Monday, August 21, 2006

Norman Podhoretz: An Unrepentant Neocon


EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. -- 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."

* * *

With the crisis in the Middle East deteriorating, alarmingly fraught, Mr. Podhoretz's WWIV theory assumes further urgency.

On the violence running over the Levant, he is forthright: "I think of it as another battle or field or front in World War IV -- the third front that's been opened: Afghanistan, Iraq and now this." With Hezbollah acting as a proxy for Iran, and Israel standing in for the U.S., "what you have here is Iran testing the resolve, the capability, of the enemy, in this case being the entire West -- though few seem to understand this, or if they do understand it they want to deal with it with the usual appeasement."

Does the president understand? Grant that there are no easy answers: Hasn't the administration, on the more intractable questions of Syria and Iran, shown by and large the same weakening of resolve? Mr. Podhoretz winces. The question seems to set his teeth on edge. "There are people who ask George Bush to do everything at once," he declares, "instead of picking his shots and moving at a politically viable pace. It's nice as an intellectual exercise, but what is the point of demanding things that no democratic political leader, not even George Bush, could conceivably do at this time? To my mind it's a kind of right-wing utopianism."

Right-wing utopianism -- now there is machismo. It is, of course, the very charge most often leveled against the neocons: that they thought (to put it rudely) they could go parading through Arabia and reorder it as a liberal democracy; instead of flowers and sweets they were met with IEDs and sectarian death squads. And this notion has picked up currency of late -- particularly among those who consider themselves conservatives without the qualifying prefix.

Mr. Podhoretz is having none of it. "I always knew they didn't like this policy, the Bush doctrine," he says, speaking of increasingly vocal antagonists like George Will and William F. Buckley. "They had doubts about it going in, and not just because it violates in their view conservative principles but, you know, it's hubris, it's Wilsonianism, it goes beyond the limits of power, it's nation-building, and so on. But for reasons of solidarity or because they were not willing to join with the left or the far reaches of the Buchananite right, they were careful, they voiced their doubts only through hints or veiled asides. So when they came, so to speak, out of the antiwar closet, I certainly was not all that surprised.

"They've declared defeat, basically," he continues. "What can I say? I think they're wrong. I think Iraq has gone not badly but well, is not a disaster or a crime or a delusion, but what's more is a noble, necessary effort."

Mr. Podhoretz attributes the troubles of reconstruction as much to our own irresolution as to what he calls "the recalcitrance and obduracy of the region." "The only reason in my opinion that we're having as much trouble as we're having in Iraq is that we're not getting intelligence. You cannot fight a revanchist insurgency and certainly not one that uses terrorist tactics without good intelligence . . . and you can only get that kind of intelligence by squeezing it out of prisoners. That's all there is to it."

Both domestic opposition and the international community, unhappily, are "defining torture down. The things they're calling 'torture' now have never been and have no business being considered torture." He keeps on: "It is an effort to disarm us that's succeeding to a frightening extent. No, it's worse than that. They're trying to make it impossible to fight terrorism. . . . Every weapon that's been developed to protect us from terrorism, and the Iraqis from internal terrorism, is under assault."

Mr. Podhoretz loops back to the allegations that the administration has botched the execution of its Middle East policy. "I get impatient and even angry with this relentless carrying on in the face of setbacks," he says. "Now suddenly even a lot of my neoconservative friends have either lost heart and deserted the cause or devoted themselves mostly to bitching about this and that and the other thing and everything else. Most of these criticisms or attacks have been so unfair as to be completely unreasonable. . . .

"If you stipulate that everything people allege was a mistake in Iraq, even If you stipulate that they all were actually mistakes rather than judgment calls about which reasonable men could differ and could have had worse consequences if they'd gone the other way -- even If you stipulate that all the critics are right, these 'mistakes' are chump change compared to the mistakes that were made during World War II by great leaders like Churchill and Roosevelt, and the lives that were squandered, thousands and thousands of lives uselessly squandered. . . .

"But even with these mistakes," he continues, "this country was indispensable in defeating the two great totalitarian threats of the 20th century. It was this despised bourgeois civilization that turned out to be the one bulwark against those monstrous enemies of humanity. I feel the same way today about Islamofascism."

Mr. Podhoretz is not dismissive of the costs the U.S. has incurred, quite; but better, he argues, to endure these convulsions than the previous arrangements. "We've paid an extraordinarily small price by any reasonable historical standard for a huge accomplishment," he says. "It's unseemly to be constantly whining."

* * *

The political odyssey of Norman Podhoretz began in the mid-1950s, when he made his mark as a literary critic and heir apparent of the leftward "New York intellectuals"; veered sharply toward radicalism in the early '60s; and ultimately rejected the ascendant hard left for what we now recognize as neoconservatism. "The issue was America," he says. "I was repelled, almost nauseated, by the rise of anti-Americanism on the left. The hatred of this country seemed to me not only wrong, it was disgusting. . . . Everything the left was saying about America was wrong -- everything -- and wrong by 180 degrees." He likens it to "staging a black mass, with the cross inverted and Christ hanging by his feet."

"There was a heavy price to be paid for my acts of apostasy," he says. Still: He retains an acute sense of longing for the intellectual community in which he grew up, a world -- irretrievably lost -- with no real equivalent today. It was a world that cared immensely about the life of the mind, and "even though practically everything it held dear was wrong, the fact is that it was exhilarating -- you had all these brilliant people who were interested in understanding what historical forces were at work in the world and how they were playing out."

It was perhaps that spirit, more than anything else, that Mr. Podhoretz and his cadre sowed in the conservative mind. The neoconservatives were not simply "new conservatives," swallowed whole by an established system and along for the ride, Jonahs in the belly of a whale; but, more exactly, they deepened and broadened the nature of conservatism by emphasizing larger questions and long views, all seriously considered. The neoconservative enterprise is still in motion, and -- like the war on terror, like World War IV, like whatever else one wants to call the present danger -- it is not done yet.

"It continues," Mr. Podhoretz says. "It never ends." During the Belle Époque of the Clinton years, things seemed to have sufficiently mended for him to turn his attention to literature again; Sept. 11, as he tells it, drew him back into the arena, inexorably, as if carried by the tide. "I'm getting old. I am old," he sighs. "But I'm still at it, and I'll continue." He adds with a laugh: "I especially get a new surge of intellectual energy whenever my own side, as it has been lately, starts to infuriate me."

Mr. Rago is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal.

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