Norman Podhoretz
Norman Podhoretz; drawing by David Levine


Not so long before the war in Iraq was launched, I was the only European at an American dinner party in Brussels. My fellow guests were a motley group of youngish diplomats, think-tank pundits, ex-spooks, and journalists, most of whom had established reputations as promoters of neoconservatism. Many topics were discussed, but two stand out in my memory: French wines and the “projection of force.” Despite the praise for fine French wines, “the Europeans” were rather sneered at, as namby-pamby, frivolous, anti-Semitic appeasers, too far gone in spineless pacifism and political decadence to share America’s burden of projecting force to make the world safe for democracy. They spoke with great confidence about military matters, of which none of them, to my knowledge, had any personal experience.

Listening to them talk, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been a youngish Old Etonian Foreign Office man at a smart London club around the time of the Boer War. I imagine it might have been something like that Brussels dinner party—the same sense of being just within fingertip reach of great power, the heady feeling of shouldering the burdens of that great power, and the contempt for those who fail to understand its basic benevolence, or indeed that a certain amount of unpleasantness (“messy” was the word in Brussels) is inevitable when such benevolence is to be spread forcefully to the benighted world.

If Irving Kristol is the godfather of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz is the patriarch. Podhoretz himself might not see all neocons as his intellectual offspring, although his son John has certainly followed in his footsteps. In fact, Podhoretz has a rather narrow definition of neoconservatism. He talks about “repentant liberals and leftists,” mostly Jewish, who broke ranks with the left and “moved rightward” in the 1970s. “Strictly speaking,” he says, “only those who fitted this description ought to have been called neo- (i.e., new) conservatives.” Those who mimic the views of their parents (John P., say, or William Kristol) cannot be called “new.” True, but simply to call them conservatives (or vieux cons, as the French would say) would not do justice to the Napoleonic radicalism of their project.

Since he brings the matter up himself, it is worth pondering why Jews have played such a prominent part in the short history of neoconservatism, despite the fact that most American Jews would still regard themselves as liberals. Much has already been written on this topic, some of it scurrilous; conspiracies and so forth. Could it have something to do with an old attraction to utopian visions of universal liberty, which once drew many Jews to the left? Or with the traditional appeal of strong, benevolent empires, from the monarchy of Franz Joseph to George W. Bush’s republic, as shields against bigots, racists, and tyrants? Of course, the specter of 1938, of not nipping a mortal danger in the bud, has special resonance among many Jews. Then there is the matter of Israel. Podhoretz, for one, felt deeply betrayed by the American left, not to mention “the Europeans,” who became critical of the Jewish state after the 1967 war, and even more so after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

But none of these factors quite explains the obsession with power, specifically US power, and the constant angst that it is being undermined by an elite of treacherous liberals. In his latest book, Podhoretz refers to the “Vietnam syndrome” as an example of “neo-isolationism” and “pacifist sentiment” that are supposedly rife in “the elite institutions of American culture.” This elite appears to be made up largely of that old bugbear of the paranoid right: clever people in New York who run the media, that “effete corps of impudent snobs,” in the words of former Vice President Spiro Agnew.1 To shore up US power, it is essential to mobilize the common, decent, right-thinking people of America against this decadent elite, as Richard Nixon did, and Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. This is the essential message of World War IV, whose publication date falls on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The book expresses a weird longing for the state of war, for the clarity it brings, and for the chance to divide one’s fellow citizens, or indeed the whole world, neatly into friends and foes, comrades and traitors, warriors and appeasers, those who are with us and those who are against.

