Is it World War III: A Post-modern Approach

Some meditations on whether we’re in World War III (hat tip: Jim Stodder). The problem is, “from whose point of view?” and “When does denial contribute to the condition over which one is in denial?”


“World War Three without the blood, sweat and tears”

By Gideon Rachman, FINANCIAL TIMES, Published: July 24 2006 19:05

If you are looking for reassurance at this time of international crisis, do not consult Newt Gingrich. “We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war,” says the former speaker of the House of Representatives, who is currently a member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board. Mr Gingrich is not alone in his diagnosis. Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said last week that: “The third world war, I believe, has already started. What we’re seeing today in the Middle East is a chapter of it.” Even President George W. Bush has casually endorsed the idea. He told a television interviewer last May that the passengers who fought back against their hijackers on September 11, 2001 had staged “the first counterattack to world war three”. Symbolically, Mr Bush has placed a bust of Churchill (a gift from the British), in the Oval Office.

Good grief. Can’t this man even get a sentence right? What does “the first counter-attack to world war three” mean? It was the opening attack of World War III. (Actually I think the Second Intifada was that – the opening round of Global Jihad.)

Any argument simultaneously associated with Newt Gingrich, the Israeli ambassador to the UN and President Bush is likely to be dismissed on those grounds alone in much of Europe.

Not to mention our own “enlightened” circles drawn to BDS like a moth to the flame.

But the “third world war” crowd deserves a careful hearing. Essentially, they make two points. The first is that Islamist extremists are already waging a multi-front war. Fighting is under way in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – and a confrontation with Iran is looming. Those inclined to dismiss this multi-front war as essentially a broad regional conflict are reminded that Islamist terrorists have also struck in New York, Madrid, London, Bali and elsewhere.

Agreed. We need to empathize this these folk, not by projecting our mentalities on to them, but by thinking the way they do. They are in a war with the West. The question here is not an “objective” one – are we or are we not in WW III? The answer is post-modern. They think we are; we think we’re not; and many of us think they’re not. Same was true in the 1930s. Hitler was already at war; the allies were not. The near future will decide the real question: Will we defeat them before it becomes a full-fledged war (as we did not with Hitler)?

The second argument is that these conflicts are all linked because Islamism is a “seamless totalitarian movement” – in the words of Michael Gove, a British Conservative member of parliament and author of a new book on the subject*. Mr Gove and many neo-conservatives in America argue that Islamism is a direct descendant of the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century because, like them, it is implacably and violently hostile to western, liberal democracy.

I agree. Anyone who looks into this will tend to agree as well. I’d just specify: Nazism, Communism, Islamism are all three active cataclysmic millennial movements (they all believe that they must trigger massive destruction in order to bring on the messianic age), and their totalitarian tendencies are a direct result of their urgent violence. When the messianic age does not come like a plant, then we must carve it out on the body politic.

The British government seems to subscribe to at least part of this argument. Tony Blair, prime minister, has spoken of an “arc of extremism” from Afghanistan to the Middle East. And while most British officials are not temperamentally inclined to talk about “third world wars”, they do see worrying links between the various conflicts. One reason the British have been unexpectedly sympathetic to the Israeli effort to blast Hizbollah out of existence is that they believe that many of the roadside bombs used to kill British soldiers in Iraq are based on technology supplied by Hizbollah.

And my bet is that one of the reasons that the French are as well-behaved as they are – although granted, there’s a lot of affirmative action behind that assessment – may result from messages from their intelligence community that Hizbullah is indeed part of global Jihad, and if they don’t start fighting this now, their own “lost territories” will end up looking like Hizbullah controlled Lebanon in a few years.

But the idea of a “seamless totalitarian movement” also has some obvious holes in it. It requires making almost no distinction between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the “war on terror”.

Yes, I’ll go with the formulation you seem to reject. One of the tragic misunderstandings of the Arab-Israeli conflict came after 1967, when the PCP (both variants) urged us to see this in terms of two peoples fighting for national self-determination – the Palestinian Israeli conflict. It has always had enormously powerful elements of Jihad, fed constantly by Muslim Brotherhood fascism, with the Palestinians as a pawn in the larger game. The faster we realize this, the sooner we can start dealing with the situation effectively. Haj Amin al Husseini was a Jihadist.

It glosses over the fact that Saddam Hussein was not an Islamist – and that it was the American-led invasion of Iraq that turned the country into a honey pot for “Islamofascists” (to use the neo-cons’ preferred term).

