Politics & Policy

A Real Neocon Speaks

Norman Podhoretz on this war we're in.

Norman Podhoretz, who was not so long ago awarded a presidential medal of freedom for his copious political and cultural contributions, is author of the new book — released today on the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the United States — World War IV. He recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez about the book and the war (and how we can win it).

Kathryn Jean Lopez: How old will your young granddaughters Shayna and Shiri Podhoretz — John’s kids — be when we celebrate the victory in World War IV?

Norman Podhoretz: Shayna is now 3 and Shiri is fast approaching her first birthday, which means that both of them will be in their 30’s [!!] when victory comes in World War IV — a victory that I hope will be celebrated more wholeheartedly than our victory was in the Cold War (or World War III in my scheme of things).

Lopez: Your assertion that we are in “World War IV” seems completely logical and obvious and true. Why the heck do so many people seem to think it preposterous, dangerous?

Podhoretz: When people under threat are unwilling or afraid to fight back, they tend to deny that they are being threatened at all. We saw much the same thing in the early stages of World War III, when large numbers of Americans and even larger numbers of Europeans insisted that the real threat to the peace came from the United States under Harry Truman rather than from the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Lopez: I don’t get it. You point out that in his address to the joint session of Congress ten days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush got it. He got it was a world war. But because the Cold War isn’t conventionally called “World War III,” he probably figured he’d confuse people by calling this current war “World War IV.” But, come on, he’s a brave guy. If you build it they will come. Is that a leadership test he failed at a crucial moment? Because really, we’ve needed some clarity.

Podhoretz: I think that Bush will someday be recognized as a great president, much as it has been the case with Harry Truman, with whom he has a lot in common. Having said that, I will stipulate that we needed more clarity than he gave us both in naming the enemy and in naming the war. For this a very steep price has been paid in the coin of confusion about Iraq. Instead of being seen in its proper context as a single front or theater in a much broader conflict, it has been treated as a self-contained war in its own right. And instead of being understood as part of a long-range strategy to “drain the swamps” in which Islamofascism breeds, it has been misrepresented as the wrong place in which to fight terrorism.

Lopez: Speaking of mistakes: What’s gone wrong in Iraq? What’s gone right?

Podhoretz: The following things have gone right in Iraq: It has been liberated from a monstrous tyrant whose regime was the main secular face of the two-headed monster by which we were attacked six years ago. (The Taliban regime in Afghanistan was the main religious face.) And then the seeds of democratization were planted through three elections, the writing of a constitution, and the enjoyment of previously unimaginable liberties. Everything that has gone wrong stems from the desperate efforts of various forces, both indigenous and imported, to prevent those seeds from taking root. If the political transformation of Iraq were doomed to failure, why would these forces be fighting with all their might to turn it back? But it has taken us a while to figure out how best to defeat this so-called “insurgency.”

Lopez: It’s salvageable?

Podhoretz: Certainly — unless, that is, the Democrats, with a little help from pusillanimous Republicans, pull the plug. It has always been the case that the campaign in Iraq, and for that matter World War IV as a whole, will be won or lost not on the battlefields of the Middle East but in the war of ideas here at home.

Lopez: You’re not as down on the president’s whole democracy project as some of our friends are. How essential is it that some of that Muslim world embraces democracy and Islam embrace modernization?

Podhoretz: It’s essential in the long run, because what we are trying to do is make the Middle East safe for America by making it safe for democracy. And to quote the great Bernard Lewis, “Either we bring them freedom or they destroy us.” But that doesn’t mean an overnight transformation. It means clearing the ground, sowing the seeds, and helping to nourish and keep them alive until they can bear fruit. As for Islam, I believe that as new political, economic, and social conditions begin to grow, pressures on the theologians and the clerics will also begin to mount from below. This will take the form of a demand that they find warrants in the Koran and the sharia under which it would be possible to be a good Muslim while enjoying the blessings of decent government, and even of political and economic liberty.