Podhoretz’s rhetoric of war can be quite zany. He describes the dispute between opponents of Bush’s war and its defenders as “no less bloody than the one being fought by our troops in the Middle East,” indeed as “nothing less than a kind of civil war.” I myself was opposed to the war, and do not always hold tender feelings for my intellectual opponents, but I hardly think of our differences as comparable to the burning of Atlanta or the battle of Fallujah. By the same token, Bush critics in academe are called “guerrillas-with-tenure,” which seems a grandiose description of what are on the whole rather harmless professors.2


The most articulate analysis of the obsession with power and violence was actually written by Podhoretz himself, in 1963, in his famous essay “My Negro Problem—and Ours.” Despite what the title might suggest, it is actually an argument against racism and in favor of miscegenation. When Podhoretz grew up in Brooklyn, the common assumption was that Jews were rich and Negroes were persecuted. This was not how things looked to Podhoretz on the playground of his local public school, where poor Jewish boys like him were regularly being beaten up by Negroes: “There is a fight, they win, and we retreat, half whimpering, half with bravado. My first experience of cowardice.” Negroes, he goes on, “made one feel inadequate. But most important of all, they were tough, beautifully, enviably tough, not giving a damn for anyone or anything…. This is what I envied and feared in the Negro….” And then there were the effete snobs, “the writers and intellectuals and artists who romanticize the Negroes, and pander to them,” and “all the white liberals who permit the Negroes to blackmail them into adopting a double standard of moral judgment….”

The key to Podhoretz’s politics seems to me to lie right there: the longing for power, for toughness, for the Shtarker who doesn’t give a damn about anyone or anything, and hatred of the contemptible, cowardly liberals with their pandering ways and their double standards. Since Podhoretz, himself a bookish man, can never be a Shtarker, his government must fill that role, and not give a damn about anyone or anything. And not only the US government, but Israel too. Arik Sharon was a typical Shtarker, and thus much admired. Bibi Netanyahu tries hard to be a Shtarker. The US was enviably tough against the Nazis, and then against the Communists, and is now called to arms once more against the Islamofascists. Since Western Europe seems destined to be “conquered from within by Islamofascism,”3 just as it had been once by Hitler’s blitzkrieg, America must go it alone this time, with a little help from the Brits. As in “World War III” against the Soviet Empire, this World War IV against Islamofascism will be “a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations.” The words, quoted by Podhoretz, are George Kennan’s, who regretted having said them, because they were interpreted as a call for military action, which is not what he had intended. Podhoretz uses them as though he had.

When it comes to attitude, then, Podhoretz is not hard to read. When it comes to the specifics of the war, exactly whom we are supposed to be fighting, why it is a fourth world war, and how it relates to earlier wars, he becomes fuzzy indeed. It is not very helpful to compare, as Podhoretz does, Osama bin Laden with Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. They were all very nasty, but other than that there is not much to be gained from such comparisons. The differences in relative power, political circumstances, and historical contexts are simply too great. So who are the Islamofascists? George W. Bush had an answer, which pleases Podhoretz so much that he quotes it more than once: “We have seen their kind before. They’re the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century…. They follow in the path of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.”

Yes, but who precisely are “they”? As so often in the neocon discourse, Bernard Lewis is trotted out to lend some intellectual respectability. Podhoretz cites Lewis’s analysis of Nazi as well as Stalinist influences on the growth of the Baath Party in the 1940s. These influences were real enough. But the Baath Party, founded by two socialists, one of whom was from a Christian family, was not Islamist. It was nationalist, socialist, with large doses of fascism and Stalinism. Saddam Hussein, more a gangster than an ideologue, was certainly not an Islamist. Up to a million men died in his nationalist war, backed by the US, against the Islamist regime in Iran. And Iran’s Islamist revolution was unleashed against the Shah’s secular dictatorship, which was backed by the US too.4 Among the Islamist revolutionaries there are deep differences—hardly mentioned by Pod-horetz—between Sunnis and Shiites, regional insurgents in Southeast Asia and the Taliban in Afghanistan, terrorist gangs in London and the Janjaweed in Darfur. And unlike the Soviet Communist regime or Hitler’s Nazi Party, which ruled over large, militarized states, al-Qaeda is a global network of very loosely affiliated groups, copying each other’s rhetoric and methods through the Internet, without power over any states, let alone large armies.


