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.