Before answering whether Norman Podhoretz is correct that we have the misfortune to be living through World War IV, permit me some relevant descriptive narrative.
On the Saturday I traveled down to the Wall Street Journal’s offices in lower Manhattan to write this essay, my trip from the edge of Ground Zero through the World Financial Center’s now-restored Winter Garden took me past five groups of tourists numbering about twenty each. All were there to see Ground Zero. One group was standing by a window overlooking the site itself—still mostly stained concrete walls—while a tour guide explained the events of September 11.
For six years, I have watched these tourist groups arrive here every day. Many are middle-class Europeans, young and old, from Italy, Spain, France, and Germany. Many snap photos, trying to capture the entire sixteen-acre pit. Why do they come? Because virtually everyone in the world, together, while the event was happening, watched the two towers burn and collapse. They know that fanatical Islamic men did it, and the details of their plot. I persist in believing that the world’s watching those two office towers fall in real time produced an event of collective memory unique in history, and that its enduring effect on the consciousness of civilized peoples has been underestimated.
When I turned on my computer at the office that Saturday, the first news story I read was about the alleged leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. On an Islamist website, the pseudonymous al-Baghdadi had offered $100,000 for the murder of Lars Vilks, a cartoonist in Sweden whose drawing of Muhammad “dared insult our prophet.” The offer was upped to $150,000 if Vilks was “slaughtered like a lamb”—that is, with his throat cut. Al-Baghdadi also threatened attacks on Swedish companies, naming Ericsson, Volvo, Ikea, and Electrolux. All are global companies, which could be struck anywhere.
That we are in a war touching most of the world’s peoples, as did previous world wars, and that this war is with a strain of Islam infused with homicidal fanaticism, appears to me irrefutable. And I do not believe that the world’s peoples, particularly here or in Europe, are complacent about it. They know that a determined enemy exists, know what that enemy can do, and, I believe, would like someone to figure out how to lead them against this enemy.
Right now, the world is not being led, in part because the Democratic party has resisted allowing this particular American President to serve in that role, instead dividing the country over the design of the war on terror—detentions, interrogations, surveillance, and the like. Therefore, a big question for the future success of this war is whether, should a Republican win in 2008, the Democratic party will continue its challenge to the traditional world-leadership role of the U.S. presidency.
One of the great benefits of Norman Podhoretz’s intentionally provocative assertion that World War IV has begun is that it forces the argument toward defining the war. I am thinking in terms of a military doctrine. Obviously this war is not likely to involve the massed armies of the past century, much less the array of forces at Constantinople, which fell in 1453 to a Muslim army of several hundred thousand. After defeating Saddam’s conventional army in 2003, the U.S., it seems clear in retrospect, did not find a military doctrine appropriate for the Islamic insurgency until it adopted General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency plan in January 2007. On the evidence, that plan is making substantial gains.
Its relevance as doctrine, however, is broader. The Iraq insurgency, as with Islamic terror so far, has consisted mainly of highly explosive and dramatic bombings. Bali, the Madrid train station, the London subways—all were bombings. In his testimony to Congress, General Petraeus summed up the components of a strategy to “counter” this kind of warfare:
To do counterterrorism requires conventional as well as all types of special-operations forces, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets.
This encapsulates the worldwide war that must be waged against Islamic extremism. What we face is not the least bit like a conventional world-war battlefield. This war is being fought wholly amid civilian population centers; thus, any conceivable doctrine will have to include surveillance and intelligence as crucial elements. What that means is that the unending political battle in Washington over electronic surveillance and “intel” has to be won. Otherwise, if this internal American political battle is not won, the world’s cities will become increasingly vulnerable to bombs or, once the ingredients of WMD are purchased or assembled, worse.
As for a political doctrine, democratization, in Norman Podhoretz’s view, may be the only force strong enough to contain the centrifugal, messianic ideology of jihadism. The “realist” opposition to this notion has been intense. As with the Democratic refusal to support, say, warrantless wiretaps, the realists’ animosity to the Bush Doctrine and to “the neocons” seems as much personal grudge as theory. Both sides, however, err by undervaluing a force likely to play as great a role in taming Islam as either military containment or elections: namely, economics.
And specifically a more liberalized trade regime. Yes, it is boring, but it is also necessary, and it is explicitly part of the Bush Doctrine. Bush in 2003 proposed the Middle East Free Trade Agreement. Already, however, U.S. labor groups are in opposition to it, and mainly against Jordan, which has attracted investment from Wal-Mart, Liz Claiborne, Kohl’s, L.L. Bean, and others.
What, across history, has been “normal” life for the world’s males? Working at some job during the day and coming home to one’s family at night. Autarky is dead. In the modern world, trade is imperative. If our politics ignore or thwart trade, why feign shock when the young men in Middle Eastern countries spend their idle hours at jihad rather than at an honest job?
The Bush Doctrine had better survive 2008. All the competing ideologies are malign or dangerous: Putin’s market nationalism without democracy; China’s soulless economic determinism; Iran’s Hizballah-ism. Our political class should want, and publicly say it wants, Indonesia’s nascent democracy of more than 200 million Muslims to improve. Why should it be any less difficult to say that we want and will encourage Iran’s people to achieve a politics based on open party competition?
Those are the alternatives to what we have now. What we have now is this war.