Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"The Shah Always Falls" or why Right Makes Might

Fredric Smoler's 2003 American Heritage magazine interview with Ralph Peters titled "The Shah Always Falls" provides an excellent, detailed explanation of the flaws behind so-called "real politik" thinking. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" may superficially sound logical and prudent--until Osama bin Laden decides that defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan is a worthy prelude to taking down the World Trade Center. Peters is right that no matter how powerful he may seem, the Shah (or Saddam Hussein or any other despot) "always falls" and therefore policy decisions should be made based on what is right and what is true to our values as opposed to what seems to be expedient. The whole interview is worth reading but here are some particularly relevant quotes from Peters:

Overvaluing stability is a heritage of the Cold War, over the course of which we rationalized our support of some very cruel regimes and we deposed elected governments we didn't like. You could justify it in terms of the greater struggle. But you can't justify it now.

What I wrote was that the shah always falls in the end, Saddam always turns on you, and the Saudis always betray you. If we support evil, the longterm price is almost always too high. And now we don’t have to. Since 1989, or '91, depending on how you want to date it, we've been the only superpower. We haven't thought about what we've been doing.


In countries where there’s a struggle going on for the soul and future of Islam, the jury's still out. I'm actually increasingly optimistic. But I do believe the last couple of centuries demonstrate that cultures that oppress women, that don't have freedom of information, that don't value secular education, that have one dominant religion that infects the state and has power over the state, and whose basic unit of social organization is a clan, tribe, or extended family are just not going to compete with the West and especially with the United States. So I'm extremely pessimistic about the old Islamic heartland.

I personally feel that we've made a grotesque mistake aligning ourselves with the most oppressive of the Arabs, with the Arab world's Beverly Hillbillies. Other Arabs built Damascus, Córdoba, Baghdad, Cairo. The Saudis never built anything. The fact that they came into their oil wealth was a disaster, not for us but for the Arab world, because it gave these malevolent hicks raw economic power over the populations of poor Islamic states, such as Egypt. The line about Al Qaeda that’s absolutely true is that Saudis supplied the money and Egyptians supplied the brains. So Saudi money, spent to support their grotesquely repressive version of one of the world’s great religions, has been a disaster for the Arab world.


Freedom of information originates in two things, the movable type printing press and the Protestant Reformation. The latter benefits everybody, irrespective of his or her religion, because it breaks down the idea of there being just one path to the truth. The printing press makes the Reformation possible, because suddenly the one true church can no longer contain heretical movements. Information travels faster than it can be suppressed. And the Protestant Reformation is the seminal event in the rise of the West. It opens the door for the last great Western religion, the secular religion of science. Without that fissure, without that breakdown in the one path to the truth, you can't have science.

In Islam the historical symmetry is chilling. Within 10 years of Gutenberg's invention of movable type, a prince, astronomer, mathematician, and poet, Ulûgh Beg of Samarqand, built a great observatory. He was a genius, their Galileo, but the mullahs murdered him, and I take that moment as the point at which it all started calcifying. There are myriad factors in the Islamic decline, but the decline itself has been irreversible. Muslims never turn it around; they never have their reformation that breaks down the one true path. You're either Sunni or Shiah, or perhaps a Sufi offshoot cult. And the reason Indonesia has a chance is that it’s never signed up for one path.


Jealousy is a powerful human emotion. Hatred is a tremendous emotional release. Blame is cathartic. At this time in history, the United States is humane, free, rich, and powerful. The Arab Islamic world is just the opposite. Our success is infuriating to people who value their own culture, who love their traditions even though they no longer work, and who look at our enormous success with inchoate envy.

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