Monday, 21 May 2018

Two flawed heroes have died: Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis

Bernard Lewis died two days ago, two days after another of my very favourite historians, Richard Pipes. 

Both were Jewish Americans and emigrants, Pipes having fled Hitler and Lewis having, less understandably, given up being a British subject.

I love both men's work and recommend their books very highly. I understand that Pipes' fiercely negative view of Bolshevism in his Russia Under The Bolshevik Regime is
considered simplistic by younger historians and doubtless it is, in the light of the archives now available, but it is a welcome response to the writings of Communist apologists like E.H. Carr, Eric Hobsbawm and their many successors. 

There is little positive to be said about Bolshevism unless you are on the far left but, unlike the Nazis, the Bolsheviks have plenty of admirers in academia.

I was recently talking to a young American historian of Stalin's Russia who praised the Soviet Union for giving women the vote two years before the USA did. She seemed not to think it mattered that those Russian women could vote for only one candidate.  Instead she praised the huge improvements Communism achieved for women.

The truth is that the Bolshevik revolution is a rare example of a successful conspiracy for once explaining history. As the protagonist in Greene's The Ministry of Fear says, addressing his dead Edwardian mother,

The world has been remade by William Le Queux.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were as much terrorists, nihilists and, in a sense, religious fanatics as Al Qaeda or ISIS. The difference was that though Osama, himself also a character from a thriller, succeeded beyond his wildest dreams when Bush the younger invaded Iraq, he did not succeed in hijacking a great power and holding it captive for seventy-four years. 

That was Lenin's malign achievement, which did so much harm to the world and created the template for Hitler and Mussolini.

Yet, though I mourn Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis as historians, they were neo-cons and their, or at least Lewis's, political influence was disastrous. 

In 1981 and 1982 Pipewho saw Soviet expansion as a grave threat, served on Reagan's National Security Council, as Director of East European and Soviet Affairs. He later wrote

I was surprised to see how little deference [Deputy Chief of Staff Michael] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker showed Reagan," Pipes writes. "They seemed to treat him rather like a grandfather whom one humors but does not take very seriously."

Pipes was wrong in seeing the Cold War as necessary and the USSR as a great danger, but this does not matter and his hawkish views may have helped to bring it to an end. What is a dark and indelible blot on both men is their part in persuading George W. Bush to invade Iraq.

Both wrote in the sweeping and insightful terms that writers did in the nineteenth century and wrote great prose. Pipes thought Russia would always be authoritarian and Lewis seemed to hold, before the turn of the century, much the same view of Islam. 

They may both be right, though Lewis, like the American government, admired Ataturk and hoped Turkey represented a possible secular future for the Muslim world. He lived to know differently and said more recently that we might see an Islamist Turkey and a secular Iran in a few years. So we might.

In any case Lewis had no business encouraging the Americans to overthrow the secular, authoritarian government of Saddam. 

Richard Pipes knew very well that the Arab states would not become democracies. If Lewis persuaded Bush that Iraq could become a democratic state did he, of all people, really believe such nonsense? 

And yet he wrote a very good bestseller called What Went Wrong? which suggested that lack of political freedom was what had gone wrong with the Muslim world. He dismissed in half a sentence the possibility that it might be Islam itself that held the Muslim world back.

I quote a profile of Lewis published in The Daily Telegraph in 2004. 

The Wall Street Journal defines what it calls The Lewis Doctrine as "seeding democracy in failed Mid-east states to defang terrorism". Of course, it is slightly more sophisticated than that. Lewis is actually calling for the use of the minimum amount of Western force for the minimum amount of time in order to return consensual political institutions to the Middle East, starting with the most fertile place for them: Iraq. With its oil wealth, large middle class, stable past and secular society, democracy has a better chance of taking root in Iraq, Lewis argues, than virtually anywhere else in the Islamic world.

Inexcusably, Lewis was urging the government shortly after September 11th to invade Iraq, although Osama and Saddam were enemies. 

