"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

World War IV

After reading several glowing reviews of Norman Podhoretz's new book, World War IV, in various conservative forums, I decided to pony up the cash, bring it home, and hopefully get some new insight on a timely topic. I hadn't read any of his other books but the feedback was generally good.

I'd like my money back. I breezed through it in about three days (it's only 200-some pages long), learned little that I didn't know and was retaught ad nauseum much that I'd heard before. The book's full title, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, led me to believe this would be a discourse on the radical Islamic ideology that struck us on 9/11, the extent of the threat it posed, and what would be necessary to fight it. The first few chapters are devoted to that general topic, but rather than follow it, Podhoretz spends the rest of the time in a litany against the many and sundry domestic forces he sees engaged in a homegrown insurgency hoping to sabotage our efforts. On his list are the usual suspects I've read about in any number of opinion columns and similar - and more educational - books. There's the university intelligentsia, the media, Israel-haters, America-haters, isolationists, starry-eyed U.N. internationalists, realists, spineless Democrats and faint-hearted Republicans. As each chapter went by and I read old arguments anew, my sense of deja vu - and disappointment - grew ever larger.

The book reviews also claimed World War IV provided "intellectual ammunition" and a rational defense of the Bush Doctrine as it developed after 9/11. One chapter is devoted to outlining the Doctrine; the rest, explaining why all its detractors are misguided and wrong. I won't get into the merits and/or faults of the Bush Doctrine here; suffice it to say that, while I may agree in my gut with the policy of taking the fight to the enemy and "draining the swamps" of extremism and authoritarianism in the Middle East, Podhoretz is far too lenient in giving a pass to the mistakes that have been made, along with Bush's increasing inability to articulate his own goals and policies. While I think that many of Bush's critics have hammered him for imagined mistakes, or blown real ones all out of historical proportion, no one can argue that the execution of the War on Terror has been flawless. Podhoretz makes it sound like it's been virtually just that.

He also boasts about Bush's articulation of his Doctrine in many speeches since the beginning of the war. I grant that there have been many times, especially early on, when Bush was clear, articulate, forceful, and said exactly what needed to be said. Podhoretz, however, clings to the early material while ignoring almost everything that followed it. Not that Bush's later works radically added or subtracted his doctrine; far from it. Over the last couple of years, I found that, increasingly, President Bush's speeches recycled many of the same themes over and over again without any elaboration or details about successes where and when they occurred. If his critics were mounting a powerful PR campaign against him, he barely lifted a finger to counter them. Losing the information battle in any war is a setback; in this day and age, it's inexcusable, yet Bush has passively conceded that crucial battlefield to his critics at home and enemies abroad. I found it especially disheartening to hear the most compelling and eloquent defenses of our war against radical Islam come not simply from outside his administration, but even from a man who once ran against him for a seat in the White House. Yet throughout World War IV, Bush is compared, alternately, with Reagan, Truman, Roosevelt, Churchill, JFK, and Wilson in his revolutionary idealism and rhetoric. Unfortunately, this is an image that only his most die-hard defenders can sustain.

I still believe that, on 9/11, President Bush was exactly the right man at the right time. I agree with his assessment that "stability" in the Middle East has only harmed us, and that injecting a big dose of instability into it was the only way to both protect ourselves and bring any sort of improvement to the governments over there. I think that Iraq is a crucial front in the war against Islamic fanatacism and that defeat there will do us immeasurable harm. I admire his willingness to refuse to back down from his firm belief in the all of the above in the face of stiff domestic and international opposition. And, of all the alternatives we had before us in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, I still think he was the best of them all (Lieberman was good, but to get him we'd have been forced to endure Al Gore as president). But his performance has not been flawless, his rhetoric not always Churchillian, and his willingness to stir things up has been tempered by refusals to try strategies that differed from "staying the course". Though a deeper examination of all these things would have required a much longer book, Podhoretz could still have touched on them if he'd wished to. He didn't, and his book thus presents a more glowing analysis of everything Bush than they deserve. That, and the far too short discussion of the conduct of the war, made me feel I wasted my money. A shame: I could have started Arrian's Campaigns of Alexander three days early.

No comments: