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

A Note to the Reader

This past spring, when it seemed that everything that could go wrong in Iraq was going wrong, a plague of amnesia began sweeping through the country. Caught up in the particulars with which we were being assaulted 24 hours a day, we seemed to have lost sight of the context in which such details could be measured and understood and related to one another. Small things became large, large things became invisible, and hysteria filled the air.

Since then, of course, and especially after the hand over of authority on June 30 to an interim Iraqi government, matters have become more complicated. But the relentless pressure of events, and the continuing onslaught both of details and of their often tendentious or partisan interpretation, have hardly let up at all. It is for this reason that, in what follows, I have tried to step back from the daily barrage and to piece together the story of what this nation has been fighting to accomplish since September 11, 2001.

In doing this, I have drawn freely from my own past writings on the subject, and especially from three articles that appeared in these pages two or more years ago.1 In some instances, I have woven sections of these articles into a new setting; other passages I have adapted and updated.

Telling the story properly has required more than a straight narrative leading from 9/11 to the time of writing. For one thing, I have had to interrupt the narrative repeatedly in order to confront and clear away the many misconceptions, distortions, and outright falsifications that have been perpetrated. In addition, I have had to broaden the perspective so as to make it possible to see why the great struggle into which the United States was plunged by 9/11 can only be understood if we think of it as World War IV.

My hope is that telling the story from this perspective and in these ways will demonstrate that the road we have taken since 9/11 is the only safe course for us to follow. As we proceed along this course, questions will inevitably arise as to whether this or that move was necessary or right; and such questions will breed hesitations and even demands that we withdraw from the field. Some of this happened even in World War II, perhaps the most popular war the United States has ever fought, and much more of it in World War III (that is, the cold war); and now it is happening again, notably with respect to Iraq.

But as I will attempt to show, we are only in the very early stages of what promises to be a very long war, and Iraq is only the second front to have been opened in that war: the second scene, so to speak, of the first act of a five-act play. In World War II and then in World War III, we persisted in spite of impatience, discouragement, and opposition for as long as it took to win, and this is exactly what we have been called upon to do today in World War IV.

For today, no less than in those titanic conflicts, we are up against a truly malignant force in radical Islamism and in the states breeding, sheltering, or financing its terrorist armory. This new enemy has already attacked us on our own soil—a feat neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia ever managed to pull off—and openly announces his intention to hit us again, only this time with weapons of infinitely greater and deadlier power than those used on 9/11. His objective is not merely to murder as many of us as possible and to conquer our land. Like the Nazis and Communists before him, he is dedicated to the destruction of everything good for which America stands. It is this, then, that (to paraphrase George W. Bush and a long string of his predecessors, Republican and Democratic alike) we in our turn, no less than the "greatest generation" of the 1940’s and its spiritual progeny of the 1950’s and after, have a responsibility to uphold and are privileged to defend.

Out of the Blue

The attack came, both literally and metaphorically, like a bolt out of the blue. Literally, in that the hijacked planes that crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001 had been flying in a cloudless sky so blue that it seemed unreal. I happened to be on jury duty that day, in a courthouse only a half-mile from what would soon be known as Ground Zero. Some time after the planes reached their targets, we all poured into the street—just as the second tower collapsed. And this sight, as if it were not impossible to believe in itself, was made all the more incredible by the perfection of the sky stretching so beautifully over it. I felt as though I had been deposited into a scene in one of those disaster movies being filmed (as they used to say) in glorious technicolor.

But the attack came out of the blue in a metaphorical sense as well. About a year later, in November 2002, a commission would be set up to investigate how and why such a huge event could have taken us by surprise and whether it might have been prevented. Because the commission’s public hearings were not held until the middle of this year’s exceptionally poisonous presidential election campaign, they quickly degenerated into an attempt by the Democrats on the panel to demonstrate that the administration of George W. Bush had been given adequate warnings but had failed to act on them.

Reinforcing this attempt was the testimony of Richard A. Clarke, who had been in charge of the counterterrorist operation in the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and then under Bush before resigning in the aftermath of 9/11. What Clarke for all practical purposes did—both at the hearings and in his hot-off-the-press book, Against All Enemies—was to blame Bush, who had been in office for a mere eight months when the attack occurred, while exonerating Clinton, who had spent eight long years doing little of any significance in response to the series of terrorist assaults on American targets in various parts of the world that were launched on his watch.

