Earlier this month, having long been bothered
by the claims of various neocons that we were in "World War IV" (also known
as "the Global War on Terrorism"), I wrote a piece, "Which
War Is This Again?," considering the idea. I pointed out among other
things that whatever the Cold War might have been, it wasn't World War III –
the war that certainly would have ended the world as we then knew it. As I usually
do, I let a number of other Web sites know that I had posted the piece.
An editor at TomPaine.com promptly sent me an e-note saying that, back in
October, they had published a long piece on the same subject, "The
Return of the World Warriors," by a former State Department official
named John Brown who had also done something most admirable (and rare). In an
open letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the very eve of the coming
invasion of Iraq, he had resigned from the Foreign Service in protest against
our "war plans." ("Throughout the globe the United States is becoming associated
with the unjustified use of force. The president's disregard for views in other
nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an
anti-American century. I joined the Foreign Service because I love our country.
Respectfully, Mr. Secretary, I am now bringing this calling to a close, with
a heavy heart but for the same reason that I embraced it.") Among other things,
Brown now compiles a fascinating
blog on public diplomacy filled with gems like the following passage from
a piece by R. J. Eskow
that I might otherwise have missed:
"'I have to infer from that (statement) that you would be happier if Saddam
Hussein were still in power.' - Paul Wolfowitz.
"It's the classic retort given by neocons and other war supporters when
anyone questions the wisdom of the Iraq War. … But let's say I get disturbed
by a spider crawling the garage wall. I slam the car into it at 50 miles an
hour, destroying the car and causing a few thousand dollars in damage to the
garage. When my wife objects, I say: 'I have to infer from that statement that
you would be happier if that spider were still crawling up the wall.' No, schmuck,
she says, I'd be happier if we still had a car and didn't have to fork out ten
thousand dollars to fix the garage."
Brown's World War IV piece was exceedingly intelligent, on target, and – had
I known it was there – would have saved me time and effort. Not long thereafter,
Brown himself wrote me – a kind note about my piece, but with the following
caveat: "The WWIV metaphor seems to be losing its immediacy among supporters
of the administration's policies. It just doesn't sell well among ordinary Americans
(not to speak of foreign audiences)." Hence, he suggested, the sudden arrival
of "democracy" with a Middle Eastern twist on the presidential agenda. I was
intrigued, especially since I was just then pondering Bush's "Arab spring" democracy
blitz (and all those columns by press pundits wondering agonizingly whether
the president hadn't been right after all), and so I suggested to Brown that
he consider writing his thoughts up for TomDispatch. I present the results of
that request with special pleasure. Tom
Why World War IV Can't Sell
by John Brown
In a recent
essay, Tom Engelhardt commented quite rightly that "World War IV" has "become
a commonplace trope of the imperial right." But he didn't mention one small
matter – the rest of our country, not to speak of the outside world, hasn't
bought the neocons' efforts to justify the president's militaristic adventures
abroad with crude we're-in-World War IV agitprop meant to mobilize Americans
in support of the administration's foreign policy follies. That's why, in his
second term, George W. Bush – first and foremost a politician concerned about
maintaining domestic support – is talking ever less about waging a global war
and ever more about democratizing the world.
A Neocon Global War
The neocons have long paid lip service to the need for democracy
in the Middle East, but their primary emphasis has been on transformation
by war, not politics. You'll remember that, according to our right-wing world
warriors, we're inextricably engaged in a planetary struggle against fanatic
Muslim fundamentalists. There will, they assure us, be temporary setbacks
in this total generational
conflict, as was the case during World War II and the Cold War (considered
World War III by neocons), but we can win in the end if we "stay
the course" with patriotic fortitude. Above all, we must not be discouraged
by the gory details of the real, nasty war in Iraq in which we're already
engaged, despite the loss of blood and treasure involved. Like so many good
Soviet citizens expecting perfect Communism in the indeterminate future, all
we have to do is await the New
American Century that will eventually be brought into being by the triumphs
of American arms (and neocon cheerleading).
Since at least 9/11, the neocons have rambled on… and on… about "World War
IV." But no matter how often they've tried to beat the phrase into our heads,
it hasn't become part of the American mindset. Peace and honest work, not perpetual
war and senseless conflict, still remain our modest ideals – even with (because
of?) the tragedy of the Twin Towers. True, right before the presidential election,
WWIV surfaced again and again in the media, fed by neocon propaganda; and even
today it appears here and there, though as often in criticism as boosterism.
