Readers of The Corner will have noticed some to-ing and fro-ing about whether we are currently in the middle of World War 4 with Norman Podhoretz’s August 2004 essay on this subject much in play.
Well, you know how I hate to be a party pooper, but I think this is all nuts. I do understand that our civilizational confidence is going through a rough patch — that the West is currently indulging itself, in the way that people and civilizations will indulge themselves when they believe they can afford to, in guilty agonizings about our past imperialism, colonialism, slavery, and so on. I am sure these pleasurable guilt-spasms will pass, as all things do pass. In the meantime, just look at us — at our wealth, our power, our capability. And look at them — the jihadis! This is war? Nonsense. This is war on the scale of WW1, WW2, or the Cold War? Nonsense on stilts.
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In WW1, the empires of Britain, France, and Russia went to war against those of Germany, Austria, and Turkey, for a variety of motives on all sides. This was 19th-century Great Power politics come to a head, three great empires against three other great empires in a world-shaking clash of arms, with no ideological or religious principle at stake. Woodrow Wilson’s assertion that it was a war for “democracy” was preposterous: Both Germany and Austria were more democratic than Russia; and in fact, the German and Austrian empires, taken as a whole, were more democratic than the British and French empires, taken as a whole.
In WW2 the militarized dictatorships of Germany and Japan (with some lesser allies) sought to impose their wills on, respectively, Europe and Asia. There was a strong ideological component in Germany’s case (racial destiny, hatred of Bolshevism), and a lesser one in Japan’s (hatred of European colonialism, cultural arrogance), but the other parties were just trying to grab spoils, or save themselves — even Stalin’s Russia, which fought its war largely in a spirit of atavistic nationalism, not Bolshevik evangelism. WW2 was mostly just Great Power politics run amok — another tremendous clash of national arms, fired up with some 19th-century intellectual pathologies.
In the Cold War, which I will allow can fairly be called World War 3, the Western democracies faced the USSR and Maoist China, two great old nations with huge armies and (soon, in the USSR’s case, somewhat later in China’s) nuclear weapons. Those nations made a plausible appeal to the wretched of the earth, and to Western intellectuals, of having solved the problems of injustice and poverty inherent, according to them, in free economies. The appeal was fortified by the fact of its being made by two mighty and ancient nations who had successfully transformed their traditional social and political systems into something more modern, sweeping away some obvious old evils. They wielded despotic power with great inhumanity, and extended their territory opportunistically.
In the current conflict, all the modern industrialized nations are opposed by a loose rabble of religious fanatics, whose sole claim on our attention so far has been (1) to conduct some sensational, but suicidal, and — by comparison with WWs 1, 2, and 3, trivial — raids into civilized territory, and (2) to seize control of some worthless countries (Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia) and, by misgovernment, make them even more worthless. This is not a war, and by calling it one, we flatter the jihadists far beyond their deserts. No jihadist nation — let alone any jihadist group — can field an army against us. We are frightening ourselves with bogeymen.
The only two nations that are even worth our attention in this context are Iran and Pakistan: the former because, though not yet nuclear, it is jihadist, and the latter because, though not yet jihadist, it is nuclear. We should bend our efforts to ensuring that Iran does not go nuclear, and Pakistan does not go jihadist. These are nontrivial problems. However, neither nation has done either thing yet, so I don’t see how the word “war” can apply to our dealings with them.
So far as the jihadists elsewhere are concerned, I am happy to let them have Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, or any other donkey-powered dustbowl they want. They will only make these wretched places worse. I do think we should watch such jihadist states carefully, and act against them unapologetically and with major force if they look like making a nuisance of themselves. (This should have been our policy to Afghanistan pre-9/11.) That aside, jihadist terrorism is just an irritant we shall have to put up with.
The only real fear we should nurse towards the jihadist vermin is the fear that they might get their hands on a nuke and detonate it in some Western city. That is a problem that should exercise us mightily.
Fortunately nuclear weapons are so difficult to make, the making of them is beyond the power of any but a well-organized state. No group of jihadis in a rooming-house in Stuttgart or Paris or Chicago will put a nuke together. They can only purchase one, or be given one, by North Korea, or Pakistan, or (unless we stop their nuclear development, which we darn well ought to do ASAP) Iran. Even then, even if we were to lose a city, we have the power to make the offending nation lose a hundred cities. In the event, I believe our people would demand that we exercise that power.
For the rest, we may lose a skyscraper or a subway train now and then; but those would be events in the life of a nation, not threats to that nation’s existence. There is no threat to our existence that would not mean national suicide for the threatener.
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Norman Podhoretz ends that 2004 essay by referring to an earlier exercise in the same genre:
“In this language [i.e. of George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address], and especially in the repeated references to history, we can hear an echo of the concluding paragraphs of George F. Kennan’s ‘X’ essay, written at the outbreak of World War III [i.e. the Cold War]: ‘The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.’
“Kennan then went on to his peroration: ‘In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will experience a certain gratitude for a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.’
“Substitute ‘Islamic terrorism’ for ‘Russian-American relations,’ and every other word of this magnificent statement applies to us as a nation today. In 1947, we accepted the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history ‘plainly intended’ us to bear, and for the next 42 years we acted on them. We may not always have acted on them wisely or well, and we often did so only after much kicking and screaming. But act on them we did. We thereby ensured our own ‘preservation as a great nation,’ while also bringing a better life to millions upon millions of people in a major region of the world.”
This, it seems to me, is overheated stuff. “To avoid destruction”? The U.S.A. is not threatened with destruction by jihadists. Our “entire security as a nation” was indeed threatened by the U.S.S.R, by their vast armies, by (later) their ICBMs, and indeed by the social and economic system they promoted which, though it seems absurd to us now, was taken to be seriously competitive with our own at the time Kennan was writing. Our security as a nation is not threatened by jihadis, unless we are such fools as to let them get hold of a nation with some modern industrial infrastructure, and embark on a program of nuclear weapons development. Even then they would threaten us only to the degree they felt inclined to an act of certain national suicide.
Islamofascism is a nasty thing. It will kill many more of us before we see the back of it. It will bring down some nations, too: Chad, perhaps, possibly even Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. These are not consequential nations, though, neither militarily, nor economically, nor culturally, and they pose no threat to us.
We should hunt down and kill jihadis wherever we can find them. If they get their hands on a nation, we should strive to help them keep that nation at the dust-bowl level of development, and free of training camps or major military capability. Those are simple matters of national prudence. To speak of these commonplace exercises in gunship diplomacy as Norman Podhoretz (echoing Kennan) does, in terms of a sacred mission assigned to us by Providence, is to engage in gross and absurd flattery of some small gangs of lunatics who have no appeal outside the most backward parts of the world, and whose very beliefs disqualify them from creating any state competitive with us in any way.
To further assert that history “plainly intends us to bear” the responsibility of that mission, is to speak the language of the Soviets themselves — the last bunch of people in charge of a big, modern nation who thought that history had given them a mission. “Heaven does not speak,” said Confucius. Neither does history.