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Preaching to the Choir

Reviewed by Benjamin Kerstein

World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism
by Norman Podhoretz
Doubleday, 2007, 229 pages.


Norman Podhoretz, to his credit, is still an angry man. One of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, Podhoretz has been at the center of American public debate for the better part of five decades, first as one of the “New York intellectuals” who helped midwife the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s, and then as one of its most outspoken critics. He has, in other words, reached the point in his career at which most men would be satisfied to rest on their laurels. His new book, however, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, is anything but satisfied. A passionate defense of neoconservatism, the war on terror, and the Bush Doctrine, it is clearly the work of a man under attack, and thus compelled to vigorously defend both himself and his beliefs.
There is no doubt that neoconservatism is experiencing a moment of crisis. The Iraq war, for which the neoconservatives, fairly or unfairly, have shouldered most of the credit and blame, has turned their very name into an epithet in many circles. They have been accused by their critics of everything from warmongering and racism to practically controlling the world. Mainstream opinion in liberal—and some conservative—circles considers neo-conservatism both a misguided and destructive ideology and a spent political force.
The dominant narrative proposed by neoconservatism’s detractors is one of tragic downfall. The neoconservatives—so the story goes—rode the turmoil of 9/11 to the heights of political power and influence. In the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war, their ideas became the basis of a major shift in American foreign policy. Then hubris took over. Convinced that their doctrine of democratization through military power could change the face of the Middle East, the neoconservatives rushed into an unnecessary war with Iraq, using duplicitous and often dishonest methods to do so. The results, claim the critics, were a disaster for the United States and for the world as a whole.
Perhaps inevitably, therefore, Podhoretz’s book is mostly a brief for the defense, an impassioned polemic that reasserts the essential principles of neoconservatism and attempts to overturn this narrative of defeat and disillusion. In this, it is at least partially successful. But the intensity of Podhoretz’s conviction and the ferocity with which he expresses it will likely satisfy only those who have already been convinced. Ironically, Podhoretz’s own prodigious talents for tendentious debate and his stark moral convictions make his book both a triumph of polemic and quite unpersuasive.
 
Podhoretz begins World War IV with a counternarrative not only of the war on terror but of the entire twentieth century. He posits, in effect, a series of four global conflicts stretching from the trenches of World War I to the fall of the Twin Towers and into Iraq. The old wars with the old totalitarianism, he asserts, have become a new war with a new totalitarianism, i.e., radical Islam, or, as Podhoretz and others somewhat controversially refer to it, Islamofascism:
World War III began in 1947 and ended in 1989, having been fought and won by us under the highly imprecise name of the Cold War. From this it follows that the right name for the war that, as we shall see, was already being waged against us long before 9/11/2001, but that we only recognized as such in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is World War IV.
The continuity of these wars, according to Podhoretz, is based on a simple dichotomy: freedom versus tyranny. By linking World War II directly to the Cold War and the war on terror—World War I seems largely irrelevant to his analysis, probably because few people alive today even remember what the Kaiser stood for—Podhoretz is proposing a twentieth century whose meaning is the struggle, and the eventual victory, of the forces of good over evil.
The objective of the Islamofascists is not merely… to murder as many of us as possible. Like the Nazis and the communists before them, they are dedicated to the destruction of the freedoms we cherish and for which America stands. It is these, then, that… we in our turn, no less than the “greatest generation” of the 1940s and its spiritual progeny of the 1950s and after, have a responsibility to uphold and are privileged to defend.
He approvingly quotes—twice—the famous lines from President Bush’s address to Congress nine days after the 9/11 attacks: “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century”—the ideologies, in other words, that the United States confronted in World War II and the Cold War. The president then went on to draw an explicit parallel between al-Qaida on the one hand, and fascism and Nazism on the other. The importance of this speech to Podhoretz’s thesis cannot be underestimated. Indeed, much of his book is taken up by a long and impassioned defense of Bush and the Bush Doctrine against its critics both on the left and on the right.
The most effective part of the book is Podhoretz’s critique of American complacency and inaction during the decades preceding the 9/11 attacks, during which terrorism was dealt with as a legal and criminal problem, not as a military threat. There is very little to argue with here, and while all of these points have been made numerous times, the story of why and how America slept is too important not to be reiterated. As Podhoretz recalls:
The America of those far-off days before 9/11 was a country in which politicians and the general public alike were still unable and/or unwilling to believe that terrorism might actually represent a genuine threat. Attention was of course paid by the professionals within the federal government and in various law enforcement agencies whose job it was to keep their eyes open for possible terrorist attacks on American soil. Yet not even they could imagine that anything as big as 9/11 might be in the offing, and when the few lonely exceptions were not being stymied… the initiatives they tried to take were invariably killed off by the bureaucratic bungling and inertia.
As Podhoretz points out, this complacency—which seems inexplicable in hindsight—was the result of conscious policies. They appeared, at the time, to be eminently reasonable and nuanced but were, in fact, utterly misguided and ineffective.
Podhoretz presents us with a sobering list of such disasters: The murder of United States diplomats by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s. The Iranian hostage crisis bungled by the Carter administration’s incompetence. The slaughter of 241 United States Marines by Hezbollah in 1983. The kidnapping and murder of the CIA’s Beirut station chief by the same organization. The Achille Lauro hijacking, Pan Am 103, the first attack on the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers bombing, the U.S.S Cole, etc. Podhoretz reminds us that American bodies, American lives, American assets, and American prestige were attacked and sometimes destroyed with little or no serious response.
The book places all of this within a specific historical paradigm, one which will not surprise anyone familiar with neoconservative thought: “Munich.” That is, the policy of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany which led to the Munich Conference, “peace in our time,” and ultimately to the second of Podhoretz’s four world wars. Noting Osama Bin Laden’s remark that the United States is a “paper tiger,” Podhoretz makes this comparison explicit:
Bin Laden was not the first enemy of a democratic regime to have been emboldened by such impressions. In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler was convinced both by the failure of the British to arm themselves against the threat he posed and by the policy of appeasement they adopted towards him that they were decadent and would never fight no matter how many countries he invaded.


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