Straight Talk

Podhoretz corrects the record on Islamic terrorism

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

A review of World War IV. The Long Struggle against Islamofascism by Norman Podhoretz (Doubleday 2007, 240 pp.)

World War IV is an indispensable book for these times. The war in Iraq has occasioned some of the most shameful partisan behavior since Vietnam, as well as generating in the mainstream media a narrative filled with what Podhoretz accurately calls “misconceptions, distortions, and outright falsifications.” To correct this partisan spin, Podhoretz economically and clearly surveys both the facts and the distortions, providing readers with all the ammunition they need to counter the “Bush lied” and “illegal war” master narrative relentlessly peddled by the Democrats and their shills in the media. Even more important, World War IV sets out the case for sticking with the Bush Doctrine, whatever its drawbacks, as the best policy for countering the threat of Islamic jihad. All serious voters this coming year should not pull the lever until they have read this book and understood what is at stake for America’s security in the coming decades.

As its title makes clear, Podhoretz’s book sees the struggle against what he calls Islamofascism as the defining challenge of this generation, one equal to the threats of fascism and communism, the one defeated in World War II, the other in the long Cold War that Podhoretz calls World War III. Dismissing those who see terrorism as, in John Kerry’s words, a “nuisance” to be controlled through intelligence and police work, Podhoretz instead recognizes that Islamic jihad is the instrument of a totalitarian global ideology like fascism or communism, one inimical to freedom, human rights, respect for the individual, and all the other goods of Western civilization. As such, it must be met with the same total military, economic, and psychological mobilization that defeated the Axis powers and that sustained the West during the half-century struggle against communism.

World War IV first traces the inattention and bungling that allowed 19 terrorists armed with nothing but box-cutters to inflict on the United States the worst attack in its history. For three decades previous, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations had taken seriously the growing threat of Islamic jihad. With some few notable exceptions, most politicians and intelligence agencies considered the terrorist attacks of those decades “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.” Podhoretz’s detailing of those attacks –– and the U.S.’s flabby response –– makes for harrowing reading, not least because each failure to respond vigorously was correctly seen by the jihadists as an act of appeasement that emboldened them even more, the result being the spectacular carnage of 9/11.

As useful as this history is, the heart of the book is Podhoretz’s discussion of the Bush Doctrine, one of the strangest political phenomena of recent years –– one “incredible,” as Podhoretz says, given that Bush came into office as a foreign policy realist adverse to foreign policy as “social work.” Following Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, Bush articulated a U.S. foreign policy based on the obligation of the United States actively to support and advance the cause of freedom and just as actively to oppose and dismantle authoritarian tyranny. Podhoretz’s generous quotations from Bush’s speeches after 9/11 give the lie to the oft-repeated claim that the President has failed to articulate clearly why we are fighting in the Middle East. Stranger still is the opposition to the Bush Doctrine on the part of many liberals, who for years have castigated the United States for ignoring genocide and slaughter, and for supporting brutal dictators because they served U.S. interests.

Podhoretz goes on to analyze the opposition to the Bush Doctrine on the part of anti-war radicals reliving the mythic Vietnam War narrative; the foreign policy establishment, comprising old-style realists and liberal internationalists; and the isolationists of both the left and the right. Along the way, he explodes myth after myth about the Iraq war, particularly the canard that Bush manipulated intelligence to justify invading Iraq. Podhoretz’s parade of quotes from the Democratic leadership, all of whom believed Hussein had WMD’s and posed a threat, and his withering critique of the mendacious opportunist Joe Wilson, are alone worth the price of the book.

The importance of Podhoretz’s ideas and the Bush Doctrine, however, requires that we confront their weaknesses. Our first clue is the term Podhoretz uses to describe the threat we face, “Islamofascism.” The problem with this term is its implication that a pristine Islam has been distorted by a modern totalitarian ideology. Yet modern jihad is completely consistent with traditional Islam; indeed, the theorists of modern jihad like Aymin al Zawahiri can quote more Koranic suras, hadiths, and Islamic jurisprudents and theologians supporting jihadist terrorism, than can those Muslims who support the idea that Islam can coexist with democracy, human rights, rule by secular law, and all the other components of Western liberal democracy. Podhoretz is right that we face a committed enemy as inimical to our political freedom as were fascism and communism; but we need to understand correctly who that enemy is, and the spiritual roots of his actions: the same enemy of the West that for centuries occupied Spain, Greece, the Balkans, and Sicily; that plundered and ravaged southern Europe; that kidnapped and enslaved Europeans; and that suffered non-Muslims to live in their ancestral homelands as social and political inferiors shielded only by a “truce” to be raised at the whim of their Muslim overlords.

Podhoretz at times seems to understand this historical continuity –– when he acknowledges that the enemy we now face “comes from a religious force that was born in the seventh century,” or notes the “leading Muslim clerics” who celebrated suicide bombers as “martyrs,” or refers to polling data that showed after 9/11 widespread Muslim support for bin Laden as an “Arab hero and an Islamic jihad warrior.” These facts suggest that millions of Muslims, most likely a majority, do not see al Qaeda as some sort of fascistic distortion of Islam spawned by modernity, but rather as a traditionalist organization fulfilling the mandate of Muhammad to “fight all men until they say there is no god but Allah.” A term like “Islamofascism” obscures this continuity, and thus suggests that the enemy is more marginal or historically transient than he in fact is.

