Book Reviews

Podhoretz's Complaint

Neoconservatism has failed. How liberal internationalism can triumph in its place.

By Anne-Marie Slaughter

Tagged Foreign PolicyIslamNeoconservatism

World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism By Norman Podhoretz • Doubleday • 2007 • 240
pages • $24.95

Maligned by all, deserted even by many of his closest associates, George W. Bush is actually a visionary. He is one of the few Americans and global leaders who “possessed the wit to see the future” after September 11 and “summoned up the courage to begin crossing over into it.” That is the world according to Norman Podhoretz in his new book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism.

Podhoretz is nothing if not tendentious; he is supremely sure of
himself and speaks in absolutes–much like George W. Bush. The result is
a lively but often infuriating book that will tempt many readers to
counterpunch at every turn against its intemperate excess. Journalists
may take offense at his insistence that coverage of the Iraq war
demonstrates how “the Vietnam syndrome–the ‘loss of self-confidence and
the concomitant spread of neo-isolationist and pacifist sentiment’”
across America–is “still alive and well.” Historians may wonder at his
certainty that the Vietnam War was popularly supported and all but won,
had defeatist elites not lost their nerve. Academics may bridle, as did
this reviewer, at his characterization of professors as
“guerrillas-with-tenure” who forced students displaying American flags
after 9/11 to take them down.

Resist this temptation. It is better to read the book as the purest
possible statement of the Bush Doctrine, untainted by any compromise
with practical politics. Podhoretz is a neo-con’s neo-con–one of the
very few, by his own account, left standing amid the wreckage of Iraq.
Read this way, World War IV offers a valuable synopsis of the basic assumptions behind the Bush foreign policy revolution at a time
when liberal internationalists, realists, and various hybrids (ethical
realists, pragmatic idealists) are all jockeying to be its successor.

In the wake of the Iraq debacle, foreign policy thinkers on the left
like Tony Smith and David Rieff have already charged many of their
fellow liberals with enabling the Bush doctrine. In this view, the
Clintonite embrace of democracy, combined with the development, after
Rwanda and Kosovo, of the “responsibility to protect,” paved the way
for the neocon policy of imposing democracy through the unilateral use
of force. After Bush, if the neocons are dead and liberal
internationalists, now increasingly referred to as liberal
interventionists, are tainted by association, then realists could again
rule the day, embracing order and stability over ideology and values.
That is why today it is vital for liberal internationalists–self-styled
neo-Wilsonians–to take up the challenge of defining the precise line
between their creed and that of neo-conservatives like Podhoretz. World War IV crystallizes those differences.

The cornerstone of Podhoretz’s manifesto, as its title suggests, is
that America is at war. Readers may be surprised to learn, however,
that the U.S. government is actually involved in two wars: an
international war against global Islamofascism and a domestic war
against the “antiwar movement”–”a war so ferocious that some of us have
not hesitated to describe it as nothing less than a kind of civil war.”
A civil war? Podhoretz’s apocalyptic views of our domestic
debates suggest that his diagnoses of international conflicts should be
taken with more than a pinch of salt.

But let us begin with the international war: World War IV. Podhoretz
insists on the numbering because he believes it is impossible to
understand the current war against Islamofascism unless we understand
how and why the Cold War was really World War III. It was not, in his
reading, a long stand-off between the United States and the Soviet
Union, but, as Eliot Cohen put it, “a mixture of violent and nonviolent
efforts” over a long period, all with “ideological roots.” The Korean
War, the Vietnam War, and countless interventions in Europe, the Middle
East, Africa, and Central and South America were thus not discrete
foreign policy events but all battles in a global conflict.

This analytical framework allows Podhoretz to link together 40 years
of attacks by a wildly disparate group of actors as skirmishes and
battles in World War IV. He includes Black September attacks on
American and Israeli diplomats in the 1970s, the Iranian hostage
crisis, the 1983 Hezbollah bombing of the Beirut Marine barracks, the
PLO’s hijacking of the Achille Lauro, the Lockerbie bombing by
Libya, and unspecified Islamic terrorist operations in various
countries that were not aimed at the United States but nevertheless
killed Americans.