No. Saddam wasn’t an Islamist, and given a threat from them, he probably would have done to an Islamist opposition in Iraq what his “fellow” Baathist, Assad did to Hama in Syria. But let’s not forget two things: 1) Saddam’s hero was the totalitarian madman Joseph Stalin; and 2) Saddam did not hesitate to use the tropes of global Jihad (“mother of all battles”) and to support their troops ($25,000 to every family of a Palestinian suicide terrorist). The issue with Saddam has much less to do with what he thought he was doing (really what he told us he thought he was doing), but what forces he was rousing, releasing and riding.

And it struggles to make sense of the fact that the single biggest source of bloodshed in the Middle East at the moment is internecine conflict between Sunni and Shia extremists in Iraq. Indeed, some of those who now worry most about Shia militancy had convinced themselves a couple of years ago that the real problem in the Middle East was Sunni radicalism – and that the Shia were a key part of the solution.

And that illuminates the inadequacy of “normative” analysis when dealing with the dynamics of global Jihad. The third law of apocalyptic dynamics states: “My enemy’s enemy is my enemy.” The vicious fighting between Sunnis and Shiis reflects the kind of absolute hatreds that inhabit the heart of active cataclysmic apocalyptic “warriors.” There have been efforts to bring them together (in the 1980s there were efforts to link up the strands represented by Osama and Khoumeini and a fair amount of cross-fertilization). But the basic principle of those who want to bring on Armageddon holds that you may have to “destroy the world to save it.” So on one level they hate each other as “heretics,” on another, even if they are fellow Muslims, their destruction is part of the process.

But perhaps the most telling argument against the “world war three” thesis is that even many of those advancing it do not appear to believe their own rhetoric. In the same Fox News interview in which Mr Gingrich painted “a worldwide picture of efforts to undermine and destroy our civilisation”, he was asked by a clearly embarrassed interviewer about those who argue that “look, this is a costly war and maybe it includes raising taxes on the upper income to fight it”. Mr Gingrich was having none of it. The third world war will apparently not require “raising a penny in taxes”. Clearly, we are not yet at the blood, sweat and tears phase. The Bush administration is similarly reticent. It argues that we are engaged in a struggle to save western civilisation. But it is still all but inconceivable that the administration would re-introduce the draft – or even sharply raise taxes on petrol – to help win that struggle.

This is cute, and it does get at a critical issue in apocalyptic studies. When does one feel that the signs of an imminent cosmic convulsion are so great that one “steps out of the closet” — and that in itself has two phases, first by speaking and then by acting. In this case it’s clear that Gingrich’s economic policies bear no relation to the reality about which he speaks (and since the President seems to share the notion that WW III should be tax free we seem to be in for catastrophic deficits). Gingrich is still between speaking and acting, and partly that’s because until enough people get excited about this, it’s going to be hard to act.

To be honest, he probably thinks he’ll never get people to accept the notion that we’re at war if they think it’s going to cost them; and inversely, there are probably lots of people who don’t want to realize we’re at war because it will cost. Consider World War III the equivalent for the right that global warming is to the left: in both cases, the “other” side won’t recognize it because it would cost too much.

But that doesn’t mean that either global jihad or global warming aren’t threats. Sometimes as I think about the succession of challenges that face us, I feel like the 21st century is like the TV show “24” writ large. No sooner one crisis solved than another looms.

The constant analogies between the war on terror and the war on Nazism do still matter, however. Choose the wrong analogy and you may end up choosing the wrong policy as well. Slogans about “Munich” and appeasement have been heard before some of the worst foreign policy disasters of the past 60 years – such as the Suez crisis and Vietnam. The same talk was heard before the invasion of Iraq and is now rife in connection with Iran.

But there have been other events in history besides appeasement and there are other decades that can be learnt from besides the 1930s. In fact, the struggle between western liberalism and Islamism may end up looking a lot more like the cold war than the second world war. In the cold war, people had to get used to the idea that normal life was taking place against the backdrop of terrifying risks that could not be eliminated by military action alone: then it was Soviet missiles, now it is the fear that a terrorist might get hold of a nuclear bomb. Then, as now, there were episodes of “hot war” – in Korea and elsewhere. But the cold war ultimately turned on a struggle between ideologies and social systems, rather than armies.

To move to the cold war is like shifting from the Nazis to the Prussian aristocracy in thinking about Germany. These conservative elites, no matter how zero-sum they play the game, can be counted on to be pragmatic. But they can be swallowed in a minute by a genuinely popular movement promising immediate and total salvation even at the cost of total catastrophe. The cold war (especially MAD) was based on the understanding that the Russians were “rational” if zero-sum (ie they wouldn’t self destruct). These guys are not remotely rational despite what our specialists tell us.

