In 1983, Norman Podhoretz published "Why We Were in Vietnam" -- a review of the arguments surrounding a war that had by then become a symbol of strategic overreach and moral failure.
In the conventional wisdom, our defeat had been well-deserved: we had acted as imperialists and counter-revolutionaries, had engaged in an ideological foreign policy (an anti-Communist "crusade"), and had an "inordinate fear" of Communism.
The elite consensus was thus that the Vietnam War had been both strategically unnecessary and morally degrading -- reflecting American arrogance and an abuse of power typified by the war crime at My Lai, with a military that had allegedly regularly acted in a manner reminiscent of Genghis Kahn.
Podhoretz wrote his 1983 book to reopen the debate, to investigate whether the Vietnam War had in fact reflected "the intellectual and moral poverty" charged by Jimmy Carter, or had been the "noble cause" that Ronald Reagan had called it (in a comment widely reported in the media as a "gaffe") -- an effort to protect millions of people from a totalitarian society and to maintain America's strategy of containing Communist expansion.
The book was written with the courage and clarity that has always been Podhoretz's literary trademark, and it contributed to a restored confidence in America's national purpose and a renewed belief in the morality of its cause -- two essential elements in the ultimate victory in the Cold War.
Podhoretz now refers to the Cold War as "World War III," because it was a global ideological conflict, with hot wars in Korea and Vietnam and a nuclear confrontation in Cuba, proxy contests in Angola and elsewhere, and continuous tests of will from Berlin to Taiwan -- all pitting the forces of freedom against an armed totalitarian ideology whose global intentions had been made clear.
The current conflict, in Podhoretz's view, is thus "World War IV" -- a similar worldwide conflict with ideological roots that, like World War III, will take three or four decades to win, and which likewise cannot be won absent domestic confidence in America's purpose and the morality of its cause. He defends the Iraq War against all comers (and there are a lot of comers -- Democrats, realists, paleoconservatives, former liberal hawks, and others), but the goal of his book is not simply a defense of that battle. Instead, it is a more ambitious attempt to place that conflict in the framework of what he believes will be a multi-decade world war.
Podhoretz's new book thus bears a significant similarity to his 1983 manifesto, with one major difference that we will note later. But his argument is not that there is any similarity between Vietnam and Iraq as conflicts. The connection lies not in the particular circumstances of those wars, but in the domestic reaction to them -- which had already begun, as Podhoretz began writing this book a year ago, to bear the telltale signs of the earlier response to Vietnam. The similarity is in the war of ideas on the home front.
The recounting of the history leading up to 9/11, and the world that faced George W. Bush on his inauguration, is particularly instructive:
To examine this history is to realize that even while World War III was still going on, World War IV had already begun, and that 9/11, far from being the first salvo fired at us by an enemy as implacable as any we had ever faced, actually represented the culmination of a long series of attacks that we had insisted on treating not as deliberate acts of war demanding a military response but as common crimes or the work of rogue groups operating on their own that could best be handled by the cops and the courts.
Part of the reason for our strategic blindness was a myopic focus in those years on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Podhoretz notes that, after the bombing of an American warship with large American casualties, President Clinton was so "wrapped up in a futile attempt to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians that all he could see" in the attack was (in Clinton's words) an effort "to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East."
From a somewhat different perspective, the realists and paleoconservatives reached a similar conclusion: that "neocons" had so brainwashed Bush that he refused to recognize that the most important obstacle to solving all our problems in the Middle East was not Saddam Hussein but Ariel Sharon.
Historians may be puzzled as to why America treated (and continues to treat) the Palestinian conflict as if it were the keystone to the Middle East, when in the years since 1948 there have been (in Podhoretz's count) about two dozen wars there involving Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Iraq that not only had nothing to do with either Israel or the Palestinians, but (as in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88) involved hundreds of thousands more deaths than all the wars involving Israel put together.
In the long run-up to 9/11, the broader issues of Arab national, ideological, religious and sectarian conflicts were thus ignored, and Podhoretz blames the administrations of both parties for shortsightedness by dealing with terrorism as if it were simply a nuisance:
[M]uch of the same methods for dealing with terrorism were employed by the administrations of both parties, stretching as far back as Richard Nixon in 1970 and proceeding through Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan (yes, Ronald Reagan), George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and right up to the pre-9/11 George W. Bush.
When George W. Bush took office, the country may not have recognized it was in World War IV, but there was a strong consensus about which country was the principal threat to the United States: Iraq. The Washington Post greeted Bush's inauguration with the admonition that:
[O]f all the booby traps left behind by the Clinton administration, none is more dangerous -- or more urgent -- than the situation in Iraq. Over the last year, Mr. Clinton and his team quietly avoided dealing with, or calling attention to, the almost complete unraveling of a decade's efforts to isolate the regime of Saddam Hussein and prevent it from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction. That leaves President Bush to confront a dismaying panorama in the Persian Gulf [where] intelligence photos . . . show the reconstruction of factories long suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons.
Because of numerous investigations since 9/11, we now know that this view represented an overwhelming consensus view, shared not only by the CIA (in George Tenet's "slam dunk" assurance), but in the view of all fifteen U.S. agencies gathering intelligence for the United States. In the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2002, where their collective views were summarized, one of the conclusions offered with "high confidence" was that
Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.
The intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France (yes, France) had all agreed with this judgment. In addition, the 2002 NIE had concluded with "high confidence" that:
Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.
