Why World War IV Can’t Sell

Earlier this month, having long been bothered by the claims of various neocons that we were in “World War IV” (also known as “the Global War on Terrorism”), I wrote a piece, "Which War Is This Again?," considering the idea. I pointed out among other things that whatever the Cold War might have been, it wasn’t World War III – the war that certainly would have ended the world as we then knew it. As I usually do, I let a number of other Web sites know that I had posted the piece.

An editor at TomPaine.com promptly sent me an e-note saying that, back in October, they had published a long piece on the same subject, "The Return of the World Warriors," by a former State Department official named John Brown who had also done something most admirable (and rare). In an open letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, on the very eve of the coming invasion of Iraq, he had resigned from the Foreign Service in protest against our “war plans.” (“Throughout the globe the United States is becoming associated with the unjustified use of force. The president’s disregard for views in other nations, borne out by his neglect of public diplomacy, is giving birth to an anti-American century. I joined the Foreign Service because I love our country. Respectfully, Mr. Secretary, I am now bringing this calling to a close, with a heavy heart but for the same reason that I embraced it.”) Among other things, Brown now compiles a fascinating blog on public diplomacy filled with gems like the following passage from a piece by R. J. Eskow that I might otherwise have missed:

“‘I have to infer from that (statement) that you would be happier if Saddam Hussein were still in power.’ – Paul Wolfowitz.

“It’s the classic retort given by neocons and other war supporters when anyone questions the wisdom of the Iraq War. … But let’s say I get disturbed by a spider crawling the garage wall. I slam the car into it at 50 miles an hour, destroying the car and causing a few thousand dollars in damage to the garage. When my wife objects, I say: ‘I have to infer from that statement that you would be happier if that spider were still crawling up the wall.’ No, schmuck, she says, I’d be happier if we still had a car and didn’t have to fork out ten thousand dollars to fix the garage.”

Brown’s World War IV piece was exceedingly intelligent, on target, and – had I known it was there – would have saved me time and effort. Not long thereafter, Brown himself wrote me – a kind note about my piece, but with the following caveat: “The WWIV metaphor seems to be losing its immediacy among supporters of the administration’s policies. It just doesn’t sell well among ordinary Americans (not to speak of foreign audiences).” Hence, he suggested, the sudden arrival of “democracy” with a Middle Eastern twist on the presidential agenda. I was intrigued, especially since I was just then pondering Bush’s “Arab spring” democracy blitz (and all those columns by press pundits wondering agonizingly whether the president hadn’t been right after all), and so I suggested to Brown that he consider writing his thoughts up for TomDispatch. I present the results of that request with special pleasure. Tom

Why World War IV Can’t Sell

by John Brown

In a recent essay, Tom Engelhardt commented quite rightly that “World War IV” has “become a commonplace trope of the imperial right.” But he didn’t mention one small matter – the rest of our country, not to speak of the outside world, hasn’t bought the neocons’ efforts to justify the president’s militaristic adventures abroad with crude we’re-in-World War IV agitprop meant to mobilize Americans in support of the administration’s foreign policy follies. That’s why, in his second term, George W. Bush – first and foremost a politician concerned about maintaining domestic support – is talking ever less about waging a global war and ever more about democratizing the world.

A Neocon Global War

The neocons have long paid lip service to the need for democracy in the Middle East, but their primary emphasis has been on transformation by war, not politics. You’ll remember that, according to our right-wing world warriors, we’re inextricably engaged in a planetary struggle against fanatic Muslim fundamentalists. There will, they assure us, be temporary setbacks in this total generational conflict, as was the case during World War II and the Cold War (considered World War III by neocons), but we can win in the end if we “stay the course” with patriotic fortitude. Above all, we must not be discouraged by the gory details of the real, nasty war in Iraq in which we’re already engaged, despite the loss of blood and treasure involved. Like so many good Soviet citizens expecting perfect Communism in the indeterminate future, all we have to do is await the New American Century that will eventually be brought into being by the triumphs of American arms (and neocon cheerleading).