Communism finally imploded because it could not produce prosperity or a decent society. Militant Islamism – a miserable, medieval philosophy – is bound ultimately to go the same way. In Iran, which has had to live with a fundamentalist regime since 1979, there is plenty of evidence of popular disillusionment with the system, particularly among the young. It is this disillusionment that offers the best hope for the kind of “regime change” that actually lasts. Incapable of offering the hope of a decent life (at least on earth), Islamism’s only real recruiting sergeant is an appeal to a sense of Muslim humiliation and rage against the west. There may be further occasions when the “war on terror” requires military action.

This reminds me of the dinner conversation I had with a friend. I was, typically, bemoaning the threat of Islamism and global Jihad, and warning darkly that we hadn’t seen the worst of it (I must be a lot of fun at dinner), when my friend said: “Look, in 25 years, this whole thing will have blown over.” Yeah just like 25 years after Hitler took power it had blown over. As Rachman points out, the analogy you pick plays a big role in the policy you chose. The point is not to pick the analogy by the policy it implies, but by its accuracy in describing the situation. The right policy at the wrong time will give you something very much like Oslo.

But each new military front will be eagerly greeted by Islamists as a validation of their world view. It is no accident that one man who would happily embrace Mr Gingrich’s vision of a “third world war” is Osama bin Laden.

I assume this is meant to be ironic, and a put-down of Gingrich and his companions. Ouch. It’s precisely because Osama is already living in WW III, has already, enthusiastically embraced the “clash of civilizations” that our own intellectual elite continues to heap its contempt upon, that puts us in our danger. We don’t want to be in WW III. The question is, do we have our heads in the sand (which makes our asses tempting targets)? As my Israeli friend put it: “The hardest thing for me to realize [after the second intifada] was that the question of war and peace was not in our hands.

8 Responses to Is it World War III: A Post-modern Approach

  1. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Interesting speculation. How much light does it throw on the situation, though?

    Whether this is a world war, when it began, which paradigm to apply, what parallels there may be…how much does all this really matter? The discussion seems more like a theological one than a realistic attempt to understand events.

    Why not see the current violence and threats of violence as a purely religious conflict, inspired by the Koran? This is at base a question of faith, is it not? Sure, there are opportunistic but still peripheral figures like Saddam Hussein, and there are internal conflicts that sunder Islam, and there are levels of commitment in various Muslim communities, but is it not the case that when all this is considered, the words of the Koran are the source of the hatred and violence?

    I shall not provide the many Koranic quotes that demonstrate the truth and validity of my interpretation, but one simple anecdote may help to clarify things: recently in Thailand, the police went into a rural village in the south and arrested several men who were accused of being rebels in the undeclared Thai civil war. Within a few hours, several female teachers at a local government school had been kidnapped and were held hostage. The entire village was demanding the release of the rebels. When police attempted to intervene, they were confronted by an infuriated wall of women and children who barred entry into the village. Muslim women from a nearby village arrived, released the Muslim hostages, and beat the Buddhist teachers horribly; one is in a deep coma and cannot survive.

    This is not a political or a military phenomenon. It is religious, period. It is faith-based violence that is new to us, but not at all new to Western Civilization: it is just another wave in the historical series of challenges mounted by Islam. The goal of these people is a universal caliphate. That means, not at all incidentally, the destruction of the Western cultural heritage, and the subjugation of all non-Muslims. Some groups, like Buddhists — whose religion practices are, according to the Koran, “worse than carnage” — will be exterminated. (See the history of the eradication of Buddhism in India.)

    Some human ostriches here in Thailand argue that the “troubles” in the south are caused by organized crime. In this scenario, gambling, narcotics and smuggling have been drastically suppressed reduced by the central government, and the hoods are reacting by killing members of the public (and Buddhist monks) more or less at random. This absurd interpretation is one of many Thai ways of denying facts. Some even claim that the Muslims in the south yearn for democracy, and that because Bangkok has denied them their wish, they are protesting the injustice of corrupt government. The more one asks Thais why the violence persists, the crazier the responses get.

    Behind the inanity is a Utopian notion: religions are all inherently peaceful, tolerant and uplifting. Islam is a religion; therefore it can not be the cause of the horror. Related falsehoods: a few Muslim teachers in the south are using fake versions of the Koran to inspire a tiny number of fanatics. The real Koran preaches peace and social calm.

    Well, it’s utter nonsense, all of it, but many here believe explanations like these. Their credulity is the refuge of the willfully ignorant.

    How much better to face facts and seek the roots of the conflict.

    I respectfully suggest that everyone begin with Huntington’s remark about Islam’s “bloody borders,” and consider what IS, not what paradigm fits. It makes sense, for example, to think of the present as part of a war that began at the battle of the Great Ditch, some 1,400 years ago. But that’s not necessary in order to understand the present. Just inform yourself regarding the Koran’s absolute injunctions, and think through their necessary implications.

