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World War IV (Continued I) By: Norman Podhoretz
Commentary | Tuesday, August 17, 2004


Bush had won enthusiastic plaudits from many for the "moral clarity" of his September 20 speech, but he had also provoked even greater dismay and disgust among "advanced" thinkers and "sophisticated" commentators and diplomats both at home and abroad. Now he intensified and exacerbated their outrage by becoming more specific. Having spoken in September only in general terms about the enemy in World War IV, Bush proceeded in his second major wartime pronouncement to single out three such nations—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—which he described as forming an "axis of evil."

Here again he was following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, who had denounced the Soviet Union, our principal enemy in World War III, as an "evil empire," and who had been answered with a veritably hysterical outcry from chancelleries and campuses and editorial pages all over the world. Evil? What place did a word like that have in the lexicon of international affairs, assuming it would ever occur to an enlightened person to exhume it from the grave of obsolete concepts in any connection whatsoever? But in the eyes of the "experts," Reagan was not an enlightened person. Instead, he was a "cowboy," a B-movie actor, who had by some freak of democratic perversity landed in the White House. In denouncing the Soviet empire, he was accused either of signaling an intention to trigger a nuclear war or of being too stupid to understand that his wildly provocative rhetoric might do so inadvertently.

The reaction to Bush was perhaps less hysterical and more scornful than the outcry against Reagan, since this time there was no carrying-on about a nuclear war. But the air was just as thick with the old sneers and jeers. Who but an ignoramus and a simpleton—or a fanatical religious fundamentalist, of the very type on whom Bush was declaring war—would resort to archaic moral absolutes like "good" and "evil"? On the one hand, it was egregiously simple-minded to brand a whole nation as evil, and on the other, only a fool could bring himself to believe, as Bush (once more like Reagan) had evidently done in complete and ingenuous sincerity, that the United States, of all countries, represented the good. Surely only a know-nothing illiterate could be oblivious of the innumerable crimes committed by America both at home and abroad—crimes that the country’s own leading intellectuals had so richly documented in the by-now standard academic view of its history.

Here is how Gore Vidal, one of those intellectuals, stated the case:

I mean, to watch Bush doing his little war dance in Congress . . . about "evildoers" and this "axis of evil". . . I thought, he doesn’t even know what the word axis means. Somebody just gave it to him. . . . This is about as mindless a statement as you could make. Then he comes up with about a dozen other countries that have "evil" people in them, who might commit "terrorist acts." What is a terrorist act? Whatever he thinks is a terrorist act. And we are going to go after them. Because we are good and they are evil. And we’re "gonna git ’em."

This was rougher and cruder than the language issuing from editorial pages and think tanks and foreign ministries and even most other intellectuals, but it was no different from what nearly all of them thought and how many of them talked in private.6

As soon became clear, however, Bush was not deterred. In subsequent statements he continued to uphold the first pillar of his new doctrine and to affirm the universality of the moral purposes animating this new war:

Some worry that it is somehow undiplomatic or impolite to speak the language of right and wrong. I disagree. Different circumstances require different methods, but not different moralities. Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place. . . . We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name.

Then, in a fascinating leap into the great theoretical debate of the post-cold-war era (though without identifying the main participants), Bush came down squarely on the side of Francis Fukuyama’s much-misunderstood view of "the end of history," according to which the demise of Communism had eliminated the only serious competitor to our own political system 7:

The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.

Having endorsed Fukuyama, Bush now brushed off the political scientist Samuel Huntington, whose rival theory postulated a "clash of civilizations" arising from the supposedly incompatible values prevailing in different parts of the world:

When it comes to the common rights and needs of men and women, there is no clash of civilizations. The requirements of freedom apply fully to Africa and Latin America and the entire Islamic world. The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation. And their governments should listen to their hopes.

The Second Pillar

If the first of the four pillars on which the Bush Doctrine stood was a new moral attitude, the second was an equally dramatic shift in the conception of terrorism as it had come to be defined in standard academic and intellectual discourse.

Under this new understanding—confirmed over and over again by the fact that most of the terrorists about whom we were learning came from prosperous families—terrorism was no longer considered a product of economic factors. The "swamps" in which this murderous plague bred were swamps not of poverty and hunger but of political oppression. It was only by "draining" them, through a strategy of "regime change," that we would be making ourselves safe from the threat of terrorism and simultaneously giving the peoples of "the entire Islamic world" the freedoms "they want and deserve."

