Norman Podhoretz on the anniversary of 9/11 and World War IV
HH: This hour, I’m going to talk about what’s happened to this country in the past half dozen years with a distinguished guest. Norman Podhoretz is now the editor at large for Commentary Magazine, of which he was the editor for 35 years. He has a brand new book out today, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamo-Fascism. And I’m pleased to welcome you back, Mr. Podhoretz, good to have you on the program again.
NP: Very pleased to be with you, Hugh.
HH: You dedicated your book to your grandchildren Shayna and Shiri. And I wonder, you’re older now, you can be very candid. When they’re young adults, what kind of world do you expect they will be living in, what kind of an America?
NP: Well, I daresay I won’t live to see it, but what I say in my dedication, they’re my youngest grandchildren. Shayna is three, and Shiri is fast approaching one. I also have grandchildren, incidentally, as old as 26. But in dedicating the book to these babies, I say that I pray that they will be there to celebrate our victory in World War IV, which is of course what I call the current struggle that we’re in. And that’s mainly what I envisage, that we will, despite all the indications to the contrary at the moment, that we will pull ourselves together as a nation and do what is necessary to defeat this latest totalitarian challenge to our civilization.
HH: When I put your book down last night having finished it, I thought to myself I know that you end on an optimistic note that we will figure out a way to do this, but there are times when it’s pretty hard to see how, especially in the poisoned politics of the day.
HH: Yesterday, the MoveOn.org ad accusing General David Petraeus, an American hero, of betraying this country, today, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, just foolish comment after foolish comment in the testimony. How often do you let your optimism get away from you, and then have to retool it?
NP: Well, you know, traditionally, and I’ve been around for a long time, and I used to be known as a Cassandra or a Jeremiah. And being an optimist is an unusual role for me to be playing, especially in my later years. I’m now 77 years old. And so it’s easy for optimism to slip away from me. You know, pessimism, or kind of apocalyptic apprehensions are the default positions of my character. Nevertheless, I have a very strong…for this country, and I believe that the appearances of…oh dear, there seems to be a call. I’ll let it go. The appearances of complacency and denial and the poison of our politics all are extremely discouraging to me whenever they seem salient. And then I remind myself, Hugh, that both before the Second World War, and before the Third World War, what most people call the Cold War, and I think should be seen as the Third World War, many observers, including our enemies, thought that we would not fight, that we were too soft, too self-absorbed, too self-indulgent to stand up against disciplined fanatics like the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. And Hitler himself, by the way, believed this, that we wouldn’t fight. And there were good reasons to think so. You know, when the draft was passed about ten months before the attack on us at Pearl Harbor, it only passed by one vote, and the vote had to be cast in the House of Representatives, and the vote had to be cast by the Speaker of the House to break a tie. So there was good reason to think that we wouldn’t fight. Nevertheless, we did fight, and we fought so well that those of us, I was a little too young to be in that one, but those who did fight have come to be known as the greatest generation. Then before World War III, the same apprehensions were very widespread, as I’m sure you remember. When Whittaker Chambers…
HH: Yeah, you detail it in your book, yup.
NP: Yeah, he said he was joining the losing side. And James Burham, and distinguished strategists, what they used to call hard anti-communists, wrote a book called The Suicide of the West, in which he said that we were in our liberal folly, were actually committing suicide, and that we probably wouldn’t be able to have the stomach for what John F. Kennedy later called the long twilight struggle against communism. And now for the third time, we have similar doubts and apprehensions floating around, and with the same evidently or apparently superficially good cause. But based on, how shall I put it, our track record as a people, I think that when the wake-up call comes, and when push comes to shove, the American people, the sleeping giant wakes up and exerts its power, and does the necessary. And that’s what I believe is going to happen before this, within the next two, three decades, which is how long I think the war is going to last.
HH: Now let me ask you why we should believe that when, I remember 1978, I got out of Harvard, went out and worked for Richard Nixon in San Clemente to write The Real War with him. And at that point, the gates were open, and people from the left, led in no small part by the Commentary Magazine, were joining the right side. They had woken up and left. That’s not happening now. There is no, there should be a neo-neoconservative movement, but there isn’t.