The point I wish to stress is not that Clarke was exaggerating or lying.2 It is that the attack on 9/11 did indeed come out of the blue in the sense that no one ever took such a possibility seriously enough to figure out what to do about it. Even Clarke, who did stake a dubious claim to prescience, had to admit under questioning by one of the 9/11 commissioners that if all his recommendations had been acted upon, the attack still could not have been prevented. And in its final report, released on July 22 of this year, the commission, while digging up no fewer than ten episodes that with hindsight could be seen as missed "operational opportunities," thought that these opportunities could not have been acted on effectively enough to frustrate the attack. Indeed not—not, that is, in the real America as it existed at the time: an America in which hobbling constraints had been placed on both the CIA and the FBI; in which a "wall of separation" had been erected to obstruct communication or cooperation between law-enforcement and national-security agents; and in which politicians and the general public alike were still unable and/or unwilling to believe that terrorism might actually represent a genuine threat.

Slightly contradicting itself, the commission said that "the 9/11 attacks were a shock, but they should not have come as a surprise." Maybe so; and yet there was no one, either in government or out, to whom they did not come as a surprise, either in general or in the particular form they took. The commission also spoke of a "failure of imagination." Maybe so again; and yet the word "failure" seems inappropriate, implying as it does that success was possible. Surely a failure so widespread deserves to be considered inevitable.

To the New York Times, however, the failure was not at all inevitable. In a front-page editorial disguised as a "report," the Times credited the commission’s final report with finding that "an attack described as unimaginable had in fact been imagined, repeatedly." But not a shred of the documentary evidence cited by the Times for this categorical statement actually predicted that al Qaeda would hijack commercial airliners and crash them into buildings in New York and Washington. Moreover, all of the evidence, such as it was, came from the 1990’s. Nevertheless, the Times "report" contrived to convey the impression that in the fall of 2000 the Bush administration—then not yet in office—had received fair warning of an imminent attack. To bolster this impression, the Times went on to quote from a briefing given to Bush a month before 9/11. But the document in question was vague about details, and in any case was only one of many intelligence briefings with no special claim to credibility over conflicting assessments.

Thus the Bush administration, which had just been excoriated in hearings held by the Senate Intelligence Committee for having invaded Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence, was now excoriated by some of the 9/11 commissioners for not having acted on the basis of even sketchier intelligence to head off 9/11 itself. This contradiction elicited a mordant comment from Charles Hill, a former government official who had been a regular "consumer" of intelligence:

Intelligence collection and analysis is a very imperfect business. Refusal to face this reality has produced the almost laughable contradiction of the Senate Intelligence Committee criticizing the Bush administration for acting on third-rate intelligence, even as the 9/11 commission criticizes it for not acting on third-rate intelligence.3

However, the point I most wish to stress is that there was something unwholesome, not to say unholy, about the recriminations on this issue that befouled the commission’s public hearings and some of the interim reports by the staff. It therefore came, so to speak, both as a shock and as a surprise that this same unholy spirit was almost entirely exorcised from the final report. In the end the commission agreed that no American President and no American policy could be held responsible in any degree for the aggression against the United States unleashed on 9/11.

Amen to that. For the plain truth is that the sole and entire responsibility rests with al Qaeda, along with the regimes that provided it with protection and support. Furthermore, to the extent that American passivity and inaction opened the door to 9/11, neither Democrats nor Republicans, and neither liberals nor conservatives, are in a position to derive any partisan or ideological advantage. The reason, quite simply, is that much the same methods for dealing with terrorism were employed by the administrations of both parties, stretching as far back as Richard Nixon in 1970 and proceeding through Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan (yes, Ronald Reagan), George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and right up to the pre-9/11 George W. Bush.

A "Paper Tiger"

The record speaks dismally for itself. From 1970 to 1975, during the administrations of Nixon and Ford, several American diplomats were murdered in Sudan and Lebanon while others were kidnapped. The perpetrators were all agents of one or another faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In Israel, too, many American citizens were killed by the PLO, though, except for the rockets fired at our embassy and other American facilities in Beirut by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), these attacks were not directly aimed at the United States. In any case, there were no American military reprisals.

Our diplomats, then, were for some years already being murdered with impunity by Muslim terrorists when, in 1979, with Carter now in the White House, Iranian students—with either the advance or subsequent blessing of the country’s clerical ruler,Ayatollah Khomeini—broke into the American embassy in Tehran and seized 52 Americans as hostages. For a full five months, Carter dithered. At last, steeling himself, he authorized a military rescue operation which had to be aborted after a series of mishaps that would have fit well into a Marx Brothers movie like Duck Soup if they had not been more humiliating than comic. After 444 days, and just hours after Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981, the hostages were finally released by the Iranians, evidently because they feared that the hawkish new President might actually launch a military strike against them.

Yet if they could have foreseen what was coming under Reagan, they would not have been so fearful. In April 1983, Hizbullah—an Islamic terrorist organization nourished by Iran and Syria—sent a suicide bomber to explode his truck in front of the American embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Sixty-three employees, among them the Middle East CIA director, were killed and another 120 wounded. But Reagan sat still.

