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

Bin Laden, picking up that ball on October 12, 2000, when the destroyer USS Cole had docked for refueling in Yemen, dispatched a team of suicide bombers. The bombers did not succeed in sinking the ship, but they inflicted severe damage upon it, while managing to kill seventeen American sailors and wounding another 39.

Clarke, along with a few intelligence analysts, had no doubt that the culprit was al Qaeda. But the heads neither of the CIA nor of the FBI thought the case was conclusive. Hence the United States did not so much as lift a military finger against bin Laden or the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, where he was now ensconced and being protected. As for Clinton, so obsessively was he then wrapped up in a futile attempt to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians that all he could see in this attack on an American warship was an effort "to deter us from our mission of promoting peace and security in the Middle East." The terrorists, he resoundingly vowed, would "fail utterly" in this objective.

Never mind that not the slightest indication existed that bin Laden was in the least concerned over Clinton’s negotiations with the Israelis and the Palestinians at Camp David, or even that the Palestinian issue was of primary importance to him as compared with other grievances. In any event, it was Clinton who failed, not bin Laden. The Palestinians under Yasir Arafat, spurning an unprecedentedly generous offer that had been made by the Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak with Clinton’s enthusiastic endorsement, unleashed a new round of terrorism. And bin Laden would soon succeed all too well in his actual intention of striking another brazen blow at the United States.

The sheer audacity of what bin Laden went on to do on September 11 was unquestionably a product of his contempt for American power. Our persistent refusal for so long to use that power against him and his terrorist brethren—or to do so effectively whenever we tried—reinforced his conviction that we were a nation on the way down, destined to be defeated by the resurgence of the same Islamic militancy that had once conquered and converted large parts of the world by the sword.

As bin Laden saw it, thousands or even millions of his followers and sympathizers all over the Muslim world were willing, and even eager, to die a martyr’s death in the jihad, the holy war, against the "Great Satan," as the Ayatollah Khomeini had called us. But, in bin Laden’s view, we in the West, and especially in America, were all so afraid to die that we lacked the will even to stand up for ourselves and defend our degenerate way of life.

Bin Laden was never reticent or coy in laying out this assessment of the United States. In an interview on CNN in 1997, he declared that "the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims" when the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. That the Muslim fighters in Afghanistan would almost certainly have failed if not for the arms supplied to them by the United States did not seem to enter into the lesson he drew from the Soviet defeat. In fact, in an interview a year earlier he had belittled the United States as compared with the Soviet Union. "The Russian soldier is more courageous and patient than the U.S. soldier," he said then. Hence, "Our battle with the United States is easy compared with the battles in which we engaged in Afghanistan."

Becoming still more explicit, bin Laden wrote off the Americans as cowards. Had Reagan not taken to his heels in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks in 1983? And had not Clinton done the same a decade later when only a few American Rangers were killed in Somalia, where they had been sent to participate in a "peacekeeping" mission? Bin Laden did not boast of this as one of his victories, but a State Department dossier charged that al Qaeda had trained the terrorists who ambushed the American servicemen. (The ugly story of what happened to us in Somalia was told in the film version of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, which reportedly became Saddam Hussein’s favorite movie.)

Bin Laden summed it all up in a third interview he gave in 1998:

After leaving Afghanistan the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized, more than before, that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.


Bin Laden was not the first enemy of a democratic regime to have been emboldened by such impressions. In the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler was convinced by the failure of the British to arm themselves against the threat he posed, as well as by the policy of appeasement they adopted toward him, that they were decadent and would never fight no matter how many countries he invaded.

Similarly with Joseph Stalin in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Encouraged by the rapid demobilization of the United States, which to him meant that we were unprepared and unwilling to resist him with military force, Stalin broke the pledges he had made at Yalta to hold free elections in the countries of Eastern Europe he had occupied at the end of the war. Instead, he consolidated his hold over those countries, and made menacing gestures toward Greece and Turkey.

