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Norman Podhoretz's Second Life

October 3, 2007

Tags Media and CultureWar and Foreign PolicyOther Schools of Thought

[World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism. By Norman Podhoretz. Doubleday, 2007. 230 pages.]

Norman Podhoretz, an eminent authority on the novels of Norman Mailer, has for decades postured as an expert in foreign policy as well. It is not too much then, one might have supposed, to expect him to possess an elementary knowledge of European history. Any such expectations are soon disappointed. We find in his latest effort this surprising remark:

Following from this [wish for stability through a balance of power] was a very old principle, going all the way back to the arrangements of the sixteenth century that grew out of the Treaty of Westphalia allowing for more or less peaceful coexistence among perennially warring Catholic and Protestant principalities. In its original form this principle was expressed in the Latin motto cuius regio eius religio (the religion of the ruler is the religion of the region). (p.132)

Podhoretz has blundered badly. He confuses the arrangements made in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which confirmed the principle of cuius regio and extended it to Calvinism. But what is a mere century to our learned author?

But I am holding Podhoretz to an unfair standard. As he makes abundantly clear in this book, his field is not historical fact but rather fantasy and propaganda. We see this immediately in the title that he has chosen for his book. This presupposes two falsehoods: that we are engaged in a world war and that something called "Islamofascism" exists.

The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and has since remained there, but this hardly suffices for a global war. Nor do matters change if one adds to this the Bush Administration's bumbling efforts to dispatch Osama bin Laden. How could even someone of Podhoretz's ineptitude for historical reasoning fail to see that there is no World War IV? (World War III was the Cold War. Once again, Podhoretz errs; though there was a protracted conflict between the United States and Soviet Russia, there was no world war, James Burnham to the contrary notwithstanding.)

To understand our author's reasoning, we must progress to the second falsehood, the existence of Islamofascism. Podhoretz conjures this threatening and monstrous entity into existence by combining a number of genuine phenomena. First, he recalls several terrorist incidents that go back to the 1970s:

The record speaks dismally for itself. From 1970 to 1975, during the administrations of Nixon and Ford, several American diplomats were murdered in Sudan and Lebanon while others were kidnapped. The perpetrators were all agents of one or another faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). (p. 27)

These he groups together with terrorist incidents in the 1980s that involve Muammar Qaddafi in some cases and Hezbollah in others.[1] In the 1990s, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda join the fray with embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. The incidents of course culminate with the 9/11 attacks. These various incidents were of course deplorable, but without adducing any evidence, Podhoretz considers them all part of a decades-long concerted terrorist war against the United States.

Even if Podhoretz were right that the various terrorist assaults were linked, this would hardly constitute a world war. But our distinguished expert on fiction has just begun to confabulate. Our enemy is not merely a few terrorist groups but a substantial part of Islam, a religion with over one billion adherents. Following Daniel Pipes, Podhoretz warns of

an ideology capable of appealing to Muslims of every size and shape … [with] a large number of committed cadres. If Islamists constitute 10 to 15 percent of the Muslim population worldwide, they number some 125 to 200 million persons … the objective of the Islamofascists is not merely to deploy these resources in order 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. (p.14)

Podhoretz confuses two very different things. Many Muslims quite aggressively proclaim their belief that their religion is destined to triumph and view the secular Western world with disdain. But how does Podhoretz get from this to a plot involving millions to destroy America?

He offers us no more than anecdotes. "Unlike in Europe, where the attack of 9/11 did elicit a passing moment of sympathy for the United States … in the realm of Islam the news of 9/11 brought dancing in the streets and screams of jubilation" (p. 99).

Which people, and how many were jubilant? Podhoretz does not tell us, nor does he refer, e.g., to the candlelight vigil for the victims of 9/11 in Iran. But suppose that Podhoretz is right. Would this show anything more than that some people are happy to view the misfortune of a hostile power? To jump from this to a worldwide conspiracy to destroy America is nothing short of reckless. I do not suggest that all talk of an Islamic threat is foolish. My problem concerns Podhoretz, not Islam: he totally fails to provide evidence for his principal claims.

A difficulty now threatens our author. As we have seen, he maintains that millions of Muslims profess a radical version of Islam that aims to bring America down. He advocates a war to combat this "armed doctrine," and he enthusiastically supported the invasion of Iraq as part of the anti-terrorist crusade. But Saddam Hussein, though of course a Muslim, led a largely secular state. Further, he was not involved in the 9/11 attacks. Even if Podhoretz is right about the Islamic plot, why is the Iraq war part of the anti-Islamic struggle? Is it not rather a diversion from that struggle?

So minor a matter as logic does not detain our author. It is enough for him that Bush declared Iraq part of the "axis of evil." No evidence that Saddam planned any assault against America is needed, nor does it matter that the invasion of Iraq led to "a furious outburst of anti-Americanism" in the Arab world (p. 100). The destruction of Saddam did not weaken the power of the radical Islam that Podhoretz fears, since Iraq was not governed by this ideology. Rather, the invasion further inflamed the hostility of the radical Islamists. Podhoretz, as just mentioned, notes this reaction but sees it only as an illustration of Arab evil rather than proof that the policy he favors is bankrupt.