Six months later, in October 1983, another Hizbullah suicide bomber blew up an American barracks in the Beirut airport, killing 241 U.S. Marines in their sleep and wounding another 81. This time Reagan signed off on plans for a retaliatory blow, but he then allowed his Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, to cancel it (because it might damage our relations with the Arab world, of which Weinberger was always tenderly solicitous). Shortly thereafter, the President pulled the Marines out of Lebanon.

Having cut and run in Lebanon in October, Reagan again remained passive in December, when the American embassy in Kuwait was bombed. Nor did he hit back when, hard upon the withdrawal of the American Marines from Beirut, the CIA station chief there, William Buckley, was kidnapped by Hizbullah and then murdered. Buckley was the fourth American to be kidnapped in Beirut, and many more suffered the same fate between 1982 and 1992 (though not all died or were killed in captivity).

These kidnappings were apparently what led Reagan, who had sworn that he would never negotiate with terrorists, to make an unacknowledged deal with Iran, involving the trading of arms for hostages. But whereas the Iranians were paid off handsomely in the coin of nearly 1,500 antitank missiles (some of them sent at our request through Israel), all we got in exchange were three American hostages—not to mention the disruptive and damaging Iran-contra scandal.

In September 1984, six months after the murder of Buckley, the U.S. embassy annex near Beirut was hit by yet another truck bomb (also traced to Hizbullah). Again Reagan sat still. Or rather, after giving the green light to covert proxy retaliations by Lebanese intelligence agents, he put a stop to them when one such operation, directed against the cleric thought to be the head of Hizbullah, failed to get its main target while unintentionally killing 80 other people.

It took only another two months for Hizbullah to strike once more. In December 1984, a Kuwaiti airliner was hijacked and two American passengers employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development were murdered. The Iranians, who had stormed the plane after it landed in Tehran, promised to try the hijackers themselves, but instead allowed them to leave the country. At this point, all the Reagan administration could come up with was the offer of a $250,000 reward for information that might lead to the arrest of the hijackers. There were no takers.

The following June, Hizbullah operatives hijacked still another airliner, an American one (TWA flight 847), and then forced it to fly to Beirut, where it was held for more than two weeks. During those weeks, an American naval officer aboard the plane was shot, and his body was ignominiously hurled onto the tarmac. For this the hijackers were rewarded with the freeing of hundreds of terrorists held by Israel in exchange for the release of the other passengers. Both the United States and Israel denied that they were violating their own policy of never bargaining with terrorists, but as with the arms-for-hostages deal, and with equally good reason, no one believed them, and it was almost universally assumed that Israel had acted under pressure from Washington. Later, four of the hijackers were caught but only one wound up being tried and jailed (by Germany, not the United States).

The sickening beat went on. In October 1985, the Achille Lauro, an Italian cruise ship, was hijacked by a group under the leadership of the PLO’s Abu Abbas, working with the support of Libya. One of the hijackers threw an elderly wheelchair-bound American passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, overboard. When the hijackers attempted to escape in a plane, the United States sent Navy fighters to intercept it and force it down. Klinghoffer’s murderer was eventually apprehended and sent to prison in Italy, but the Italian authorities let Abu Abbas himself go. Washington—evidently having exhausted its repertoire of military reprisals—now confined itself to protesting the release of Abu Abbas. To no avail.

Libya’s involvement in the Achille Lauro hijacking was, though, the last free pass that country’s dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, was destined to get from the United States under Reagan. In December 1985, five Americans were among the 20 people killed when the Rome and Vienna airports were bombed, and then in April 1986 another bomb exploded in a discotheque in West Berlin that was a hangout for American servicemen. U.S. intelligence tied Libya to both of these bombings, and the eventual outcome was an American air attack in which one of the residences of Qaddafi was hit.

In retaliation, the Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal executed three U.S. citizens who worked at the American University in Beirut. But Qaddafi himself—no doubt surprised and shaken by the American reprisal—went into a brief period of retirement as a sponsor of terrorism. So far as we know, it took nearly three years (until December 1988) before he could pull himself together to the point of undertaking another operation: the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which a total of 270 people lost their lives. Of the two Libyan intelligence agents who were tried for planting the bomb, one was convicted (though not until the year 2001) and the other acquitted. Qaddafi himself suffered no further punishment from American warplanes.

In January 1989, Reagan was succeeded by the elder George Bush, who, in handling the fallout from the destruction of Pan Am 103, was content to adopt the approach to terrorism taken by all his predecessors. During the elder Bush’s four-year period in the White House, there were several attacks on Americans in Turkey by Islamic terrorist organizations, and there were others in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. None of these was as bloody as previous incidents, and none provoked any military response from the United States.

