After reading this chapter, I have to agree with MP's
assessment that Harris oversimplifies. This oversimplification seems worse than generalization as generalizing, if done carefully, sometimes allows one to get to fundamental truths. But Harris' oversimplification ignores the realities, both historic and current, so to fit the Middle East problem within his categories. Harris is trying to fit the proverbial square peg in the round hole. This is ironic because Harris' main point in this chapter seems to be that our current categories are obsolete in the 'new historical epoch' and the 'liberal world order' can neither describe or deal with today's demands.
I don't see how Saddam Hussein's Iraq or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is new and something not seen by the world in past epochs. Is oppressive despotism something that Saddam Hussein invented? The ancient nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has already been pointed out in an earlier post by MP
One of my main problems with Harris is his argument for a sense of the realistic
or lack thereof in the Middle East. To make his point he uses a derivation of Marx's alienation theory. That is that man gets a sense of the realistic by applying his labor to the materialistic world around him, and that sense of the realistic is universal and not culturally dependent.
Of course, Harris' extension of this theory to nations is nothing that Marx ever did. Nor was Marx's point that man lost a "sense of the realistic". Marx's point was that capitalism alienated man from his labor (a source of human fulfillment). Marx was criticizing capitalism and its negative effect upon the individuals that participate in its economic organization. Harris uses a perverted Marxist argument to say that Iraq, like much of the Middle-East, has had everything handed to it and therefore has no sense of the real demands of the world. Because they have not worked for it, in essence, they are spoiled babies whose imaginations run wild.
The problem with Harris' argument is that it would apply to any and all capitalistic societies. In fact, his argument against reaping the benefits -- and often ridiculously large benefits -- of scare natural resources is an argument against one of the fundamental principles of capitalism. The name 'capitalism' itself embodies this idea. Capitalism is not just the investment of built up capital in factories, but it is also the capital ownership of scare resources. Under Harris' argument, the DeBeers should be a bunch of crazed fanatics because all they ever did was own South African beaches where they could pick-up diamonds out of the sand -- not a lot of tough labor involved there.
As far as societies losing a grasp upon reality because they reap the benefits of their geographical location, I think one example will do to disprove this thesis. Harris says about Iraq,
Iraq was paid for its oil, which in turn paid for its weapons, and both were produced by us, to be used against us.
Taking an old historical example: Macedonia was paid for its gold, which in turn paid for its weapons, which in turn were used against the Greeks and rest of the world to establish a world empire. Does Harris believe that Macedonia's lack of hard work, especially compared to the rest of the classical Greeks who worked harder than we do today, caused Phillip and Alexander to not have a sense of the realistic
Further, using Harris' developmental thesis, I think it would be hard to argue that the Arab world had less a sense of reality than the United States. We, again using Harris' argument, have had a fairly easy go of it in our climb to power when historically compared to any other region of the world or epoch. Our geographical isolation from competing states has made our external security pretty easy. On the other hand, the Arabs are more keenly aware of their history (even if slanted by a religious perspective) and the history of that region. They know about the difficult struggles that that history speaks to. Harris also ignores that the majority of the Arab street is living on a subsistence level. They struggle with nature daily just to survive, while we live in air conditioning. I think that Marx would argue that the Arabs are more in touch with their labor and the materialistic (real) world than we are.
I do think that Harris has hit on something in his belief that the Arab world is out of touch with the reality situation; I just don't think that his materialistic
Marxist argument can be the reason for it. I think we need to look somewhere else (perhaps religion?). (I do think it is kind of funny that Harris relies so much on Marxist materialism. This is the same Marx that developed the 'fantasy' of materialistic/economic determinism that leads to a socialist utopia and end of history.)
Neither does Harris' argument that the liberal world system and 'honorific' states bolster his lack of sense of realism
argument. He says,
...think back to the old chaotic world in which the rules of realpolitik operated: there, if a state pursued a domestic or a foreign policy that was too grossly unrealistic, it would inevitably pay the price of doing so... The price of any nation-state's survival was the cultivation of a heightened sense of realism.
Let's first take foreign policy. If we just look at recent history, the Middle East, according to Harris' argument, should have an all too real sense of realism. The 1941 invasion of Iraq by the British to put down an Islamic fundamentalist movement; the Iran-Iraq War; all the Arab wars with Israel; the first Gulf War; Palestinian frustrations; Lebanon; the general frustrated attempts of radical Islam to unite or gain control of Arab governments; etc. By Harris' argument, shouldn't all of these failures have given the Arab world a sense of reality?
From a domestic standpoint, in what way does liberal internationalism sanction the status quo of despotism? The international community, post Cold War Soviet-USA competition, does not guarantee despots their position vis-a-vis internal politics. If anything, we work explicitly to establish democratic revolutions. The problem, of course, is that these despots have such a tight domestic control on their populations (a condition that according to Harris' own argument makes them a "genuine state") that these efforts are seldom realized.
Harris also seems to suggest that if international liberalism would let the natural world order progress, that these tyrannies would cease to exist (one way or another) and nicely progress toward liberal democracies (maybe he has read too much of that idealist Hegel). But the problem is that historical events and the real
world tell us otherwise. Just look at Haiti if you question this.
And all this is what I don't understand in his end of classical sovereignty argument. By his very definition all the states in the Middle East, with the exception of Palestine, meet his test as a classical genuine state. Which country in the Middle East doesn't? Did not Saddam Hussein struggle, albeit with disgusting methods, to become the despot he was? Despite their internal difficulties, which Middle East state does not maintain itself? Although this might often be violent, is it any different than the majority of classical nation-states throughout history?
What proof, what specific argument does Harris offer of how if the liberal system was abandoned that these states "...would have long been extripated, or else... they would have rapidly shed their delusions for a more realistic manner of proceeding"? Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia; please give us an example.
Summarizing his chapter, Harris says, "In sum, the modern liberal world system has permitted the growth of power in the hands of those who have not had to cope with reality in order to acquire this power." Did not Saddam Hussein have to "cope with reality" to acquire his power? The Taliban fought to gain control of Afghanistan over the 'honorific' government put in place by the Soviets when they withdrew. (I'm not sure how the Taliban was ever 'honorific' since the West and U.N. would not recognize them as a legitimate state.) The Iranian government overthrew the U.S. backed and supported Shah in violent popular revolution. These are just a few counter examples of those who had to "cope with reality" in order to acquire, and maintain, power. Again, Harris seems more concerned with fitting the Middle East within his categories than the true historical record.
This is a shame because I think that Harris might have hit upon something with the idea that radical Islamists portray a lack of a sense of the real. But his argument of why just doesn't hold up under scrutiny.