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"Islamic Fascism" - The Buzzword That Makes Us Weaker

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The term "Islamic fascism" is demonstrably inaccurate in describing the threat we face. It's been ginned up to stifle any genuine debate about how best to defend ourselves, and for partisan political gain. But that's not the worst of it: it also weakens us. It uses a false historical analogy to confuse us, leaving us less able to analyze and react to the genuine dangers around us.

"Islamic fascism" (let's call it "IF") promoters are fond of quoting George Santayana, who said "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The problem is that they've completely failed to grasp the lessons of history, and have crafted a term that misleads and paralyzes.

Here's an epigram for you: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to mindlessly repeat Santayana's epigram about those who cannot remember the past.

IF is a propaganda creation in the classic sense of the term. Anyone with a grasp of history knows that "fascism" entails intense nationalism and collaboration with large corporations, both of which Islamists reject. They do practice intense control of individual behavior, which is hateful but not limited to fascist movements.

So why use the term? For one thing, it evokes our Second World War enemies. There was clarity of purpose in WWII - we all knew the enemy and were united in our intent. Opposing the allies' military strategy was tantamount to undermining the war effort. And the President's judgment was never questioned.

Lastly - and most importantly - the appeasement strategy of Neville Chamberlain has echoed down the years as one of history's tragic mistakes. Calling Islamism "fascism" allows purveyors of a failed military strategy - most recently Donald Rumsfeld - to try hiding their ineptitude behind the charge that their critics are Chamberlains.

In short, it's subliminal sucker bait. Too bad that Richard Cohen had to fall for it so overtly, while most of the term's adherents manage to be more subtle about it. (I can almost picture the Rove team rolling their eyes and saying "Don't be so obvious, Richard. You'll blow if for the rest of us.")

One of the goals of Cohen's muddled piece (it seems to have several) is to argue that the French don't want to join the Lebanese peacekeeping force, which is wrong ... or are simply asking questions, which is good ... and that Winston Churchill and FDR were great leaders who understood the danger posed by Hitler ... except they didn't in 1938. And it's 1938 again. Or maybe it's 1914.

Or something like that.

Cohen's only real point is that insufficient aggression toward the Islamic enemy (according to some vague measure that he'll no make up as he goes along) is a sure sign that this is 1938 ... or 1914 ... and we're being Neville Chamberlain or somebody else that didn't understand "fascism."

There are signs, says Cohen, that Europe has "lost the political will." For what, exactly? He doesn't say. (Matt Yglesias has a good piece about the Cohen column, which I found via Atrios.)

It's the same fuzzy logic that Rumsfeld - the High Lama of fuzzy logic - used the other day to batter critics of the war. Here's why some people are pushing the IF myth: It stifles discussion, and it suggests to the public that we're in a clean, simple war against a clear enemy.

You've seen the movies, or you were there. Victory Bonds. V for Victory. Win With Winnie. Spike Jones records. Who could argue with that? IF marginalizes dissent and makes it look like extremism.

OK, so it helps protect the inept crowd currently mismanaging our defense. How does this manufactured term actually hurt our national security efforts? Here's how: It blinds us to the real situation. IF's adherents use it to point out that negotiation such as Chamberlain's can never work against this enemy. And you know what? when it comes to non-state actors, they're right.

What they fail to point out is that military victory, in the classic sense of the term, will never end the threat either. (See Kathleen Reardon on this point.) Hitler and Mussolini were identifiable targets, and their governments were definable entities that could surrender and be replaced.

You can assassinate as many leaders as your military capability allows, and you'll still never end the threat. (Ask Israel.) Hang Ahmadinejad from a lamp pole Mussolini-style, if you like. There'll be another, more extreme leader in his place tomorrow.

A smart defense begins with a clear understanding of the danger, one that's unencumbered by ideology or propaganda tropes. First, you must separate dangerous nations from regional political movements like Hezbollah and Hamas, and then distinguish both from the non-state freelancers like Al Qaeda. Then you must develop a targeted strategy for each.