Now one might say that these differences are meaningless, because “they” all hate America as a matter of common ideology. But even that was not always true. Saddam Hussein was quite happy to receive the likes of Donald Rumsfeld in the 1980s and come to a cozy arrangement with the US. It is true, of course, that Baathists, al-Qaeda revolutionaries, Shiite militias, Islamist insurgents, and terrorist gangs operating in the West are all brutal, dangerous, and capable of inflicting much harm. But to lump them all together as “Islamofascists,” to assume that we are reliving 1938,5 and to put our trust in military invasions as the best way to defend ourselves is a dangerous form of hysteria.

Podhoretz is aware that not all world wars are alike. World War IV has its own special needs and strat-egies. Yet neither Podhoretz nor the “great president” he champions can resist the self-glorifying analogies of World War II. As Podhoretz observes, Bush in September 2001, in “expressing his determination to win the war… was mainly reaching back to the language of Winston Churchill.” Churchill: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end.” Bush: “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” When Churchill spoke, Britain was facing an imminent invasion by the biggest military power in Europe. Bush spoke after one ghastly act of terror by a handful of murderous fanatics mainly from Saudi Arabia.


So what is the strategy that makes the current war different from previous ones? Here the neoconservative analysis is on slightly firmer ground. Podhoretz points out that religious terrorism is less the result of poverty than of political oppression. As long as millions of Muslims are ruled by dictators, terrorism will grow apace. The neocon strategy, adopted by the US administration, is to “drain the swamps,” to get rid of terrorism by democratizing the Middle East. That dictatorship breeds terrorism is certainly plausible. But “draining the swamps” doesn’t work as well in practice as it might in theory. First of all, some of these swamps are US allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who have just been promised arms sales and military aid by the US government worth billions of dollars. And democracy is not always the best antidote against Islamism, since Islamist parties, such as Hamas, have a way of winning elections, partly because they are opposed to the US.

Some of the dictatorships, such as the Iranian regime, are themselves active sponsors of Islamist terrorism. But as the US has attempted to drain the swamp in Iraq, Iran has been greatly strengthened, while the Iraqi swamp is far from drained. Not only has the war unleashed a state of anarchy and civil war, but it has turned Iraq into a breeding place of revolutionary violence, and reduced much of the country to such a state of destitution that one third of the population needs emergency aid just to survive and over two million Iraqis have fled the country.6

Long before September 11 there were good reasons for wishing to get rid of Saddam Hussein. He was a mass murderer of his own Kurdish and Shiite citizens, as well as a brutal oppressor of all other Iraqis. This was sufficient reason for people with impeccable democratic credentials, such as Václav Havel, Kanan Makiya, and Adam Michnik, to support a war that would topple him. But democratic governments must be clear about their reasons for going to war; they have to be accountable to their voters. And the Bush administration did not use human rights as the stated reason for invading Iraq. What the American voters were told, over and over, was that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to US security, that he was linked to the terrorists of September 11, and that he had to be “taken out” before he could use nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons against the US or its allies.

In November 2003, Dick Cheney maintained that Iraq was “the geographic base of the terrorists who have had us under assault for many years, but most especially on 9/11.” One might say that it is frivolous, or pedantic, to argue about the reasons why the US went to war. Removal of the hated despot is reason enough. Podhoretz, however, goes out of his way to prove that Cheney, Bush, and indeed all right-thinking people sincerely believed that Saddam was in league with the September 11 terrorists, as well as hoarding weapons of mass destruction. Cheney’s contention was actually highly implausible, since Osama bin Laden was operating in Afghanistan, and the mostly Saudi terrorists who attacked New York on September 11 were based in Europe and the US.

Nevertheless, Podhoretz still argues that the Bush administration’s claims were at least partly true. As evidence, he quotes the Senate Intelligence Committee’s assessment that, in Podhoretz’s words, “Al Qaeda had in fact had a cooperative, if informal, relationship with Iraqi agents working under Saddam.” This is flimsy. Cultivating such informal relationships is what agents do. In any case, a declassified report from the Senate Intelligence Committee in September 2006 showed, according to The Washington Post, that “intelligence analysts were strongly disputing the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while senior Bush administration officials were publicly asserting those links to justify invading Iraq.”