After Stalin’s death, his successors repeatedly played the same game whenever they sensed a weakening of the American resolve to hold them back. Sometimes this took the form of maneuvers aimed at establishing a balance of military power in their favor. Sometimes it took the form of using local Communist parties or other proxies as their instrument. But thanks to the decline of American power following our withdrawal from Vietnam—a decline reflected in the spread during the late 1970’s of isolationist and pacifist sentiment, which was in turn reflected in severely reduced military spending—Leonid Brezhnev felt safe in sending his own troops into Afghanistan in 1979.

It was the same decline of American power, so uncannily personified by Jimmy Carter, that, less than two months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had emboldened the Ayatollah Khomeini to seize and hold American hostages. To be sure, there were those who denied that this daring action had anything to do with Khomeini’s belief that the United States under Carter had become impotent. But this denial was impossible to sustain in the face of the contrast between the attack on our embassy in Tehran and the protection the Khomeini regime extended to the Soviet embassy there when a group of protesters tried to storm it after the invasion of Afghanistan. The radical Muslim fundamentalists ruling Iran hated Communism and the Soviet Union at least as much as they hated us—especially now that the Soviets had invaded a Muslim country. Therefore the difference in Khomeini’s treatment of the two embassies could not be explained by ideological or political factors. What could and did explain it was his fear of Soviet retaliation as against his expectation that the United States, having lost its nerve, would go to any lengths to avoid the use of force.

And so it was with Saddam Hussein. In 1990, with the first George Bush sitting in the White House, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in what was widely, and accurately, seen as a first step in a bid to seize control of the oil fields of the Middle East. The elder Bush, fortified by the determination of Margaret Thatcher, who was then prime minister of England, declared that the invasion would not stand, and he put together a coalition that sent a great military force into the region. This alone might well have frightened Saddam Hussein into pulling out of Kuwait if not for the wave of hysteria in the United States about the tens of thousands of "body bags" that it was predicted would be flown home if we actually went to war with Iraq. Not unreasonably, Saddam concluded that, if he held firm, it was we who would blink and back down.

The fact that Saddam miscalculated, and that in the end we made good on our threat, did not overly impress Osama bin Laden. After all—dreading the casualties we would suffer if we went into Baghdad after liberating Kuwait and defeating the Iraqi army on the battlefield—we had allowed Saddam to remain in power. To bin Laden, this could only have looked like further evidence of the weakness we had shown in the ineffectual policy toward terrorism adopted by a long string of American Presidents. No wonder he was persuaded that he could strike us massively on our own soil and get away with it.

Yet just as Saddam had miscalculated in 1990-91, and would again in 2002, bin Laden misread how the Americans would react to being hit where, literally, they lived. In all likelihood he expected a collapse into despair and demoralization; what he elicited instead was an outpouring of rage and an upsurge of patriotic sentiment such as younger Americans had never witnessed except in the movies, and had most assuredly never experienced in their own hearts and souls, or, for those who enlisted in the military, on their own flesh.

In that sense, bin Laden did for this country what the Ayatollah Khomeini had done before him. In seizing the American hostages in 1979, and escaping retaliation, Khomeini inflicted a great humiliation on the United States. But at the same time, he also exposed the foolishness of Jimmy Carter’s view of the world. The foolishness did not lie in Carter’s recognition that American power—military, economic, political, and moral—had been on a steep decline at least since Vietnam. This was all too true. What was foolish was the conclusion Carter drew from it. Rather than proposing policies aimed at halting and then reversing the decline, he took the position that the cause was the play of historical forces we could do nothing to stop or even slow down. As he saw it, instead of complaining or flailing about in a vain and dangerous effort to recapture our lost place in the sun, we needed first to acknowledge, accept, and adjust to this inexorable historical development, and then to act upon it with "mature restraint."

In one fell swoop, the Ayatollah Khomeini made nonsense of Carter’s delusionary philosophy in the eyes of very large numbers of Americans, including many who had previously entertained it. Correlatively, new heart was given to those who, rejecting the idea that American decline was inevitable, had argued that the cause was bad policies and that the decline could be turned around by returning to the better policies that had made us so powerful in the first place.

