Preaching to the Choir

Reviewed by Benjamin Kerstein

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

Podhoretz then extends the Munich paradigm further, to include the Cold War:
Encouraged by the rapid demobilization of the United States, which to him meant that we were unprepared and unwilling to resist him with military force, Stalin broke the pledges he had made at Yalta to hold free elections in the countries of Eastern Europe he had occupied at the end of the war. Instead, he consolidated his hold over these countries….
Having equated pre-9/11 American policy with Munich and Yalta, the two great blunders of the struggle against twentieth-century totalitarianism, Podhoretz seeks to draw a counter-parallel between the Bush Doctrine, which declared the war on terror, and the Truman Doctrine, which announced America’s intention to resist the spread of communism. Podhoretz believes that the Bush Doctrine marks the end of the era of ineffectiveness. “Designed to confront a new totalitarian menace,” the Bush Doctrine is an epoch-making shift in American foreign policy, not only beginning the war on terror but also justifying it with “an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs, and a correlative determination to foster ‘the spread of democracy in the Middle East.’”
It is this final objective which has proven to be the most controversial aspect of the Bush Doctrine, as well as the aspect closest, it seems, to Podhoretz’s heart. Indeed, much of World War IV is taken up with a furious, Zola-esque indictment of democratization’s critics, along with critics of the war on terror and the Bush Doctrine in general.
Podhoretz’s first target, as should be expected, is what he calls “the old flag-burning left.” The Vietnam syndrome, says Podhoretz—i.e., the belief that American power is always a force for ill in the world and doomed to failure—was not eradicated by 9/11, as some had predicted it would be. On the contrary, it has become in many ways stronger than ever, as the old anti-war movement and its ideological brethren have captured the high ground of American cultural and intellectual opinion. Podhoretz points to such figures as Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Noam Chomsky, as well as such luminaries of the European left as Dario Fo and the late Jean Baudrillard, all of whom have been celebrated in the media and in academic circles for their radicalism. These, he tells us, are the avatars of a prevailing culture of anti-Americanism.
This phenomenon, claims Podhoretz, extends beyond the realms of culture and academy into the American media, whose tendentious reporting of the war on terror and the ongoing insurgency in Iraq consciously reflects the prevailing intellectual zeitgeist.
The Vietnam syndrome was still alive and well. But equally apparent was that the reporters and editors to whom it was a veritable religion understood very clearly that success in Iraq could deal the Vietnam syndrome a mortal blow. Little wonder, then, that they so resolutely tried to ignore any and all signs of progress--or, when that became impossible, that they dismissed them….
Podhoretz continues in this vein for several chapters, confronting, in quick succession: isolationists, who believe America should not project its power abroad; liberal internationalists, who favor deference to the United Nations and other international institutions as opposed to unilateral action; and foreign policy realists, who see international relations as a Machiavellian balance of power. All of these groups, Podhoretz claims, are opposed to the Iraq war because victory there would both vindicate the Bush Doctrine and deal a mortal blow to their world-encompassing theories.
Podhoretz is somewhat gentler with the likes of the late William F. Buckley and the respected columnist George Will, both of whom may be somewhat insulated from his wrath by their status as conservative luminaries. Nonetheless, Podhoretz decisively rejects Buckley and Will’s claim that the very idea of democratizing the Middle East is fundamentally “unconservative.”
I would… argue in more general terms that, from an indigenously American point of view, there was nothing in the least unconservative about the “ideological certitudes” and the universalism of the Bush Doctrine. For one thing, they followed closely in the tradition formed by the declared aims of the presidents who led us into the three world wars…. The most obvious example was Woodrow Wilson, who promised to “make the world safe for democracy” by sending Americans to fight in World War I.
Podhoretz points to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy as heirs to the Wilsonian tradition—activists for the expansion of freedom beyond America’s borders. To this list, he tentatively adds Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln, whose famous statement that “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it” is cited with approval and acclaim.
World War IV ends on an ambivalent note, however, which is oddly out of sync with the defiant tone of the rest of the book. Sobered, perhaps by the legion of opponents he has just finished describing and denouncing, or perhaps by his acknowledgment of their political power and cultural influence, Podhoretz admits that America’s successful response to past challenges is no guarantee of future victory. And the stakes, of course, are immense. “America alone,” as Podhoretz puts it, is now charged with saving the West from political barbarism. And he is not at all sure we “have it in us” to win.
Norman Podhoretz’s most striking trait has always been his boldness. He has never been afraid of saying that which others would dilute or simply leave unspoken. This sometimes reckless but always fascinating bravado has produced some of his most influential writing. The basic assertion of World War IV—that the twentieth century was defined by a Manichaean conflict between tyranny and freedom—is no exception. Few figures in American intellectual life today are willing to so transgress the spirit of our times as to present an essentially moral reading of history.
There is no doubt that this reading has a certain appeal to it, not least because it grasps what many commentators on the twentieth century do not, namely the immense importance of ideas to modern conflicts. Winston Churchill, in one of his most prescient statements, said that “the empires of the future are the empires of the mind,” a sentiment with which Podhoretz surely sympathizes. Indeed, he sees the world as a zero-sum game between the ideologies of freedom and the ideologies of murder, a struggle between good ideas and evil ideas.
This is not, however, necessarily for the best. If Podhoretz has an Achilles’ heel, it is rhetorical overkill. It makes for bracing argument, but also a very difficult read. His polemics sometimes become repetitive and overwrought, and his rhetoric predictable and thus easily passed over. Nor does Podhoretz’s aggressive style of debate lend much aid to his assertions. This is particularly apparent regarding his claim that the Vietnam syndrome has led the media to deliberately undermine the war in Iraq—and the war on terror in general—because the media establishment is afraid that military success will disprove its anti-war ideology. Put generously, this is a highly dubious claim. There is a case to be made that there is a prevailing political culture in American (and certainly European) media circles, and that it is strongly left of center and opposed to the Bush administration. But whether this translates into a deliberate attempt on the media’s part to falsify the situation in Iraq is highly questionable and impossible to prove. Podhoretz attempts to do precisely that by offering us a survey in which the negative stories from Iraq far outnumber the positive ones, something which proves nothing but itself. There are innumerable reasons why there are more negative than positive stories coming out of Iraq, not the least of which being that there is a war going on there, and most of the things that happen in a war are, by definition, extremely negative. That Podhoretz sees nearly everything as a product of ideology can lead to insightful observations. But it can also blind him to more prosaic and more likely explanations.

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