Let me be clear: war is never a positive good. However, a just war can produce useful by-products, and this one is no exception. For instance, I have no doubt that this country is in the midst of a soul-searching experience and dialogue like no other in at least a century, if not since the Civil War. In coffee breaks, chat rooms, talk shows, churches, schools, boardrooms, and on op/ed pages, we are re-examining the American idea and the sources of moral authority in ways that will produce renewed purpose in our society. For “wonks” like me, this is great, and I particularly like the fact that, for a change, we’re being forced into serious national debates about our convictions in matters other than material progress or the size of our 401k’s.
When we begin again to think in these terms there follows a re-evaluation of our priorities in life and the grounding of our values. I am reminded of a remark by Lynne Cheney, whom George Will has called our “secretary of domestic defense”: “A people cannot be expected to defend what they do not understand.” This is a direct reference to our higher education system and the degree to which it has distanced itself from grounding in our founding ideas. In many instances, this has been manifest in anti-Americanism, pure and simple. A reversal of this trend would be another useful by-product as well as a beneficial restoration of the mission of higher education in the transmission of our cultural heritage.
The dialogue on religion has been instructive, and I hope that another by-product will be to dispel this notion of equivalence between Islamic fanaticism and Christian fundamentalism (see “The Bin Laden Tapes” above). Bill Moyers, in his recent Middleton Lectures address, seems to think that religion will be this century’s biggest problem and that we should put our “faith” in democracy, which he feels is threatened by religious believers. In fact, democracy, properly understood, doesn’t stand a chance outside a moral order and the rule of law, which are well informed by the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Finally, as I have mentioned previously, another useful result of the war would be a transformation of the Arab world to a secular governing paradigm based on consent of the governed and the rule of law. This will no doubt be impossible without an Islamic “Reformation”, and will truly be a battle of ideas and theology that may have more to do with the shape of the world in this century than any other conflict. We in the West can not be a direct participant, but we can encourage it by facing up to the duplicity of these regimes and our complicity with them, and by forcing states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to make choices. It will not be pretty, but the battle should be fought to a conclusion because there is no room for the “Islamism” that preaches nihilism in the name of Allah. There are many cultures, but only one civilization, and the leaders of responsible Islam must decide whether or not they want their people to join it. This will be the most significant by-product of all.