Since at least 9/11, the neocons have rambled on… and on… about “World War IV.” But no matter how often they’ve tried to beat the phrase into our heads, it hasn’t become part of the American mindset. Peace and honest work, not perpetual war and senseless conflict, still remain our modest ideals – even with (because of?) the tragedy of the Twin Towers. True, right before the presidential election, WWIV surfaced again and again in the media, fed by neocon propaganda; and even today it appears here and there, though as often in criticism as boosterism. Pat Buchanan and Justin Raimondo have recently used the phrase to criticize neocon hysteria in their columns; and in its winter 2005 issue, the Wilson Quarterly published “World War IV,” an important article by Andrew J. Bacevich, which turns the neocons’ argument on its head by suggesting that it was the U.S. that started a new world war – a disastrous struggle for control of Middle Eastern oil reserves – during the Carter administration. For Bacevich, it appears, the neocons’ cherished verbal icon should not be a call to arms, but a sad reminder of the hubris of military overreach.

Try It Long

For all the absurdity of their arguments, neocons are, in many ways, men of ideas. But they do not live on another planet. They know that “World War IV” or even the milder “Global War on Terrorism” are not the first things ordinary Americans have in their thoughts when they get up in the morning (“Does anyone still remember the war on terror?” asked that master of the zeitgeist, Frank Rich of the New York Times, early in January). This unwillingness among us mere mortals to see the world in terms of a universal death struggle, which neocon sympathizer Larry Haas, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger, believes is caused by “our faith in rationality,” upsets some of the Spengler-like neocons, most noticeably their cantankerous dean, Norman Podhoretz.

In February in Commentary (a magazine he once edited), Podhoretz offered the world "The War Against World War IV," a follow-up to his portentous and history-falsifying September 2004 piece, "World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win." In his latest piece, stormin’ Norman castigates Americans right and left – including “isolationists of the paleoconservative Right,” “Michael Moore and all the other hard leftists holed up in Hollywood, the universities, and in the intellectual community at large,” and “liberal internationalists” – for being “at war” with his Rosemary’s baby “World War IV.” Somewhat defensively (for a rabid warmonger), he assures us that we, the American people, will, despite the best efforts of the critics, continue to support Mr. Bush, who in turn will not fail to uphold the “Bush Doctrine,” which reflects, Podhoretz leaves no doubt, his own “brilliant” World War IV ideas (as admiring fellow neo-pundit William Safire described them in a New York Times column last August).

Mr. Podhoretz is angry at those who simply cannot accept his crude Hobbesian view of humanity, so he keeps shouting at us, but less virulent neocons and their allies, realizing “WWIV” has not caught on, are thinking up new terms to con Americans into the neos’ agenda of total war.

Foremost among these is “the long war,” evoking – to my mind at least – World War I, “the Great War” as it was known, which did so much to lead to the rise of fascism in Europe. (But how many Americans actually care about WWI?) A Google search reveals that as early as May 2002, in a Cato Policy Analysis, “Building Leverage in the Long War: Ensuring Intelligence Community Creativity in the Fight Against Terrorism,” James W. Harris wrote of a “long war” in describing post-9/11 world tensions. In June of last year, John C. Wohlstetter, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, proclaimed:

“Now George W. Bush must rally the nation in the latest fight to the finish between imperfect civilization and perfect barbarism, that of free countries versus mega-death terror from both ‘WMD states’ and groups like al-Qaeda. The Gipper’s testamentary gift to us is what should be our goal in a long war that strategist Eliot Cohen calls World War IV.”

Podhoretz himself mentioned the “long war” in his September Commentary article. “[W]e are only,” he noted, “in the very early stages of what promises to be a very long war.” But the real star of the long-war proponents is Centcom commander General John Abizaid, about whom pro-Iraqi invasion journalist David Ignatius wrote a fawning portrait in the Washington Post in late December. “If there is a modern Imperium Americanum,” Ignatius announced, “Abizaid is its field general.” Playing the role of intrepid “action” journalist at the forefront of the global battle lines in “Centcom’s turbulent center of operations,” Ignatius breathlessly informs his readers that

“I traveled this month with Abizaid as he visited Iraq and other areas of his command. Over several days, I heard him discuss his strategy for what he calls the ‘Long War’ to contain Islamic extremism. … Abizaid believes that the Long War is only in its early stages. Victory will be hard to measure, he says, because the enemy won’t wave a white flag and surrender one day. … America’s enemies in this Long War, he argues, are what he calls ‘Salafist jihadists.’ That’s his term for the Muslim fundamentalists who use violent tactics to try to re-create what they imagine was the pure and perfect Islamic government of the era of the prophet Mohammed, who is sometimes called the ‘Salaf.'”

So now we understand why we’re in a Long War: to free ourselves of the salacious Salaf.