For freelancers, aggressive police work. For regional political movements, an strategy that factors in demographics, the host countries, and nearby nations. For nations, an clear-eyed assessment that looks at the country's strengths, weaknesses, internal divisions, and economy.

Take Iran, for example: that state contains multiple seats of power, especially between Ahmadinejad as the elected leader and Ayatollah Khamenei as its designated spiritual leader. There are signs of fragmentation between the two, particularly on the issue of nuclear development.

A misguided belief in "fascism" suggests that Iran is under the highly centralized control of its President. That's not true, and we should be exploiting that country's internal divisions at the same time that we set clear limits about what we consider an acceptable threat.

(We should not, however, exploit those divisions ineptly and publicly the way Bush did. His statements in support of the democratic opposition movement during the last election helped Ahmadinejad become President.)

The term "Islamic fascism" paints all Muslims with the same brush, reducing our ability to recognize the different players and form an individualized strategy for each. It's precisely this kind of simplistic thinking that led us to endorse Israel's recent incursion into Lebanon.

That move strengthened Hezbollah immeasurably in Lebanon and worldwide, weakened more moderate Lebanese factions, and turned the Lebanese government into an implacable foe. (That's the same Lebanese government we were celebrating for its opposition to Syria. We've now driven them further into the enemy camp.) The end result: damage to our own national security, and a negative outcome for our ally Israel.

The IF term also impedes our ability to use diplomacy. Diplomacy is a strategic defense tool, and should always be available to our leadership. It isn't "appeasement" to negotiate with Iran, or any other state actor, provided we're able to verify any terms we negotiate and respond accordingly if they're violated.

Somehow, the same people who deride those who would negotiate with Iran as Neville Chamberlains are celebrating Britain's negotiated settlement with ... Qaddafi! Qaddafi, who brought down an American airliner and killed all aboard, is an acceptable negotiating partner. So is Pakistan, an Islamic state. Yet anyone who suggests a similar tactic with Iran is an "appeaser."

(And let's put to rest the canard that Qaddafi was driven to the bargaining table as a result of our Iraq invasion. He had been making the same overtures for years. They were finally accepted when it was politically expedient for Blair and Bush to do so.)

There are very bad people out there who want to hurt us. Negotiation with the likes of Bin Laden is futile and foolish. The only remedy for Bin Laden is his removal from the scene. The only reasonable role for negotiation in the Bin Laden matter is to maximize the number of states willing to help us find and eliminate him, and others like him.

A Muslim world that knows we have friends as well as enemies within it will generate enemies less frequently. When it does create foes, we'll have more allies to help us fight them. When our leaders use a term like "Islamic fascism," however, it sends a message: You're all our enemies. That's not just inaccurate, it weakens us by depriving us of resources within the Islamic sphere.

The Richard Cohens and Donald Rumsfelds of this world use the "Islamic fascism" label whenever it suits them politically. No more, no less. Tragically, it blinds the public to the complexities of the Muslim world. It limits our ability to see the ways in which some parts of this world can help us, while others can be eliminated as a threat without the sacrifice of their citizens' lives or ours. it evens limits our ability to wage war.

It also limits our ability to understand the ways we can be of service to parts of that world, helping to bring it forward into the 21st Century. That's in everybody's best interest.

UPDATE: A commenter points out that I initially suggested Cohen's piece complained about Europe - or others - being insufficiently aggressive against Iran. It's a fair criticism. Cohen wrote this about Iran in a different piece: "History may well judge the war to topple Saddam Hussein 'The War of the Wrong Consonant' because it was waged against Iraq, not Iran."

In fairness, however, he does not directly address Iran in this column. I've therefore reworded the offending sentence. It could be argued, however, that an Iran agenda is implicit in his argument that "we can all see war coming" - except the French, of course - and that "Europe without American leadership is a mere tourist destination."

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