The publication of Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism provides one answer to the question of whether neoconservatives are experiencing doubts or second thoughts about the militarized foreign policies they have advocated. The answer given by the venerable former editor of Commentary and now foreign-policy adviser to Republican frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, in a word, is “no.”
The book is a polemic made up largely of essays that have appeared over the past five years in Commentary and circulated on the Internet. Podhoretz readers are likely to find little with which they are not familiar.
That need not be fatal. Podhoretz has published some vignettes from his long life among New York intellectuals again and again. Many readers will take pleasure, as I did, encountering for the umpteenth time Marion Magid’s quip about the few dozen down-at-the-heels leftists attending a 1960 union-hall debate about American foreign policy. Every one of these young people was “a tragedy to some family or other.” Yet the point was how quickly things could turn around. Within a handful of years, their oppositional attitudes would infuse a resurgent New Left and nearly upend the American establishment.
But World War IV provides few such moments. Those hoping for Podhoretz near his best, a writer capable of wonderfully subtle distinctions and penetrating dissections of other thinkers, will be disappointed. Those content with a somewhat more sophisticated version of Sean Hannity-style tub-thumping about “Islamofascism” will be well satisfied.
World War IV is written to shore up what Podhoretz calls the “Bush Doctrine,” to revive waning enthusiasm for the war in Iraq and for new wars Podhoretz wants Washington to initiate—especially a campaign against Iran. He seeks to infuse Bush’s foreign policy with a spirit of world historical mission, while regretting that the White House and its backers have not done the job themselves. He wants Bush to adopt the name World War IV to encourage Americans to see Iraq as an episode in a grander struggle, as epochal as the battle against the Axis powers in World War II and the Communists in the Cold War (which Podhoretz dubs World War III). The enemy in this case is not Iraqi insurgents, or even al-Qaeda, but Islamofascism.
It is worth noting that this term, unlike “Communist” or “Nazi” or “Fascist,” is not one the adversary has chosen for himself. It is instead of fairly recent invention and is now deployed as a propaganda tool to persuade Americans that all of their various Muslim foes—be they real, latent, violent, non-violent, or even fanciful—are pretty much alike. Thus Palestinian nationalists, Sunni Islamist terrorists, Shi’ite radicals, Ba’athist insurgents, and most especially the government of Iran are to be considered part of the same “two-headed monster.” Defining the adversary is a way to guarantee, in Michael Vlahos’s apt phrase, a “Forever War” that will continue as long as there are regimes to be labeled “fascist,” Muslims who resist American military presence in their lands, and, of course, people who oppose Israel for any reason. Islamofascists, claims Podhoretz, “like the Nazis and the Communists before them … are dedicated to the destruction of the freedoms we cherish and for which America stands.” Perhaps aware that this claim would come as news to anyone with professional or passing firsthand knowledge of the Arab world, Podhoretz brandishes a torrent of quotations from people with Muslim names. See, he says, citing a sentence from some Palestinian cleric who rails against America, Israel has nothing to do with their hatred!
With a keen marketer’s insight, Podhoretz supposes the battle for American public opinion is more than half won if things can be named correctly. So after “World War IV” and “Islamofascism,” Podhoretz constitutes (with more fanfare than the White House ever assembled) a “Bush Doctrine” from the speeches the president has made and is so enamored of a passage delivered nine days after 9/11—“I have seen their kind before … heirs of the murderous ideologies of the 20th century”—that he quotes it twice. This oblique reference to fascism, reportedly added at the last minute at State Department insistence to avoid giving offense to Vladimir Putin, proves a godsend to those who want to convince us we are at war with the successors to Nazi Germany.