In the new understanding, furthermore, terrorists, with rare exceptions, were not individual psychotics acting on their own but agents of organizations that depended on the sponsorship of various governments. Our aim, therefore, could not be merely to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and wipe out the al Qaeda terrorists under his direct leadership. Bush vowed that we would also uproot and destroy the entire network of interconnected terrorist organizations and cells "with global reach" that existed in as many as 50 or 60 countries. No longer would we treat the members of these groups as criminals to be arrested by the police, read their Miranda rights, and brought to trial. From now on, they were to be regarded as the irregular troops of a military alliance at war with the United States, and indeed the civilized world as a whole.

Not that this analysis of terrorism had exactly been a secret. The State Department itself had a list of seven state sponsors of terrorism (all but two of which, Cuba and North Korea, were predominantly Muslim), and it regularly issued reports on terrorist incidents throughout the world. But aside from such things as the lobbing of a cruise missile or two, diplomatic and/or economic sanctions that were inconsistently and even perfunctorily enforced, and a number of covert operations, the law-enforcement approach still prevailed.

September 11 changed much—if not yet all—of that; still in use were atavistic phrases like "bringing the terrorists to justice." But no one could any longer dream that the American answer to what had been done to us in New York and Washington would begin with an FBI investigation and end with a series of ordinary criminal trials. War had been declared on the United States, and to war we were going to go.

But against whom? Since it was certain that Osama bin Laden had masterminded September 11, and since he and the top leadership of al Qaeda were holed up in Afghanistan, the first target, and thus the first testing ground of this second pillar of the Bush Doctrine, chose itself.

Before resorting to military force, however, Bush issued an ultimatum to the extreme Islamic radicals of the Taliban who were then ruling Afghanistan. The ultimatum demanded that they turn Osama bin Laden and his people over to us and that they shut down all terrorist training camps there. By rejecting this ultimatum, the Taliban not only asked for an invasion but, under the Bush Doctrine, also asked to be overthrown. And so, on October 7, 2001, the United States—joined by Great Britain and about a dozen other countries—launched a military campaign against both al Qaeda and the regime that was providing it with "aid and safe haven."

As compared with what would come later, there was relatively little opposition either at home or abroad to the opening of this first front of World War IV. The reason was that the Afghan campaign could easily be justified as a retaliatory strike against the terrorists who had attacked us. And while there was a good deal of murmuring about the dangers of pursuing a policy of "regime change," there was very little sympathy in practice (outside the Muslim world, that is) for the Taliban.

Whatever opposition was mounted to the battle of Afghanistan mainly took the form of skepticism over the chances of winning it. True, such skepticism was in some quarters a mask for outright opposition to American military power in general. But once the Afghan campaign got under way, the main focus shifted to everything that seemed to be going awry on the battlefield.

For example, only a couple of weeks into the campaign, when there were missteps involving the use of the Afghan fighters of the Northern Alliance, observers like R.W. Apple of the New York Times immediately rushed to conjure up the ghost of Vietnam. This restless spirit, having been called forth from the vasty deep, henceforth refused to be exorcised, and would go on to elbow its way into every detail of the debates over all the early battles of World War IV. On this occasion, its message was that we were falling victim to the illusion that we could rely on an incompetent local force to do the fighting on the ground while we supplied advice and air support. This strategy would inevitably fail, and would suck us into the same "quagmire" into which we had been dragged in Vietnam. After all, as Apple and others argued, the Soviet Union had suffered its own "Vietnam" in Afghanistan—and unlike us, it had not been hampered by the logistical problems of projecting power over a great distance. How could we expect to do better?

When, however, the B-52’s and the 15,000-pound "Daisy Cutter" bombs were unleashed, they temporarily banished the ghost of Vietnam and undercut the fears of some and the hopes of others that we were heading into a quagmire. Far from being good for nothing but "pounding the rubble," as the critics had sarcastically charged, the Daisy Cutters exerted, as even a New York Times report was forced to concede, "a terrifying psychological impact as they exploded just above ground, wiping out everything for hundreds of yards."

But the Daisy Cutters were only the half of it. As we were all to discover, our "smart-bomb" technology had advanced far beyond the stage it had reached when first introduced in 1991. In Afghanistan in 2001, such bombs—guided by "spotters" on the ground equipped with radios, laptops, and lasers, and often riding on horseback, and also aided by unmanned satellite drones and other systems in the air—were both incredibly precise in avoiding civilian casualties and absolutely lethal in destroying the enemy. It was this "new kind of American power," added the New York Times report, that "enabled a ragtag opposition" (i.e., the same Northern Alliance supposedly dragging us into a quagmire) to rout the "battle-hardened troops" of the Taliban regime in less than three months, and with the loss of very few American troops.