In January 1993, Bill Clinton became President. Over the span of his two terms in office, American citizens continued to be injured or killed in Israel and other countries by terrorists who were not aiming specifically at the United States. But several spectacular terrorist operations occurred on Clinton’s watch of which the U.S. was most emphatically the target.

The first, on February 26, 1993, only 38 days after his inauguration, was the explosion of a truck bomb in the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York. As compared with what would happen on September 11, 2001, this was a minor incident in which "only" six people were killed and over 1,000 injured. The six Muslim terrorists responsible were caught, tried, convicted, and sent to prison for long terms.

But in following the by-now traditional pattern of treating such attacks as common crimes, or the work of rogue groups acting on their own, the Clinton administration willfully turned a deaf ear to outside experts like Steven Emerson and even the director of the CIA, R. James Woolsey, who strongly suspected that behind the individual culprits was a terrorist Islamic network with (at that time) its headquarters in Sudan. This network, then scarcely known to the general public, was called al Qaeda, and its leader was a former Saudi national who had fought on our side against the Soviets in Afghanistan but had since turned against us as fiercely as he had been against the Russians. His name was Osama bin Laden.

The next major episode was not long in trailing the bombing of the World Trade Center. In April 1993, less than two months after that attack, former President Bush visited Kuwait, where an attempt was made to assassinate him by—as our own investigators were able to determine—Iraqi intelligence agents. The Clinton administration spent two more months seeking approval from the UN and the "international community" to retaliate for this egregious assault on the United States. In the end, a few cruise missiles were fired into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where they fell harmlessly onto empty buildings in the middle of the night.

In the years immediately ahead, there were many Islamic terrorist operations (in Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen, and Israel) that were not specifically aimed at the United States but in which Americans were nevertheless murdered or kidnapped. In March 1995, however, a van belonging to the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, was hit by gunfire, killing two American diplomats and injuring a third. In November of the same year, five Americans died when a car bomb exploded in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, near a building in which a U.S. military advisory group lived.

All this was trumped in June 1996 when another building in which American military personnel lived—the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—was blasted by a truck bomb. Nineteen of our airmen were killed, and 240 other Americans on the premises were wounded.

In 1993, Clinton had been so intent on treating the World Trade Center bombing as a common crime that for some time afterward he refused even to meet with his own CIA director. Perhaps he anticipated that he would be told things by Woolsey—about terrorist networks and the states sponsoring them—that he did not wish to hear, because he had no intention of embarking on the military action that such knowledge might force upon him. Now, in the wake of the bombing of the Khobar Towers, Clinton again handed the matter over to the police; but the man in charge, his FBI director, Louis Freeh, who had intimations of an Iranian connection, could no more get through to him than Woolsey before. There were a few arrests, and the action then moved into the courts.

In June 1998, grenades were unsuccessfully hurled at the U.S. embassy in Beirut. A little later, our embassies in the capitals of Kenya (Nairobi) and Tanzania (Dar es Salaam) were not so lucky. On a single day—August 7, 1998—car bombs went off in both places, leaving more than 200 people dead, of whom twelve were Americans. Credit for this coordinated operation was claimed by al Qaeda. In what, whether fairly or not, was widely interpreted, especially abroad, as a move to distract attention from his legal troubles over the Monica Lewinsky affair, Clinton fired cruise missiles at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where bin Laden was supposed to be at that moment, and at a building in Sudan, where al Qaeda also had a base. But bin Laden escaped harm, while it remained uncertain whether the targeted factory in Sudan was actually manufacturing chemical weapons or was just a normal pharmaceutical plant.

This fiasco—so we have learned from former members of his administration—discouraged any further such action by Clinton against bin Laden, though we have also learned from various sources that he did authorize a number of covert counterterrorist operations and diplomatic initiatives leading to arrests in foreign countries. But according to Dick Morris, who was then Clinton’s political adviser:

The weekly strategy meetings at the White House throughout 1995 and 1996 featured an escalating drumbeat of advice to President Clinton to take decisive steps to crack down on terrorism. The polls gave these ideas a green light. But Clinton hesitated and failed to act, always finding a reason why some other concern was more important.

In the period after Morris left, more began going on behind the scenes, but most of it remained in the realm of talk or planning that went nowhere. In contrast to the flattering picture of Clinton that Richard Clarke would subsequently draw, Woolsey (who after a brief tenure resigned from the CIA out of sheer frustration) would offer a devastating retrospective summary of the President’s overall approach:

Do something to show you’re concerned. Launch a few missiles in the desert, bop them on the head, arrest a few people. But just keep kicking the ball down field.


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