Pat Buchanan and Justin
Raimondo have recently used the phrase to criticize neocon hysteria in their
columns; and in its winter 2005 issue, the Wilson Quarterly published
"World War IV," an important article by Andrew J. Bacevich, which turns the
neocons' argument on its head by suggesting that it was the U.S. that started
a new world war – a disastrous struggle for control of Middle Eastern oil reserves
– during the Carter administration. For Bacevich, it appears, the neocons' cherished
verbal icon should not be a call to arms, but a sad reminder of the hubris of
Try It Long
For all the absurdity of their arguments, neocons are, in many ways, men of
ideas. But they do not live on another planet. They know that "World War IV"
or even the milder "Global War on Terrorism" are not the first things ordinary
Americans have in their thoughts when they get up in the morning ("Does anyone
still remember the war on terror?" asked that master of the zeitgeist,
of the New York Times, early in January). This unwillingness among
us mere mortals to see the world in terms of a universal death struggle, which
neocon sympathizer Larry Haas, a member of the Committee
on the Present Danger, believes is caused by "our
faith in rationality," upsets some of the Spengler-like neocons, most noticeably
their cantankerous dean, Norman Podhoretz.
In February in Commentary (a magazine he once edited), Podhoretz offered
the world "The
War Against World War IV," a follow-up to his portentous and history-falsifying
September 2004 piece, "World
War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win." In
his latest piece, stormin' Norman castigates Americans right and left – including
"isolationists of the paleoconservative Right," "Michael Moore and all the other
hard leftists holed up in Hollywood, the universities, and in the intellectual
community at large," and "liberal internationalists" – for being "at war" with
his Rosemary's baby "World War IV." Somewhat defensively (for a rabid warmonger),
he assures us that we, the American people, will, despite the best efforts of
the critics, continue to support Mr. Bush, who in turn will not fail to uphold
the "Bush Doctrine," which reflects, Podhoretz leaves no doubt, his own "brilliant"
World War IV ideas (as admiring fellow neo-pundit William Safire described them
in a New York Times column last August).
Mr. Podhoretz is angry at those who simply cannot accept his crude
Hobbesian view of humanity, so he keeps shouting at us, but less virulent
neocons and their allies, realizing "WWIV" has not caught on, are thinking
up new terms to con Americans into the neos' agenda of total war.
Foremost among these is "the long war," evoking – to my mind at least – World
War I, "the Great War" as it was known, which did so much to lead to the rise
of fascism in Europe. (But how many Americans actually care about WWI?) A Google
search reveals that as early as May 2002, in a Cato
Policy Analysis, "Building Leverage in the Long War: Ensuring Intelligence
Community Creativity in the Fight Against Terrorism," James W. Harris wrote
of a "long war" in describing post-9/11 world tensions. In June of last year,
C. Wohlstetter, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute,
"Now George W. Bush must rally the nation in the latest fight to the finish
between imperfect civilization and perfect barbarism, that of free countries
versus mega-death terror from both 'WMD states' and groups like al-Qaeda. The
Gipper's testamentary gift to us is what should be our goal in a long war that
strategist Eliot Cohen calls World War IV."
Podhoretz himself mentioned the "long war" in his September Commentary
article. "[W]e are only," he noted, "in the very early stages of what promises
to be a very long war." But the real star of the long-war proponents is Centcom
commander General John Abizaid, about whom pro-Iraqi invasion journalist David
Ignatius wrote a fawning portrait in the Washington
Post in late December. "If there is a modern Imperium Americanum," Ignatius
announced, "Abizaid is its field general." Playing the role of intrepid "action"
journalist at the forefront of the global battle lines in "Centcom's turbulent
center of operations," Ignatius breathlessly informs his readers that
"I traveled this month with Abizaid as he visited Iraq and other areas of
his command. Over several days, I heard him discuss his strategy for what he
calls the 'Long War' to contain Islamic extremism. … Abizaid believes that the
Long War is only in its early stages. Victory will be hard to measure, he says,
because the enemy won't wave a white flag and surrender one day. … America's
enemies in this Long War, he argues, are what he calls 'Salafist jihadists.'
That's his term for the Muslim fundamentalists who use violent tactics to try
to re-create what they imagine was the pure and perfect Islamic government of
the era of the prophet Mohammed, who is sometimes called the 'Salaf.'"
So now we understand why we're in a Long War: to free ourselves
of the salacious Salaf.
If You think It's Not Long Enough, How About Millennium?
