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