Saturday, June 16, 2007

Norman Podhoretz’s Big Sandy

John McCain made a fool of himself during a campaign stop not long ago. Asked what to do about Iran’s nuclear development program and its president’s well-publicized desire to “wipe Israel off the map,” the Republican senator channeled the Beach Boys’ hit, “Barbara Ann,” amending the lyrics to chant, “Bomb, bomb, bomb — bomb, bomb Iran.”

If you missed his performance, you can catch it on YouTube by clicking <here>.

McCain may have hoped that this bit of “straight talk” would boost his poll numbers, but he has so far been disappointed. The American electorate, judging from its ever-diminishing support for the Iraq war in public opinion surveys, is unlikely to set aside its misgivings to take on a presidential candidate who wants to take on Iran.

But leave it to Norman Podhoretz to barge in where others tread warily now that neoconservative dreams of “remaking” the Middle East have come a cropper along the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates.

His latest opus, “The Case for Bombing Iran,” appears in the June issue of Commentary magazine, whose previous sponsor, the American Jewish Committee, may be breathing a sigh of relief that it divested itself of bomb-thrower before it unleashed this latest salvo. [Click <here> for the article.]

Originally presented in April as an address “in somewhat different form” at a conference sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies at Queens College, City University of New York, “The Case for Bombing Iran,” amounts to a seal of hechsher — approval that an item is kosher — for ideas (some neoconservative, some plain lunatic) that have been floating around on the Jewish right since before last autumn’s midterm Congressional elections.

On March 22, this blog posted my entry, “Tehran Willies” [read it by clicking <here>], summarizing some choice examples which counseled President Bush that bombing Iran would save the neoconservative movement and/or secure his place in history as “God’s agent.” By then, the Republicans’ loss of the Senate and House, combined with steadily plummeting poll numbers for the president and the Iraq war, appeared to have put a damper on the White Houses’ ability to launch another war of choice.

But neoconservatives pride themselves on disdaining public opinion. True to the Trotskyist origins of many of the movement’s founders, they have never disavowed their belief that they constitute a “vanguard” — if not of the proletariat, then of US foreign and military policy strategists. And though none of their sons and daughters and grandchildren are serving frontline tours in their Iraq debacle, it fazes them not one whit to propose trudging even further into the Big Sandy, where yet more American lives — albeit those of other Americans, as well as unfortunate local inhabitants — will be sacrificed.

“The Case for Bombing Iran” has many classic earmarks of Podhoretz polemic: the portentous assertion that a doomsday clock is about to strike midnight and the fate of Western civilization hanging in the balance if no one pays heed to his warning; the clarion invocation of “American will,” seen as currently flabby and wavering, but which can triumph over any deficits of treasure and materiel that may be hobbling his call to arms; and crocodile tears for the innocents who may happen to be in harm’s way when a “responsible” America finally awakens from its sloth to save them (and civilization) from a fate which he assures us is worse than death itself.

But also on view are signs of a certain calcification of the polemical faculty.

Take, for example, his use of the term “Islamofascism.” We are now, Podhoretz informs us, engaged in World War IV — number III having been the Cold War. And we are told that, as in the forty-year confrontation with the Soviet Union, “the war we are now in has ideological roots, pitting us against Islamofascism, yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of Communism ….”

As I noted in a lengthy essay for the Autumn 2006 issue of the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s newsletter, Shalom [available on this blog by clicking <here>], “Islamofascism” is a term devoid of substantive intellectual content and useless for any serious analysis. Rather, it is an epithet, like “Judeo-Bolshevism,” “imperialist lackey,” “capitalist roader,” etc., designed to short circuit thought by arousing visceral fear and loathing. The French describe this sort of verbiage as la langue de bois — literally, “the wooden tongue”; more felicitously translated as “cant” — and it is disheartening to see Podhoretz’s polemical talents degenerate to this level.

More striking to observe is the atrophy of his reasoning by historical analogy. Renaming the Cold War “World War III” is an interesting rhetorical maneuver. By doing so, Podhoretz evidently means to conjure up images of the national mobilization and sacrifice necessary to confront the challenges he posits the West faces from a nuclear-capable Iran. Moreover, he invokes the legacy of Ronald Reagan who, with “the grace of God [and] the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain … we won” that war.

But before joining Podhoretz to enlist in World War IV, it is instructive to look more closely Reagan’s legacy. Like Bush Jr., the Gipper made a disastrous foray into the Middle East, when in 1983 he sent U.S. troops to Lebanon as peacekeepers. After a Marine barracks was destroyed by a suicide truck bomb, with the loss of 241 American service personnel, Reagan in short order withdrew the remaining military contingent. In our day, right-wing bloviators would call this a policy of “cut and run” — except that it was one of their political heroes who did the cutting and running.

