The Return Of The World Warriors
October 07, 2004
As the Bush administration's purported objectives for invading Iraq turn out to be strawmen, there's been an uptick in rhetoric about the Iraq as a front in the global war on terror. And it's working. Unfortunately, few on the left or the right are willing to challenge this notion that 9/11 launched the United States into a "world war." Certainly not the current Democratic contenders. But the real intellectual heavyweights behind the "World War IV" concept come from the right. Here, Brown—a former diplomat— argues that the belief we're in a "world war" is not only wrong, it's dangerous.
John Brown—a former Foreign Service officer who resigned in protest when the United States invaded Iraq—is affiliated with Georgetown University. Brown compiles a daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR) available free by requesting it at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aside from public diplomacy, PDPR covers items such as anti-Americanism, cultural diplomacy, propaganda, foreign public opinion and American popular culture abroad.
In recent weeks, with the news from Iraq getting worse and worse, and with the war there increasingly an issue in a tightly contested presidential election, pro-Iraq war advocates—desperate for a way to justify the deaths of more than 1,000 Americans soldiers in a conflict fought for reasons that are still unclear—are resurfacing the World War IV paradigm with a vengeance.
This fall-season world-war assault is led by none other than Norman Podhoretz, in a lengthy article in the September Commentary, "World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win," in which he declares that "radical Islamism" has as its objective "not merely to murder as many of us as possible and to conquer our land. Like the Nazis and Communists before him, [this new enemy] is dedicated to the destruction of everything good for which America stands."
The we're-in-a-world-war charge led by General Podhoretz has been joined by many avid and vocal foot soldiers: The New York Times columnists David Brooks and William Safire; Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; commentator Lawrence Kudlow; Peter Huessy, a member of the newly reactivated Committee on the Present Danger; and Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation. So too The Weekly Standard —which long advocated for the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it is only one campaign in the global war on terror.
President George W. Bush, we all know, doesn’t read newspapers, but he appears to have been briefed by his staff about the World Warriors’ pronouncements being back in circulation. That’s probably why he stated in early September that the war on terrorism "is a long-lasting ideological struggle. Frankly, the war on terror is somewhat misnamed, though. It ought to be called the struggle [against] a totalitarian point of view that uses terror as a tool to intimidate the free."
The White House evidently briefed Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi on the latest reason why the United States invaded his country. "The War in Iraq," he said during his recent visit to the U.S., "is really not only an Iraqi war, it’s a war for the civilized world, to fight terrorists and terrorism." The terrorists "want to undermine us in Iraq and to move from Iraq to undermine the region." "And once they do this," he added, "they will hit hard at the civilized world and in Washington and New York and London and Paris and Ankara and Geneva, elsewhere, everywhere in the civilized world."
The Intellectual Architects Of The World War Frame
Columnist Thomas Friedman was one of the first to suggest that 9/11 signaled the beginning of a new world war. Two days after 9/11, Friedman wrote in The New York Times that "if this attack was the Pearl Harbor of World War III, it means there is a long, long war ahead." Friedman’s world-war metaphor was slightly revised and expanded upon by Eliot A. Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, in his widely-read Wall Street Journal article, "World War IV: Let’s Call This Conflict What It Is" (November 20, 2001). Cohen states at the onset that the war in question "did not begin with bin Laden and will not end with his death." The most accurate way to name "this war" is World War IV, the Cold War being World War III. Like the Cold War, World War IV is "global"; "will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts"; "will require mobilization of skill, expertise and recourses"; "may go on for a long time" and "has ideological roots." The enemy in this war, Cohen emphasizes, is not terrorism, but militant Islam.
After the appearance of Cohen’s article, the World War idea was repeated in a number of publications, with surprisingly little variation, except that it was sometimes characterized, a la Friedman, as World War III. Among the first to trumpet Cohen’s concept was Norman Podhoretz in Commentary (February 2002) in his "How to Win World War IV ." Other World War IV advocates included former CIA director R. James Woolsey, Robert Kagan and William Kristol of The Weekly Standard, Inigo Thomas in Slate, Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe, and Larry Haas, a former Clinton administration official. Scholar Harold Bloom seemed to share their vision when he stated that "fundamentalist Islam conducts a world-wide terror onslaught … our wars with fundamentalist Islam will continue, and will broaden; others will be attacked. We have no option except imposing a Roman peace" (The Wall Street Journal,
Is A World War Necessary?
The World Warriors’ efforts to justify the Iraq disaster in terms of its being merely a battle in a must-win global conflict have not gone unrefuted. Commentators have pointed out that the intellectual underpinnings of the WW III/IV view are seriously flawed. In challenging the premises underlying this paradigm, I draw in part on articles by Jonathan Clarke, Ahmad Faruqui, Andrew Greeley, Keith Platfoot, Justin Raimondo and Paul Graig Roberts.
