Norman Podhoretz clarifies the crisis in which we now find ourselves by describing it as World War IV. There are affinities to the preceding World War III, otherwise known as the cold war. Once more, it is hard to separate the hatred our enemies feel for us from their envy. The evident inferiority complex is irrational, therefore intractable. Ever since influential Muslims began to maintain that the weaknesses of their societies were not their fault at all but were inflicted upon them by the malevolent West, World War IV has been in preparation. For a time, it was uncertain whether nationalists or Islamists would wage it.
Ayatollah Khomeini settled that issue. Iran is a country of great potential, and his seizure of power there in 1979 has proved as consequential as the Bolshevik coup of 1917. Khomeini transformed Iran into a testing ground for the view that Islamist jihad is a mobilizing principle strong enough to avenge the political and cultural supremacy of the West. He and now his heirs have made it plain that they see themselves engaged in outright war. In a similar spirit, and with comparable rhetoric, too, the Soviet Union used to project capitalism as a bogey incompatible with peaceful coexistence.
The comparison goes further. Communism divided into the Soviet and the Chinese versions, both of which masked nationalist impulses at their core; and Islamism contains Sunni and Shiite versions that also reflect core nationalist differences between Arabs and Persians. Alarmed by the Iranian Shiite revolution, and therefore fired to emulate it, Saudi Arabia, far and away the richest Sunni state, has fostered al Qaeda and the hate-mongering imams and madrassas behind many of the initial aggressions of World War IV. Although these Sunni and Shiite rivals occasionally collaborate—on the Israel front, for instance—they are more usually in competition to see who can do the most damage to the West while at the same time mustering for armed showdown between themselves.
Islamist terror attacks have brought the war home in one country after another. Since 9/11, better intelligence and doses of luck, coupled with the disgust that many if not most Muslims feel for those committing murder in their name, have restricted these outrages. More directly, we have taken the war to the jihadists in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. We intend to defend ourselves, in other words, and have the means to do so. Although, for some unfathomable reason, the number of front-line jihadist casualties is never exactly specified, it runs into the thousands, with thousands more held in prison in the whole gamut of Muslim countries.
The hope, the ambition, is to construct peaceful nation-states out of the tribal and sectarian groupings whose various allegiances and identities have generated so much past violence, and are capable of generating still more in the present. The struggle for supremacy among tribes and sects is the real cause of the weaknesses that for centuries have bedeviled Muslim society, and created the feelings of humiliation and inferiority vis-à-vis others. The likes of Khomeini and Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden acquire and hold power by accommodating only those of their very own kind, to the exclusion of everyone else. Absolute rule becomes a self-perpetuating process of oppression and tyranny.
During my own travels in the Middle East over many years, I have made a point of asking what political arrangements people would favor. The almost invariable answer is democracy. This is not to ask for bicameralism and the separation of powers, but more modestly for the rule of law, an end to corruption, and some form of accountability, some process of representation able to pay heed and respond to grievances and injustice.
Such an outcome, however imperfect, would confront the exclusivity of tribe and sect, of Sunni and Shiite, and allow differences to be resolved by compromise rather than violence. After World War I, the British tried to restructure Iraq on just such lines, but the experiment was deemed financially too costly. Ignominious in itself, the British withdrawal condemned the entire population to decades of absolute rule, oppression, and tyranny.
Today’s American intervention is far more serious in scope and implication. Iraqis once more have the choice between a new, politically inclusive model and another relapse into absolute rule, oppression, and tyranny. America’s immediate difficulties only serve to demonstrate beyond doubt that democratization offers the Arab and Muslim world an escape route from its structural weaknesses. Although critics like to denigrate Western pressure to democratize the region as imperialism, it is the way for Muslims and non-Muslims in the end to meet on equal terms.
Nor is this just disinterested altruism. Whatever the outcome in Iraq, the Sunni-Shiite polarity will continue to condition the wider region. In the geostrategic dimension, the United States has created an unexpected three-cornered contest, whereby its armed forces, and therefore its political weight, are in place between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The mutual rivalry of these two countries is a dynamo driving Islamist jihad to spread destruction and death far and wide.
One possibility would be for the West to concede a victory to the Shiites in Iran and Iraq, leaving the Sunnis to make what they could of it. Alternatively, the Sunnis could be expected to be grateful in the event of America’s at last picking up the challenge so regularly and aggressively issued by Iran, and doing whatever has to be done to check the Khomeinist revolution and Iran’s nuclear program. Whichever way one looks at it, the American military presence close to Iran’s borders demonstrates superpower responsibility.
Crucial choices ahead will determine the course of World War IV, and the fate of millions with it. President Bush has put the United States in a position of potential strength as the arbiter of the future order in the Middle East, and it is dismaying that so many people refuse to recognize this. Norman Podhoretz rightly fears yet another possibility: that commentators in the media and opposition personalities have infected public opinion with a thoughtless and unworthy defeatism, and that party politics are assuming priority over the national interest.
If that is indeed the case, the indefinite prolongation of World War IV will have to be accepted, with who knows what damage inflicted by the Islamists on Muslims and non-Muslims alike and the quite unnecessary sacrifice of America’s standing and ultimately its security. More likely, surely, is that whoever is next in the White House will carry on where President Bush left off. Too much is at stake for anything else.