Stuck in Reverse, Godfather of the Neocons Gets Nowhere

By Norman Podhoretz
Doubleday, 230 pages, $24.95

That Norman Podhoretz would open his new and deeply troubling World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism with a quaint Victorian salutation, “Dear Reader”—most famously used in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre­—is only fitting. Mr. Podhoretz’s book is not so much a coherent argument, let alone a persuasive one, as it is a project of looking backward. Drowning in the past, lacking in vision, World War IV is the work of a man who can’t stop fighting the battles of yesteryear, even after new threats have emerged and struck.

What one expects from World War IV is a rigorous attempt from the godfather of neoconservatism to defend the Bush war on terror and the Iraq war in the face of withering criticism. That’s not what we get. In 13 disjointed chapters, Mr. Podhoretz reiterates the arguments that we’ve come to associate with the likes of Sean Hannity. Seemingly half the text is devoted to partisan attacks on the Democrats, The New York Times specifically, and the cursed “mainstream media” generally. Mr. Podhoretz accuses all named parties of, at best, naïvely emboldening the terrorists, and, at worst, radical leftist defeatism. But because he has a reputation as an intellectual to support, Mr. Podhoretz dresses up his accusations in pseudo-academic garb. There are long, unwieldy sentences overrun with qualifying clauses. There’s talk of a “Bush doctrine,” and digressive forays into American history. There are also footnotes, though one would be hard-pressed to describe them as copious, or particularly revealing. They’re for show, after all.

If anything can be said to unify the book, it’s the author’s obsession with the notion that our current conflict is a logical continuation of previous conflicts with totalitarian regimes. Hence the title, which at first glance is quite confusing. (Turns out that World War III has come and gone: That was the Cold War.)

And yet, dear reader, consider the differences between this and previous conflicts: Though Al Qaeda and its affiliates may dream of a totalitarian caliphate, they’re not totalitarian states; disaggregated terrorists hardly constitute a monolithic antagonist. And while terrorists may be assisted by states, they’re not state actors in the same way previous totalitarian regimes were. As for the Iraq war, which Mr. Podhoretz fervently supports as part of the war on terror, it can hardly be seen as a natural front in such an effort.

Does the author address these considerations in a substantive manner? No. To Mr. Podhoretz, the only interpretation that can possibly be correct is Mr. Podhoretz’s, even as the facts head in the opposite direction.

What a sad commentary on the state of conservative thought: Six years after 9/11, a man whom many consider to be a leading intellectual has offered a tome arguing that the dreadful events of that day plunged us into a war no different from previous wars.

Common sense says otherwise. When Mr. Podhoretz helped usher neoconservatism into the spotlight, the philosophy was notable for rejuvenating a fatigued conservatism. Today, as World War IV demonstrates, neoconservatism is similar to the conservatism it once displaced: a stale collection of hapless clichés, irrelevant to the crucial questions of its time.

Ethan Porter is the associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

Stuck in Reverse, Godfather of the Neocons Gets Nowhere