First, the claim that "radical Islamism" intends to conquer America is vastly overstated. Some fanatics may want to seriously harm us, but conquer the United States? That is stretching paranoia beyond the imagination, worthy of the film Red Dawn , which depicts a Soviet invasion of the United States. The threat of the conquest of the homeland by heathen foreigners may help the World Warriors’ argument that we must be engaged in a planetary conflict—how else to confront an invader best than by mobilizing all our national resources and fighting him globally—but it is simply not credible to conceive of the United States under the control of "radical Islamism."
Second, while as an enemy to be defeated "radical Islamism" is more specific than "terror," it is still a very vague term, certainly less definable than ideologies (e.g., Communism, fascism, Nazism in the Cold War and World War II) or nation states (e.g., Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I). We have a pretty good idea of who Osama bin Laden is, but who specifically is a radical Islamist? When does an Islamist become "radical"? When he wants to destroy the United States? But there conceivably are quite a number of people who want to destroy the United States who are not "radical Islamists."
Third, by calling our conflict with terrorists a world war, Cohen, Podhoretz & Co. are suggesting that all of the world is—or at least should be—engaged in it. True, we have "coalition forces" in Iraq, and foreign governments cooperate with us in eliminating terrorist threats. But many countries, including some of our oldest allies, in fact do not want to take part in the war on terror on our terms, and especially because of how it is being waged in Iraq. Indeed, our essentially unilateral action in Iraq has increasingly made our war on terror a non-World War. It’s an American, not a world, war.
Fourth, Cohen, Podhoretz & Co. use the World War concept to deny the possibility of using non-military means in their struggle to exterminate "radical Islamism," denying the possibility of diminishing its threat by increasing communication and mutual understanding with moderates in Muslim societies—a method which many foreign policy experts, including in the U.S. armed forces, realize is a key to winning "hearts and minds" and thereby preventing terror. Indeed, Podhoretz approves of what he calls the "Bush doctrine" because, for the president, to "move into the future meant to substitute preemption for deterence, and to rely on American military might rather than the ‘soft power’ represented by the UN and the other relics of World War III." To win WWIV, and somehow—in the process of killing Muslims—democratizing the Middle East, Podhoretz calls for the incessant application of American military might, for which he has enormous admiration, as is seen in his Dr. Strangelove praise of U.S. weaponry: "When the B-52’s and the 15,000 ‘Daisy Cutter’ bombs were unleashed [in Afghanistan], they temporarily banished the ghost of Vietnam and undercut the fears of some and the hopes of others that we were heading into a quagmire." Podhoretz has to admit one paragraph later, however, that "Osama bin Laden was not captured and al Quaeda was not totally destroyed."
Fifth, the analogies the World Warriors make among various historical periods do violence to what is history’s most important contribution to human understanding—that the past is complex and at best a tentative guide to action. Podhoretz’s efforts to link all terrorists acts since the 1970s into a broad, cohesive hate-America movement that culminated into 9/11 is especially unconvincing because it so unsubtly forces events into a pattern clearly conceived a priori . And just because we’ve had three world wars doesn’t necessarily mean we have to have a fourth one.
Sixth, the Warriors’ pronouncements that America’s conflict with terrorists is a World War probably fuels the latter’s ambitions more than it discourages them from attacking the United States. When an obscure anti-American fanatic inclined to terrorism hears about the proclamations of Cohen, Podhoretz and Co., won’t he be emboldened to act now that he’s been told (by the enemy, no less) that he’s playing a major role in history, challenging the most powerful nation on earth on a planetary scale? Haven’t disparate, minor terrorist groups throughout the globe been, thanks to the proclamations of our Warriors, "legitimized" (both in their own eyes and for others) by having been given the status of global jihadists against the Great Satan? Similarly, dictatorial regimes become acceptable to the U.S. because they are supposedly involved in eliminating "terrorists."
The Costs Of World War IV
Finally, and most important, the World Warriors don’t talk about how much the global conflict they so ardently advocate will cost the United States in human, economic and political terms. Rather, Podhoretz suggests that a new World War will cleanse America of the "Vietnam syndrome," of a "loss of self-confidence." That this process could lead to the loss of American lives is of little concern to him (this obliviousness to individual human beings is evident in his statement, regarding a deal with the Iranians in the Reagan years, that "whereas the Iranians were paid off handsomely in the coin of nearly 1,500 antimissiles…all we got in exchange were three American hostages"). In economic terms, can the United States, with its huge deficit and continuing social problems, afford the kind of total mobilization the World Warriors advocate? And could the Warriors’ Orwellian conflict lead to great reductions of freedom—our greatest national treasure?
The World Warriors’ grandiose plans for perpetual war (what else can one call it, since they don’t tell us how or when it will end) could lead to the ultimate, and tragic, irony: America posing a greater danger to itself than its enemies do.