After 9/11, an attack on Afghanistan -- including not only Bin Laden's camps but the government that sheltered them -- was virtually a no-brainer (although there were numerous voices warning about the dire consequences of trying to succeed where the Soviets had failed, or suggesting as a remedy a new coalition government with the Taliban). But the risks associated with a WMD-seeking Iraq took a quantum jump in a post 9/11 world, and it was the combination of a catastrophic attack on the homeland and the realization that the country was at war that led to the Bush Doctrine.
Podhoretz's book is a sustained defense of the Bush Doctrine -- which principally features a combination of (a) a pre-emptive military strategy to preclude fascist states representing threats to American security from amassing weapons of mass destruction, and (b) the promotion of a forward strategy of freedom to compete with (and ultimately replace) the anti-American fascist ideology.
The successes of the Bush Doctrine to date have been largely lost in the partisan bickering of the "Bush LIED" campaign (which took to a new level of magnitude such prior precedents as charges that Roosevelt had known about the imminence of Pearl Harbor, or that LBJ had lied us into Vietnam). Similarly, the unexpected difficulties of seeking to establish a representative government in Iraq have overshadowed the extraordinarily successful three-week campaign to remove Saddam Hussein.
But the successes, which are potentially of much greater historic significance than the present difficulties, have included elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, a revolution in Lebanon followed by a Syrian withdrawal, nuclear disarmament in Libya, and steps toward democracy in color-coded revolutions in Europe and elsewhere. Podhoretz writes of his amazement about the charges that the Bush Doctrine had already failed in Iraq:
After all, Iraq had been liberated from one of the worst tyrants in the Middle East; three elections had been held; a decent constitution had been written; a government was in place; and previous unimaginable liberties were being enjoyed. By what bizarre calculation did all this add up to failure? And by what ever stranger logic was failure to be read into the fact that the forces opposed to democratization were fighting back with all their might?
The opposition and involvement of Al Qaeda, Iran and Syria were all indications that the Iraq conflict was no more a meaningless "civil war" without wider consequences than the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was simply a "civil war" without any implications for whether fascism would take over Europe.
Despite the global strategic threat, and the various global strategic successes in a short period of time, it was perhaps inevitable that an antiwar movement would emerge as the Iraq War continued, and Podhoretz is familiar with the dynamic from Vietnam:
But even I never imagined that the new antiwar movement would so rapidly arrive at the stage of virulence it had taken years for its ancestors of the Vietnam era to reach. Nor did I anticipate how closely the antiwar playbook of that era would be followed and how successfully it would be applied to Iraq, even though the two wars had nothing whatever in common.
Backed by the mainstream media, there was a concerted effort to portray Iraq as another Vietnam: "a foolish and futile (if not immoral and illegal) resort to military power in pursuit of a worthless (if not unworthy) goal." But the charges of U.S. arrogance and rush to war were far from the truth:
[F]ar from being a nation of overbearing bullies, we were humbly begging for the support of tiny countries we could easily have pushed around. Far from being "unilateralists," we were busy soliciting the gratuitous permission and the dubious blessing of the Security Council before taking military action against Saddam Hussein. Far from "rushing into war," we were spending months dancing a diplomatic gavotte in the vain hope of enlisting the help of France, Germany, and Russia.
Equally absurd was the idea that trying to bring representative government to the Middle East was an attempt to change centuries of tradition or governmental structures cast in stone:
The Middle East as we now knew it had been created not by Allah in the seventh century but by British and French diplomats after World War I out of the rubble of the defeated Ottoman empire. Since these arrangements were less than a century old, there was nothing unrealistic about changing them. Nor . . . was there anything unconservative in an effort to reshape so historically young, and so arbitrary, a political configuration.
Far from being an ideological break with the past, the Bush Doctrine as America's response to World War IV is the logical continuation of the perspective that Ronald Reagan -- the person who led the West to victory in World War III -- articulated in his speech at Westminster Abbey on June 8, 1982:
We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. . . . It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.
Podhoretz recalls that in 1947, at a time when many denied the Soviet Union was a threat, President Truman correctly saw it was a totalitarian force representing a military and ideological danger that would lead to World War III, and which would require a long and steadfast worldwide response by the United States. For this alone he deserved to be ranked as a great president (and today no one remembers or cares about his domestic policies, or his 20-plus percent poll rankings).
Podhoretz believes the hindsight of history will recognize that George W. Bush similarly developed a strategic doctrine to meet a worldwide challenge, articulated it in a serious of speeches that "are some of the greatest ever made by an American president" (particularly the September 20, 2001 Address to Congress and the Second Inaugural Address), and remained remarkably steadfast in the face not only of relentless domestic criticism, but extraordinary personal ridicule and demonization.
The ultimate outcome depends upon the reaction of the country to the "veritable industry of defeat" (Amir Taheri's words) that has developed in a fashion recalling the phenomenon Podhoretz witnessed in connection with the Vietnam War.
There is, however, as noted above, a significant difference between this book and the earlier one about Vietnam. In Why We Were in Vietnam, Podhoretz noted that, to be fought successfully, the Vietnam War "had to have a convincing moral justification, and the failure to provide one doomed the entire enterprise." But he was writing eight years after the American defeat, and his observations, while entirely valid, were too late for that war.
This book is different: he has written it while Iraq still hangs in the balance, and he has provided both the perspective to judge that battle and the moral justification for the broader doctrine underlying it -- both of which are necessary to prevail in the wider world war in which we are now engaged. A more important book will not be published this year.Rick Richman edits "Jewish Current Issues" and contributes periodically to American Thinker and other periodicals. His most recent article was "Walt, Mearsheimer and the Peace Process."