January 19, 2008
World War IV: A Military PerspectiveBy Christopher D. Geisel
World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, by Norman Podhoretz, New York: Doubleday, 2007. 240 pp.
Not once during my six months serving in Iraq did I ever hear anyone refer to our conflict there as “World War IV.” In fact, to an airman like me on the ground in Baghdad and Camp Taji—with the day-to-day work of equipping the Iraqi Security Forces and training Iraqi soldiers to manage their own logistics system—the idea that anything I was doing was part of a global conflict was an abstract concept at best.
And of course, the notion that the war in Iraq is part of what is widely called the “War on Terror” is a point of contention among not only the military men and women serving in that combat zone, but also the public at large. This idea, in fact, lies at the hot core of the fiery post-9/11 foreign policy debate.
For years, Americans have grappled with a controversial question: was the U.S.-led coalition’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and present occupation of that country the next logical step (after first toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan) in our military response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, or was it simply a foolish distraction from the “real War on Terror?” We have also heard the fervent challenges to the very concept of a “War on Terror,” with some describing the phrase as a political slogan and a “bumper sticker,” and many preferring to view international terrorism as a matter better suited for law enforcement.
Enter Norman Podhoretz, the former editor in chief and current editor at large of the neoconservative Commentary magazine, who makes a persuasive case not only that the Iraq War is part of the global war against the Islamist terrorist forces that attacked the U.S. on 9/11, but also—more importantly—that this global war is better seen as the fourth world war, following the Cold War which, he argues, was really World War III. Furthermore, he abandons the phrase “Global War on Terror,” calling it an “ungainly euphemism,” in favor of identifying the enemy as the “Islamofascists.”
In World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, Podhoretz details the history of failed U.S. policy before 9/11—during both Republican and Democratic administrations—to counter the threat posed by Islamist terrorism. He presents a bloody three-decades-long history of terrorist bombings, murders, kidnappings, hijackings, and hostage-takings, where our mostly weak responses to these acts served to embolden our enemies. Podhoretz issues a vigorous defense of the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine at a time now when, as he documents, even some of its original advocates have jumped ship.
The Islamofascist enemy, as described by Podhoretz, is a monster with two heads: a religious head—exemplified by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban—and a secular head—of which Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime was a prime example. This combined totalitarian threat—the threat to human freedom in World War IV—is cast as the progeny of the fascist and communist threats in the world wars of the twentieth century.
That is the major accomplishment of this book, placing the current war against the Islamist terrorists in a convincing historical context. Podhoretz writes:
But Podhoretz also presents a philosophical context for the Bush Doctrine. The phrase “Bush Doctrine” has suffered from nebulous and often epithetical usage, with a focus on the supposed “unilateralism” of the Iraq invasion. Podhoretz provides a rigorous and favorable analysis of the doctrine.
Using excerpts from the speeches of President George W. Bush, beginning with the president’s address to Congress nine days after 9/11, Podhoretz outlines what he regards as the four pillars of the Bush Doctrine: (1) that this new war is a fight for freedom against the forces of evil and a direct successor to World War II and the Cold War, (2) that the Islamist terrorists are not individuals to be dealt with by law enforcement, but rather an organized network waging war with state sponsorship, and that those sponsoring regimes are “asking” to be overthrown, (3) that military preemption is necessary against these looming threats because deterrence and containment are ineffective, and (4) that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is part of a larger conflict of the Muslim world against the Jewish state, with the Palestinian people being used as pawns.
In defense of this doctrine, Podhoretz draws heavily from the writings and speeches of its critics. He navigates through the arguments from various schools of thought—isolationism on both the Right and the Left, liberal internationalism, and realism—to display (and justify) the Bush Doctrine’s clear departure from these schools.