In the event, Osama bin Laden was not captured and al Qaeda was not totally destroyed. But it was certainly damaged by the campaign in Afghanistan. As for the Taliban regime, it was overthrown and replaced by a government that would no longer give aid and comfort to terrorists. Moreover, while Afghanistan under the new government may not have been exactly democratic, it was infinitely less oppressive than its totalitarian predecessor. And thanks to the clearing of political ground that had been covered over by the radical Islamic extremism of the Taliban, the seeds of free institutions were being sown and given a fighting chance to sprout and grow.

The campaign in Afghanistan demonstrated in the most unmistakable terms what followed from the new understanding of terrorism that formed the second pillar of the Bush Doctrine: countries that gave safe haven to terrorists and refused to clean them out were asking the United States to do it for them, and the regimes ruling these countries were also asking to be overthrown in favor of new leaders with democratic aspirations. Of course, as circumstances permitted and prudence dictated, other instruments of power, whether economic or diplomatic, would be deployed. But Afghanistan showed that the military option was open, available for use, and lethally effective.

The Third Pillar

The third pillar on which the Bush Doctrine rested was the assertion of our right to preempt. Bush had already pretty clearly indicated on September 20, 2001 that he had no intention of waiting around to be attacked again ("We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism"). But in the State of the Union speech in January 2002, he became much more explicit on this point too:

We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.

To those with ears to hear, the January speech should have made it abundantly clear that Bush was now proposing to go beyond the fundamentally retaliatory strike against Afghanistan and to take preemptive action. Yet at first it went largely unnoticed that this right to strike, not in retaliation for but in anticipation of an attack, was a logical extension of the general outline Bush had provided on September 20. Nor did the new position attract much attention even when it was reiterated in the plainest of words on January 29. It was not until the third in the series of major speeches elaborating the Bush Doctrine—the one delivered on June 1, 2002 at West Point to the graduating class of newly commissioned officers of the United States Army—that the message got through at last.

Perhaps the reason the preemption pillar finally became clearly visible at West Point was that, for the first time, Bush placed his new ideas in historical context:

For much of the last century, America’s defense relied on the cold-war doctrines of deterrence and containment. In some cases, those strategies still apply. But new threats also require new thinking. Deterrence—the promise of massive retaliation against nations—means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend.

This covered al Qaeda and similar groups. But Bush then proceeded to explain, in addition, why the old doctrines could not work with a regime like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq:

Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons or missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.

Refusing to flinch from the implications of this analysis, Bush repudiated the previously sacred dogmas of arms control and treaties against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as a means of dealing with the dangers now facing us from Iraq and other members of the axis of evil:

We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties, and then systematically break them.

Hence, Bush inexorably continued,

If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. . . . [T]he war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.

At this early stage, the Bush administration was still denying that it had reached any definite decision about Saddam Hussein; but everyone knew that, in promising to act, Bush was talking about him. The immediate purpose was to topple the Iraqi dictator before he had a chance to supply weapons of mass destruction to the terrorists. But this was by no means the only or—surprising though it would seem in retrospect—even the decisive consideration either for Bush or his supporters (or, for that matter, his opponents).8 And in any case, the long-range strategic rationale went beyond the proximate causes of the invasion. Bush’s idea was to extend the enterprise of "draining the swamps" begun in Afghanistan and then to set the entire region on a course toward democratization. For if Afghanistan under the Taliban represented the religious face of Middle Eastern terrorism, Iraq under Saddam Hussein was its most powerful secular partner. It was to deal with this two-headed beast that a two-pronged strategy was designed.

Unlike the plan to go after Afghanistan, however, the idea of invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein provoked a firestorm hardly less intense than the one that was still raging over Bush’s insistence on using the words "good" and "evil."

Even before the debate on Iraq in particular, there had been strong objection to the whole idea of preemptive action by the United States. Some maintained that such action would be a violation of international law, while others contended that it would set a dangerous precedent under which, say, Pakistan might attack India or vice-versa. But once the discussion shifted from the Bush Doctrine in general to the question of Iraq, the objections became more specific.

Most of these were brought together in early August 2002 (only about two months after Bush’s speech at West Point) in a piece entitled "Don’t Attack Iraq." The author was Brent Scowcroft, who had been National Security Adviser to the elder President Bush. Scowcroft asserted, first, that there was

scant evidence to tie Saddam to terrorist organizations, and even less to the September 11 attacks. Indeed, Saddam’s goals have little in common with the terrorists who threaten us, and there is little incentive for him to make common cause with them.

That being the case, Scowcroft continued, "An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken," the campaign that must remain "our preeminent security priority."

But this was not the only "priority" that to Scowcroft was "preeminent":

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