HH: That’s what’s dispiriting. In fact, as you detail in this very disturbing chapter, George Will, William F. Buckley, a lot of stalwarts of freedom, are hanging up their coats and getting out of the ring.
NP: Yeah, well, I certainly don’t deny that it is discouraging, but on the other hand, I think they’re wrong. I think they’ve lost heart. Although Buckley, by the way, interestingly enough in the last week or two, seems to be reversing field again. He has a column today saying that we ought to stick it out in Iraq, which really surprised me. And George Will is getting, if anything, worse from my point of view, as time goes on. And there’s also a neoconservative defector in Francis Fukuyama. Yes, all this stuff is very discouraging. But it means that those of us who have stuck, are staying the course, and who still understand the urgency of this fight, and still understand why this war started, how it started, what it means and why it is absolutely necessary to win it, those of us who are engaged in the war at home, and the war of ideas at home, just have to fight all the harder.
HH: You know, I do want to compliment and recommend to the readers that they get this, because you do survey the good guys. There’s Victor Davis Hanson, there’s Mark Steyn, there’s James Q. Wilson. You’re very diligent in the course of World War IV of pointing out the best arguments and where they come from. And they do come from across the conservative spectrum, and some from the center-left. I want to end our first segment, though, by talking about the one person who hasn’t wavered at all, George W. Bush.
HH: I agree with you, I’ve written it before, I’ve said it many times, he is our Truman, and we’re going to get to that opinion faster than we got to that opinion about Truman. Why, for the audience’s sake, I’ve read the book, Norman Podhortez, do you consider him to be potentially a great president, and a very great man?
NP: Well, the comparison with Truman is very apposite, because Truman came along at a time when the Soviet Union, the threat from the Soviet Union, from Soviet expansionist totalitarianism, was being pooh-poohed or denied by many people. Many said that the United States under Truman was a greater danger than the Soviet Union under Stalin. And Truman, nevertheless, recognized the dimensions of that threat. He rose to it in a very unexpected way. People have considered him a mediocre politician who became president, really, more or less accidentally, because of the death of Roosevelt. And he rose to it brilliantly, and he formulated a strategy, which came to be known as the Truman doctrine, to contend with it. And it was that strategy that ultimately led us to victory under Ronald Reagan nearly some forty years later.
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HH: When we went to break, Norman Podhoretz, we were talking about how Truman had been misunderestimated, and how he rallied. How does that lead to a Bush comparison?
NP: Well, Bush was in a very analogous situation, and also someone who was widely regarded as a mediocre politician with no particular interest in foreign affairs. Well, and he was pretty much in the traditions, what we call the realist tradition of his father and his father’s advisors. Then came 9/11. And Bush recognized the significance of 9/11 as an attack on us by what we now call, or I now called the Islamo-fascist forces, that represented an act of war, not a random act of criminals working on their own, which had been the way such terrorist attacks, including the first one on the World Trade Center in 1993, had been treated by us. Well, so Bush recognized the threat just as Truman had with regards to the Soviet Union. And he too formulated a strategy just as Truman had. In his case, we call it the Bush doctrine. And I can summarize it briefly as making the Middle East safe for America by making it safe for democracy, and with preemption as its military instrument, and democratization as its political instrument. And this strategy for dealing with the new threat, which I believe is the only viable strategy, is comparable in its brilliance and in its suitability to the nature, the particular nature of this threat, it’s comparable to the strategy of containment that Truman originally outlined.
HH: You know, one of the brilliant aspects of the book is you take the Mr. X. essay in Foreign Affairs by George Kennan at the beginning of World War III, the Cold War, and you ask people to substitute into it where communism or the Soviet Union appears, Islamo-fascism. And it works. It really does work.
NP: Yeah, it was a great statement. And I think just as Truman has come to be recognized as a great president, in spite of the fact that he was even more unpopular at this stage of his presidency than Bush is, his ratings were in the low 20’s, Bush is only in the low 30’s, and you know, he was, he had gotten us into a war in Korea, which had claimed well over 30,000 American lives, not 3,500 or six or seven hundred. I think ten times as many as have been lost in Iraq. So he was so unpopular that he didn’t dare run for reelection. And if anybody had suggested that Truman would someday be regarded as a great president, he would have been laughed out of the room. Many people were saying he was just about the worst president we had ever had. And this is of course what a lot of people have been saying about George Bush. I am firmly convinced that Bush will be seen in retrospect as a great president for pretty much the same reasons that Truman has come to be acknowledged as one.
