Civilizational Crisis: The World According to Brooks (& Robinson)

imagesI like columnist David Brooks for being a “Big Picture” kind of guy – giving the view from Olympus.

His 9/3 column finds commonality in the two big conflicts bedeviling us. Ukraine and the Islamic State might not seem direct threats to our security. (Obama calls Ukraine a “regional” conflict.) But this is myopic because “the underlying frameworks by which nations operate” and “the norms of restraint that undergird civilization,” Brooks says, “are being threatened in fairly devastating ways.” This is not geopolitical business-as-usual, but a true civilizational crisis.

I don’t say that lightly. Politicians are always burbling how the challenges of the day are somehow unique, but as a student of history, I know better. In my Rational Optimism book I argued that cynics and pessimists lacking true historical perspective don’t grasp the progress we’ve made. But that was 2009, and now in 2014 that progress is really jeopardized.

images-2Brooks casts Putin as playing, in conventional terms, a very weak hand. His country is a shit-hole. “But he is rich in brazenness . . . in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.” That’s exactly what the world (mostly) had progressed beyond.

Neither Russia’s kleptocracy nor the Islamic State can give their people a modern living standard. Putin substitutes for that the intoxication of militarist swagger; the Islamic State substitutes the intoxication of religious fervor. This Brooks calls “a coalition of the unsuccessful . . . a revolt of the weak.” Unable to play by the normal rules, they seek “to blow up the rule book.” (Thomas Friedman talks of the “world of order” versus “the world of disorder.”)

Thus while Putinism attacks a key principle of modern civilization – no grabbing territory by force – so too does the Islamic State – no imposing religion by force.

As Brooks says, you (well, Obama) might think these atavisms must ultimately fail because they are such ugly responses to human aspirations. “But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.”

images-1Put another way – people not squeamish about shooting will beat those who are.

I am tired of hearing the words, “There is no military solution.” Actually, there is. And, contrary to pacifism, there are things worth fighting for.

The Islamic State may indeed be weak, seen objectively; but it thrives on an aura of success. Osama Bin Laden was on to something in saying, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” UnknownWhile the West acts like a 97-pound weakling, the Islamic State appears to sweep all before it. That’s what attracts so many, even from the West, to its banner, heightening its seeming strength. This needs to be crushed – militarily.*

Likewise, Putin rides a wave of popularity, seen as avatar of a resurgent Russia making fools of a flabby decadent West. This too needs to be militarily crushed. What are we afraid of? That Russia will nuke us? Putin isn’t that crazy. I far more fear a future in which he did not get his nose bloodied in Ukraine.

Germany and Japan had to be militarily crushed to teach them the lesson that aggression does not pay. They learned it well, and the world is better for that. But it seems the lesson must be applied a few more times before the whole world absorbs it once and for all.

We took 10,000 years to finally achieve a world order where you don’t grab territory or impose religion by force. That is worth fighting to defend. Even pacifists should get this; it’s peace that needs fighting for.

Unknown-1But are Putin and the Islamic State right after all – have we become too flabby and pusillanimous to really defend our values?

* In Iraq. In Syria, let them and Assad’s goons kill each other, for now.

POSTSCRIPT: At today’s NATO summit, for all the bluster, nobody proposed to send Ukraine any military help, not even defensive. And the cease-fire, if it holds, locks in the Russian military gains of the last few weeks — a clear victory for Putin.

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