Friday, October 26

Of the Words of War and the War of Ideas

Review of

The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism
By Norman Podhoretz
230 pages. Doubleday. $24.95.


In his bellicose new book Norman Podhoretz, one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, declares that the current Iraq war is only one front (Iran being another) in what he calls “World War IV,” a “long struggle against Islamofascism,” which like the cold war (the one he counts as “World War III”), “will almost certainly go on for three or four decades.”

Mr. Podhoretz, who last summer called upon President Bush to use military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, writes in these pages of all the “progress” that is being made in neighboring Iraq, embraces the Bush administration’s aggressive policy of pre-emption and asserts that George W. Bush will one day be recognized “as a great president,” an heir not just to Truman but to Lincoln as well.

This book appears at a time when a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that 48 percent of Republicans want a presidential nominee who will take a “different approach” from that of the president (compared with 38 percent who want a “similar approach”), a time when neoconservative ideas have come under attack not only from liberals but also from traditional conservatives and former neoconservative stars like Francis Fukuyama.

Mr. Podhoretz, however, remains an ardent supporter of the Bush doctrine of unilateral action, pre-emptive war and the exportation of democracy to the Middle East. Last summer he was made a senior foreign policy adviser to the Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani’s campaign, joining other neoconservative Giuliani consultants like Daniel Pipes, a historian who has defended the racial profiling of Muslims, and Peter Berkowitz, a Hoover Institution fellow.

Although Mr. Podhoretz espouses a more Pollyanna-ish view of Iraq than Mr. Giuliani, many of his views on foreign-policy issues will remind readers of stands recently enunciated by Mr. Giuliani: from his contention that the realist school of foreign policy “defines America’s interests too narrowly,” to his declaration that he will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power, to his support of aggressive (but legal) interrogation and electronic surveillance methods in the war on terror, to his determination to “reform the international system according to our values.”

Mr. Giuliani, whose “moderate” stands on various social issues have been the focus of the Republican primary campaign, tends to speak about such foreign policy issues in vague, abstract terms. Mr. Podhoretz, in contrast, is openly pugnacious and often highly specific in these pages, to the point where the reader wants to ask Mr. Giuliani just how closely he intends to hew to his senior foreign policy adviser’s advice. For instance, when Mr. Giuliani was recently asked if he agreed with Mr. Podhoretz that the time to bomb Iran had already come, Mr. Giuliani replied that, based on the information he currently had: “We are not at that stage at this point. Can we get to that stage? Yes. And is that stage closer than some of the Democrats believe? I believe it is.”

Mr. Podhoretz, for his part, is quoted in a recent Newsweek article saying, “I decided to join Giuliani’s team because his view of the war — what I call World War IV — is very close to my own.”

How good a case does Mr. Podhoretz make for his hard-line views in this volume? Instead of trying to produce a reasoned argument for a forward-leaning foreign policy, he has served up a hectoring, often illogical screed based on cherry-picked facts and blustering assertions (often made without any supporting evidence), a book that furiously hurls accusations of cowardice, anti-Americanism and sheer venality at any and all opponents of the Bush doctrine, be they on the right or the left.

A chapter about conservatives like George F. Will, who have challenged Bush administration policy in Iraq, is titled “defeatism on the right.” Another chapter depicts “realists” (like Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter), who have argued that the invasion of Iraq has destabilized the Middle East, as self-serving appeasers who “were rooting for an American defeat as the only way to save their worldview from winding up on the ash heap of history.”

As for growing antiwar sentiment on the part of the American public — a New York Times/CBS News poll in September 2007 showed that 62 percent of Americans believe the war was a mistake — Mr. Podhoretz blames this development on “the media spin on Iraq,” asserting that the media are motivated by “a virulent hostility to George W. Bush and a correlative wish to see the doctrine that bore his name discredited by an American defeat in Iraq.”

Often the reasoning in this book is downright perverse. For instance Mr. Podhoretz contends that the continuing violence in Iraq is actually “a tribute to the enormous strides that had been made in democratizing and unifying the country under a workable federal system.” He continues: “If the sectarian militias thought that unification was a pipe dream, would they be shedding so much blood in the hope of triggering a large-scale civil war? If the murderous collection of die-hard Sunni Baathists, together with their allies inside the government, agreed that democratization had already failed, would they have been waging so desperate a campaign to defeat it?”

Mr. Podhoretz willfully ignores many of the facts on the ground in Iraq, a situation that the bipartisan Iraq Study Group last year termed “grave and deteriorating.” He is reluctant to concede that people who object to the administration’s Iraq war policy might be doing so because they are troubled by what the study group called the “scope and lethality” of violence there, by the political and military fallout of a continuing insurgency and by deadly fighting between Shiites and Sunnis.

In claiming that Mr. Bush’s strategy of regime change is draining the swamps that breed terrorism, he ignores experts like Michael Scheuer, a former head of the bin Laden tracking unit at the C.I.A., who have argued that the Iraq war, far from making America safer, has served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda. Mr. Podhoretz also shrugs off the much-criticized decision to disband the Iraqi army (a decision many experts say fatally fueled the insurgency), arguing that whatever mistakes might have been made “amounted 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.”

Mr. Podhoretz is similarly glib when it comes to critics of George W. Bush’s domestic policies (including those on the right who are upset about matters like deficit spending and immigration, and those on the left who are concerned about issues like stem cell research). He writes, “Who today either remembers or cares about Truman’s domestic policies?”

Regarding the question of growing tensions with Iran, Mr. Podhoretz is both dogmatic and illogical. Although he wrote last summer that Iran is “the currently main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11” and “the main sponsor of the terrorism that is Islamofascism’s weapon of choice,” he fails to come to terms with the fact that it was the United States’ invasion of Iraq that dismantled Iran’s greatest foe in the region (against which it had waged an eight-year war in the 1980s) and gave it greater sway than ever in the Middle East.

For that matter, Mr. Podhoretz lumps together Muslims opposed to the United States, a “two-headed beast” of “Islamofascism,” whose objective he says is “to murder as many of us as possible” and destroy “the freedoms we cherish and for which America stands.” Such characterizations not only try to draw parallels between radical Muslims and the Nazis, but also gloss over the many schisms and conflicts within Islam that have pitted Shiites against Sunnis, Iranians against Iraqis, religious fundamentalists against more secular Baathists.

This reluctance to grapple with the enormously complicated particulars of the Middle East, combined with Mr. Podhoretz’s penchant for demagogic generalizations, Manichean language and contempt for people who disagree with him, makes for a shrill, unpersuasive book. It is a book that will likely find a receptive audience only among those dwindling numbers of Americans who already want to stay the course in Iraq and promulgate the policies of George W. Bush for many years and decades to come.