In particular, the Bush administration’s bold post-9/11 departure from the realist school is a central theme. Realist theory rejects the imperatives of global freedom and democracy inherent in Wilsonian idealism and instead values stability among nation-states. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, President George H. W. Bush launched Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait, thus restoring the previous balance of power—without deposing Saddam Hussein. This result embodied the realist approach to Middle East foreign policy that the U.S. (and other free nations) followed for the half-century leading up to 9/11; we allied with dictators throughout the Muslim world in order to contain communism and to preserve a perceived “stability.”
The Bush Doctrine abandoned such realist accommodations in what Podhoretz describes as “a revolutionary change in the rules of the international game.” The new imperative is to “drain the swamps” that breed terrorism. What are these “swamps” exactly? Podhoretz explains:
Thus, under this new doctrine, the Muslim world’s despotic regimes that deny human freedom are finally acknowledged to be the root cause of Islamist terrorism.
While Podhoretz considers the Bush Doctrine “revolutionary,” he does not at all isolate it from previous doctrine. To the contrary, he argues that the Bush Doctrine, in its fundamental premise that freedom is the rightful destiny of all people, is rooted in “the Reaganite version of Wilsonian idealism.” Interestingly, Podhoretz most frequently uses a comparison between the Bush Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine. Just as President Truman recognized the Soviet Union as “an aggressive totalitarian force that was plunging us into another world war” and committed the U.S. to a policy of containment in the long war against communism, so similarly did President Bush recognize the threat of Islamist terrorism, understanding that it “could be defeated only through a worldwide struggle.”
Podhoretz also weighs in on such hot button issues as the debate over pre-Iraq war intelligence and weapons of mass destruction, perceived post-invasion mistakes in Iraq, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, abuses at Abu Ghraib, terrorist surveillance programs, the Niger uranium yellowcake story, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and negative war coverage in the mainstream media.
In World War IV, no conventional wisdom or supposed truism is safe from scrutiny and counterpoint. Many critics of the policy of spreading democracy in the Middle East have asserted that democratic reform cannot come about by foreign intervention. Podhoretz responds with the cases of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, which were both “transformed” into democracies after World War II. He then cites an analysis indicating that a majority of democracies in the world, as of 1970, had emerged either during or in the immediate wake of foreign rule.
Others argue, more fundamentally, that liberal democracy is not for everyone and that we cannot overturn thousands of years of culture in the Middle East. Podhoretz retorts:
During my service in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, I saw firsthand the validation of Podhoretz’s argument that the oppressed people of the Muslim world do desire and deserve freedom. The Iraqi soldiers who I trained would risk their lives on a daily basis just to travel to work. And in three successful elections in 2005, the Iraqis bravely went to the polls and proudly returned with the purple mark on their fingers.
Notably, in my conversations with Iraqis, their discussion of the external threats to Iraq, such as Iran and Syria, loomed large, with talk of differences between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq often taking a back seat. In fact, in the Iraqi Army logistics unit I helped oversee, Sunni, Shia, and even Christian Iraqis served side by side. This lends great credence to Podhoretz’s assertion that current tensions in the Middle East are much more the product of the oppressive regimes and political divisions of the recent century than the age-old sectarian divisions within Islam.
This is not to say that Iraqis are not suffering from a serious damage to their collective psyche, inflicted by decades of life under a tyrant, as Podhoretz acknowledges. What I saw, in working with Iraqis, was their apparent lack of personal initiative to solve problems, no doubt born out of life under Saddam Hussein, when outspokenness and individuality were all too often punished by death.
Yet those who say that efforts to establish democracy in Iraq cannot succeed miss the lesson offered by the enemies of freedom there. Podhoretz points (perhaps non-intuitively for some) to the intense bloodshed in Iraq as evidence that the terrorist forces obviously believe democratization is possible; otherwise they would not be fighting so vigorously against it.
Lately, there has been even more cynicism regarding democratic reform in the Middle East, in the wake of such apparent setbacks as the 2006 Palestinian electoral victory by the terrorist organization Hamas. However, Podhoretz points optimistically to Amir Taheri’s statement that “the holding of elections, however, is a clear admission that the principle basis for legitimacy is the will of the people as freely expressed through ballot boxes.”