HH: He’s clearly, in the Isaiah Berlin world of hedgehogs and foxes a hedgehog, and he knows his one big thing, and he’s been hanging onto it. But he’s had a lot of critics. I note especially that you confess on Page 192 that your criticisms of Reagan during the time, you go back and you read them, and you think, perhaps, that a lot of the critics of Bush are making the same mistake that you may have engaged in. Explain that a little bit to people.
NP: Well, you know, I wrote a series of attacks on Reagan from what you might call the right. I kept pointing out that he was not acting in accord with his rhetoric, and with his professed principles. I reread a couple of those articles while I was working on this book, and I was astonished to discover that they were right in every single detail, but they were wrong, they added up to a misjudgment, because everything I accused Reagan of doing and failing to do was correct, but these turned out to be tactics, prudential tactics within a larger strategic objective. And the strategic objective, mainly, to defeat Soviet communism, and throw it on the ash heap of history that Marx had predicted would be the final resting place of capitalism. So that strategic objective was achieved. And what I say about the critics of Bush who are making the, launching the same kinds of attacks on him as I did on Reagan, that they are being too puristic, and they have to cut him some slack, because he’s a politician. I mean, compared to most politicians, he’s very principled, which was also true of Reagan. But both men are very good, well, Reagan was a great politician, and Bush has been a very, very skillful politician. And that means that the commendation has to be made to the multifarious pressures that come at these guys every minute. And it makes you wonder how they even wake up in the morning, let alone how they function.
HH: You know, Norman Podhoretz, it occurred to me reading World War IV last night, no American president has ever been a war president as long as George Bush, and he still has another year and a half to go.
NP: That’s a very, very good point. It’s an excellent point, Hugh, because I’ve also said to some of his critics on the right who are friends of mine, I hope they won’t become ex-friends, but I once wrote a book called Ex-Friends about people I’d been friendly with when I was on the left. Anyway, I tell them that you know, Reagan came at the tail end of a war, of the War, which was started in 1947. And he came into office in 1981, which was what? 35 years or so into the War?
HH: Right, right.
NP: Well, Bush again is much more like Harry Truman. He’s the guy who was the president at the creation. And he’s been at it now for six years, which is longer than Truman was at it. And I keep saying that you know, we’re in the early scenes or early acts of a five act play. And it’s unfair even to compare what Bush is up against with what Reagan faced when he became the president, and was able to carry this struggle forward to victory. Bush never expected to be able to win the war. He has said many times this is the work of generations. He has started us on the right path. He opened two fronts, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. I consider both of these contrary to what most people say as great successes, not failures. I mean, two terrible regimes were toppled, one of them representing the religious head of the two-headed monster called Islamo-fascism.
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HH: Norman Podhoretz, six years ago, you’re a New Yorker’s New Yorker. You’ve been enlisted a long time in these battles. Where were you on 9/11, and what did you realize, if anything that day, other than the awful scar on the city and the deaths…
NP: Well, I happened to be on jury duty, which…and the courthouse was about a half mile or less from what came to be known as Ground Zero. And at about Ten o’clock, I think it was, I can’t remember exactly, the orders came to evacuate the building. And nobody knew quite what was happening. There was some talk about an accidental crash into the World Trade Center, but in any event, we were all evacuated, as was everybody else in the vicinity. And when I came out, there was this surreally beautiful day, cloudless blue sky, a perfect day, early Autumn day. And I turned around when I got out of the building, and I just saw the second tower collapse. And I felt though, as I’ve said, I was in the middle, I’d been deposited into the middle of one of those Hollywood disaster movies. It was impossible to believe that this was happening. And no transportation was available, and I trekked on my way home with thousands of people who were in the streets, nobody knew exactly what to expect, but you heard people expressing tremendous indignation at the possibility that this was a terrorist attack. And there was a tremendous excitement. Also, people began hording stuff. But I walked over five miles to get home. My wife was stuck at an airport on her way to Washington. So it took at least until the next day before it sank in that we had been attacked, and that this was a clear act of war. And George Bush certainly recognized that. No American president, going all the way back to Nixon in 1970, had chosen to interpret a terrorist attack on American interests or Americans which resulted in the deaths of either American soldiers or American diplomatic personnel, none of our previous presidents had chosen to recognize such attacks as acts of war.
