Commentary Magazine


From Our November 2007 Symposium:
Victor Davis Hanson

I do accept the term World War IV, as well as the idea behind it, and here is why I think Norman Podhoretz is right. We are in a long, terrible war with an Islamic fascist ideology that embodies an expansionist, authoritarian creed of religious hatred, anti-Semitism, and reactionary mythology. Fighting, albeit on a sub-state level and against relatively small numbers of combatants, transcends borders, with various fronts even outside the Middle East. Worldwide, Islamists feed on both stealthy state sanction and occasional tacit approval from an aggrieved Muslim “street.” And the tenets of jihadism—best found in the rantings of Ayman al-Zawahiri and reified by the operations of bin Laden’s al Qaeda—are no more disjointed than were the World War II anti-American creeds cobbled together by the various German, Italian, and Japanese militarists.

This present war, brutal though it is, is in military terms not as ghastly as past global wars that cost tens of thousands of American lives. (At least that is the case so far, without the terrorists’ acquisition of nuclear devices.) But politically it is far harder to conduct because of international dependence on an oil-rich tribal Middle East, the influence of instantaneous global communications, and the therapeutic ethos of our own postmodern society. Another obvious difference from past global wars is that belligerents like Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, all of which are involved in funding or aiding the main perpetrators, have denied culpability. Their insidious wink-and-nod diplomacy is aimed at codifying the idea of “stateless terrorists”—and, thus, the corollary idea that we cannot respond with conventional force to national practitioners or enablers of Islamic terror.

Still, this is a wholesale war against the idea of America, both in the real and metaphorical sense, conducted both through violent and non-violent means against us and our friends from Manhattan and London to Beirut and Anbar. The Islamists, like past ideological foes, are existential enemies who do indeed hate the contradictions and destabilization brought to traditional life by Western-inspired modernization. They also thirst to bring us down, empowered both by their alleged military victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan and by the long-term laxity of the West.

Iraqi democracy is an anathema to Islamists, and so Iraq is the crucial front that, magnet-like, draws in terrorists from far and wide. To suppose otherwise is to believe that we simply create terrorists ex nihilo who then flock to Iraq on the news we are there—and will leave and go home if only we would depart. But most will not leave unless and until they are driven out, and besides, their brothers are already ubiquitous and deadly in places where we have no real presence, landscapes as varied as Lebanon, Sudan, and Somalia, not to mention Europe.

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Progress: the two worst regimes in the Middle East are gone. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the war has shifted to a political/military struggle to stabilize reform governments. Most of the al-Qaeda leadership that started the war is either dead, scattered, or in custody, and bin Laden, supposedly still a magnetic Saladin, dares not leave his cave in Waziristan. More to the point, a recent Pew poll revealed that his popularity is falling in the Middle East, and with it overall support for the tactic of suicide bombing.

Recent changes in European governments and immigration policy, and security measures here at home, have created a Western climate much more inimical to radical Islam than before. Our counter-efforts bear fruit. It simply is harder now—though far from impossible—to pull off an attack of a 9/11 magnitude. Majority-party congressional Democrats may damn Guantanamo, wiretaps, and the Patriot Act, but they still have enough political savvy to do little if anything to repeal such successful instruments of deterrence.

On the downside, and on the ideological front, the jihadists have shown an uncanny ability to recycle or repackage old multiculturalist slurs against Western capitalist democracy, while we too often assert rather than explain why and how we do what we do. In the meantime, still thriving at home are the more outrageous conspiracy theories. The fraud of Michael Moore, the bile of Patrick J. Buchanan, do take a toll; a Bill Maher, a MoveOn.org General “Betray Us” ad, or a Rosy O’Donnell lowers the bar of the shameful, and so too does the mainstream media’s standard narrative of Iraq as all IED’s and suicide belts.

Vietnam aside, I cannot think of any prior war in which our soldiers have been compared with the likes of Nazis, Stalinists, and other mass murderers by senior members of Congress, or pronouncements in mediis rebus by a Senate majority leader that the war is “lost.” Our country is confused and angry, and we are not sure of the morrow.

As is usual in wars, the battlefield will adjudicate things better than those who offer mere opinions. If General David Petraeus stabilizes Iraq enough to allow reconciliation to proceed, then the world will start making the necessary political adjustments in our favor; if he should not, then catastrophe looms.

What next? Immediately there should be more urgent international efforts to isolate Iran entirely, and financially to squeeze that regime by boycotts, embargos, and blockades if its nuclear program continues as envisioned. But the key right now remains Iraq. We must remember that neither the Iranian nor the Syrian regime could spread terror, or perhaps even long endure, once truly reformed governments are in place in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. In particular, the Iraqis’ success spells their failure.

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I admire Norman Podhoretz for using the much-caricatured term “democratization.” Critics seek to equate this with some sort of naïve embrace of mere plebiscites, rather than an evolutionary process toward the entire framework of constitutional government, from independent judiciaries to human-rights guarantees and freedom of expression. In any case, are we to believe that, because the terrorists of Hamas were elected in Gaza, our efforts at stabilizing the Iraqi reform government or prodding Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have thereby been refuted?

Advocacy of political reform offers choices other than dictatorship and theocracy. Despite the slander against it by opponents of the Bush Doctrine, promotion of democracy remains the best way to address the contradictions of fundamentalist tribal cultures that suddenly have trillions of petrodollars at their disposal to fund anti-Western terrorists. In the meantime, and along the way, a program to reduce the world price of oil through conservation, alternate energies, and increased petroleum production is now a matter not just of free-market economics but of national survival.

As for whether the Bush Doctrine will survive, in the short term I fear not. Today’s Democrats, like so many old-fashioned right-wing isolationists, appear to regard the Iraqis as unworthy of American sacrifice, and the brave emergence of Iraqi voters and reformers as signifying no more than tribal or mob rule. How odd that our pessimistic Left seems rather to have resigned itself to the ultimate triumph of the often cowardly Islamists than mobilized to help the Iraqis who bravely fight them.

For their part, the Republican presidential candidates concentrate mainly on not “losing” Iraq. Most (but not all) would seem to welcome some undefined secular, perhaps authoritarian order that would at least allow us to leave something firm behind. But otherwise, on the Right as on the Left, advocating consensual government abroad now seems to be considered equivalent to engaging in child abuse.

But the long term? The desire for freedom under popular constitutional government will not die, and neither will our national penchant for promoting it—since the alternatives are far worse. A popular desire for reform has awakened in places as diverse and unlikely as Lebanon, Libya, and Pakistan. At some point, in the not-so-distant future, despite the ordeal in Iraq, most will see that the antidote to the current pathology in the Middle East is some constitutional framework wherein the challenge of modernity is dealt with through free inquiry and debate. Otherwise, the present mess will only grow and grow before passing into a far more dangerous nuclear stage.

It was not the neoconservative support for democratization, or a determination to remove fascist regimes, that led to 9/11, but the lethal combination of appeasement of terrorism and the cynical endorsement of a Middle East dictatorial order through the Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations. How peculiar, and how sad, that a mere six years after September 11, many are prepared to deem such policies preferable, if not, absurdly, to proclaim them successful.

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