By doing so, Podhoretz buttresses his two central arguments. First,
that all of these groups (and states, in the case of Libya and Iran)
are different manifestations of the hydra-headed enemy Islamofascism,
the successor to Nazism and communism. And second, that Islamofascists
were emboldened by the failures of the Carter Administration, the
Reagan Administration (at least after the Beirut barracks bombing), and
above all the Clinton Administration to respond forcefully to their
attacks. It is these “twin understandings” of the past that give rise
to the twin pillars of the Bush Doctrine. The first pillar is “the new
military strategy of preemption”; the second is the “new political
strategy of democratization.” Taken together, they provide an
offense-based alternative to the Truman Doctrine’s strategy of
containment. During World War III, it was possible to hold off the
Soviet Union both directly and indirectly by supporting their
adversaries around the world. But in World War IV, it is necessary to
take the war directly to the enemy. Containment and deterrence can’t
work, Podhoretz argues, because we are fighting nonstate actors, on the
one hand, and “unbalanced dictators” who can’t be trusted not to use
their nuclear weapons on the other. Preemption is the answer–hitting
our enemies before they can hit us and settling in to liberate “another
group of countries from another species of totalitarian tyranny.” The
more accurate historical analogy, which Podhoretz resists, is not the
Truman Doctrine, but rather “rollback”–the far more aggressive doctrine
of liberating communist countries espoused by John Foster Dulles and
Douglas MacArthur.

An attractive corollary to the Islamofascist worldview, from
Podhoretz’s perspective, is that America is not fighting Israel’s war.
On the contrary, Israel is fighting America’s war. In a world war
between Islamofascists and America, 60 years of repeated Arab attacks
on Israel are only the opening volleys. According to Podhoretz,
Clinton’s attempts to make peace between the Israelis and the
Palestinians were “obsessive” and “futile”–futile because the
Palestinians cannot be dealt with as discrete actors, but only as part
of a larger pan-Arab movement. Bush, on the other hand, has finally
understood the nature of the corrupt and brutal governments surrounding
Israel, meaning that Israel need not make peace until those governments
become the kinds of democracies that it can trust.

Notwithstanding the sweep and ambition of this worldview, it is actually the domestic war that takes up the bulk of World War IV. A major advantage of characterizing the fight against global terrorist networks as a world war is that it enables Podhoretz to characterize any opposition to the Administration’s foreign policy as an “antiwar movement.” For him, the antiwar movement today comprises, in large part, the twenty-first-century successors to the “jackal bins” of the 1960s and 1970s. (Podhoretz uses the term “jackal bins” repeatedly, taking it from a mangling of the term “Jacobins” by columnist Jimmy Breslin. Its simultaneous connotations of feral scavengers and garbage containers apparently appeal to him.) This time around, as Podhoretz documents in chapter after chapter, the antiwar movement includes the mainstream media, isolationists right and left (including a group of right-wingers he calls “paleoconservatives”), liberal internationalists, realists, radical democrats, and right-wing defeatists (neocons who have lost their nerve). This litany does not leave many standing–really only Podhoretz himself, and George W. Bush.

Podhoretz’s obsession with domestic political battles is revealing.
The vehemence of his denunciations of his political opponents suggests
a man beset with enemies at every turn. I am reminded of Alastair Moody
in the Harry Potter books, with his eye swiveling about in every
direction and his continual injunctions of “constant vigilance!” Like
Moody, Podhoretz is right to point to dark forces in the world and even
at home, but his own life experience has rather warped his perspective.
More generally, Podhoretz’s repeated denunciations of the members of
“our domestic insurgency” remind us that the neocons still reserve
their greatest wrath for their former bedfellows on the left.

