“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”
I kept thinking of that line – often attributed to Trotsky – when reading %%AMAZON=0385522215 World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism%%, Norman Podhoretz’s analysis of the evolution of our current situation.
Not interested, indeed. What normal person would be? Like a lot of people, I was hoping Francis Fukuyama was right back in 1992 when he proffered the “End of History.” No such luck.
Podhoretz might be considered the anti-Fukuyama. His work – published today for the sixth anniversary of 9/11 and amplifying an essay he did for Commentary in August 2004 – posits a view of modern history as one long sequence of sometimes overlapping global wars from World Wars I and II through the Cold War (World War III) to the confrontation with Islamofascism (World War IV), which may be the most intractable and endless conflict of all. Not to pick on Fukuyama – who has long since abandoned his theory – at the present moment, unhappily for all of us, Podhoretz seems to be correct.
Of course not everyone accepts this overview or, if they do, agrees with how this current war is being fought. The best part of Podhoretz’s book is a tour d’horizon of all this opposition. He has a nose for the sturm und drang of intellectual conflict, whether it be the posturing of a Sontag or a Mailer, the slithering realpolitik of a Brent Scowcroft or the preening prevarications of a Joseph C. Wilson. For decades, since Making It and Breaking Ranks, Podhoretz has written brilliantly about this blood sport of the intelligentsia – and the stakes around it now are perhaps higher than ever.
In all Podhoretz is Bush’s best theoretical defender by far, at least that I have read. In fact, the selections he makes from the President’s speeches advocating the “Bush Doctrine” (preemptive action against terrorism) are quite eloquent and persuasive.
But… and there is almost always a “but” in a book review, as Norman Podhoretz, of all people, would know (and, yes, %%AMAZON=0385522215 buy this book%% – it is one of the musts of our time)… Podhoretz’s analysis contains a serious omission. In his understandable zeal to defend Bush and his doctrine from admittedly disingenuous opponents, he overlooks an inadequacy on the part of the President and his administration that is nearly fatal.
I am not referring to the strategic errors that may or may not have been made – whether there were too few troops, etc. Podhoretz makes it clear such errors were probably even worse in WWII. The “fog of war” is a clich√© for a reason. Nor am I even referring to the decision to emphasize the pursuit of WMDs over the promotion of democracy as justification for the war. (Podhoretz sees this as an error, as I do, although he soft pedals it.)
I am referring to the extraordinary inability of Bush and those surrounding him to understand and to respond to the paramount importance of public relations in asymmetrical war. Indeed, it can be argued that asymmetrical war is in essence about public relations. You would think, given the recent history of our time, the Tet Offensive, indeed the whole story of Vietnam, the administration would have known that, seen the inevitability that a powerful opposition would coalesce in the media and in the political classes (one that Podhoretz describes so well) and moved to head it off, to co-opt their opponents, but they did the opposite. They told us to go shopping.
What a basic misunderstanding or lack of understanding of human psychology is that! In World War II, all Americans were asked to participate, to come together against a common enemy. No such thing was asked of us. We were told to stand aside and let the military and the government handle things. Result? In World War II, we had Rosie the Riveter; in World War IV, we have Rosie O’Donnell.
And the Bush Administration is at least in part responsible for this. I’m not saying they should have solicited the participation of Sontag or Mailer, although who knows what would have happened even with them? But the Administration had natural allies they never thought to enlist, because all of us – Democrat, Republican or Independent – are threatened by the rise of Islamofascism. They should have fought at every moment not to make this a partisan issue, because it is not. The very things the left wing of our Democratic party says they abhor – misogyny, homophobia, lack of religious freedom – are the very things Islamism represents and promotes. That should have been exploited and co-opted. We’re all in this together in the defense of the Enlightenment.
Yes, I know that’s not easy in our society where hypocrisy is rife and so many think first of their own power. Our current Democratic Party is particularly a moral disgrace in that regard, as Podhoretz demonstrates in his book with quote after quote from Kennedy, Reid, et al, excoriating Saddam and urging he be deposed, justifying their votes for the war with ringing words, etc. Now they act as if they never said any such thing, blaming Bush for supposed lies while preening for the cameras and lusting after the throne like bad actors from a road show Macbeth.
But truth to tell, the president has been the enabler of these hypocrites. He has not stood four square in front of the public and done his job FDR-style in keeping us together. “What we have here,” as Strother Martin told us so memorably in Cool Hand Luke, “is a failure to communicate.” We also, sadly, have a leader who, for all his reading of history, forgot the most famous words of the great military strategist Sun-Tzu: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
I have a sense, although I certainly cannot prove it, that Norman Podhoretz knows this. He also knows that few could do what history demanded of George W. Bush. For that reason perhaps he does not emphasize Bush’s failings in World War IV. In any case, the jury is still out – and will be for many years. What I have just written may be seen as way too harsh or too lenient in the days to come. For now, Podhoretz’s book is the best analysis we have of our recent history.
Roger L. Simon is an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, novelist and blogger.
Art by Oleg Atbashian
UPDATE: Video interview of Podhoretz here.
Mark Steyn on Podhoretz here.