The entire episode thereby became one of the forces behind an already burgeoning determination to rebuild American power that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan, who had campaigned on the promise to do just that. For all the shortcomings of his own handling of terrorism, Reagan did in fact keep his promise to rebuild American power. And it was this that set the stage for victory in the multifaceted cold war we had been waging since 1947, when the United States under President Harry Truman (aroused by Stalin’s miscalculation) decided to resist any further advance of the Soviet empire.

Few, if any, of Truman’s contemporaries would have dreamed that this product of a Kansas City political machine, who as a reputedly run-of-the-mill U.S. Senator had spent most of his time on taxes and railroads, would rise so resolutely and so brilliantly to the threat represented by Soviet imperialism. Just so, 54 years later in 2001, another politician with a small reputation and little previous interest in foreign affairs would be confronted with a challenge perhaps even greater than the one faced by Truman; and he too astonished his own contemporaries by the way he rose to it.

Enter the Bush Doctrine

In "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" (1947), the theoretical defense he constructed of the strategy Truman adopted for fighting the war ahead, George F. Kennan (then the director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and writing under the pseudonym "X") described that strategy as

a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies . . . by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.

In other words (though Kennan himself did not use those words), we were faced with the prospect of nothing less than another world war; and (though in later years, against the plain sense of the words that he himself did use, he tried to claim that the "counterforce" he had in mind was not military) it would not be an entirely "cold" one, either. Before it was over, more than 100,000 Americans would die on the far-off battlefields of Korea and Vietnam, and the blood of many others allied with us in the political and ideological struggle against the Soviet Union would be spilled on those same battlefields, and in many other places as well.

For these reasons, I agree with one of our leading contemporary students of military strategy, Eliot A. Cohen, who thinks that what is generally called the "cold war" (a term, incidentally, coined by Soviet propagandists) should be given a new name. "The cold war," Cohen writes, was actually "World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multimillion-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map." I also agree that the nature of the conflict in which we are now engaged can only be fully appreciated if we look upon it as World War IV. To justify giving it this name—rather than, say, the "war on terrorism"—Cohen lists "some key features" that it shares with World War III:

that it is, in fact, global; that it will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts; that it will require mobilization of skill, expertise, and resources, if not of vast numbers of soldiers; that it may go on for a long time; and that it has ideological roots.

There is one more feature that World War IV shares with World War III and that Cohen does not mention: both were declared through the enunciation of a presidential doctrine.

The Truman Doctrine of 1947 was born with the announcement that "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure." Beginning with a special program of aid to Greece and Turkey, which were then threatened by Communist takeovers, the strategy was broadened within a few months by the launching of a much larger and more significant program of economic aid that came to be called the Marshall Plan. The purpose of the Marshall Plan was to hasten the reconstruction of the war-torn economies of Western Europe: not only because this was a good thing in itself, and not only because it would serve American interests, but also because it could help eliminate the grievances on which Communism fed. But then came a Communist coup in Czechoslovakia. Following as it had upon the installation by the Soviet Union of puppet regimes in the occupied countries of East Europe, the Czech coup demonstrated that economic measures would not be enough by themselves to ward off a comparable danger posed to Italy and France by huge local Communist parties entirely subservient to Moscow. Out of this realization—and out of a parallel worry about an actual Soviet invasion of Western Europe—there emerged the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Containment, then, was a three-sided strategy made up of economic, political, and military components. All three would be deployed in a shifting relative balance over the four decades it took to win World War III.4

If the Truman Doctrine unfolded gradually, revealing its entire meaning only in stages, the Bush Doctrine was pretty fully enunciated in a single speech, delivered to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001. It was then clarified and elaborated in three subsequent statements: Bush’s first State of the Union address on January 29, 2002; his speech to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on June 1, 2002; and the remarks on the Middle East he delivered three weeks later, on June 24. This difference aside, his contemporaries were at least as startled as Truman’s had been, both by the substance of the new doctrine and by the transformation it bespoke in its author. For here was George W. Bush, who in foreign affairs had been a more or less passive disciple of his father, talking for all the world like a fiery follower of Ronald Reagan.