That Saddam Hussein had once had chemical weapons and was quite prepared to use them was never in dispute. In 1988, he used mustard gas and chemical agents to murder a large number of Iraqi Kurds in Halabja. But was there a threat of him using such weapons, or worse, nuclear weapons, against the US in 2003? Was there even a chance that he would do so in the near future, if the US didn’t go to war against him first? Podhoretz still believes that there was. British intelligence, he says, “had assured the CIA that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy enriched uranium from the African country of Niger.” In fact, there was no evidence that any transaction ever took place. Suggestions to the contrary were based on forged documents. And the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded: “The language in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate that ‘Iraq also began vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake’ overstated what the Intelligence Community knew about Iraq’s possible procurement attempts.”

We would have had more certainty about the absence of Saddam’s lethal arsenal if Hans Blix’s UN inspectors in Iraq had been allowed to complete their task. Just before the war Blix promised that this “would not take years, nor weeks, but months.”7 But the US wanted to go to war regardless. As Cheney said to Blix, the US was “ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament” if the inspectors did not turn up the weapons that Cheney was convinced were there.8 In fact, as Podhoretz fails to say, Blix’s team investigated some five hundred sites in Iraq before being told by the US to leave the country.

The war’s keenest supporters shared Cheney’s impatience, whether or not the connection with al-Qaeda was proven. A letter sent in September 2001 to President Bush, signed by such prominent neocons as William Kristol, Richard Perle, and Norman Podhoretz, as well as the senior editors of the once-liberal New Republic, could not have been clearer on this point: “But even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack [September 11], any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”9

One wonders why Podhoretz bothered writing so many pages about alleged uranium sales and al-Qaeda connections, since they were really beside the point. The point of what he calls the Bush Doctrine was “draining the swamp,” and the swamp most readily at hand was Iraq. We now know that this enterprise did not make the US, or anywhere else, safer from violent assaults by Islamist revolutionaries. In fact, a report from US intelligence agencies in July 2007 warned that the Iraq war has helped al-Qaeda gain recruits, raise more money, and given a new generation of terrorists valuable experience.10

Some neocon supporters were so shocked by the bungled war that they have voiced regrets at having supported it. Richard Perle:

I think if I had been delphic, and had seen where we are today, and people had said, “Should we go into Iraq?,” I think now I probably would have said, “No, let’s consider other strategies for dealing with the thing that concerns us most, which is Saddam supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.”11

Many could have told him so without consulting the oracle of Delphi. Perle, and others of his persuasion, now blame the catastrophe on the incompetence of the Bush administration.

Podhoretz takes a different line. The problem is not Bush, the “great president,” or Rumsfeld, Cheney, or anyone in the US government. On the contrary, Podhoretz is convinced that the savage murders and daily atrocities in Iraq are actually “a tribute to the enormous strides that had been made in democratizing and unifying the country under a workable federal system.” He wonders why men in the “so-called ‘insurgency'” would be shedding so much blood if they didn’t think the US mission in Iraq was working. Might it be that in a broken-down state, where power is up for grabs, violence and mayhem are the inevitable results? Only a man suffering from severe ideological blindness could be so obtuse as to not even consider this.

If anyone is to blame, in Podhoretz’s view, for setbacks in our war against Islamofascism, it isn’t Bush, but Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and those campus guerrillas of the “hard Left.” Why? Because, “exactly like their forebears in the late 1930s” who had “fought against the country’s entry into World War II,” they have now joined Pat Buchanan on the right as isolationists. Not only are they all critical of Israel, but Podhoretz claims to detect a strong whiff of anti-Semitism in Buchanan’s isolationism as well. But even if Podhoretz were correct about the leftist distrust of US benevolence and the rightist distrust of everything foreign, these opinions didn’t cut much ice when President Bush decided to go to war. They were marginal voices at best, reduced to the odd shouting match on television, and barely heard in the mainstream press.

