On Soviets and Islamists

“To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”

Thus wrote George Kennan, under the pseudonym “X” in the July, 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs. The article was entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”

What’s most amazing about this is not the idea that a writer in a Foreign Affairs journal would refer to us as a great nation, although I imagine that would raise some eyebrows today, but rather the applicability of his analysis, which was focused on the Soviet Union, to the forces of Islamic conquest that threaten us today.

“Ideology and circumstances” Kennan said, formed the political personality of the Soviet Union. The ideology of Marxism, which provided the impetus to overthrow the Tsars, provided little sustenance for the period following the revolution. The Bolsheviks took power with ideas on running a nation that were, “for the most part nebulous, visionary and impractical.” In this, they were not unlike the Taliban, whose zeal for the fight has been proven, but whose ability to rule has not.

This unpreparedness for rule, a direct result of the inadequacy of their philosophy, was the circumstance that forced the Communists, who were a minority in Russia, to establish a security apparatus to ensure the propagation of the party. Security in short order became suppression, which was easily justifiable considering the grim opposition facing the system that must be viewed as the only source of all good things. “…organs of suppression,” Stalin said, must be maintained, for “as long as there is a capitalistic encirclement there will be danger of intervention with all the consequences that flow from that danger.” And so it is with Islamic governments. Whether it’s the Taliban or the House of Saud, suppression is the hallmark of their rule. Suppression of ideas, of speech, of the press. All, of course, for the good of the people – as long as they recognize that all good comes from their rulers.

But the problem with this suppression, even if one accepts that it is for the good of the people, is that it generates resistance, which in turn justifies not only the extant suppression, but increasing amounts of it, which must always grow to meet the actual or perceived threat from a population that struggles under its control. In the face of this resistance, the Communist Party, the Taliban, etc – each must address itself to what Kennan called the “perfection of the dictatorship,” which is to say, consolidation of power, both in a physical sense, and in the minds of those over whom they exercise authority.

This process works in two directions. First, it goes about establishing the infallibility of the rulership. Just as the Communist Party was free to rewrite history and recast even its most recent statements, so it is with the Islamist systems, each of which claims that its direct line to heaven places it outside the realm of doubt. Secondly, it must characterize all opposition as unacceptable, and even evil. Many have already forgotten how the USSR presented capitalists as evil beyond redemption, but those who remember may find similarities in al – Qaeda et al’s representations of the United States as “the great Satan.” This not only channels the resentment of the underclass in a manageable direction, but it also shores up the infallibility claim. If one side is perfectly just, after all, it must follow that the opposition is completely evil, and if so, must be fought without reservation, which demands the complete devotion and obedience of the population.

None of this is so very remarkable, given that all cults, whether they are religious or political, follow the same arc. The party that seizes power consolidates it, wields it against anyone considered threatening, and adjusts its doctrine/theology accordingly in order to justify its atrocities. A characteristic shared by the USSR and the Islamists that may lie outside the norm, however, is their belief in the immutability of their cause. The Communists, because they believed that Capitalism contained “the seeds of its own destruction,” and the Islamists, because they believe that Allah will ultimately subjugate the world, view history and events through a long lens. They can sustain setbacks and make tactical retreats without doubting their ultimate victory.

Kennan warned that when ideology and the circumstances make rapprochement impossible, treaties, agreements, pacts are all meaningless. The USSR, Kennan warned, would consider such formalities to be nothing more than “tactical maneuvers” to be disregarded as soon as they became inconvenient or no longer beneficial. In view of this, the US must apply a “firm and vigilant containment,” one that, “has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness’.” I believe that this recommendation to a war-weary United States (You will recall that he was writing from Moscow in 1947.) would have borne significant fruit, had it been followed more rigorously. Yes, we employed a “containment” strategy against the USSR, but it was haphazard and feckless. It was marked by the uncertainty and disunity that Kennan said provided, “an exhilarating effect on the whole Communist world.” Imagine how different the world would look today if we had pushed the Russians out of East Germany before they’d had a chance to establish the Iron Curtain, or if we’d had the fortitude to confront China when she intervened in North Korea.

But we don’t need to waste much time in imagining a different past. We can direct that time and energy instead toward containing the threat of the present.

“This is not only a question of the modest measure of information activity which this government can conduct in the Soviet Union (Islamic world) and elsewhere, although that too, is important. It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a World Power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.”

And here is what I find fascinating about this article, written, as it was, more than 60 years ago, in the wake of our victory in the Second World War. It seems prescient in its understanding that our nation would face the crises of identity and vision that it faces now. Even more importantly, it strikes me as encouraging that his advice would be for our nation to rely on “its own best traditions.”

Surely, the fact that we have forgotten many of those traditions, and are having to reacquaint ourselves with them would have come as a shock to Mr. Kennan. Even so, I doubt that would have caused him to change the words with which he ended his article, words that apply still today.

“Surely there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American (Islamist-American) relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin’s (the Islamists’) challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.”

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