Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Churchill and Islam

As I noted in my post last week, Winston Churchill cultivated the image of himself as the prophet who warned of the threats to liberty: first Hitler's Nazism, then Stalin's Communism. Now he is also being portrayed by others as a prophet who saw the threat of Islam over 100 years before 9/11.

If you do a Google search for "Churchill Islam" you will find endless pages, all quoting comments on Islam that Churchill wrote in his 1899 book The River War:
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property - either as a child, a wife, or a concubine - must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. 
Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die. But the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytising faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science - the science against which it had vainly struggled - the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.
The general tone of these pages is "Churchill saw it coming. He tried to warn us about Islamism, just as he warned us against Nazism and Communism." If one reads some of the commentary on pages which quote these words (and I can't recommend that anyone do so), there is, not surprisingly, a lot of anti-Muslim bigotry. But there is more than that: what emerges is the fusion of two different strands of thought, a strange amalgamation of the religious mindset of the Crusades with the ideological battles of the 20th century (especially the cold war).

The Crusader imagery is overt. One video, showcasing Churchill's remarks, begins with an image of a crusader knight, and then the blood-red title "The Crusader" fades in. It states, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, "Muslims have never been able to create anything really useful." It also asserts the cultural inferiority of Islamic lands: "Compare what billions of muslims [sic] have been able to come up with against a small number of Jewish intelligentsia, a fraction of one percent of the muslim [sic] population and the gulf between the ignorant backward culture of mohammedianism [sic] and other faith based cultures is obvious."

Others go back even further and refer in reverential terms to Charles Martel, who is praised as saving the West from Islam at the battle of Portiers in France in 732. On a web site that defends Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who has called for banning the Quran (he compares it to Mein Kampf), eliminating immigration from Muslim countries, and prohibiting the construction of new mosques, there is a comment that specifically connects Wilders to Martel and Churchill: "Geert Wilders is the modern European hero fighting against evil, like Charles Martell [sic], Jan Sobieski [who was responsible for the defeat of the Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683] and Winston Churchill."  As the picture below shows, the phrase "Islamo-fascism" further enhances the connection to Churchill the prophet.

In this mindset, we see the blanket condemnation of all things Muslim.  There is no attempt to distinguish between radicals and violent extremists on the one hand and peaceful adherents of Islam on the other. All Muslims are guilty. The current struggle is with the religion itself, and goes back 1400 years.

Of course, in most polite political circles today, such ideas are beyond the pale. What is so insidious about the Churchill quotation is that it is used to validate ancient historical prejudices and wrap them in a cloak of modern respectability. After all, to reject Churchill's words about Islam is to make yourself into a latter-day Neville Chamberlain, foolishly appeasing evil.

These sites also show how the tropes of anti-communism are being grafted onto Islamophobia. One of the first things that struck me is the prevalence of references to "useful idiots." Students of communism will recognize that phrase--it has been attributed to Lenin, to refer to naive liberals who trusted the radical communists and then were used by them.

Today the phrase has new currency referring to anyone who resists anti-Muslim bigotry. In 2002, Cal State Fresno professor Bruce Thornton wrote: "Now the useful idiots can be found in the chorus of appeasement, reflexive anti-Americanism, and sentimental idealism trying to inhibit the necessary responses to another freedom-hating ideology, radical Islam." Conservative columnist Mona Charen used the phrase as the title of her 2004 book, suggesting a line of continuity from this alleged cold war naivete to the fight against Al Qaeda. What this signifies, I suspect, is how much Islam has come to replace communism in the right-wing mind since 9/11.

If this were all relegated to the darker corners of the internet, that would be one thing. But the Churchill quotation occasionally finds its way to more "respectable" places as well. Radio host Michael Savage has read it on his show, and then proceeded to talk about "front groups for radical Islam." (The phrase "front groups" of course also has a long anti-communist lineage.)

That same mindset of infiltration that is the point of Savage's rant is also behind the recent attack by Michele Bachmann and four other members of Congress on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin. In a letter to the State Department, they charge "information has recently come to light that raises serious questions about Department of State policies and activities that appear to be a result of the influence operations conducted by individuals and organizations associated with the Muslim Brotherhood." Like the red-baiters of the late 1940s and 1950s, they find in any policy with which they disagree the influence of the foreign "other."