Suppose that early 2009 brings a Clinton Doctrine, an Obama Doctrine,
or an Edwards Doctrine, one that could very well be implemented by a
Secretary of State Biden, Holbrooke, or Richardson. Suppose further
that such a doctrine seeks to recover the Democrats’ traditional
liberal internationalist roots, reuniting support for democracy and
multilateral institutions. That was the hallmark of Wilson, Roosevelt,
Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Bill Clinton. What might such a doctrine
look like? Where, if at all, would it intersect with Podhoretz’s
description of the Bush Doctrine, and where would it differ?

A doctrine is a response to a threat, or threats; thus the first
step is to diagnose the ills besetting the United States. For a
Democratic president, the threat would not be “terror” per se,
as in the war against terror. As General Anthony Zinni, among others,
has pointed out, that is a war on a tactic, not an enemy. Neither would
it be the constructed ideology of Islamofascism. (The fascists, Nazis,
and communists of the twentieth century declared their ideologies
themselves. They did not need us to fill in the blanks.) Instead of a
hydra of different Islamic terrorist groups determined to bring America
down, the great danger of the twenty-first century is a cluster of
threats that would fundamentally alter life not only in the United
States, but across the planet. These would include a terrorist strike
with a nuclear or biological weapon; a nuclear arms race among multiple
countries resulting in a nuclear war; the catastrophic rise of sea
levels, wiping out cities and creating massive conflict; a global
pandemic killing millions of people; or a war over dwindling supplies
of energy.

Note that this list does not have nearly the alluring simplicity and
fairy-tale, good-versus-evil quality of Podhoretz’s narrative. But
search the pages of World War IV in vain for a discussion of any of these threats. Podhoretz is so focused on the Islamic nature of the danger that he draws no distinction between the kidnapping of an American official and the possibility, which should be any president’s nightmare, of the intersection between a terrorist group and a nuclear weapon. Yet if any of these horrific possibilities came to pass, the world as we know it would change terribly–even if we “win” World War IV.

The true liberal internationalist response, perhaps the true
Trumanesque response, would be to develop a positive strategy, adding a
vision of a better world to a policy of protecting against terrorist
attacks and hunting down actual terrorists wherever we can find them.
That vision would build not on the narrow Bush definition of freedom as
elections and free speech, but rather on Roosevelt’s four freedoms:
freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom
from fear. Where Podhoretz advocates preemption, a realistic and
effective long-term strategy would call for patience and persistence to
build the social, economic, and political foundations necessary for
these freedoms to flourish. That was the wisdom of the Marshall Plan,
the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement
on Tariffs and Trade–all designed in the wake of World War II to
provide the economic assistance and the guarantee of financial and
political stability necessary to allow shattered societies to rebuild
from the ground up.

That strategy would also call for using all the dimensions of
American power, rejecting the Bush Administration’s love affair with
force. It would revive the value of statecraft, the kind of vigorous
and forceful diplomacy that Richard Holbrooke practiced in the Balkans
and James Baker and Brent Scowcroft deployed in bringing about the
peaceful reunification of Germany. And it would practice what former
National Security Council staffers Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen, in
their new book The Next American Century, call “strategic
collaboration” with both allies and occasionally adversaries, spreading
burdens, building institutions to lock in cooperation and tackle
collective problems, strengthening relations, and ensuring that all
countries have good reason to at least hedge their bets and not ally
against us. This strategy would recognize that America is not the only
protagonist in a war of ideas; it would also recognize that the war of
ideas between violent fundamentalist jihadists and moderate Muslims
must be ultimately be waged within Islam as much as within the West.

