Sunday, December 9, 2007

Are We Fighting World War IV?

Peter Beinart has a stimulating essay at today's Los Angeles Times, "Is This Really World War IV?" Check it out:
Last month, observers reacted with alarm to President Bush's declaration that if Iran gained the knowledge necessary to build a nuclear bomb, it would risk World War III. Perhaps they should have looked on the bright side. Compared with prominent conservative commentators, Bush revealed himself to be something of a dove. By warning about World War III, after all, he implied that we are not already fighting World War IV.

On the right, "World War IV" has become one of the most popular ways to describe America's conflict with the practitioners of violent jihad. It started with Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies, who insisted just two months after 9/11 that we should call our new war by this "less palatable but more accurate name." After that, the term was picked up by Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary who is now an advisor to Rudolph W. Giuliani -- and who has made it the title of a recent book. Along the way it has entered the vocabulary of such conservative commentators as William Bennett, Michael Ledeen, R. James Woolsey and Larry Kudlow. Don't be surprised if a Republican presidential candidate uses it one of these days.

The shift from the "war on terror" to "World War IV" may seem semantic, but in subtle ways it fundamentally recasts not only the conflict we're in today but the one we fought for almost 50 years against the Soviet Union. To believe the United States is fighting World War IV, after all, you have to believe that during the second half of the last century, we fought World War III.

But did we? The truth is that the United States didn't fight World War III; we fought a "Cold War," which was the exact opposite. The whole reason Walter Lippmann invented the term in 1947 was to describe a state of geopolitical hostility that didn't include military conflict: That's what made it cold. The clear contrast was with World War II, in which America lost hundreds of thousands of troops in battlefield confrontations with Nazi Germany and Japan. Lippmann's term stuck because America's standoff with the Soviet Union never devolved into that kind of global war.
To be sure, each side aided local proxies, sometimes even sending in its own troops (as the U.S. and China did in Korea, and the Soviets did in Afghanistan). But unlike during World War I and World War II, Europe's industrial heartland remained at peace, regional wars never became globalized and American and Soviet troops never fought one another in any significant way.
Read the whole thing.

I think the idea that "Europe's industrial heartland remained at peace" or that "regional wars never became globalized" is an extremely narrow interpretation of events.

Citizens in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Poland (under Soviet puppet Jaruzelski circa 1981) might quibble with Beinart's notion of a peaceful European industrial heartland. Sure, we didn't enter into physical hostilities with East Bloc armies, but our deterrent strength in Western Europe kept the lid on the outbreak of a more deadly reign of terror.

And regional wars? Moscow's expansionist designs in areas such as Angola, the Arab world, Ethiopia, and Central America starting in the 1970s represented a dramatic strategic challenge to America's Western-led international order. Indeed, following U.S. defeat in Vietnam, America's geopolitical position was grim. South Vietnam fell to the Soviet-equipped North Vietnamese regime, and American power was ejected from the South Asian landmass, which had disastrous implication for regional stability and human rights.

That being said, I agree with Beinart that the World War IV nomenclature is difficult to defend in terms of "hot war" designations.
Normal Podhoretz's notion of the war on terror as World War IV is polemical. In truth, though, he's one of the few who's willing to state clearly and forcefully the existential nature of our times, and least in the "long war" sense of the terror war as a new, frighteningly cold-war-like geopolitical struggle.

Times have changed as well. There's much less unity in foreign policy than was the case during earlier eras, especially before Vietnam. Everything's partisan and polarized in foreign policy, and even the mention of the use of force among leftists brings out calls of fascist ascendency in the United States.

We're not fighting World War IV. But we are fighting implacable foes who would eliminate the U.S. if they could. This we must not forget, irrespective of semantic differences.