Another problem with the Bush Doctrine comes from the casual use of words like “freedom” and “democracy.” Bush and Podhoretz are both right to say that the desire for freedom is universal in human beings. But so are many other goods, such as obedience to God and righteousness. These goods conflict, often messily, but resolving that conflict won’t take place simply because we decree that one good always and everywhere trumps the others. Moreover, what do we mean by “freedom”? What we need to make clear is that we are talking about political freedom, or “ordered liberty,” not the freedom to do what we want, but the freedom to be certain kinds of virtuous people and citizens worthy of liberty and autonomy. So too with democracy, which is more than just holding elections. Rather, it is the complex machinery that administers, expresses, and guarantees political freedom, which, as Michael Mandelbaum has recently written, “is embodied in institutions, which operate through habits and skills and are supported by values. All take time to develop, and they must develop independently and domestically; they cannot be imported ready-made.” In the West, democracy and liberty are the fruit of 2500 years of Classical and Judeo-Christian culture, and even with that head start it has only been within the last two centuries that both have been achieved.

Consider, then, the difficulty of converting to democratic ordered liberty Muslim cultures that have little or no historical or cultural traditions of political freedom. Indeed, to many Muslims Western freedom is nothing other than license, the indulgence of appetite and pleasure that in fact enslaves the soul. True freedom comes from submission to Allah and the totalizing pattern of living transmitted in the Koran and the life of Muhammad. Podhoretz’s response to this reservation is to bring up comparisons with Germany, Japan, and Eastern Europe, as other societies that labored under tyranny but then converted to political freedom. But this analogy is false. Fascism and communism were modern, irreligious ideologies with few historical or cultural antecedents, deriving instead from socialism, pseudo-scientific racial theories unknown before the 19th century, secularization, scientism, and a whole host of other modern pathologies. Both ran counter to the great Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions of the West, and so both had shallow roots. Particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe, an atheistic political ideology necessarily could not win over deeply religious peoples, especially when those regimes failed at providing material goods.

As for Germany and Japan, in 1945 both nations were literally starting from scratch, their societies having been demolished into rubble. Any German or Japanese in 1945 could see all around himself the wages of the noxious ideologies he once cheered and fought for. Yet no Arab or Muslim capital has experienced the mind-concentrating consequences of pursuing jihad. The Arabs lost three wars against Israel, but Damascus, Cairo, or Amman never paid the price for that aggression. Thus like Germany after World War I, the Arab states can continue to believe that they lost because of Jewish cabals or American chicanery rather than because they cling to an intolerant religious ideology that asserts their superiority and right to rule the world.

Unlike fascism and communism, then, modern jihad has roots deep in Islamic history and religion, providing a traditional answer to modern Muslim discontents created by a dominant West that once trembled at the armies of Allah. Rather than a modern, alien innovation, Islamic jihad speaks to the spiritual traditions of Muslims, calling upon a history of spectacular conquest fueled by religious fervor, a success that can be achieved again if only Muslims cast off all foreign, secular ideals, whether communism or liberal democracy, and return to the purity of Islam. That is why the jihadists enjoy such widespread support among Muslims the world over; and that is why fighting this enemy will take a much longer time, and will involve tasks much more difficult than simply changing political regimes.

Podhoretz’s responses to these reservations are not convincing. First he implies that the problems of the Middle East derive not from Islam but from the various sorts of despotic and dysfunctional regimes that were imposed on the Middle East by France and England after World War I. Having such “shallow roots,” then, it is not “utopian” to believe that such regimes “could be uprooted with the help of a third Western power [after France and England] and that a better political system could be put in their place.” But the problem is not with those regimes, but with Islam; the conflict is not between two different kinds of government, but between spiritual obedience to Allah as defined by fourteen centuries of Islamic history and theology, and the material goods of prosperity and freedom. Perhaps Islam can solve that conflict, but so far, there is scant evidence that a majority of Muslims have found any way, or even shown much desire, to do so. In fact, all the evidence of Islamic history and theology, not to mention the widespread continuing support for jihad among millions of Muslims and their fanatical hatred of Israel, suggests that Podhoretz’s hope that “new political, economic, and social conditions can grow” among Muslim nations and “gradually give rise to correlative religious pressures from within,” pressures that will force “theologians and clerics to find warrants in the Qu’ran and the shari’a” for living under “political and economic liberty” –– the evidence around us suggests sadly that this hope may be misplaced. Indeed, it is typically Western in its belief that material goods will trump spiritual, that Muslims would tailor Allah to the demands of modernity.

These reservations do not mean that the Bush Doctrine is in error or futile. Podhoretz is right that we have a “fighting chance” to create the conditions for the reconciliation of Islam with modernity. But we need to accept that the job is one of decades, and that it will require continued force and a strong presence in Afghanistan and Iraq for many years. It also requires that we realize that the assault on Israel is a theater in the jihadist war, not a quarrel over Palestinian “national aspirations.” And it will necessitate speaking the truth about Islam and compelling Muslims to acknowledge that truth and to stop hiding behind distortions and propaganda about the “religion of peace.” We must compel more Muslims to step up and start telling us –– and other Muslims –– how that reconciliation can take place, and back their words with deeds. Yet whenever Muslims do this –– Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq come to mind –– they have to go into hiding from the devotees of the “religion of peace.”

But the ultimate question is whether we Americans have the stomach for this fight, whether we can drop our sentimental “we are the world” multiculturalist fantasies and speak plainly about Islam and its dysfunctions, whether we can cast off the hair shirt of colonial and imperial guilt so eagerly donned by self-loathing Western elites. Podhoretz ends his important, indispensable book by affirming his belief that enough Americans do have that resolve and that we will ultimately win. But as he also says, “the jury is still out, and it will not return a final verdict for some time to come.”

©2007 Victor Davis Hanson

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