Podhoretz does not entirely avoid pessimism concerning World War IV, though. He admits surprise over the speed at which a vocal and influential anti-war movement has taken hold, noting that it has already reached “the stage of virulence it had taken years for its ancestors of the Vietnam era to reach.” And, in detailing various conservative commentators who have now become critics of the Bush Doctrine, Podhoretz paints himself as somewhat of a lone voice in the wilderness. But he does offer some final optimism in his comparison of the Bush Doctrine to the Truman Doctrine. Podhoretz notes that Truman’s doctrine of containment, which was much maligned during his own presidency, would, notwithstanding that, continue to be U.S. policy in the decades to follow.
One disappointment for me in reading World War IV was the absence of the truly comprehensive argument for the use of the term “Islamofascism.” Podhoretz does justify the two parts of the word in explaining that “Islamo-" describes the religious face of the enemy and “-fascism” signifies its secular face. Also, he references Bernard Lewis’ explanation of how the Nazis themselves influenced what would become the Baath party and the tyrannical regimes of today’s Middle East. However, given that “Islamofascism,” which is arguably more controversial a term than “World War IV,” is in the full title of the book, I expected a more explicit discussion of how the current Islamist terrorist threat is worthy of the fascist moniker, especially since such worthiness has been heavily criticized.
Modern political correctness has resulted in a hesitancy to identify the enemy of Podhoretz’s World War IV as Islamist in nature, even through the 2004 report of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission states this clearly:
Nevertheless, euphemisms that avoid mentioning the Islamist nature of our enemy persist and often dominate. During my service in Iraq, U.S. and Coalition forces referred to the enemy who fired mortars and rockets into our bases and who targeted our convoys with improvised explosives as “the insurgents.” Last year, I attended a briefing by a U.S. Air Force colonel who instructed that the current terrorist threat has “nothing to do with Islam.” And like other members of today’s military, I wear a medal on my uniform called the “Global War on Terrorism Service Medal,” which, since terrorism is only a military tactic, is no more descriptive than would be a medal from World War II called the “Global War on Torpedo Bombers Medal.”
Today, few are comfortable with the terms “Islamofascism” or “Islamic fascism.” For a thoughtful and rigorous justification of the fascist moniker, readers should reference the articles of Victor Davis Hanson, most importantly “It’s Fascism — and It's Islamic” from September 11, 2006 and “Islamic Fascism 101” from September 29, 2006. In the latter, Hanson writes:
Anti-Semitism also pervades this new brand of fascism, just as it did under the Nazi version, as Hanson explains in the former article. And he notes that, in the Muslim world, “‘Mein Kampf’ sells well under its translated title ‘Jihadi.’”
Overall, World War IV is an enlightening read. Its most valuable contribution is that it forces the reader to face the compelling argument that the current war against the Islamist terrorists is part of the historical struggle between good and evil, which there has never been an agreement on how best to fight. Podhoretz’s work stands alongside the report of the 9/11 Commission, as both works accurately cast the current war as part of a long story, rather than just an episode that began on 9/11. The reasonable observer can only conclude that our enemies are waging this war for the long haul, so too must we commit ourselves.
Many of my generation, currently in their twenties, consider the 9/11 attacks to be the most significant event of our lifetime thus far. I, however, have long suspected that the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, the ending of the Cold War, which Podhoretz considers to be World War III, was an even more important event. This latest work validates my notion. For while the end of the Cold War was the victory of the free world over communist totalitarianism and the official end of World War III, the attacks of 9/11 were not as momentous as that; they were neither a beginning nor and end to World War IV. This current global war, waged against freedom by the Islamist enemy, had been raging for decades before 9/11. What is meaningful about 9/11 is that it was on that day that free people recognized the mortal danger of the threat—and began to fight back.
Christopher D. Geisel is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He serves on active duty in the U.S. Air Force. The opinions expressed here are his alone. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.