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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.


Unfortunately, Podhoretz extends this style of argument to include nearly all intellectual critics of the war, claiming that their opposition is driven by their fear of the Bush Doctrine’s success. There is, one imagines, a far simpler explanation, namely, that those who are critical of the Bush Doctrine are not afraid that it will work, but are convinced that it will not work. Certainly, this conviction may be ideologically motivated and may very well be wrong; but Podhoretz’s insistence on putting the cart before the horse, thus attributing sinister motives to his opponents, is unconvincing.
His broadside against his conservative critics Buckley and Will, however, is an entirely different matter and reveals a great deal more about Podhoretz and the crisis of neoconservatism than it does about conservative opposition to the Bush Doctrine. What the argument comes down to—and this has always been a stumbling block for neoconservatism—is the dissonance surrounding the definition of “conservatism.” If conservatism means acting in accordance with a set of cultural values that have accumulated over time, then Podhoretz is certainly correct when he says there is “nothing unconservative” about the Bush Doctrine. If, on the other hand, conservatism means a healthy skepticism toward the capacities of political power, government action, and the basic goodness of humanity—and this is surely the definition Buckley and Will are getting at—then Podhoretz is just as certainly wrong. There is no doubt that the Wilsonian tradition Podhoretz espouses is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. But there is nothing conservative about it. Wilson was not a conservative, and neither were his ideological heirs, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and John F. Kennedy. They were activist liberals in an age when this was not seen as a vice of any kind. In Ronald Reagan, we have a more complicated figure, but one can easily make the case that his policies were driven more by his—quite admirable—opposition to communism than by a Wilsonian belief in universal democracy. Regarding Lincoln, we are dealing with a figure who lived in utterly different historical circumstances and was speaking in the context of a domestic dilemma, i.e., slavery, and not the question of America’s capacity to spread its way of life abroad, let alone impose it through military force.
Nonetheless, Podhoretz has a point. A deep-seated hatred of tyranny, both domestic and foreign, runs through American culture from its origins to the present day. Americans are and always have been primarily individualists, and they do not like abuses of power, whether by their government or by others. Podhoretz is wrong when he tries to paint the Bush Doctrine in the colors of conservatism, but he is not wrong when he asserts that it is one with a long tradition of American opposition to tyranny. The truth is that Podhoretz and the neoconservatives in general are not nearly as neo, or as conservative, as they sometimes like to pretend.
 
There is no doubt, however, where Podhoretz’s personal loyalties lie, and it is much to the detriment of his book. Indeed, his unstinting faith in the Bush presidency represents the weakest aspect of World War IV. Podhoretz’s defense of Bush—that he is pragmatically reacting to events in the context of an overall strategy—is not a bad one. Given recent developments, however, it is not particularly convincing. The Bush administration has, over the last few years, effectively ceded Gaza to Hamas, all but abandoned the threat of military force against Iran, turned Fatah into an acknowledged ally, and hung the beleaguered Lebanese democracy movement out to dry. All of these policies may be prudent or acceptable according to various schools of international relations, but they are in direct contradiction to the principles of the Bush Doctrine. Podhoretz justifies his strange faith in the current administration by comparing it to that of Reagan, whose various compromises with the Soviet Union were seen, at the time, as a sellout of his previously furious anti-communism. In retrospect, Podhoretz claims, these policies “deserved to be regarded as prudential tactics within an overall strategy.” This may well be true, but Reagan never compromised his opposition to communism by, for instance, forming an alliance with Castro, as Bush has now done with Fatah.
Podhoretz may be at least subconsciously aware of this, and there is an air of pessimism and desperation to World War IV that seems out of sync with neoconservatism’s usually optimistic tone. Perhaps Podhoretz, despite his insistence otherwise, feels the ground slipping away from him. “Today,” he says, “the forces promoting defeatism are more powerful than they ever were in the past.” He then quotes Amir Taheri’s comment that America “has become home to a veritable industry of defeat,” a fact which, given the recent spate of Hollywood films on the war on terror, can hardly be denied.
Nor is it a coincidence that, just as he is reaching the end of his book, Podhoretz recalls that during the Cold War
leading anti-Communists like Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham were sure that we lacked the stomach, the heart, the will, and the wit to stand effectively against the true believers of the Soviet Union and its allies and sympathizers: to Chambers we were “the losing side,” and to Burnham we were virtually suicidal in our liberal weakness and folly.
Podhoretz seeks to reassure us by pointing out that “they turned out to be wrong.” This is true, of course—but not entirely so. It is fairer to say that they were both right and wrong. There were certainly moments—the post-Vietnam era most prominent among them—when America did indeed lose its resolve, and spent considerable time finding it again. The very presence of a book such as World War IV, i.e., the need for a comprehensive defense of the very idea of a war on terror, indicates that we may well be entering just such a moment.
Podhoretz is probably correct in his final assessment that the Bush Doctrine will survive its critics, mainly because he is also correct when he places it firmly within a long tradition of activist foreign policy on the part of the United States. The fact that it is demonstrably not a conservative tradition may lead to division and recrimination within the conservative movement, not to mention a crisis of political identity among the neoconservatives themselves. But it also means that the general principles on which it stands are widely held and politically sound. Indeed, they are hardly limited to neoconservatism, and were it not for the vicious influence of partisanship—of which Podhoretz himself is hardly innocent—they would likely find allies even among the Bush Doctrine’s ostensible detractors.
World War IV itself, however, is unlikely to gain much sympathy or support from those outside the neoconservative consensus. If anything, it will likely alienate and perhaps enrage the undecided, who may well find themselves sympathetic to some of Podhoretz’s many targets. In employing a shotgun technique of argument, Podhoretz cuts down not only enemies but also potential allies. He is a brilliant preacher, but even the best preachers sometimes find themselves, by virtue of their own fervency, preaching only to the choir.

Benjamin Kerstein is an assistant editor of AZURE.


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