Finally, the core of this liberal internationalist strategy would
not be democratization, but rather supporting democrats. Rarely has so
much depended on a suffix. Democratization, or even democracy
promotion, is something imposed or achieved from outside. Indeed,
Podhoretz falls into the now-standard misquotation of Wilson’s great
address to Congress on our entry into World War I, where he supposedly,
in Podhoretz’s words, “promised to ‘make the world safe for
democracy.’ ” But as historian and Wilson expert John Milton Cooper
points out, Wilson actually said, “The world must be made safe for
democracy.” Cooper argues that Wilson was a strict grammarian who would
never have used the passive voice unintentionally. Instead, in Cooper’s
view, Wilson “meant that democracy must be defended where it existed,
and if America could aid others in advancing democracy, so much the
better.”

Supporting and standing for democracy means doing whatever would
actually help the various forces in a given society striving for
government by the people consistent with the rule of law and universal
human rights. It means, for instance, denouncing the crackdown against
the monk-led demonstrations by the Burmese junta this past October, as
the Bush Administration did; working through the UN and ASEAN, as the
Administration tried to do; and, as Bush did not, getting China and
India to pressure Burma’s generals into engaging seriously with the
opposition. It does not mean calling for regime change, refusing to
negotiate with the Burmese directly should they provide an opening, or
sanctioning the country in any way that would make life harder for
ordinary Burmese. It is impossible to “democratize” Burma, no matter
how much we might want to. Force–which Podhoretz’s fellow neocon
William Kristol has called for in Burma–will not help unless some group
of countries were inclined to take over and rule the country.

In the longer term, supporting Burmese democrats could include
working with other ASEAN countries to create more levers of economic
and political influence with the junta. We must develop carrots in the
form of economic or political benefits and devise sticks that would
hurt the generals–their ability to procure luxury goods, health care,
and trips for themselves or their families–in ways that could create
incentives for change. Such a strategy would certainly involve working
with religious leaders to strengthen the hand of the monks. And it
would mean encouraging regional institutions like the Asian Development
Bank to develop the Burmese economy in ways that would drastically
increase the costs to the government of cutting off the Internet, which
would in turn restrict its ability to brutalize its citizens outside
the global media purview.

Burma’s problems cannot be linked to Islamofascism even by the most
fevered imagination. So Burma wouldn’t even make it to the sidelines of
World War IV, unless the junta collapsed and a wing of Jemaah
Islamiyah, the Indonesian radical Islamist group, sought to move north
to seek sanctuary. In that case, Podhoretz would presumably recommend
that the U.S. rally its badly overstretched forces and invade yet
another country. In the meantime, China and India, Burma’s neighbors
and hugely important powers in the region and increasingly in the
world, would either be free to take no action against the junta or
would find U.S. troops trying to run yet another sharply ethnically
divided society on their borders.

If you doubt that even Podhoretz would be this crazy, just
substitute Iran for Burma and remember that Bush has actually said
publicly that Iran’s nuclear ambitions could trigger World War III.
Bush got the number wrong, but–according to Podhoretz–he’s moving in
the right direction

Podhoretz’s story has the airbrushed quality of grand history. He
notes several times that Bush’s mistakes in Iraq pale beside the
mistakes made by the United States in World War II. The long lens
cannot pick out petty details, such as the destruction of a society’s
infrastructure or the inability of a president to heed the advice of
his generals. Nor can it differentiate between a terrorist group
seeking power in a civil war and a global terrorist network seeking an
enemy powerful enough to mobilize millions against it. It is the lens
of myth and legend, suitable for rousing speeches and calls to battle.
It is emphatically not the lens of policymaking, where, as every
academic quickly discovers upon arriving in Washington, tiny details
typically matter more than big ideas.

If a president gets the policy right, historians will fill in the
sweeping narrative. But if his ideology blocks his ability to see and
understand the policy choices to be made, Hollywood labels–”World War IV!
Coming to a theater near you!”–and devoted courtiers will not save his
legacy. It is far more likely, as we stare down the decades of the
twenty-first century, that the era of world wars is over. But the
specters of war–death, destruction, disease, impoverishment–remain with
us in many new and challenging forms, for which the Bush Doctrine
offers no answers.

Read more about Foreign PolicyIslamNeoconservatism

Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of New America and former director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011.

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