HH: There’s a very compelling chapter on this. But I’m wondering on how we had invited more attacks. But on that long walk home that thousands, or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and their neighbors had to make that day, did it ever for a moment occur to you that six, or a relatively blink of an eye later, we would have truthers out there saying it was an inside job, we would have allegations on the floor of the Senate that Bush knew, that we would have dissolved all this into this poisonous political atmosphere?
NP: Yeah. Well, I can tell you that on the street that day, it would have been inconceivable, simply inconceivable. But I also have to tell you that within a week or two, unlike a lot of my younger friends who had not lived through the wars of the 60’s, I thought that the kind of thing you’re talking about was there slumbering, so to speak, in the background, and that if things went at all wrong, they would be resurrected.
HH: The jackal bins would be back (laughing).
NP: The jackal bins, yeah.
HH: You know, we only have a minute and a half to the break. Explain to people what the jackal bins are. That’s very, very funny.
NP: Do we have time?
HH: Yeah, we have a minute and a half to the break, and then we’ll come back.
NP: Well, there was a columnist named Jimmy Breslin, worked for the New York Herald Tribune. And he was interviewing one of Lyndon Johnson’s aides, a man named John Roche, who described, he said you know, you can’t take seriously those upper West side Jacobins. I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And evidently, Breslin either misheard or was not familiar with the term Jackobin, so he transcribed it in his notes as jackal bins. And the story came out the next day. It was Lyndon Johnson’s aide saying, dismissing the jackal bins in the Upper West Side. And everybody said what the hell is a jackal bin? (laughing)
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HH: Norman Podhoretz, before the last break, we were talking about the intellectual class in America that is so deeply anti-American from the Vietnam years, and how it did not take them long to find in America the cause for 9/11, and to begin what has been a very poisonous attack on America over the last six years. How can they be that successful?
NP: Well, what I try to explain in my book is that a lot of these people were working out of the anti-war movement playbook of the Vietnam era. And many of them, incidentally, were there, these were the older selves of the young people. I’m talking about people, writers like Normal Mailer, Susan Sontang, and even more extreme, Noam Chomsky, who had all been involved in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years. And they still harbored the ideas and the attitudes of that period. But they were now stronger than they had been at a comparable stage of the Vietnam war, because what happened in the later years of the Vietnam war is that the major institutions, established institutions of our culture, one by one, were capitulating to the radicals, and especially the universities, but also the media of entertainment and communications. I mean, people today would be astonished to go back and read, say, the New York Times of the early 60’s, which was very hawkish about Vietnam. I mean, almost 180 degrees different from what it is today. And that was true of most of the universities, where you had a kind of, it was mainly dominated I would say, by centrist liberals, many of whom tended to be hawks, and who certainly supported the Vietnam war. I’m talking about people like Arthur Schlesinger, Kenneth Galbraith, and in fact, the whole Democratic Party of that era. But as the years wore on, these institutions basically were captured by the left, and became sort of protected enclaves of their attitudes and ideas. And they have been, somebody once called the professoriate that emerged, guerrillas with tenure. And the guerrillas with tenure were in place on 9/11, and their acolytes and disciples in other sectors of the culture were also there. And they were only waiting an occasion that would make their position more plausible. But even before things started to look bad, say, in Iraq, even within a week or two after 9/11, you had a bunch of professors and writers saying we had brought this down upon us, it was our fault, because of our evil policies in the Middle East, and we certainly had no right to go to war in response. I remember Norman Mailer, for example, who was still an enfant to read, even approaching the age of 80, said the crimes we had committed were basically foisting McDonalds and bad architecture on the third world.
HH: And quoted extensively in the book.
NP: Yeah, and that’s why we deserved 9/11. And so they reared their heads to begin with. But on the other hand, there were also a number of leftists who felt differently, and who began moving in the other direction, the direction you said no one was going in now, Hugh, as they did in the 70’s. But that didn’t last long, either.