Former CIA Director James Woolsey, an early proponent of WWIV, is now turned
on by the Long War idea as well. In December, in remarks titled "The
War for Democracy," he said:
"Well, let me share a few thoughts with you this morning on what I have
come to call the Long War of the 21st Century. I used to call it World War IV,
following my friend Eliot Cohen, who called it that in an op-ed right after
9/11 in the Wall Street Journal. Eliot's point is that the Cold War was World
War III. And this war is going to have more in common with the Cold War than
with either World War I or II.
"But people hear the phrase World War and they think of Normandy and Iwo
Jima and short, intense periods of principally military combat. I think Eliot's
point is the right one, which is that this war will have a strong ideological
component and will last some time. So, in order to avoid the association with
World Wars I and II, I started calling it the Long War of the 21st Century.
Now, why do I think it's going to be long? First of all, it is with three totalitarian
movements coming out of the Middle East."
The three totalitarian movements, Woolsey goes on to say, are "Middle East
Fascists"; "the Vilayat Faqih, the Rule of the Clerics in Tehran – Khamenei,
Rafsanjani, and his colleagues"; and "the Islamists of al-Qaeda's stripe, underpinned,
in many ways, by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia."
With all this war talk from the neocons, it's always reassuring to hear the
voices of those who, if our world warriors had their way, would enthusiastically
give up their lives for the "long war." On Dec. 31, reader Robert S. Stelzer
wrote a letter to the Denver Post in which he said the following regarding
Ignatius' paean to Abizaid:
"I interpret the article as a propaganda piece to get the American population
used to the idea of a long war, and then a military draft. Maybe we need an
empire to maintain our standard of living, but if we have democracy we need
an informed electorate."
Despite rare dissident voices like Stelzer's, the reaction of most Americans
to the Long War jingle (as to "World War IV") has essentially been that of a
silent majority: nothing. Count on the neocon bastion the Weekly
Standard (in January) to try to whip up those silent Americans with
a ratcheted-up attack-the-mortal-enemy battle cry headlined "The Millennium
War" by pundit Austin
Bay, a colonel, who noted that "the global war on terror is the war's dirt-stupid
name. One might as well declare war on exercise as declare war on terror, for
terror is only a tactic used by an enemy. … In September 2001, I suggested that
we call this hideous conflict the Millennium War, a nom de guerre that
captures both the chronological era and the ideological dimensions of the conflict."
But Austin B's MW (apologies to the German carmaker) has not sold
either, being even less repeated in media commentaries than the Long War itself
– which brings us to the Bush administration's current attitude toward the
neocons' WWIV branding.
Drop that War! The Product No Longer Sells!
If there's one thing the sad history of recent years has amply demonstrated,
it's that the Bush White House is profoundly uninterested in ideas (even the
superficial ones promulgated by the neocons). What concerns Dubya and his entourage
is not thought, but power. They pick up and drop "ideas" at the tip of a hat,
abandoning them when they no longer suit their narrow interests of the moment.
(The ever-changing "justifications" for the war in Iraq are a perfect illustration
of this attitude.) The Bushies are short-term and savvy tacticians par excellence,
with essentially one long-term plan, rudimentary but focused: Republican – as
they interpret Lincoln's party – domination of the United States for years to
come. Karl Rove's hero,
after all, is William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, who,
some argue, was responsible for creating GOP control of American politics for
The current administration, perhaps more than any other in history, illustrates
George Kennan's observation that "[o]ur actions in the field of foreign affairs
are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated
by vocal minorities." Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the war
in Iraq was begun essentially for domestic consumption (as White House chief
of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. suggested
to the New York Times in September 2002, when he famously said of
Iraq war planning, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new
products in August"). While all the reasons behind this tragic, idiotic war
– which turned out far worse than the "mission-accomplished"
White House ever expected – may never be fully known, it can be said with a
strong degree of assurance that it was sold to the American public, at least
in part, in order to morph Bush II, not elected by popular vote and low in the
polls early in his presidency, into a decisive "commander in chief" so that
his party would win the upcoming congressional – and then presidential – elections.
The neocons – including, in all fairness, those among them honest in their
unclear convictions – happened to be around the White House (of course, they
made sure they would be) to provide justification for Bush's military actions
after 9/11 with their Darwinian, dog-eat-dog, "us vs. them" view of the world.