The Churchill quotation shows up in the "comments" section of the website of Daniel Pipes, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard. After 9/11, Pipes created Islamist Watch, to track attempts to impose Islamic law on the U.S. His most recent post on his blog is fulsome in its praise of Mitt Romney's speech in Jerusalem. Pipes pays no attention to the most controversial part of the speech, in which Romney suggested that the reason that Israel's economy outpaces that of the Palestinians is culture: "if you could learn anything from the economic history of the world it’s this: culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference."

It is hard not to notice that Churchill's words associate Islam with poverty. I do not believe Romney was in any way referencing the Churchill quotation or trying to appeal to people familiar with it. (David Frum had an interesting post recently suggesting that Fox News often does engage in conscious appeals to this dark underside of our political discourse--he calls it the "Fox News Wink.")

My point is that once reasonable ideas can be bastardized by fringe elements, and then these more unseemly underground manifestations have a way of bubbling back up to mainstream discourse, even in ways that the speaker may not realize--but the listeners certainly do.

This Churchill quotation serves as a rhetorical bridge for extremists--it connects the modern struggle against radical Islamists such as Al Qaeda and its offshoots with both the historical defense of Christian Europe from the Muslim invaders and the liberal democratic capitalist resistance to the radical ideologies of the 20th century. That is a potent combination. It is also a toxic one. In neither case is it fueled by any sophisticated understanding of those historical episodes. Instead, it taps into the worst aspects--the fear and hatred and tribalism--that emerged from both.

Going back to the original incident that prompted this discussion--Romney's pander about returning the bust of Churchill to the Oval Office--I think the lesson is this: Words have historical baggage. When politicians are tempted to use certain forms of cultural shorthand to score quick and easy political points, they would be well-advised to tread carefully--you never know what kind of message you may be sending.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Churchill, Romney, and Modern American Conservatism

In Wednesday's post, I concluded with a series of questions:
How is it that a perceived slight to the memory of a British leader has come to suggest a lack of American patriotism?
How did Churchill become more "American" than the American president?
The bust of Churchill is obviously symbolic--but symbolic of what exactly?
My short answer is this: I think many of today's American conservatives who embrace Churchill do so because they embrace Churchill's vision of a world benignly managed by the "English-speaking peoples." Romney's pandering on the Churchill bust is a desperate attempt to both appeal to those conservatives and wrap himself in the image of a well-known decisive leader.

Seeing the waning power of the British Empire after World War II, Churchill sought to bolster it by forging not just an alliance with the United States, but something close to a union with it. That union, he argued, could effectively manage world affairs far into the future, as a new, updated, and revived version of the British Empire.

In a sense, Churchill became American because he sought to erase the differences between the British and the Americans. Churchill himself embodied that union--he was literally half-American. His mother was born in Brooklyn. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy even made him an honorary citizen of the United States (perhaps to immunize himself against charges that his anti-colonial Irish heritage made him hostile to Britain?), calling Churchill "a son of America though a subject of Britain."

Most importantly, Churchill almost single-handledly created the "special relationship." The phrase was in fact coined by Churchill himself in 1944, but he had held the idea for many years.  Fraser Harbutt, author of The Iron Curtain: Churchill, America, and the Cold War, writes that as early as 1931, Churchill believed that the "two great opposing forces of the future ... would be the English-speaking peoples and Communism." 

Today, most Americans tend to think of the "special relationship" in general terms to mean simply that the United States and Great Britain have been close allies since World War II. But for Churchill, it meant much more than that. The vision he sketched in Fulton, Missouri in 1946 was for a virtual Anglo-American union which would keep the postwar peace.
Churchill delivering the "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, MO, March 1946, with President Truman seated on his right.

Churchill used the phrase "special relationship" twice in his Fulton speech, and he said "English-speaking" people (or world) on five different occasions.

Churchill consciously cultivated not just a connection, but a complete identification between the two nations. The Fulton speech was a pivotal part of that. His conscious goal was to wed the two in common cause. He called the United States a "kindred nation" and said it was "necessary that the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war."

For Churchill, the combination of Britain and America was essential. He said that to fail to achieve this virtual unity of Britain and the United States threatened the world with the return of "the dark ages." Peace depended on "what I have called the fraternal association of the English-speaking peoples. This means a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States of America."

Few people today realize that the "special relationship" Churchill envisioned was far more ambitious than what actually developed. He called for the virtual merging of the American and British militaries: "It should carry with it the continuance of the present facilities for mutual security by the joint use of all Naval and Air Force bases in the possession of either country all over the world. This would perhaps double the mobility of the American Navy and Air Force."

Churchill called for "such co-operation ... in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force" to insure that "there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure. On the contrary there will be an overwhelming assurance of security."