Obscured, too, in Podhoretz’s rendition of Reagan’s conduct of the Cold War is the inconvenient fact that following a thoroughly bollixed proxy war in Nicaragua — during which, at one point, his national security advisor personally hand-delivered a cake to Tehran’s mullahs — Reagan thereafter essentially relied on negotiation in dealing with the Soviet “evil empire.”

If, indeed, Reagan “won” the Cold War, then it ended not with a bang of “shock and awe” cruise-missile barrage on the Kremlin, but rather with a simper of broad smiles and hearty handshakes exchanged with Mikhail Gorbachev. Similarly, Reagan’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, wound down World War III’s Asian front by engaging in much the same strategy (minus the backslapping) with Mao Tse-tung. (There is, of course, the inconvenient matter of 90,000 American and countless Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian lives sacrificed in what is now almost universally regarded as an ill-conceived and unwinnable military conflict that Nixon nonetheless continued even after he “opened China” and bequeathed to his successor to wind up in a flurry of helicopter airlifts from the U.S. embassy in what was then Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City …)

What Podhoretz’s analogy fails to acknowledge is that whereas the first two world wars were conducted as head-on armed contests between competing states, the central opposing powers of “WWIII” did everything in their power to avoid such direct confrontation. He confuses rhetorical preludes to negotiation with battle orders, and he does so with little concern for the price that others might have to pay for his tin ear.

So, too, with Podhoretz’s call to World War IV against Iran.

For the moment, President Bush — though, according to recent reports, not necessarily Vice President Richard Cheney — has stopped rattling his saber and is calling upon Europe, Russia and China to support stiffened sanctions against Iran for refusing to halt its nuclear development program and allow unhindered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Podhoretz has no use for sanctions. “As it happens,” he writes, “sanctions have rarely worked in the past” — purposefully ignoring the fact that Saddam Hussein dismantled his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs in response to the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq during the 1990s, which is why no WMD have been found in Iraq during the five years after our invasion.

“Worse yet,” Podhoretz continues, “[sanctions] have usually ended up hurting the hapless people of the target country while leaving the leadership unscathed.” On this, paradoxically, he and elements of the wackadoodle left agree. One need only recall the prewar outcries against the sanctions regime for depriving Iraqi children of medicines, milk and clean water, and unconfirmed (and still unverified) estimates of tens of thousands of resulting deaths. Such arguments hold water only if one considers the death toll from sectarian violence unleashed in the wake of our military overthrow of Saddam’s Ba’athist regime a lesser or worse form of violence than the sanctions regime — as, by inference, Podhoretz evidently does.

However unwilling Podhoretz is to admit that sanctions may have worked in pre-invasion Iraq, he nonetheless circuitously acknowledges that U.S. military action there has seriously undermined this nation’s capacity to confront Iran with an ultimate demonstration of American “will.” He writes:

Since a ground invasion of Iran must be ruled out for many different reasons, the job would have to be done, if it is to be done at all, by a campaign of air strikes. Furthermore, because Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed, and because some of them are underground, many sorties and bunker-busting munitions would be required. And because such a campaign is beyond the capabilities of Israel, and the will, let alone the courage, of any of our other allies, it could be carried out only by the United States. Even then, we would probably be unable to get at all the underground facilities, which means that, if Iran were still intent on going nuclear, it would not have to start over again from scratch. But a bombing campaign would without question set back its nuclear program for years to come, and might even lead to the overthrow of the mullahs.

But then again, maybe not.

Acknowledging that “it would be foolish to discount any or all of these scenarios,” Podhoretz concedes — grudgingly — that opponents of his proposed bombing campaign possibly have a point in predicting that “shock and awe” alone might not topple the Iranian regime — any more than it did Saddam Hussein’s.

On the contrary, [opponents of a bombing campaign] are certain that all Iranians, even the democratic dissidents, would be impelled to rally around the flag. And this is only one of the worst-case scenarios they envisage. To wit: Iran would retaliate by increasing the trouble it is already making for us in Iraq. It would attack Israel with missiles armed with non-nuclear warheads but possibly containing biological and/or chemical weapons. There would be a vast increase in the price of oil, with catastrophic consequences for every economy in the world, very much including our own. The worldwide outcry against the inevitable civilian casualties would make the anti-Americanism of today look like a love-fest.

Strip away the rhetorical evasions shot throughout Podhoretz’s essay and here is the train of logic: We shouldn’t apply sanctions because sanctions hurt innocent civilians while leaving the leadership intact. But a bombing campaign brings with it no assurance that Iran’s leadership will be toppled — or that it won’t retaliate in Iraq or against Israel, the U.S. and the world.

Rarely has the difference between an armchair general and a bona fide military strategist been on plainer view. Podhoretz, the hawk, has only entry strategies. There are no exits in his Hobbesian universe. On to Tehran! — even though there can be no guarantee that resorting to violence, with its attendant costs in blood, treasure, chaos and collateral damage, will eventually bring peace.

For Norman Podhoretz, there is only war. There is a word to describe this kind of worldview. That word is madness.

Adam Simms

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