And so their "ideas" (made to sound slightly less harsh than WWIV in the phrase
Global War on Terrorism) were cleared by Rove and other GOP politicos and used
for a while by a domestically driven White House to persuade American voters
that the invasion of Iraq was an absolute necessity for the security of the
But now Americans are feeling increasingly critical of our Iraqi "catastrophic
latest polls show that 53 percent of Americans feel the war was not worth
fighting, 57 percent say they disapprove of Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq, and
70 percent think the number of U.S. casualties is an unacceptable price to have
paid." To the Pentagon's great concern, the military is having difficulties
recruiting; National Guardsmen are angry about excessively long tours of duty
in Iraq; spouses of soldiers complain about their loved ones being away from
home for far too much time.
So, as their pro-war manifestos become less and less politically useful to
the Bush administration, the neocons are getting a disappointing reward for
their Bush-lovin'. Far from being asked to formulate policy to the extent that
they doubtless would like, they have been relegated to playing essentially representational
roles, reminiscent of the one performed by the simple-minded gardener named
Chance played by Peter Sellers in the film Being There – at the UN (John
Bolton) and at the World Bank (Paul Wolfowitz), two institutions that no red-blooded
Republican voters will ever care about, except as objects of hatred.
At the same time, and despite disquieting many foreigners by the selection
of Bolton and Wolfowitz (widely perceived abroad as undiplomatic unilateralists)
to serve in multinational organizations, the president appears to have recognized
the existence of anti-American foreign public opinion, which has been intensely
critical of the neocons' bellicose views and U.S. unilateral action in Iraq.
The selection of spinmeister Karen Hughes, a Bush confidante who happened to
be born in Paris (no, not Paris, Texas), as undersecretary for public diplomacy
and public affairs at the State Department suggests that the White House staff
has begun (against its gut instincts) to acknowledge what it dismissed in Bush's
first term – the usefulness of "soft power" in dealing with other nations. This
may only be from fear of excessively bad news coming from abroad that could
lead to lower opinion polls at home and thus threaten current Republican hegemony
in America, but no matter.
We Don't Demolish, We Democratize!
Few have actually been conned into the neos' war, whatever ingredient it is
flavored with – "IV," "long," or "millennium." Now the White House, far from
promulgating neocon WWIV ideas, has been dropping most references to war as
Bush's second term begins. Our commander-in-chief, still undergoing an extreme
makeover as a man who considers peaceful negotiations at least an option, is
being turned into an advocate of the politically oppressed in other countries
and so has come up with a new explanation to sell his dysfunctional foreign
"policy": global democratization, with a focus on the Middle East.
Bush did mention democratization in his first
term, but today it has suddenly become the newest leitmotif for explaining
his misadventures abroad. What, he now asks the American people, are we doing
overseas? And he responds, we're not demolishing the world – we're democratizing
it! And thanks to OUR democratizing so far in the Middle East, including the
bombing and invading of Iraq, the Arab world is like Berlin when the wall came
down. (Forget about the fact
that these two events took place during different centuries and in very different
parts of the world based on the implementation of very different American policies!)
And don't you forget, Bush tells us, that we're on a path to reform our Social
Security system, far more important than the war in Iraq – though Dubya's call
for personal accounts may, in appeal, prove the World War IV of domestic policy.
As for democracy at home, that can wait.
So, after all the administration has done to ruin America's moral standing
and image overseas – "preemptive" military strikes that violate simple morality
and the basic rules of war; searching in vain for nonexistent weapons of mass
destruction; mindlessly rushing to implement "regime change" in a far-off Third-World
country, an ill-planned effort that could result in the establishment of an
anti-Western theocracy harmful to American interests; brutally incarcerating
"terrorists" with little, if any, respect for international law; arrogantly
bashing "old Europe" just to show off all-American Manichaean machismo; and
insulting millions abroad by writing off their opinions – Americans are now
being told by Dubya and his gang what we've really been up to all this time
across the oceans: We're democratizing the Middle East, and with great success
I don't believe a word of it.
Here's what the military newspaper Stars and Stripes wrote
"Propaganda is nothing but a fancy name for publicity, and who knows the
publicity game better than the Yanks? Why, the Germans make no bones about admitting
that they learned the trick from us. Now the difference between a Boche and
a Yank is just this – that a Boche is someone who believes everything that's
told him and a Yank is someone who disbelieves everything that's told him."
John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who resigned
in protest against the invasion of Iraq, is affiliated with Georgetown
University. Brown compiles a
daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR) available free by requesting
it at firstname.lastname@example.org. Aside from public diplomacy, PDPR covers items
such as anti-Americanism, cultural diplomacy, propaganda, foreign public opinion,
and American popular culture abroad.