    Then remember that wall of women and children who told the Thai police, “You shall not pass!” and facilitated the vicious beating of the female Buddhist hostages.

    This is our blood enemy: a faith that is not a “religion” as we understand that term, but an implacable cult of death.

  2. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Boy, I wish this site had a “Preview” feature!

  3. igout says:

    Many of us seem to be in the same state of mind as that British Minister who, when asked by an opposition MP in the early days of World War 2 why the RAF was refraining from bombing German factories, replied indignantly, “do you not realize they are private property?”. Pretty soon came Hamburg…Dresden… Hiroshima… How quickly the unthinkable becomes commonplace. Necessity will do that.

  4. RL says:

    well it can become commonplace quickly, but only under the most dire conditions… and there’s probably a good reason for that. because otherwise everytime some alarmist shouts, “we’re at war” we can end up doing things that we really do want to reserve only for catastrophic threats. our problem — an eternal one — is how and when to recognize such threats.

    one of the things that fascinated me about Y2K was that here was a looming threat of unknown and unkowable proportions… a veritable Rorschach test. same with Islamism.

  5. BBC Panorama investigates charity InterPal’s financing of Hamas terrorism

    Tonight BBC chief investigative programme Panorama follows the trail of charity money from Interpal to Hamas suicide bombing of Israeli civilians.  Interpal is the UK based Palestinian charity backed by George Galloway MP.
    If you missed the programme …

  6. Not defending all of his comments, I believe PresBush’s “counter-attack” comment is accurate. The terrorists attacked. The passengers counter-attacked.

  7. Silverback says:

    It seems obvious that we are in WWIII and that Islam, true to the Qur’an and Hadiths, has always been fixated on converting, killing or reducing all Infidels to dhimmitude: oil revenue has merely reanimated this formerly quiescent religiously sanctioned imperative. In America, at least, we have been in party mode since winning WWII, the good times have rolled on and on, and most people don’t want the party to stop so they just turn up the volume on their plasma TVs to drown out the sound of the barbarians battering down the gates.

    I like many others, believe it will take one or maybe more attacks against America, with the thousands of casualties this will entail, to drive the point home that whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, we are in a fight for our lives.

  8. RL says:

    Silverback writes:

    It seems obvious that we are in WWIII and that Islam, true to the Qur’an and Hadiths, has always been fixated on converting, killing or reducing all Infidels to dhimmitude:

    this is actually a specific manifestation of islam which i would call apocalyptic (i.e. now is the time) and active cataclysmic (for us to use violence) millennial (to establish dar al islam the world over). it is not what Islam has always been nor need always be (fortunately), but it’s an embedded scenario that can, under circumstances, become the dominant meme. that’s happening right now, in a strong offense since october 2000 that continues to expand. but it’s not the only form of islam.

    oil revenue has merely reanimated this formerly quiescent religiously sanctioned imperative.

    actually petrodollars were only part of the poisonous combo — initially they just produced grotesquely corrupt wealthy elites who blew their money of gambling and other things in western luxury spots. it’s the poison of global jihad that’s been the real mover here, and fostered indirectly by these cowardly elites.

    In America, at least, we have been in party mode since winning WWII, the good times have rolled on and on, and most people don’t want the party to stop so they just turn up the volume on their plasma TVs to drown out the sound of the barbarians battering down the gates.

    this is unfortunately one of the key elements. behind the outrageously foolish optimism of people who say things like: “i’m sure if the israelis just went back to the 67 borders, then everything would be alright” lies a ostrich-like denial which just hopes that all this will go away if they just keep their heads down. on the one hand one can argue that it’s naive good nature (what i call liberal cognitive egocentrism) in which we project our good intentions onto the palestinians. but behind that nobly generous projection lies a prfound laziness, a deep desire not to hear bad news because it would disturb the peace we all benefit from so.

    I like many others, believe it will take one or maybe more attacks against America, with the thousands of casualties this will entail, to drive the point home that whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, we are in a fight for our lives.

    i think this is part of the nature of civil society. it’s very hard for people committed to peaceful positive-sum solutions to identify negative emotions among hostile neighbors and engage in pre-emptive retaliation strikes. it’s like the good guy in an action flick: he can’t kill the bad guy until he’s walked away from defeating him and the bad guy pulls a gun — then he can kill. until then it would be too quick on the trigger.

    what bothers me is that i think this is a battle that can still be won largely without killing. there will be violence, but so much can be done in the realm of saying the right thing at the right time. so it’s not: “if we wake up we have to go to war so let’s stay asleep”; it’s: “the longer you take to wake up, the worse the war will be.”

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