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Catfish and Cod
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
The only battlefield: I. Memetic defeats have been stronger than physical defeats.
(Link path: King of the Blogs, The Right Coast, Belmont Club)

It is now almost a cliche to say that "hearts and minds" are our goal in Iraq. The one goal that all Western politicans would agree on is the desire to have an Iraq that thinks favorably of the West, and is inclined towards the behaviors of a successful modern state. Such behaviors include democracy, human rights, the rule of law, regulated capitalism, women's rights, and religious toleration; these behaviors would come at the expense of others, notably fascism, theocracy, tribalism, hatred of the West, and terrorism.

Belmont Club points out that al-Qaeda's strategy is primarily propaganda in nature. Instead of attempting to inflict actual defeat on America's armies, the primary goal of all anti-Western actions by al-Qaeda is to convince the West that the battle for "hearts and minds" cannot possibly be won. Thus, terror attacks in the West are meant to convince people that the terrorists are implacable, and that safety against terror is impossible. Terror attacks against armies in Iraq are meant to convince people that the Muslim peoples oppose them, and that the troops cannot defend themselves or the Western or Muslim peoples. Attacks against American allies among Muslims are intended to convince Westerners that cooperation with Muslims is hopeless, and to convince Muslims that cooperation with Westerners is too dangerous to be attempted.

What is defeat?

By European historical standards, we are in complete victory over Iraq. Any historical European sovereign would give his right arm to be in the situation we are in at this moment. Iraq's capital, and all its territory, are occupied. It is governed by individuals and institutions of our choosing. Resistance is contained; no other nations are moving to attack with their armed forces, either at home or in the occupied country. And all this has been achieved with minimal damage to either country's territory, economy, or population. (Casualties on both sides have been the lowest, both in absolute and relative terms, of any major war since the seventeenth century.)

Significant drawbacks, of course, have occurred. The war has left a serious hole in the budget of the American government. Our army is overextended, and our diplomatic standing has been markedly reduced. Nonetheless, by the standards of traditional European history, we have done very well indeed.

Of course, we are not traditional Europeans -- we're not Europeans at all -- and we tend to view things a little differently.

Memetic drawbacks for us

Nonetheless, it is accurate to say that the worst pains inflicted on the West in our present struggle have been conceptual in nature. Events since September 11 have forced us to reconsider the assumptions -- the memetic core, if you will -- that underlie Western society. The proper actions of a threatened nation-state, for instance, are being reconsidered. So too are the rights and responsibilities of a nation at war. The basic freedoms espoused by the West are called into question by the abuses of Abu Ghraib. Our willingness to uphold them is called into question by the rhetoric of both Left and Right. Our concepts of peace and security were completely redefined by September 11th, and continue to evolve today. Our concepts of international behavior have been completely turned on their head. The threat of al-Qaeda has caused us to question our very nature.

The internal, memetic disruption caused by al-Qaeda has been more valuable to them than any physical damage they have managed to inflict.

Memetic drawbacks for them

But the same is also true in reverse: the influx of Western ideas and the internal, memetic challenges they have posed have disrupted the Muslim societies, and al-Qaeda itself, far more than the invasion of Western armies.

Iraq in 1990, for example, possessed the fourth largest army in the world, with modern tanks and weapons. It may not have been as advanced as the American-led army that opposed it, but Iraq seemed perfectly capable on paper of putting up a good fight. Instead, the Iraqi army was utterly routed -- not for physical reasons, but for memetic ones. Iraq was not so much outfought as outthought.

What was true on the battlefield is true in general. Western concepts of law, democracy, and human rights have completely disrupted the traditional Arab few of society. The tribe, sultanate, sheikhdom, emirate, and caliphate were thrown into total disarray by Western ideas. Likewise, Arab views of family life and male-female interaction were, and continue to be, subjects of deep internal dissension in Muslim society. Exterior relationships, too, are completely changed, as tolerance has given way to interolence and vice versa. Like the West, dar al-Islam is hampered, not by physical problems, but by disagreement over its own self-concepts.