He did so, for example, at a Pentagon Defense Policy Board meeting held to consider military intervention in Iraq at the end of September 2001. He pressed on the board the merits of the Iraqi con-man, 'my friend, Ahmed Chalabi". As one of the world's leading experts on Islam, Bernard Lewis had no excuse for falling for Chalabi, the charlatan who led the Iraqi National Congress.

The suspicion must exist that Bernard Lewis and the other neo-cons wanted to reorganise the Middle East before the inevitable time came when America would become isolationist and that they wanted to do so in the interests of Israel more than those of the USA. Paul Wolfowitz said as much, except for the '
interests of Israel' bit.

Pipes, though a Cold War hawk and neo con avant la lettre who supported the invasion of Iraq was at least not taken in by all this guff. He said in 2003. 
"Paul didn't have much education in history. It's not his field. He was educated as a military specialist, a nuclear weapons specialist. Like most scientists, he doesn't have a particular understanding of other cultures."
"I think the war was correct -- destroying this invasive evil. But beyond this I think they're too ambitious" 
Pipes, however, was only a bit part player while Lewis provided the intellectual justification for the invasion.

I remember a clever conservative American, now a professor, surprising me by telling me in 1990 that we had to avoid a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Bernard Lewis coined the expression 'clash of civilisations' and did a lot to make the clash worse than it need have been.

Neagu Djuvara, the Romanian philosopher of history, who died before Christmas, and Bernard Lewis were exactly of an age and both thought Europe is certain to become Muslim.

Lewis created a stir when he told Die Welt in 2004 in an interview, 
as a throw away remark, that Europe would be Islamic by the end of this century
"at the very latest".
He was asked whether the E.U. could serve as a global counterweight to the United States and replied 
He saw only three countries as potential "global" players: China, India and possibly a revived Russia. 
"Europe will be part of the Arabic west, of the Maghreb."
This prediction and Djuvara's will almost certainly come true, unless Europe alters immigration policies very dramatically. 
The Roman Empire and the medieval Islamic Empire were not conquered by more civilised peoples, they were conquered by less civilised but more vigorous peoples. But in both cases what made the conquest, with the Barbarians in Rome and the Mongols in Iraq, what made it possible was things were going badly wrong within the society so that it was no longer able to offer effective resistance.

Bernard Lewis said those words, in a debate with Edward Said. 


  1. 'Lewis's mistake over Iraq was just one manifestation of a hideous world view that included a nakedly racist approach to the Middle East. He told Vice President Dick Cheney: "I believe that one of the things you've got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power."' From my friend Peter Oborne's unflattering obituary of Lewis. I can't see anything racist in that.

  2. "Lewis said that the Arabs were the authors of their own misery, and that the ‘return of Islam’ meant that unhappy Islamists were going to share their misery with the rest of the world. No doubt his death is being quietly celebrated in departments of Middle Eastern Studies the world over."

    Lewis was an Orientalist before Edward Said made that a term of abuse. Said was not a scholar of the Middle East, but a polemicist from the Middle East. He was also an intellectual impostor. Ever since Orientalism came out in 1978, proper historians have concluded that it would be a masterpiece, if only it were true. The only people who take Edward Said’s books seriously are, in no particular order of irrelevance, academic poseurs, chippy lefties, and the legions of chippy academic lefty poseurs churned out by the departments of Middle Eastern Studies."

  3. Well I have written a long comment and tried to publish it - but nothing appeared.

    1. Paul, I am very sorry. I don't know what can have happened.

    2. Perhaps best to save a comment somewhere before trying to post it?

    3. David in Belgrade24 May 2018 at 09:16

      Ive lost comments before because I didn't click "Select Profile" and choose a profile before clicking "Preview" or "Publish".

      I still forget this every now and again.

      So annoying.