If You think It’s Not Long Enough, How About Millennium?

Former CIA Director James Woolsey, an early proponent of WWIV, is now turned on by the Long War idea as well. In December, in remarks titled "The War for Democracy," he said:

“Well, let me share a few thoughts with you this morning on what I have come to call the Long War of the 21st Century. I used to call it World War IV, following my friend Eliot Cohen, who called it that in an op-ed right after 9/11 in the Wall Street Journal. Eliot’s point is that the Cold War was World War III. And this war is going to have more in common with the Cold War than with either World War I or II.

“But people hear the phrase World War and they think of Normandy and Iwo Jima and short, intense periods of principally military combat. I think Eliot’s point is the right one, which is that this war will have a strong ideological component and will last some time. So, in order to avoid the association with World Wars I and II, I started calling it the Long War of the 21st Century. Now, why do I think it’s going to be long? First of all, it is with three totalitarian movements coming out of the Middle East.”

The three totalitarian movements, Woolsey goes on to say, are “Middle East Fascists”; “the Vilayat Faqih, the Rule of the Clerics in Tehran – Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and his colleagues”; and “the Islamists of al-Qaeda’s stripe, underpinned, in many ways, by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.”

With all this war talk from the neocons, it’s always reassuring to hear the voices of those who, if our world warriors had their way, would enthusiastically give up their lives for the “long war.” On Dec. 31, reader Robert S. Stelzer wrote a letter to the Denver Post in which he said the following regarding Ignatius’ paean to Abizaid:

“I interpret the article as a propaganda piece to get the American population used to the idea of a long war, and then a military draft. Maybe we need an empire to maintain our standard of living, but if we have democracy we need an informed electorate.”

Despite rare dissident voices like Stelzer’s, the reaction of most Americans to the Long War jingle (as to “World War IV”) has essentially been that of a silent majority: nothing. Count on the neocon bastion the Weekly Standard (in January) to try to whip up those silent Americans with a ratcheted-up attack-the-mortal-enemy battle cry headlined “The Millennium War” by pundit Austin Bay, a colonel, who noted that “the global war on terror is the war’s dirt-stupid name. One might as well declare war on exercise as declare war on terror, for terror is only a tactic used by an enemy. … In September 2001, I suggested that we call this hideous conflict the Millennium War, a nom de guerre that captures both the chronological era and the ideological dimensions of the conflict.”

But Austin B’s MW (apologies to the German carmaker) has not sold either, being even less repeated in media commentaries than the Long War itself – which brings us to the Bush administration’s current attitude toward the neocons’ WWIV branding.

Drop that War! The Product No Longer Sells!

If there’s one thing the sad history of recent years has amply demonstrated, it’s that the Bush White House is profoundly uninterested in ideas (even the superficial ones promulgated by the neocons). What concerns Dubya and his entourage is not thought, but power. They pick up and drop “ideas” at the tip of a hat, abandoning them when they no longer suit their narrow interests of the moment. (The ever-changing “justifications” for the war in Iraq are a perfect illustration of this attitude.) The Bushies are short-term and savvy tacticians par excellence, with essentially one long-term plan, rudimentary but focused: Republican – as they interpret Lincoln’s party – domination of the United States for years to come. Karl Rove’s hero, after all, is William McKinley, the 25th president of the United States, who, some argue, was responsible for creating GOP control of American politics for decades.

The current administration, perhaps more than any other in history, illustrates George Kennan’s observation that “[o]ur actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.” Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the war in Iraq was begun essentially for domestic consumption (as White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. suggested to the New York Times in September 2002, when he famously said of Iraq war planning, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August”). While all the reasons behind this tragic, idiotic war – which turned out far worse than the “mission-accomplished” White House ever expected – may never be fully known, it can be said with a strong degree of assurance that it was sold to the American public, at least in part, in order to morph Bush II, not elected by popular vote and low in the polls early in his presidency, into a decisive “commander in chief” so that his party would win the upcoming congressional – and then presidential – elections.

The neocons – including, in all fairness, those among them honest in their unclear convictions – happened to be around the White House (of course, they made sure they would be) to provide justification for Bush’s military actions after 9/11 with their Darwinian, dog-eat-dog, “us vs. them” view of the world. And so their “ideas” (made to sound slightly less harsh than WWIV in the phrase Global War on Terrorism) were cleared by Rove and other GOP politicos and used for a while by a domestically driven White House to persuade American voters that the invasion of Iraq was an absolute necessity for the security of the country.