Churchill even looked forward to the day when not only he, but every Briton and every American, would be citizens of both countries: "Eventually there may come -- I feel eventually there will come -- the principle of common citizenship, but that we may be content to leave to destiny, whose outstretched arm many of us can already clearly see."

Churchill's vision was no short-term expedient, meant simply to meet the immediate postwar challenges: "if all British moral and material forces and convictions are joined with your own in fraternal association, the highroads of the future will be clear, not only for our time, but for a century to come."

What Churchill was proposing was nothing less than an Anglo-American condominium to keep the world peace; not the American Century, but the Anglo-American Century.

This, I argue, is why Churchill is even more attractive to some American neoconservatives today, 20 years after the end of the cold war, than he was during the cold war. We tend to remember the Fulton speech as a cold war warning only, but the fear of communism had a larger purpose for Churchill. Like Churchill, American neoconservatives believe that the "English-speaking peoples," by virtue of their "moral and material forces," are fit to manage the world.

Mitt Romney's trip to London not only prompted my questions; I think the complete story of that trip illustrates the above answer.

Romney made the statement about the Churchill bust at a fundraiser. He was not pandering to the British--by law Romney could only raise money from American citizens in Britain, not from British citizens. He was appealing to American conservatives who idolize Churchill.

But more importantly, the Churchill bust was not the only Romney story to come from the London trip. The controversial comments of unnamed "Romney advisors" are even more illuminating and make the connection between the bust and this larger foreign policy vision.

In a story in The Telegraph, those anonymous sources were quoted criticizing President Obama and explaining why a President Romney would be better for Britain. It is important to look at everything they said, to get the full effect:
"We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special,” the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: "The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have."
"Obama is a Left-winger," said another. "He doesn’t value the Nato alliance as much, he’s very comfortable with American decline and the traditional alliances don’t mean as much to him. He wouldn’t like singing 'Land of Hope and Glory'." [This is roughly equivalent to criticizing a British leader for not being comfortable singing "God Bless America."]
The two advisers said Mr Romney would seek to reinstate the Churchill bust displayed in the Oval Office by George W. Bush but returned to British diplomats by Mr Obama when he took office in 2009. One said Mr Romney viewed the move as 'symbolically important' while the other said it was 'just for starters,' adding: 'He is naturally more Atlanticist.'
After criticism of those comments (particularly the racial implications of the phrase "Anglo-Saxon heritage"), Romney "distanced himself" from them. "I don't agree with whoever that adviser is," Romney said.

Nonetheless, I think it is important to view Romney's Churchill bust remark in the context of these other comments. The Romney aides themselves made the connection--it was all of one piece. They said that Romney appreciates the "Anglo-Saxon heritage" (not all that different from "English-speaking peoples"), was "more naturally" comfortable with British culture and the "special relationship" and correctly predicted that Romney would say that he plans to make the "symbolically important" step of returning the Churchill bust to the Oval Office to signify all of those things.

In doing so, Romney is singing the Churchill-adoring, neoconservative tune.

The neoconservative choirmaster is Charles Krauthammer. It was Krauthammer who, in his column last week, revived this nonsense over the Churchill bust. The point of his piece, however, was that Romney's choices of destinations on his trip were meaningful. He would be the anti-Obama, affirming support for Britain and Israel and, via the trip to Poland, animosity toward Russia (they have trouble completely letting go of the cold war).

Krauthammer is an unabashed advocate of American unilateralism in foreign policy. Churchill's Fulton speech, despite the occasional nod to the new United Nations, is an argument against the kind of multilateralism that neoconservatives such as Krauthammer hold in utter disdain. Krauthammer believes--like Churchill--in the idea of a "benignly" managed empire.

As the cold war was ending in 1990--a time of transition not unlike 1946 in some ways--Krauthammer published "The Unipolar Moment."  He wrote: "The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies." He argued that the West needed to develop "antiballistic missile and air defense systems to defend against those weapons that do escape Western control or preemption." [emphasis added]

In Krauthammer's world view, the sin of multilateralism is that it seeks to "restrain the American Gulliver and remake him into a tame international citizen." For Krauthammer, the United States should always be the tamer, never the tamed.

A dozen years later, he argued that one "effect of September 11 was to accelerate the realignment of the current great powers, such as they are, behind the United States." It was, in a sense, Churchill's Fulton vision finally come to pass.