  4. I will try multiple comments. First comment - no Richard Pipes was not "wrong" to see the "Cold War" as necessary (the alternative to "Containment" would have been to attack the Marxists when the United States had an atomic monopoly in the late 1940s - and few opponents of Containment support this only viable alternative policy). Of course the Marxist Soviet Union and Marxism in general was a mortal threat to Western Civilisation and to the world in general - to deny this is to be utterly wrong.

  5. Second comment. Saddam Hussain was a socialist dictator who had killed hundreds of thousands of people - and even after his life was spared after the first Gulf War, after his invasion of Kuwait, he continued in his campaign against the American Republic and her allies - failing to understand that his life had been spared on condition of future good conduct. The Senate (with the consent of the House) outlawed Saddam Hussain back when Bill Clinton was President. President Bush in overthrowing Saddam Hussain was obeying the command of the Senate (and the House) as all Presidents must, eventually, do. The rule, and the life, of Saddam Hussain were already forfeit before Mr Bush became President although President Bush offered both Saddam and his family their lives (and a comfortable retirement) if they gave up power - and I believe that offer was entirely SINCERE. Saddam had abandoned secularism years before he was overthrown - not only financing Islamic terrorists (although less than IRAN did and does - which even finances and supports its sworn enemies the Sunni terrorists, in their attack upon infidels such as Americans), but also going in for the such gestures as having a copy of the Koran printed with his own blood. The regime of 2003 was utterly different to the regime of the 1970s.

  6. Third Comment. Where President Bush was at fault was in his belief that Iraq could become a Western style democracy after the removal of Saddam (I repeat that President Bush had no real choice over that - although he did make what I believe was a sincere offer of their lives to Saddam and his sons, although the Senate might have had something to say if Saddam had accepted that offer). But it was not just evil-Jewish-councillors who were telling President Bush that the Muslim Iraqis were fit for Western democracy - it was EVERYONE, including the OPPONENTS of the war. Indeed the OPPONENTS were even more gushing in their praise for the Muslim population. No one (no one at all) told President Buch the truth - because they feared the charge of "racism", even though Islam is not race. The idea that Ricard Pipes and Bernard Lewis created the Iraq war is just wrong. Almost as wrong as Peter Obone ("my friend" you call him) who claims that the intervention in Iran in 1953 was done to benefit the Jews of Israel (that is in his book - I have read it), that theory might as well as be from Dr Goebbels. Neither MI6 or CIA were fighting pro Soviet Union elements in Iran in 1953 as part of a Jewish conspiracy.

  7. I think it is possible that Richard Pipes had an unconscious bias against the OLD Russia and Russians because of their bad (very bad) treatment of Jews over centuries. Sometimes he implied that the murder of tens of millions of people in the Soviet Union was something to do with Russians as an ethnic group in relation to Russian culture and history - and it did NOT. The cause of the terrible events in the Marxist Soviet Union was Marxism (that is not "simplistic" it is the truth), it had nothing whatever to do with Russian culture or Russians as an ethnic group. Had the Marxists taken over Britain the situation would have been the same (which makes the comments of the late John Enoch Powell that he would still obey a Marxist government in Britain because it would still be Britain, utterly absurd). It is quite true that Russia was late in abolishing serfdom (1861) - but Hungary only abolished serfdom in 1848 and no one (other than a lunatic) would deny that Hungary was part of Western civilisation. Also America only abolished slavery in 1865 - and former slaves and the children of slaves were treated far worse in the America of 1914 than former serfs and children of serfs were treated in Russia in 1914 (partly because of the skin colour thing - a former serf in Russia did not look physically different to anyone else). For example if Czar Nicholas the second had been told that a child of a serf had used a was basin (or a toilet) that he was about to use, it would not have bothered him at all - but President Wilson in the United States would have rather defecated on the floor of the Oval Office than use a toilet used by a black man. Indeed he forbad the sharing of such facilities in the Federal government generally - rather undermining his, Wilson's, claim that the Civil War had not been about SLAVERY but had been about a campaign to create an interventionist "New Government" for a "New Freedom" (read - German style statism) that had somehow slipped the minds of everyone in 1865 and had only been remembered by himself in the election of 1912. Wilson in relation to Germany was rather like Saruman in relation to Mordor in the "Lord of the Rings" - he actually accepted its basic arguments, even as he (eventually) opposed it militarily. Still back to Richard Pipes - yes he mentions such things as the Cossacks of the south and east, and the Free Peasants of the north, and the existence in Russia of such things as trial by jury (yes there was a blood libel case against a Jewish man - but the man was found INNOCENT) and the lively opposition press (not exactly features of Mr Putin's Russia), but he glosses over such things - his general account of the Old Russia does have a negative cast to it. And that MAY be partly due to his Jewish origins - due to the horrible things done to Jews in Russia over the years.