But now Americans are feeling increasingly critical of our Iraqi “catastrophic success.” “The latest polls show that 53 percent of Americans feel the war was not worth fighting, 57 percent say they disapprove of Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq, and 70 percent think the number of U.S. casualties is an unacceptable price to have paid.” To the Pentagon’s great concern, the military is having difficulties recruiting; National Guardsmen are angry about excessively long tours of duty in Iraq; spouses of soldiers complain about their loved ones being away from home for far too much time.

So, as their pro-war manifestos become less and less politically useful to the Bush administration, the neocons are getting a disappointing reward for their Bush-lovin’. Far from being asked to formulate policy to the extent that they doubtless would like, they have been relegated to playing essentially representational roles, reminiscent of the one performed by the simple-minded gardener named Chance played by Peter Sellers in the film Being There – at the UN (John Bolton) and at the World Bank (Paul Wolfowitz), two institutions that no red-blooded Republican voters will ever care about, except as objects of hatred.

At the same time, and despite disquieting many foreigners by the selection of Bolton and Wolfowitz (widely perceived abroad as undiplomatic unilateralists) to serve in multinational organizations, the president appears to have recognized the existence of anti-American foreign public opinion, which has been intensely critical of the neocons’ bellicose views and U.S. unilateral action in Iraq. The selection of spinmeister Karen Hughes, a Bush confidante who happened to be born in Paris (no, not Paris, Texas), as undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department suggests that the White House staff has begun (against its gut instincts) to acknowledge what it dismissed in Bush’s first term – the usefulness of “soft power” in dealing with other nations. This may only be from fear of excessively bad news coming from abroad that could lead to lower opinion polls at home and thus threaten current Republican hegemony in America, but no matter.

We Don’t Demolish, We Democratize!

Few have actually been conned into the neos’ war, whatever ingredient it is flavored with – “IV,” “long,” or “millennium.” Now the White House, far from promulgating neocon WWIV ideas, has been dropping most references to war as Bush’s second term begins. Our commander-in-chief, still undergoing an extreme makeover as a man who considers peaceful negotiations at least an option, is being turned into an advocate of the politically oppressed in other countries and so has come up with a new explanation to sell his dysfunctional foreign “policy”: global democratization, with a focus on the Middle East.

Bush did mention democratization in his first term, but today it has suddenly become the newest leitmotif for explaining his misadventures abroad. What, he now asks the American people, are we doing overseas? And he responds, we’re not demolishing the world – we’re democratizing it! And thanks to OUR democratizing so far in the Middle East, including the bombing and invading of Iraq, the Arab world is like Berlin when the wall came down. (Forget about the fact that these two events took place during different centuries and in very different parts of the world based on the implementation of very different American policies!)

And don’t you forget, Bush tells us, that we’re on a path to reform our Social Security system, far more important than the war in Iraq – though Dubya’s call for personal accounts may, in appeal, prove the World War IV of domestic policy. As for democracy at home, that can wait.

So, after all the administration has done to ruin America’s moral standing and image overseas – “preemptive” military strikes that violate simple morality and the basic rules of war; searching in vain for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction; mindlessly rushing to implement “regime change” in a far-off Third-World country, an ill-planned effort that could result in the establishment of an anti-Western theocracy harmful to American interests; brutally incarcerating “terrorists” with little, if any, respect for international law; arrogantly bashing “old Europe” just to show off all-American Manichaean machismo; and insulting millions abroad by writing off their opinions – Americans are now being told by Dubya and his gang what we’ve really been up to all this time across the oceans: We’re democratizing the Middle East, and with great success thus far!

I don’t believe a word of it.

Here’s what the military newspaper Stars and Stripes wrote in 1919:

“Propaganda is nothing but a fancy name for publicity, and who knows the publicity game better than the Yanks? Why, the Germans make no bones about admitting that they learned the trick from us. Now the difference between a Boche and a Yank is just this – that a Boche is someone who believes everything that’s told him and a Yank is someone who disbelieves everything that’s told him.”


John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who resigned in protest against the invasion of Iraq, is affiliated with Georgetown University. Brown compiles a daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR) available free by requesting it at johnhbrown30@hotmail.com. Aside from public diplomacy, PDPR covers items such as anti-Americanism, cultural diplomacy, propaganda, foreign public opinion, and American popular culture abroad.

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.