Lopez: How much of a problem is Islam?

Podhoretz: The great problem is Islamofascism, which is a modern political movement within Islam that owes as much to the Nazi and Communist models as it does to the Koran. Islam itself is a problem to the extent that it refuses or fails to fight against the Islamofascists speaking in its name. But my own view is that Islam cannot forever resist the kind of modernization and reformation that began within Christianity and Judaism in the early modern period.

Lopez: Knock on wood … but why haven’t we been attacked again?

Podhoretz: Well, as I often say, someone must be doing something right. Which means that the Dept. of Homeland Security and the FBI, with the help of the Patriot Act and the surveillance tools that so many liberals are so eager to take out of their hands, have been able to head off any new attacks.

Lopez: Did we embolden bin Laden during the Clinton administration? If Hillary is running on executive experience, should she be held responsible/have to answer for mistakes made during those years?

Podhoretz: Yes to both questions, but with an important qualification. As I demonstrate in detail in my book, in treating terrorism as a common crime to be handled by the cops and the courts, the Clinton administration was following in the footsteps of all the administrations before it, Republican as well as Democratic, going all the way back to 1970. I regret to say that bin Laden was emboldened at least as much by Reagan’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983 as by Clinton’s response to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.

Lopez: Why Rudy?

Podhoretz: Rudy fully understands what World War IV is all about and he also recognizes that the only viable strategy for fighting it is to continue going “on the offense,” as he likes to put it. I also think he has the necessary qualities of a wartime president: courage, determination, and optimism. Like Reagan, he’s a happy warrior who simply refuses to envisage any alternative to victory. All the other leading candidates — in both parties — are grim and glum.

Lopez: Is someone who talks about Islamofascism and jihad going to win in 2008? Someone who scares people?

Podhoretz: I believe that the winner in 2008 will be the candidate who strikes the voters as most likely to lead us to victory in the World War IV. Which is why I think that Rudy can and will beat Hillary.

Lopez: You’ve written a lot in your time and I suspect you will continue to. What’s your inspiration and motivation and regimen?

Podhoretz: It’s when I think I have something new or different to contribute to an ongoing discussion that I feel most driven to write. For example, I wrote World War IV because I thought that there was an unfulfilled need to set 9/11, the battles that followed it in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the war of ideas it has provoked at home into a broad historical context. But I also felt that there was a correlative need for an unapologetic, wholehearted, full-throated statement of the case for the Bush Doctrine. As for my regimen: I write in spurts and it bloweth where it listeth, at which point I rise early every day and spend as many hours at the computer as it takes for me to produce about a thousand words.

Lopez: What was your take-away from the supposed Osama bin Laden video Friday?

Podhoretz: To tell you the truth, I didn’t take much away from it, since I wasn’t convinced of its authenticity.

Lopez: As an actual living, breathing neoconservative – one who was once very much not a conservatives — are you offended that every intern at the American Enterprise Institute is considered a neocon (gosh, would you believe some of them aren’t even Jewish, too!)?

Podhoretz: I’m not so much offended as disgusted by the demented absurdities that have been propagated all over the world about neoconservatism, and bone-weary at having to refute them in interview after interview.

Lopez: What is it that gives you hope that America is “ready to measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation”?

Podhoretz: Before World War II and World War III, there were grave doubts as to whether people like us could stand up to disciplined fanatics like the Nazis and the Communists. Hitler, for instance, thought we were too decadent to fight. And when Whittaker Chambers quit the Communist party, he said that he was joining the losing side, while James Burnham wrote a book entitled The Suicide of the West. The fact that they turned out to be wrong gives me hope that those of our friends who feel the same way today will also turn out to be wrong. I also take heart from the marvelous young Americans in uniform today. Where did they come from, if not America? And who is to say that they are less representative of this country than their elders and contemporaries who think that the way to stand up to the Islamofascists is to run away from them?


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