  8. Bernard Lewis was always keen to stress the complexity of Islamic culture - he disliked people like who tend to think in terms of "Muhammed [however spelt] taught bad things and personally did bad things - so one should beware of his followers", Bernard Lewis would point out that whilst Muhammed may have been a very bad man (not that Bernard Lewis would have used such language) he died about one and half thousand years ago. The majority of Muslim people over the centuries (and now) have been nice people - they have not done the things Muhammed did. However, there is a LIE involved in modern treatment of Islam - whereas as Prime Minister Gladstone or Prime Minster Winston Churchill were quite blunt about Muhammed teaching bad things and doing bad things - Western leaders today would never dream of telling the truth. On the contrary they pretend that Muhammed was a nice man who taught and practiced peace and tolerance - and the rest of society (Western society) follows this lead. Only the other day I was looking at books in "Waterstones" on Islam and they all made a point of saying how well Muhammed had treated the Jews of Arabia - in reality he killed the men (after promising peace and friendship - and then launching surprise attacks) and enslaved the women. On this, and many other things, the accounts of Muhammed and early Islam taught in Western schools and presented in the Western media (such as the BBC) would be funny if the implications were not so serious. No wonder President Bush was caught out so totally by the chaos of Iraq - he had been taught (by everyone) that the local population was lovely - full of the teachings of the "Religion of Peace" (as Bush mistranslated Islam - it actually means SUBMISSION to Allah and his prophet). Family friend "Uncle Bill" used to tell me of his service in Iraq in the 1930s - they were indeed lovely people, and he was close friends with some of them. But one had to be aware that even in those days (under the civilised monarchy that was not overthrown till 1958) such lovely people, even your closest friends, could decide (regretfully decide - but decide) that it was their religious duty to cut your throat. Not just the Jews (whose ancient communities in Iraq were wiped out - as Jewish communities in the Middle East have been wiped out [other than in Israel], and Christians communities are going the same way), but a Christian (like "Uncle Bill") as well. One had to be ready to fight for one's life against an attack that could be launched (without warning) even from someone who one counted as a close friend - indeed someone who actually was a close friend, but who had (with regret) decided that he could no longer ignore the teachings and the personal example of the "perfect model of conduct" Muhammed. Bernard Lewis was a vastly better scholar of Islam than I am (I can not even read modern forms of Arabic - let alone Classical Arabic - so I can not even read Islamic texts in their proper form), but I do get the impression that he glossed over the basic fact that in spite of one and half thousand years having past, Muhammed is still the elephant in the room. On friendship - Muhammed was quite clear that Muslims should NOT take non Muslims as friends, although they might pretend to do so for tactical purposes. Bernard Lewis (if he was still with us) would now jump in and say (quite rightly) that most Muslims are NOT like Muhammed - but there is still that problem of Muhammed being considered the "perfect model of conduct". How can one be a sincere Muslim (not what Muhammed called a "hypocrite", someone who claimed to be a Muslim but made excused rather than killing and enslaving, Muhammed stated that such "hypocrites" should be killed) and reject the teachings and personal example of Muhammed? And pretending that Muhammed taught nice things (with quotes out of context and pretending that the Mecca verses are not superseded by the Media verses) and did nice things - does not really help.