This is not how Podhoretz sees it, however. Spooked by his obsession with elitist and anti-Israel traitors undermining American power, he seriously proposes that US television was “drowning us with material presenting Islam in glowing terms. Worse, “the media,” including such august organs as The New York Times, had cloaked themselves in a dangerous “stance of neutrality” between “America and its Islamofascist enemies,” which “logically implied that the two were morally equivalent.” The only exception, Podhoretz concedes, was the Fox network. I remember watching a great deal of American television in 2003, as well as reading the papers. My impression was not that the media produced “an antiwar and in many cases anti-American stance as an alternative to the pro-American Fox.” In fact, such an impression strikes me as unhinged.

If enthusiasm for Islam never took fire in the American media, criticism of the Bush administration has indeed become more common as the war in Iraq has degenerated into bloody chaos. Much of Podhoretz’s book reads like the heartfelt cry of a lonely man who feels increasingly abandoned by pretty much everyone. For not only are the hard left anti-Americans and the hard right isolationists undermining Bush’s noble mission, but as Podhoretz describes it, the cause is opposed by conservative “realists,” because they are coldhearted anti-idealists, by Democrats, because they are antiwar, and by “liberal internationalists,” because they trust international institutions more than American power. Only George Bush and those unconditionally loyal to him are still on board. What’s more, for Podhoretz they are the only source of truth.


It would be absurd to claim that those who doubt the efficacy of the Bush Doctrine fail to recognize the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime, or the desire among Arabs and Muslims, no less than other people, to live prosperous lives free of tyranny. Equally nonsensical is the notion that only the supporters of Bush’s war are serious about fighting Islamist terrorism. Or that anyone who sees merit in attempts by some European Muslims to rec-oncile their religious orthodoxy with Western democracy is a dupe who defends extremism, or a coward who has been intimidated by acts of terror. Yet these claims are being made in World War IV, as well as other places.

Here is how Podhoretz describes Bush’s critics:

…They seem to take it for granted that Arabs and/or Muslims are so different from most of their fellow human beings that they actually like being pushed around and repressed and beaten and killed by thugs, whether dressed in military uniforms or wearing clerical garb. For our part, we wonder whether Muslims really do prefer being poor and hungry and ill housed to enjoying the comforts and conven-iences that we in the West take so totally for granted….

It is good of him to wonder. But I would wager that even the “campus guerrillas” do not assume anything of the kind. Podhoretz’s assertion is a cheap form of calumny, symptomatic of ideological fanaticism, redolent of the worst days of the cold war. It is as though anyone opposed to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s methods were either a Soviet sympathizer or a useful idiot.

Still, Norman Podhoretz needs to be taken seriously for several reasons. Rudy Giuliani, in his campaign for the US presidency, has taken him on as a foreign policy adviser. Those who think the Iraqi disaster has killed the influence of neoconservativism should follow Giuliani’s campaign with interest. Podhoretz’s views also still matter because he has attracted allies in places he might have least expected it, among some former liberals and leftists.

Such tub-thumpers for Bush’s war as Christopher Hitchens, the Parisian writer Pascal Bruckner, and the American journalist Paul Berman would not describe themselves as neocons. On the contrary, in their view, they are just where the true left should be, the neoleft as it were. The revolution has moved on. In the words of Hitchens: “The United States has placed itself on the right side of history.”12 Or, as Dick Cheney once said about Bush to a neocon friend of mine: “Yup, he’s a revolutionary president.”

Podhoretz and the American neoleft have several things in common, apart for their shared enthusiasm for the Iraq war. Both Podhoretz and Paul Berman, for example, see Abraham Lincoln as the father of their revolutionary idealism. In Podhoretz’s view, “it was Abraham Lincoln—the greatest Republican of them all, and the greatest of all American presidents—whose spirit hovered most brightly over the face of the Bush Doctrine’s universalist assumptions.” In a similar vein Berman, in his book Terror and Liberalism, claims Lincoln as the proponent of a worldwide democratic revolution. This tradition, in his view, distinguishes Americans from the “Europeans,” who “cannot accept the notion of liberal democracy as a revolutionary project for universal liberation.”13

Lincoln did indeed believe that all men deserved to be free, and the US should be a shining example to the world, but he was far from being a Napoleonic or Che Guevara–like figure who would use force to impose his vision abroad. This romantic idea of America as the universal liberator comes much closer to the Manifest Destiny described by the belligerent Democrat John L. O’Sullivan in 1839:

For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field.

