TERROR AND LIBERALISM

By Paul Berman

Norton. 214 pp. $21

Paul Berman favored the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He supports the war on terrorism. And he backs the current war in Iraq.

Those positions make Berman, a longtime liberal journalist, a political bedfellow of many conservatives, but he insists that he is not one of them. His reasons for adopting such stances are not right-wing but left-wing, he maintains in Terror and Liberalism. While "realists" such as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger favored driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait on geostrategic and economic grounds, Berman believes in doing battle with tyrants like Saddam Hussein in the name of antifascism -- or, as he puts it, in a struggle against totalitarianism.

Berman is aware of the many differences between the two principal political forces in the contemporary Muslim world: radical Islamism and secular-nationalist despotism. Indeed, he writes quite sharply on those differences in his long discussion of Sayyid Qutb, the mid-century guru of Islamism who was imprisoned, tortured and eventually put to death by Egypt's secular pan-Arab President Gamal Abdel Nasser. But despite their points of divergence, for Berman there is something essential that makes the fundamentalist rage of bin Laden and the secular ethnic ambitions of the Ba'ath party "two branches of a single impulse": a shared and extreme antipathy toward liberalism. Both of these branches are antidemocratic, intolerant and authoritarian to the core. And in their nihilistic celebration of death, Berman argues, they are ideologies of terror.

There is, for Berman, an even deeper affinity between these "ideological cousins," however: an underlying metaphysics of totality, an absolutist vision of existence in which either the supreme being or the supreme ruler is everything, and discord is by definition unnecessary. In this, he argues, the two worldviews share an affinity not only with one another but also with European fascism. Lest the book's title lead one to believe that Berman is positing a Manichaean logic whereby Islam = terrorist and Europe = liberal, he argues that the totalitarian tendencies in the Islamic world can be traced directly to European influences. He notes that some Islamist thinkers, including Qutb, spent time in the West, and many of them found resonances, for example, in the anti-liberal motifs in interwar German thought.

Berman is forceful and largely persuasive on this point. The anti-liberal currents in 20th-century Europe were multiple and formidable. Cataclysmic wars had to be fought to secure the victory of liberalism over its "apocalyptic" European enemies. Just as Europe was a battleground, both ideological and actual, so is the Islamic world today. Traditions are contested, and the results of those contests are never guaranteed.

Against those in both the Arab and Western world who view Islam and the West as radically incommensurate civilizations, Berman argues for a universalist perspective: Totalitarianism appears in many forms, across cultural and national boundaries. For him, the liberal struggle against totalitarianism is not about a clash between cultures or religions; it's a war of ideas, one that's been going on since the emergence of fascism and communism in the first half of the last century.

This means, among other things, that just as the Muslim world has no monopoly on the "ideologies of terror," neither does the West possess an ironclad copyright on traditions of dissent and tolerance. The liberal idea of an open and pluralistic society that upholds the right to believe (or not believe) as one chooses and to express oneself freely may have its origins in the European Enlightenment, but its proper reach is cross-cultural and transnational, Berman argues. Not only are people everywhere entitled to liberal freedoms; the struggle to win those freedoms wherever totalitarian terror reigns is, for him, the essential political task of our times.

It is appropriate that Terror and Liberalism should open with a discussion of the 1991 Gulf War. Just as the "seeming" victory in World War I turned out to require a "second round, graver and more dangerous than the first," so too, in Berman's view, did the 1991 war, which he characterizes as a triumph that "proved to be a tragedy on every count," necessitate the current war. (It's far from clear, by the way, in what respect he regards the first Gulf War as a tragedy. Surely he does not believe that the expulsion of Saddam's forces from Kuwait was tragic.) The anti-realist Berman was appalled by the cast of characters with whom the United States allied itself in that campaign, a "pirate crew of terrorists, dictators, kings, anti-Zionists, oil moguls, and one-eyed gangsters."

But this time around, Berman is hopeful that things could be different. He detects a shift toward a post-realist outlook in the current Bush administration, a muscular vision that promises "a chance to undo the whole of Muslim totalitarianism." His only complaint is that Bush seems too equivocal about this commitment to a "liberal revolution" in the Middle East. The president is torn, Berman argues, between those elements of his administration who represent the old-school realism of his father and the more aggressively ideological neoconservatives who want to visit the most convulsive upheavals upon the Islamic world.

The avowedly left-wing Berman thus finds himself allied with his own pirate crew, a "cabal" (as they have now taken to calling themselves) of neoconservatives whose commitment to liberal values and democracy is, to put it mildly, highly dubious -- their fragrant public pronouncements to the contrary notwithstanding. Depending on the outcome of the current war -- and, one must add, of those that could follow -- Berman may find future cause to regard this alliance as yet another tragedy. *

Danny Postel is a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the editor of the forthcoming "War and the Left: The Kosovo Debate Revisited."