Niall Ferguson on Islamo-Bolshevism
In this month's issue of Foreign Affairs, Niall Ferguson -- one of the best gifts Glasgow has bestowed upon the world in recent times -- has an interesting article entitled Sinking Globalization. Essentially the article presents a possible doomsday scenario that draws parallels between the perils of today and those of the 1910s. One aspect of his thesis that is particularly chilling is his comparison between Osama bin Laden and Vladimir Lenin:
It is a big mistake to think of al Qaeda as "Islamo-fascist" ... Al Qaeda's members are much more like "Islamo-Bolshevists," committed to revolution and a reordering of the world along anti-capitalist lines.Like the Bolsheviks in 1914, these Islamist extremists are part of an underground sect, struggling to land more than the occasional big punch on the enemy. But what if they were to get control of a wealthy state, the way Lenin, Trotsky, and company did in 1917? How would the world look if there were an October Revolution in Saudi Arabia? True, some recent survey data suggest that ordinary Saudis are relatively moderate people by the standards of the Arab world. And high oil prices mean more shopping and fewer disgruntled youths. On the other hand, after what happened in Tehran in 1979, no one can rule out a second Islamist revolution. The Saudi royal family does not look like the kind of regime that will still be in business ten years from now. The only monarchies that survive in modern times are those that give power away.But is Osama bin Laden really a modern-day Lenin? The comparison is less far-fetched than it seems.... In a proclamation to the world before the recent U.S. presidential election, bin Laden declared that his "policy [was] bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." As he explained, "al Qaeda spent $500,000 on the [September 11 attacks], while America, in the incident and its aftermath, lost--according to the lowest estimate--more than $500 billion. Meaning that every dollar of al Qaeda defeated a million dollars, by the permission of Allah." Bin Laden went on to talk about the U.S. "economic deficit ... estimated to total more than a trillion dollars" and to make a somewhat uncharacteristic joke:'[T]hose who say that al Qaeda has won against the administration in the White House or that the administration has lost in this war have not been precise, because when one scrutinizes the results, one cannot say that al Qaeda is the sole factor in achieving those spectacular gains. Rather, the policy of the White House that demands the opening of war fronts to keep busy their various corporations--whether they be working in the field of arms or oil or reconstruction--has helped al Qaeda to achieve these enormous results.'Two things are noteworthy about bin Laden's quip: one, the classically Marxist assertion that the war in Iraq was motivated by capitalist economic interests; and two, the rather shrewd--and unfortunately accurate--argument that bin Laden has been getting help in "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy" from the Bush administration's fiscal policy.
Much as I respect Ferguson, I just don't buy it. First, I seriously doubt Saudi Arabia is at risk of an Islamic Revolution akin to 1979 or an October Revolution akin to 1917. More likely it will succumb to a democratic transition akin to the Velvet Revolution of 1989, with the Muslim Brotherhood showing alarming strength.
Second, I seriously doubt the world will sit idly by and simply watch as Osama bin Laden rides into power in Riyadh on a donkey. Indeed, there is one person on earth that personifies evil incarnate in the American psyche. It is foolhardy to think the world will countenance a scenario with bin Laden in a position of Saudi leadership. Certain men rise to power and then display the full extent of their evil intentions. But it is another matter altogether to display to the world evil in full flower and then later have any hope of national leadership.
Third, I seriously question the use of anti-capitalist Bolshevik rhetoric to describe Islamic terrorism. Yes, al Qaeda is more than willing to use economic warfare to battle the United States. But that terrorist organization is far from being grounded on any economic thesis or capitalist antithesis. An Islamic restoration movement? Yes. An anti-Zionist movement and anti-American movement? Yes. But a genuine anti-capitalist movement one day led by a religious leader at the helm of a country that is the world's largest net oil exporter? No.
Fourth, I seriously question the proposition that the United States is on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of Osama bin Laden. Peruse this recent speech by Alan Greenspan on budget policy and one is left with three impressions: (1) The economy has delivered a solid performance in 2005; (2) defense and homeland security spending will not continue at current levels; and (3) long-term budget problems in the future are a function of changing demographics. The one great economic risk of terrorism, Greenspan has highlighted elsewhere, is that we take it too seriously and let it result in a change in our economic behavior. I am surprised Ferguson falls for bin Laden's specious argument that al Qaeda is bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.