Writing on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, Krauthammer concluded confidently: "The new unilateralism argues explicitly and unashamedly for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America’s unrivaled dominance for the foreseeable future." That dominance would be "managed benignly" by the United States, he said. Americans had the duty to manage the world: "To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep it."

This, effectively, was also what Churchill was saying to the United States in 1946. Churchill sought, of course, to be America's equal partner, while Krauthammer sees Britain as merely one of its attending allies. The vision is fundamentally the same: by virtue of its "moral and material forces," Americans must dominate the international system.

To the extent that Mitt Romney has had a foreign policy vision, this is it. As I noted in an analysis of Romney's speech at the Citadel back in October, the Romney foreign policy amounts to little more than mindless muscle-flexing. He said then, in a passage he repeated a couple of weeks ago in a speech to the VFW: "This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your President. You have that President today." In ominous tones reminiscent of the Fulton speech, he warned of a "global alliance of authoritarian states." His simple-minded answer was a "strategy of American strength" leading to a new "American century."

Romney's foreign policy advisors are working hard to cast him in a Churchillian mold, to present him as strong where President Obama is allegedly weak and "eager to address the world with an apology on his lips."

This superficial attempt to claim the mantle of Churchill should make all Americans suspicious. Recall who started all of this by requesting that bust of Churchill in the first place: George W. Bush.

Why did Bush want the bust? It seems Churchill reminded him of, well, himself:
People said why would you be interested in having a bust of an Englishman in your Oval Office and the answer is that he was one of the great leaders in the 20th century. He stood on principle. He was a man of great courage. He knew what he believed, and he really kind of went after it in a way that seemed like a Texan to me, wasn't afraid of public opinion polls, he wasn't afraid of, he didn't need focus groups to tell him what was right, he charged ahead and the world is better for it.
Bush wanted to associate himself with those leadership traits that he identified in Churchill, and we know how that turned out. Bush was, to say the least, no Churchill.

Now Mitt Romney is doing the same thing. As Bush once tried to say, "Fool me once ..."

[In the course of working on this post, I concluded that I have two separate explanations that I'd like to explore--one more respectable (above), another more disturbing. I'll examine the latter in a subsequent post.]

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Quick Note on the Bust Kerfuffle

Another reason the Churchill bust has been in the news is that the columnist Charles Krauthammer cited it last week in explaining Romney's trip to Britain. His comments prompted a rebuff from Dan Pfeiffer at the White House, claiming the bust had never left the White House. Pfeiffer then had to apologize and admit that it had. Turns out there are two busts of Churchill, one of which remains in the residence--the one in the picture of Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama.

So, the White House looks incompetent at best, and Krauthammer comes out smelling like a rose.

Not quite.

This is what Charles Krauthammer said on Bill O'Reilly's program: "All I know is that the British reaction to the return of the bust was extremely negative, and it felt like it was an insult, that this was a gift after 9/11 to show solidarity. The British had soldiers serving with us at the time in Iraq and Afghanistan, really standing shoulder to shoulder and this was a slight. That's how they saw it."

There is nothing true about that passage by Krauthammer. The bust was a loan, not a gift. It was given before, not after 9/11; it therefore had nothing to do with the fact that American and British soldiers later served together in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a personal gesture to the new president, George W. Bush, not a symbol of the "special relationship."

The Churchill bust was presented to Bush on July 16, 2001, a week before Bush was to visit Great Britain. As Bush explained in his remarks after the presentation, the British gesture was prompted by a remark by Bush:

"I think I casually mentioned to the ambassador right after my swearing in, I lamented the fact that there was not a proper bust of Winston Churchill for me to put in the Oval Office. He's a man of great action. Here sits a bust on loan from Her Majesty's Government which I accept gratefully."

Two things are significant here: 1) the Churchill bust ended up in the Oval Office due to a remark made by Bush, and 2) Bush himself acknowledged in accepting it that it was not a permanent gift but was on loan to him. So the idea that it was done at the initiative of the British and that to return it was some kind of insult is patently false. It was loaned to Bush personally at his request and returned when he left office.

These are easily verified facts. It took me a matter of seconds to find out when Bush received the bust. Krauthammer evidently never bothered to find out, because the facts did not fit his pre-determined narrative that the Obama administration deliberately insulted the British, a line he has been pushing for years.

The White House apologized for its error. It will be interesting to see if Krauthammer acknowledges his.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Romney's Foreign Bust

No, I'm not referring to Mitt's misadventures abroad this week. Those have received substantial (and in some cases, hilarious) attention. I mean the Churchill bust.