I fear that we are not yet done with Podhoretz's depiction of the foe we face. Even if everything Podhoretz has said about his antagonists is true, why does he call them fascists? He cites Bernard Lewis about the influence of the Nazis on the formation of the Baath Party in the 1940s. This party, though, was and remains a secular nationalist movement; what does it have to do with the Islamic thrust against the West that our author fears? His "argument" appears to be that Islamic religious radicals are fascist because some secular Arabs sixty years ago viewed the Nazis with sympathy.

Let us put all this aside, though, and suppose that millions of Muslims aim to destroy us. What is to be done? For Podhoretz, the answer is straightforward: we must install democracies throughout the Middle East.

Bush's "new approach" aimed "(in my [Podhoretz's] own preferred summation) to make the Middle East safe for America by making it safe for democracy" (p. 144).

This is no Utopian idea, since the states of that region

had all been conjured into existence less than one hundred years ago out of the ruins of the defeated Ottoman empire in World War I…. This being the case, there was nothing "utopian" about the idea that such regimes — which had been planted with shallow roots by two Western powers [Britain and France] and whose legitimacy was constantly challenged by internal forces both religious and secular — could be uprooted with the help of a third Western power and that a better political system could be put in their place. (pp. 144–45)

Of course Podhoretz's argument is wrong: it does not follow from the instability of a government that a successor regime can be easily established, but this is not the problem to which I now wish to call attention. If Podhoretz is to be believed, millions of Muslims aim to destroy us. In a democracy, will these people not vote for governments that will endeavor to carry out their radical programs? Given their numbers (once more, if Podhoretz is right about them) they are often likely to have a decisive voice in elections. The effect of Podhoretz's democratic remedy is likely to be an intensification of the problem it is supposed to cure. Does Podhoretz think that the radical Islamic views he fears flourish only in undemocratic regimes? If so, he once again offers nothing to support his position.

He does mention the problem in one place: "Yes, elections brought Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority, gave the terrorists of Hezbollah a place in the Lebanese government, and awarded the terrorists of the Muslim Brotherhood seats in the Egyptian parliament" (p. 211). His response is to cite two Middle Eastern writers who praise elections as a sign that the ballot box has replaced tyranny. In other words, the answer to the problem that voters may establish hostile regimes is that Democracy is a Good Thing.

Once more, though, let us give the benefit of the doubt to our distinguished expert on the Middle East. Suppose that, before 2003, one was inclined to see merit in the notion of democracy as the cure for that region's problems. Would not any rational observer have to conclude that, applied to Iraq, the policy has failed miserably?

Not at all, says Podhoretz: the war is going quite well. True, mistakes have been made, but what of it? These amount to "chump change when stacked up against the mistakes that were made in World War II — a war conducted by acknowledged giants like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill" (p. 115). Podhoretz's "reasoning" here, if I have understood it, is that if the mistakes of the Iraq war are less than those of another war he deems a success, then the Iraq war is not a failure. It is probably just as well that Podhoretz normally does not attempt to argue for his assertions.

Podhoretz makes a number of other remarkable claims. The prisoners at Guantánamo are not ill treated. Quite the contrary, they receive advanced medical care and so healthful is their regimen that they have gained on average eighteen pounds during their imprisonment (p. 93). On reading this, I was tempted to apply for admission to the facility. Before sending off my enrollment form, though, caution intervened. Elsewhere Podhoretz tells us that "the key factor in fighting a terrorist insurgency" is the amount of intelligence that can be obtained, and that one method of securing this is through questioning prisoners. Podhoretz bemoans efforts to "define 'torture' down to the point where it would become illegal to subject even a captured terrorist to generally accepted methods of interrogation" (p. 114). Podhoretz has a rather aberrant view of good treatment, and as a result I shall have to abandon my Guantánamo vacation plans.

America's policy in Iraq, then, is a magnificent success. Accordingly, then, does not the author of that policy qualify for greatness? "I [Podhoretz] believe that on top of the ways in which he [Bush] already resembles Harry Truman will come the belated recognition of him as a great president" (p. 205).

Criticisms of Bush's domestic policies leave intact his greatness: "who today either remembers or cares about Truman's domestic policies?" (p. 205). Eric Voegelin, following the Austrian novelist Heimito von Doderer, spoke of a Second Reality inhabited by those who suffer from a disorder of the spirit. I cannot think of a more exact illustration of what he meant than Podhoretz's World War IV.[2]

Notes

[1] For a skeptical account of some of the charges against Libya, see John Quigley, The Ruses for War (Prometheus Books, 2007).

[2] Podhoretz writes in serviceable, though undistinguished, prose; but I do not think his teachers Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis would have approved of his constant use of "and/or" — a locution more suited to a business letter than an essay or book.


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