The Blog

Nota Bene

Norman Podhoretz's latest opus retrains the mind onto the true stakes of the current election.

12:00 AM, Aug 26, 2004 • By DAVID SKINNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In the September issue of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz revisits some of the key events, issues, and policies that, over the second half of the 20th century, led up to 9/11 and the Bush doctrine. Despite its length, the 30,000-word (57 page) article keeps a strong pace, even as it moves from serious question to serious question, highlighting one of Podhoretz's perennial strengths: his unflinching focus on issues of primary importance. Although the Podhoretz method may be idiosyncratic or intensely personal (the title of another well-known Podhoretz essay says it all: "Lolita, My Mother-in-Law, the Marquis De Sade, and Larry Flynt"), he is perhaps the most confrontational writer in American letters and certainly one of its bravest.

But "World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win" is not really a Podhoretz special. It's more a classic-type tour d'horizon, a rehearsal of the arguments that won the Cold War (World War III in his rendering) and led to the winning ideas of the current crisis (or World War IV, start date: 9/11). Another way to characterize Podhoretz's piece is as a defense of the Bush doctrine in the absence of a discovery of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He supplies the case for Bush, and thus suggests conservatives should not fear making the case for Iraq and Bush's foreign policy more generally.

It is an excellent time for this kind of piece. While the misty details of John Kerry's military service momentarily monopolize the election debate, Podhoretz steers us back to the opposing camps of accommodation versus containment, American the Ugly versus America the Noble, military assertiveness versus diplomatic compromise, and treaties versus compulsion. (Notice that John Kerry, despite his chest-thumping rhetoric at the Democratic convention, has done some prominent work on the wrong side of this ledger.) Much of Podhoretz's essay defies summary, but it seems worthwhile to cite and describe a couple of its best insights. Perhaps doing so will encourage a few more people to wade into its length to experience its breadth and timeliness for themselves.

THE FIRST RUMBLINGS of the current crisis came in the '70s, and over the next three decades the United States did much to give Osama bin Laden the impression that we were "a paper tiger." Podhoretz makes the rounds through a series of terrorist episodes that form a narrative--of murdered diplomats, kidnapped Americans, and attacked American buildings abroad--started by the PLO in the early '70s. Lowlights include the Iranian hostage crisis under Carter, while Reagan (as far as terrorism is concerned) doesn't get off any easier. 1983 was a bad year for us, and a good year for Hezbollah as they killed 63 employees at the U.S. embassy and, later in the year, 241 Marines in Beirut. Bush 41 gets low marks, too, for his reaction to the bombing of Pan Am 103, in which 270 people died. Clinton's performance was perhaps even more miserable, as the Democratic standard-bearer who was received like a conquering hero this summer at the convention in Boston, did little in response to the '93 bombing of the World Trade Center, the attempted assassination of former president Bush, or the simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.

Podhoretz's telling intends to remind the reader of all that has shifted, all that is new and taken for granted. And looking around, it becomes clear that Podhoretz is right. Even should we continue debating the wisdom or necessity of pursuing regime change in Iraq, per sem the debate in mainstream politics takes few fundamental turns toward whether we should be going after terror-sponsoring regimes, like Afghanistan and Iraq, whose agreements to not pursue weapons of mass destruction meant nothing, like Iraq, or to allow inspectors free rein also meant nothing, like Iraq, or whose every gesture of foreign policy was an act of defiance against the international order and its legitimacy. This sea change is Bush's doing. Which may be why his enemies are content to mostly challenge not the Bush doctrine, but his personal honesty. Sure, Kerry may suggest going after Iraq was matter of personal pique for Bush, claiming outlandishly that Bush merely wanted to invade Iraq like a customer choosing a flavor at the ice cream parlor. But it is only our temporary amnesia, the onset of which began around the time of the Democratic primaries, that allows Kerry to get away with it. Meanwhile he has to, hilariously, swear to be as fierce a protector of American security as anyone.