While holding a fundraiser in London that reportedly raked in over $2 million for Romney's campaign, Romney said: "I’m looking forward to the bust of Winston Churchill being in the Oval Office again."

In doing so, he revived a silly story that made the rounds early in the Obama presidency. In the years since, it has become common in anti-Obama emails bouncing around the internet. It goes like this: Obama, seething with anger over Britain's colonial rule over Kenya, deliberately insulted Great Britain by evicting a bust of Churchill that had been in the Oval Office ever since 9/11 July 2001.

In reality, the bust was on temporary loan, as the White House has repeatedly pointed out. The British Embassy in Washington issued this statement to clear it up:
The bust of Sir Winston Churchill, by Sir Jacob Epstein, was lent to the George W Bush administration from the UK’s Government Art Collection, for the duration of the Presidency. When that administration came to an end so did the loan; the bust now resides in the British Ambassador’s Residence in Washington DC. The White House collection has its own Epstein bust of Churchill, which President Obama showed to Prime Minister Cameron when he visited the White House in March.
In short, there was no anti-colonial pique on Obama's part. So why all the fuss?

Prime Minister Cameron and President Obama examine the bust that still resides in the White House.
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

There are two things at work here. One is the ongoing, pervasive attempt to present President Obama as a foreign "other." Obama's alleged motivation in this fable is his identification with this Kenyan heritage. Though not nearly as stupid as the birther claim that he was born in Kenya, this slightly more respectable version plays footsie with bitherism. Its height was Dinesh D'Souza's article in Forbes (later made more famous by Newt Gingrich) that asserted that the key to understanding Obama was that he inherited an "anti-colonial ideology" from his Kenyan father. Lately, Romney has been flirting with this fringe concept by repeatedly referring to Obama's ideas as "extraordinarily foreign."

The other factor, however, has little to do with Obama. It is the odd love affair today's American conservatives have with Winston Churchill.

I'm not saying there is nothing to admire in Churchill. In 2002, a poll in Britain named him the most admired Briton in history (though in 2008, in another poll, 23% of Britons said he was a myth while 53% said Sherlock Holmes was real). In the 1950s, Americans regularly placed him among the top ten most admired figures in the world.

That makes sense. Through radio reports and movie newsreels, Americans came to know Churchill during World War II. He personified the stoic, gritty, stubborn resistance of the British people to Hitler's aggression.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the fawning, uncritical hero-worship of Churchill among American conservatives nearly 50 years after his death.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Churchill's reputation was based to a great extent on his record as a critic of appeasement. Unlike Neville Chamberlain and his government, Churchill recognized Hitler's danger early on. (Churchill's champions rarely recall, however, that three weeks after Hitler came to power in 1933, Churchill criticized the young Englishmen of the Oxford Union Society who voted not to "fight for country or King" by comparing them unfavorably to young Germans: "I think of Germany, with its splendid clear-eyed youth marching forward on the road of the Reich singing their ancient songs, demanding to be conscripted into an army; eagerly seeking the most terrible weapons of war; burning to suffer and die for their fatherland.")

For a generation of Americans that came to see appeasement as the great failure of their times, Churchill was the unheeded prophet. When he came to Fulton, Missouri in March 1946 and delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech, Churchill quite consciously exploited that status and looked to convert it into American support for a hard-line policy against the Soviet Union: "Last time I saw it all coming and I cried aloud to my own fellow-countrymen and to the world, but no one paid any attention."

In conservative circles in the United States after World War II, it became commonplace to deride Franklin D. Roosevelt as the naive, idealistic dupe who was taken in by Stalin at Yalta, while Churchill was the wise, cunning statesman who was never fooled by the communist dictator.

This is a convenient myth. Shortly after the Yalta meeting, Churchill remarked to Hugh Dalton: "Chamberlain believed he could trust Hitler. He was wrong. But I don't think I am wrong about Stalin."

Like FDR, Churchill thought the Yalta agreement was the best they could do, given the power realities on the ground in Europe. In the decades since, however, the myth of Churchill's prescience has only grown, fostered in no small part by his own conscious cultivation of it in his memoirs and elsewhere. As he once put it: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."

But this image alone is, I think, inadequate to explain the fetishizing of Churchill today--particularly the way it has grown over the last decade.

How is it that a perceived slight to the memory of a British leader has come to suggest a lack of American patriotism?

How did Churchill become more "American" than the American president?

The bust of Churchill is obviously symbolic--but symbolic of what exactly?

I'll attempt to answer that in my next post.