This is how the Mexican War was justified. Lincoln opposed it.

There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the neoleftists when they talk about spreading democracy with American force. The idea of using US power to expand democracy is certainly more attractive than the kind of realism that promotes supping with despots in the name of stability—provided that democracy includes more civil liberties than the right to vote alone. And I share the belief that armed intervention by the US is justified if, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, it can prevent mass murder. It is the revolutionary zeal that I distrust, the trust in military solutions for political problems, and the reheated idea of Manifest Destiny. For zeal leads to the crude and schematic notion of a world absolutely divided into friends and enemies, where compromise is seen as weakness and politics are redundance.

For the sake of full disclosure I should mention that Paul Berman recently placed me firmly in the enemy camp, in an article about the Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan.14 Ramadan is a slippery figure whose leftist third-world liberationist views are not mine. Nor do I share his religious beliefs, which are fundamentalist in the sense that he sees the holy texts of Islam as the source of his ethical views on the world.15 These views may or may not be compatible with liberal democracy. It is a crucial question, which Berman is right to raise. But the fact that Ramadan tries to make them compatible is reason enough for me to take him seriously.

The problem in these feverish times with discussing a figure like Ramadan is that he has become a litmus test rather than a thinker, a test of whether you are friend or foe. Another public figure who plays this role is in many ways Ramadan’s opposite, the Somali-born former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Since she renounced her Muslim beliefs to become an atheist and a defender of “Enlightenment values” against Islam, she has been taken up by neocons and neoleftists as an iconic figure, described in The New Republic Online as “the most courageous and remarkable woman of our time.”

She is indeed a courageous and remarkable woman, whose skillfully ghostwritten memoir, Infidel, has attracted a great deal of attention. Her views on the oppression of women in the name of Islam are admirable, and I share her conviction that liberal democracy should be defended against violent intimidation. But atheists, especially after conversion from religious orthodoxy, tend to retain some of their old zeal. This rather limits Hirsi Ali’s influence over Muslims who are trying to find a place for their faith in a modern democracy. Dogmatism also leads to errors of judgment, for example when she recommends backing the Turkish military against the democratically elected Turkish government, just because it is led by an Islamic party. To point this out is not the same as placing her on the same moral or political level as the violent zealots she opposes. And it should not be a reason to denounce the critic as an implacable foe not only of Hirsi Ali herself, but of free speech, democracy, the Enlightenment, and so forth. Like Podhoretz’s description of the US press as pro-Islamic, such a conclusion can only be drawn by fanatics.

If the key word in Podhoretz’s political writings is “tough,” the word most favored by the neoleftists is “courage.” To criticize Ayaan Hirsi Ali is cowardice. To denounce Tariq Ramadan is an act of courage. The name of George Orwell is often invoked, usually by writers who like to think of themselves as his intellectual heirs. Orwell was undoubtedly courageous, but never dogmatic. He did lapse on one occasion into the habit of denunciation. Mortally ill, he supplied a list of names of “crypto-Communists” to a friend working in the Foreign Office. But the point of his best writing was precisely his skepticism, his readiness to criticize people who were in many ways on his side. That is what made him a true liberal.

Norman Podhoretz is not. Ever since he turned against the left, he has detested liberals. His support of Bush’s war is of a piece with his obsession with US power and the enemies without and within who seek to undermine it. His judgments are those of a right-wing ideologue. The fact that neoleftists share his judgments is, in my view, foolish. The fact that some of them do so in the name of liberalism betrays the very principles they claim to be defending.

This Issue

September 27, 2007