else they would have been forced to make a realistic accommodation with the state of Israel, based on a just assessment of the latter's immense superiority of resources, both military and political. And the reason for this superiority, by a paradox typical of history, is not American aid or funding, but the fact that the state of Israel has been forced to struggle for every moment of its existence from the very day of its birth - and it is this struggle that has made them into what no assembly of nations can ever bestow - a viable state. And unless the Palestinians as a people can set aside their fantasies of pushing a vastly superior enemy into the sea, instead of seeking out a realistic modus vivendi with him, they may demand a state, and even be "recognized" as a state. But it will exist as a viable entity only by virtue of the liberal conscience - and seemingly inexhaustible forbearance - of the Israeli people.
The author concludes with this ringing remark
Our aim is simple. It is to make the Islamic fantasists respect the dictates of reality. If they wish to compete with us, if they wish even to be our enemies, we will accept that, as we accepted this situation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But they must be made to accept the basic rules of play - rules that are accepted by the rest of mankind, from the U.S. to Communist China.

And that is why, in order to achieve our end of heightening their grasp on reality, no means should be ruled out. We must be prepared to use force "unstintingly," as Woodrow Wilson declared on America's reluctant entry into World War I. On this count, we must have no illusions. Until they are willing to play by our rules, we must be prepared to play by theirs. [more]