In sharp contrast to Reagan, generally considered a dangerous ideologue, the first President Bush—who had been Reagan’s Vice President and had then succeeded him in the White House—was often accused of being deficient in what he himself inelegantly dismissed as "the vision thing." The charge was fair in that the elder Bush had no guiding sense of what role the United States might play in reshaping the post-cold-war world. A strong adherent of the "realist" perspective on world affairs, he believed that the maintenance of stability was the proper purpose of American foreign policy, and the only wise and prudential course to follow. Therefore, when Saddam Hussein upset the balance of power in the Middle East by invading Kuwait in 1991, the elder Bush went to war not to create a new configuration in the region but to restore the status quo ante. And it was precisely out of the same overriding concern for stability that, having achieved this objective by driving Saddam out of Kuwait, Bush then allowed him to remain in power.

As for the second President Bush, before 9/11 he was, to all appearances, as deficient in the "vision thing" as his father before him. If he entertained any doubts about the soundness of the "realist" approach, he showed no sign of it. Nothing he said or did gave any indication that he might be dissatisfied with the idea that his main job in foreign affairs was to keep things on an even keel. Nor was there any visible indication that he might be drawn to Ronald Reagan’s more "idealistic" ambition to change the world, especially with the "Wilsonian" aim of making it "safe for democracy" by encouraging the spread to as many other countries as possible of the liberties we Americans enjoyed.

Which is why Bush’s address of September 20, 2001 came as so great a surprise. Delivered only nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and officially declaring that the United States was now at war, the September 20 speech put this nation, and all others, on notice that whether or not George W. Bush had been a strictly conventional realist in the mold of his father, he was now politically born again as a passionate democratic idealist of the Reaganite stamp.

It was also this speech that marked the emergence of the Bush Doctrine, and that pointed just as clearly to World War IV as the Truman Doctrine had to War World III. Bush did not explicitly give the name World War IV to the struggle ahead, but he did characterize it as a direct successor to the two world wars that had immediately preceded it. Thus, of the "global terrorist network" that had attacked us on our own soil, he said:

We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it ends in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.

As this passage, coming toward the beginning of the speech, linked the Bush Doctrine to the Truman Doctrine and to the great struggle led by Franklin D. Roosevelt before it, the wind-up section demonstrated that if the second President Bush had previously lacked "the vision thing," his eyes were blazing with it now. "Great harm has been done to us," he intoned toward the end. "We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment." Then he went on to spell out the substance of that mission and that moment:

The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.

Finally, in his peroration, drawing on some of the same language he had been applying to the nation as a whole, Bush shifted into the first person, pledging his own commitment to the great mission we were all charged with accomplishing:

I will not forget the wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.

Not even Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator" himself, had ever been so eloquent in expressing the "idealistic" impetus behind his conception of the American role in the world.5

This was not the last time Bush would sound these themes. Two-and-a-half years later, at a moment when things seemed to be going badly in the war, it was with the same ideas he had originally put forward on September 20, 2001 that he sought to reassure the nation. The occasion would be a commencement address at the Air Force Academy on June 2, 2004, where he would repeatedly place the "war against terrorism" in direct succession to World War II and World War III. He would also be unusually undiplomatic in making no bones about his rejection of realism:

For decades, free nations tolerated oppression in the Middle East for the sake of stability. In practice, this approach brought little stability and much oppression, so I have changed this policy.

And again, even less diplomatically:

Some who call themselves realists question whether the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be any concern of ours. But the realists in this case have lost contact with a fundamental reality: America has always been less secure when freedom is in retreat; America is always more secure when freedom is on the march.

To top it all off, he would go out of his way to assert that his own policy, which he properly justified in the first place as a better way to protect American interests than the alternative favored by the realists, also bore the stamp of the Reaganite version of Wilsonian idealism:

This conflict will take many turns, with setbacks on the course to victory. Through it all, our confidence comes from one unshakable belief: We believe in Ronald Reagan’s words that "the future belongs to the free."

The first pillar of the Bush Doctrine, then, was built on a repudiation of moral relativism and an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs. And just to make sure that the point he had first made on September 20, 2001 had hit home, Bush returned to it even more outspokenly and in greater detail in the State of the Union address of January 29, 2002.

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