HH: It didn’t last long. You know, in the…
NP: Yeah, so what you had here, I mean, you had a movement in place, so to speak, and institutions that could back it, that were in control of those who would resurrect the movement. And although the Vietnam war had nothing in common with the battle, I don’t call it a war, the campaign or the battle of Iraq, it did have, the one thing it had in common was the opposition, the opponent.
NP: And the reason they…and as I say, they were playing from the old playbook, and it worked.
HH: You quote Bernard Lewis repeatedly in the book, and importantly so. He is our nation’s greatest expert on the Middle East and the Arab world. I’ve heard him lecture, at which he closes saying either we will free them or they will kill us…
NP: That’s right.
HH: …and insight that is precise and accurate. But as I went through your chapters on the mainstream media, the isolationists on the right and the left, the liberal internationalists, the realists, poor old Zbig Brzezinsky is flayed in this book, the radical Democrats, the defeatists on the right, the neocon no more, Francis Fukuyama, do any of them understand that essential insight about the enemy, Norman Podhoretz, because it seems to me they are all clueless about the enemy.
NP: Well, I actually think they are, most of them. I mean, you know, you have to make distinctions among these various groups. I mean, the critics of Bush are from the right complain that he isn’t being aggressive enough, and that in fact, that he is not taking the full measure of the enemy. So it’s not as though everybody in the critical camps refuses to recognize the reality that faces us. But it is true that those on the left, and those on what have come to be called the paleoconservative right do tend to deny, not only tend to deny, they sometimes stridently deny that there’s a threat here that warrants a military response. I mean, John Kerry only recently said it was a nuisance, comparable to illegal gambling and prostitution, that we could learn to live with without letting it disrupt our lives, and that could be handled by the cops and the courts. George Will, to my other amazement, has said that Kerry was right. So what you see here is an absolute refusal to acknowledge that you’ve got a powerful force arrayed against us, with a potential grasp of nuclear weapons that it would be only too happy to use, and a refusal to acknowledge that something has to be done about this, that goes beyond the old policies that resulted in 9/11.
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HH: With your insight that the election of 2004 was a ratification of the Bush doctrine, it was clearly that, and that immediately, a delegitimization of that ratification began on the left, and continues to this day…
NP: That’s correct.
HH: My question goes to something Bill Kristol and I once talked about, which is whether or not the fundamental understanding of what happened in 9/11 is absorbed at a level below the intelligencia, and will manifest itself in presidential election after presidential election. What do you think, Norman Podhoretz?
NP: Well, what I think is that that is correct, and I think that the Democrats are committing political suicide, at least for the 2008 presidential election. I mean, you know, the Democrats suffered from the disability of the McGovern years, when they were rightly considered soft on national defense, not to be trusted to protect us against foreign threats. They worked very heard to overcome that reputation, especially under Clinton. And now what they’ve done is to resurrect it. And they’ve gone even further than they did under McGovern. I mean, embracing defeat, calling for American defeat, rooting for American defeat. Of course, they deny that they’re doing this, but people know what they sense and hear coming out of these Democratic politicians. If I had been advising them, I would have said you guys are crazy. You’re throwing the ’08 election. And that is what I absolutely believe, contrary to what most pollsters will tell you, and especially if Rudy Giuliani, whom I support, should get the Republican nomination, I think he can beat Hillary, who is the shoe-in.
HH: So with one minute left, you do believe, despite these idiocies among many elites, that the American people understand that we are in World War IV, and that it must be fought, and it must be won?
NP: Americans do not like to lose, and certainly, to the extent many people forget that we’re at war, because I guess nothing much is happening at home. But most people know, I mean, bridge collapses in Minneapolis, and everybody says oh, my God, it’s happened again, or a steam pipe blows up in Manhattan, and the same thing. So the subliminal awareness is there. And the fact is that the issue, in my opinion, will be again in ’08, it’s the war, stupid.
HH: And I also believe the return of so many amazing men and women from the American military and the loss of so many of them will fundamentally always act as a reminder of what we’re fighting over there. Norman Podhoretz, congratulations on an important book, World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamo-Fascism. We’ll look forward to talking to you again, sir.
End of interview.