By defining a Bush Doctrine to his liking, Podhoretz seeks to put Bush in a bottle, to make sure that the most hawkish phrases in his speeches can never be forgotten, to guarantee there is no change of course. But he is also skating around a subject of some debate in neoconservative circles: whether George W. Bush can be relied upon to pursue the wars to the extent the faction desires. Podhoretz, citing the limits on any politician, and recalling his own dismay at Ronald Reagan’s seeming shrinking from confrontation with Moscow, remains a Bush stalwart. So he mocks the now commonplace perception of the Bush Doctrine as “the voice of the neoconservative ventriloquists who were using [Bush] as their dummy,” saying it was unreasonable to suppose that underlings could convince “strong-minded” people like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld to do their bidding. But this argument can’t help but bring to mind a comment of David Frum, who actually worked as a White House speechwriter during the post-9/11 period. After his tenure, Frum said, “I always believed, as a speechwriter, that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas.”
If Frum does not go so far as to endorse the “Bush as dummy of the neocon ventriloquists” argument, he does call into question, in a way Podhoretz does not, whether Bush fully understood the implications of what he was saying in those speeches. All the more reason then for Podhoretz to elevate hurriedly pulled-together strands of presidential rhetoric into an immutable “doctrine.”
Podhoretz’s depictions of the Iraq War have a Hail-to-the-Great-Five-Year-Plan-Harvest quality to them, as if writing this book required that he refrain from reading any newspapers: “Iraq had been liberated from one of the worst tyrants of the Middle East; a decent constitution had been written; three elections have been held; a government was in place; and previously unimaginable liberties were being enjoyed.” One wonders, can he really be that ignorant of the accounts of the Iraqi middle class in exile in Jordan and Syria, reduced to penury, making the invasion of Iraq the cause of one of the most dramatic migrations of educated people in our lifetime, one as vast and tragic as the boat people exodus from Vietnam?
Much of World War IV is a survey of American elite debate, which Podhoretz places in the context of his own biography. As the editor of Commentary, he witnessed the shift from the Cold War liberal consensus of the 1950s and early 1960s to the radicalism of the late 1960s, which in turn gave rise to neoconservatism in the 1970s. He welcomed the prodromal stirrings of this radicalism in the early 1960s, then recoiled against it as it expanded through the polity and has since been on constant guard against its recurrence. Now he fears it may be happening all over again, professing shock at the speed with which intellectual opposition to the Iraq War gathered steam, noting it is broader now than the Vietnam-era antiwar coalition ever was.
He spends some time parsing the intellectual factions that have turned against the war: realists, paleoconservatives, liberal internationalists, and finally long-established mandarins of the Right like George Will and William F. Buckley. But his efforts to explain and pick apart their arguments are weak and pro forma, as if he hardly had patience to understand or even read them. Podhoretz in the 1960s and ‘70s had known personally many of those whose ideas he would combat; it was generally a strength of the neoconservatives that they knew, in an intimate and sometimes even familial sense, whom and what they were against. That world of clashing opinions, so vibrantly conveyed in earlier Podhoretz works like Breaking Ranks and Ex-Friends, is absent from World War IV. Podhoretz writes as if he hadn’t had an actual conversation with a foreign-policy realist in years, much less with a paleoconservative. His depictions of them—sprinkled with sneer words about “hating America”—never rise above the one-dimensional, and are often mere caricatures. By the book’s end, he hasn’t answered why Americans have turned against the war in Iraq more quickly than the one in Vietnam—probably because the most simple explanation, that it is alien to the American experience to invade a country in order to turn a region democratic, is too difficult to refute.
An anecdote of my own suggests the source of Podhoretz’s problem. I had known him since the mid-1980s and admired him for a decade before that. We had been friendly, if not close, for a dozen years. Five or six years ago, a hostess sat us near one another at a dinner. As I approached to shake hands, he appeared uncomfortable, saying, finally, “I always liked you, Scott, but you wrote something that was anti-Israel, and on that subject I’m very ideological.” There was to be, he made clear, no talk between us at the dinner.
World War IV reads as if there have been many such cut-offs, often inspired by disagreements about Israel—I had written critically of the West Bank settlements and roadblocks—but perhaps other matters as well. The Norman Podhoretz who once engaged forcefully and even joyously a wide spectrum of political-intellectual opinions exists no more. Those who have read his earlier books will recognize the loss.