Joseph Rago: Norman Podhoretz, Unrepentant Neo-Con

Roundup: Talking About History

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then Iraq was lost -- according, at least, to the conspiracy-minded -- on the pages of Commentary magazine and the other house organs of the neoconservative movement. Better yet, blame America's post-9/11 foreign policy on Leo Strauss, Albert Wohlstetter and Allan Bloom, regularly disinterred as the neocon godfathers.

Yet however much one loathes lending credence to talk of a neocon conspiracy -- call it Cabal Theory -- it does possess a certain element of truth. That is, the Iraq intervention found its genesis not only in the immediate crises of the prewar period, but also in a way of thinking about foreign policy that matured over several decades. In other words, "Ideas shape events. They are the moving force in history," notes Norman Podhoretz, editor in chief of Commentary for the 35 years ending in 1995, and a founding father and adventurer in the world of neoconservatism.

Neoconservatism is hard to pin down as discrete political theory; Mr. Podhoretz suggests even that is too strong a term, preferring "tendency." In any case, as a practical matter, it denotes the mentality of those who moved from somewhere on the political left to somewhere on the right, primarily during the late '70s. It had "two ruling passions," according to Mr. Podhoretz. On the one hand, the neocons were repulsed by the countercultural '60s radicalism that came to dominate the American liberal establishment. On the other, they argued for a more assertive, muscular foreign policy (at the time in response to Soviet expansionism).

It is the latter that consumes Mr. Podhoretz during this late period in his disputatious career. Here at his bucolic summer home, he makes an easy, serene figure; but any outward tranquility is very much at odds with the intensity of his moral and intellectual universe.

He is careful, certainly, to distance himself from policy making. Washington "might as well be the surface of the moon." Rather, he says, "I'm always trying to look at the world in some larger frame." That, today, means "telling the story of what has happened since Sept. 11 with some intellectual distance, to place it as a world-historical development."

The scale and the suddenness of that day, as Mr. Podhoretz sees it, swept away the assumptions of the era that preceded it, both the soft internationalism and the balance-of-power calculations that by turns governed the way America conducted itself in the world. Here was a generational, existential confrontation with militant Islamist antimodernism, international in character and analogous to World War III (known otherwise as the Cold War). The "war on terror," he argues, ought to be rightly understood as "World War IV," demanding a new set of policies and ideas that will allow the U.S. to cope under drastically altered conditions.

The point of his voluminous WWIV essays (currently being expanded into a book) is to limn the ways in which George Bush has done precisely that. "The military face of the strategy is pre-emption and the political face is democratization," he says. "The stakes are nothing less than the survival of Western civilization, to the extent that Western civilization still exists, because half of it seems to be committing suicide."...

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