rPaul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.
Events in the Middle East in the last few weeks have been truly distressing, with Israel embarking on what increasingly looks like an ill-conceived war against Hezbollah, Iran moving forward with its effort to join the nuclear club, and Iraq slipping deeper into civil war.
No matter what your position is on Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, no one in their right mind could be anything but dismayed. Unless, that is, you’re of a particular conservative mind.
To some of the leading lights of the right-wing commentariat, what we’re seeing unfold is no mere crisis. Instead, it is literally World War III, a clash of civilizations in which everyone everywhere will have to take a side and take up arms. And they couldn’t be happier about it.
It will surprise no one to hear that this argument is coming from certain fundamentalist Christian quarters, where premillenial dispensationalists see signs that the coming Rapture is accelerating toward its glorious end. But it is also being heard from more mainstream voices.
Newt Gingrich recently said, “We’re in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War,” while conservative talking head Bill Bennett said, “I think we’re in World War III now.” Right-wing talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck have chimed in their agreement that World War III is now in progress, and a few, such as neocon gray eminence Norman Podhoretz and the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Ledeen, have said this is actually World War IV (the Cold War, apparently, was World War III). Sean Hannity even said this is World War V, but it was less than clear what he was talking about.
So just why is it that so many conservatives are so eager to characterize the current conflict as another world war? The answer lies in a deep, abiding need among conservatives to exist in a state of war, the bigger the better. It need not be a war in which actual shots are being fired, but it must be defined as a war so that our political reality, both in practical terms and with regard to our discourse, can be ordered in a particular way.
The War On Terror Is For Wimps
Just after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush said, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Thus was inaugurated the War on Terror, a worldwide conflict in which every nation was supposed to choose whether it was America’s friend or America’s enemy. But right away it became evident that things weren’t so clear. The closer we got to the places where the War on Terror would be fought, the more obvious it became that this war wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as many of those we had fought before, particularly for the right.
The problem for conservatives lies in the fact that the War on Terror is not really a war at all. “Terror” is a tactic, not an enemy, and without a true enemy conservatism will always be somewhat adrift.
What of the Pakistani teenager who admires Osama Bin Laden but is attracted to American culture and freedoms and so might—through the proper application of our “soft power” and clever persuasion—come to see things our way? Which side is he on? Is he ally or enemy? Are we supposed to hate him and kill him, or not?
On one hand, we’re supposed to be fighting this war, but on the other, in order to do so we have to win hearts and minds by convincing people around the world, and especially in Muslim counties, to turn toward us and away from the likes of al-Qaida. This injects a maddening degree of the dreaded “nuance” into our efforts. The War on Terror—like the war in Iraq, and Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah—not only can’t be won with the application of overwhelming military force, such application actually makes it less likely that you’ll win, since every dead civilian brings new recruits to the other side. To people who long to be John Wayne charging up a hill, that doesn’t feel like war at all.
But if, on the other hand, we can turn the War on Terror into World War III—and subsume conflicts like Lebanon and Iraq within it—then all that troubling ambiguity will be banished. We can bomb whoever’s looking at us funny back to the Stone Age. We can restore our vaunted “moral clarity”—the kind that comes from knowing the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re the good guys. The enemy isn’t won over, he’s destroyed. After all, we didn’t try to win the hearts and minds of the German or Japanese people during World War II; we simply killed them by the hundreds of thousands.
More than a few conservatives today would like to do the same thing in both Iraq and Lebanon, and potentially Iran as well. New York Post columnist John Podhoretz recently asked whether “the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going,” locating the real problem as “the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35.” If only we had the guts to commit genocide. Charles Krauthammer scoffed at the argument that Israel’s response to Hezbollah rocket attacks has been disproportionate, writing, “When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, it did not respond with a parallel ‘proportionate’ attack on a Japanese naval base. It launched a four-year campaign that killed millions of Japanese, reduced Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders, and turned the Japanese home islands into rubble and ruin.” Those were the days.
Looking for Another Good War
Indeed, World War II remains the “good war,” something we can all agree on, despite the fact that many of the things the Allies did during its course were unspeakable. Any debate about the morality of American tactics is relegated to the status of historical esoterica, subsumed deep below the war’s moral clarity. Sure, somebody mentions Dresden or Nagasaki now and then, but they do almost nothing to alter the image of World War II as America’s finest hour, when we saved the world from the greatest evil it had ever seen. And what’s more, the American hegemony that followed was actually welcomed by populations everywhere.
The longing for a repeat of this heroic course of events is palpable in the conservative dreams of World War III. For almost two decades, there has been an empty place in their hearts where global conflict used to be. When the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Berlin Wall fell, the enemy the right used to define itself—communism—disappeared almost instantly, save for a few lonely outposts in various corners of the world. And without an enemy, conservatives are nothing.
This is particularly true with regard to the enemy within. In a state of war every utterance by your domestic opponents can be called treason, and their very opposition to you makes them a fifth column in league with the enemy. And with the inherent ambivalence of the War on Terror, the charges that liberals are not just wrong but actually in league with terrorists have gotten more frequent, shriller and more desperate.
Defining the current conflicts as all part of a world war also raises the stakes. But the idea that Islamic radicalism poses a truly existential threat to the United States in the same way the Soviet Union did is so absurd that no one who suggests it can be taken seriously. The Soviets had the power to kill each and every American many times over, and though a communist takeover of the United States was never a serious possibility, at times it appeared as though it might be. But no sane person could argue that if al-Qaida plays its cards right and we make too many mistakes, America could actually become a Taliban-style Islamic theocracy.
Many of our own home-grown Taliban, the fundamentalists who see moral cataclysm in every sex ed class and gay commitment ceremony, are eagerly awaiting the Rapture. They pray desperately that events in the Middle East mean it really is coming this time, with the godless and the apostate cast to their deserved fate in the lake of fire. To the nominally more reasonable conservatives whose voices emanate from airwaves and op-ed pages, the prospect of World War III brings its own kind of rapture, the return of a time when they were free from doubt, when their thirst for the blood of foreigners could be quenched, when anyone who opposed them could be tried for treason. When they knew they were right, and it all made sense.