The Fire This Time: To Some Scholars, Iraq's Just Part of Something Bigger
By Phil McCombs Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, April 13, 2003
How would we
know if we were already in World War III?
look it up in the encyclopedia. Not yet.
Iraq is just one front -- like Afghanistan, or Lower Manhattan. And other fronts
develop -- Korea, say, or the Taiwan Straits, or Iran, Syria, Kansas City. And
maybe nukes, chemicals and germs kill millions, and scholars look back years
hence and say, yep, that was World War III all right.
The focus now
is Iraq, but there's a Big Picture feel to things. Alliances shattering, new
ones forming. International institutions in crisis. Millions under arms in the
Middle East, Asia, Europe -- fighting, or ready to. A nuclear standoff on the
Subcontinent. Terrorist networks spanning 60 nations. Hideous new technologies.
thousands of Americans have been slaughtered. The president warns that no nation
harboring terrorists is safe, designates North Korea, Iran and Iraq as members
of an "axis of evil" that includes "at least a dozen countries"
with terrorist training camps and "their terrorist allies."
war," he declares, referring to more than Iraq as he advances a new
doctrine of military preemption to replace the old Cold War doctrines of
containment and deterrence. "Americans should not expect one battle, but a
lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen."
armies triumphant in downtown Baghdad, the secretary of defense issues another
stern warning to Syria.
The Eagle is on
You think of
Woodrow Wilson in 1917, making the world "safe for democracy." Of FDR
and Churchill, meeting on a ship off Newfoundland in 1941 to forge the Atlantic
Charter with its emphasis on democratic principles.
And now George
W. Bush, too, has a broad vision -- the "spread of democratic values"
throughout the Middle East.
believe I've lived," Elizabeth Taylor says in Hollywood, "to see the
beginning of World War III."
scholars who ponder such things say no, this isn't World War III. Because that
was the Cold War, and we won it.
This is World
You could say
this is all just rhetoric, that it doesn't matter whether we call it the War on
Terror or World War IV, or break it down into the Afghan War, the Iraq War, the
Hunt for al Qaeda -- but that would be to dismiss the important enterprise of
understanding what's going on in the post-Cold War era, and how the United
States fits in.
totally sure right now.
The effort to
understand has revved up in universities, government agencies, Washington think
tanks. There's a nexus connecting the ideas themselves, the strategic thinkers
who generate them, the minds of the president and his aides, and American troops
around the world.
IV might be in the making," warns Dennis K. McBride, president of the
Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a technological think tank that does a lot
of federal defense work. "We do not have to assume that a world war
necessarily includes mobilization of millions of troops, exchange of millions of
tons of explosives. . . . World War IV may end this way [but] it certainly might
not germinate this way."
In his study on
"BioCyber Terrorism," McBride theorizes that World War IV may develop
as "one complex adaptive system -- like ideologically driven hate -- [tries
to] bring down another, like world economic order" by spreading disease
engineered to be incurable.
Too wild? Maybe,
yet some thought Saddam Hussein was behind the post-9/11 anthrax attacks, and
you can't help but notice that the killer virus SARS began its rampage as the
United States was invading Iraq.
rule out that this is a weapon," McBride says of SARS. Personally, he
doesn't think so, but adds that these days, there's always "an underlying
default assumption of mischief."
In any case, a
Potomac Institute germ warfare specialist briefs Vice President Cheney weekly.
city getting nuked is not the worst case," says military historian
Frederick Kagan. "It would be worse if terrorists got an effective
biological agent effectively dispersed. Casualties would be enormously greater.
You could easily be talking about tens of millions."
This month PBS
is airing an eight-part documentary, "Avoiding Armageddon," about the
threat of nuclear, chemical and biological war.
In a broad
sense, a world war "against civilization" is underway, Gregory R.
Copley, editor of Defense & Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, wrote shortly
after 9/11. The journal claims 130 "heads of government" among its
define the 'enemy' of civilization," he writes, "as a loose bloc of
forces which has been building in strength and cohesiveness since the end of the
Cold War" and that amounts to "a 19th Century bolshevik-type entity,
writ large upon the global stage, and with enormous access to resources."
strategic thinker Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of
Advanced International Studies in Washington, and a member of the Defense Policy
Board, which advises the secretary of defense on grand strategy.
pack a wallop. President Bush read his book "Supreme Command: Soldiers,
Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime" while on vacation last summer. It
tells how Lincoln, Clemenceau, Ben-Gurion and Churchill stuck to the big picture,
overriding timid generals.
intellectual allies are influential -- strategists like Richard Perle, Thomas
Donnelly and Michael Ledeen at the American Enterprise Institute, Deputy
Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, journalist William Kristol, Daniel Pipes at
the Middle East Forum, Michael Vickers at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessments, Clinton CIA chief R. James Woolsey.
The thinking of
strategists like these, it's said, drives the Bush administration's global
planning. So it was noticed when, in the aftermath of 9/11, Cohen was the first
major scholar to grab hold of the World War IV notion.
Podhoretz quoted Cohen in a piece in Commentary magazine, "How to Win World
War IV." Woolsey, too, picked up the idea from Cohen.
the fourth time in 100 years we've been awakened, and this country is on the
march," said Woolsey, who's in line for a top postwar reconstruction job in
Iraq, in a speech last year.
particularly in wartime, is so unpleasant that we drape it in a veil of evasions,"
Cohen had written in a column titled "World War IV" in the Wall Street
November 2001, just a week after the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul, and
President Bush had already used the "War on Terror" phrase in his
Sept. 20 address to Congress.
something broader. "The '9/11 War,' perhaps? But the war began well before
Sept. 11, and its casualties include, at the very least, the dead and wounded in
our embassies in Africa, on the USS Cole, and, possibly, in Somalia and the
He settled on
World War IV as "less palatable but more accurate," because the war
we're in is global, involves both violent and nonviolent effort, requires "mobilization"
of expertise and resources "if not vast numbers of soldiers," will be
long, and has "ideological roots."
The idea caused
a stir, less for Cohen's World War IV label than for his unequivocal -- and
daring -- designation of the enemy:
Calling anything Islamic "the enemy," even the radical fringe,
is about as politically incorrect as you can get these days. Radioactive, even.
The president has steered clear of such rhetoric. After an initial
post-9/11 slip in which he called the war on terrorism a "crusade," he
visited a mosque to say Islam is a "religion of peace" and to make
clear the United States is not at war with it.
After all, there are 1.2 billion Muslims in an arc from North Africa
through the Middle East to India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia and the
The Arab nations -- including Iraq, with its secular government -- are
predominantly Muslim. There's a large Muslim presence in Europe, and an
estimated 7 million Muslims in the United States.
"The last thing in the world we want to do," as Kagan puts it,
"is fight Islam." Militant Islam, sure. That's the enemy, Kagan agrees, adding that the numbers of militants like
Osama bin Laden are "very, very small."
Islam, however, is a proud faith with a glorious past. From its
7th-century roots in Arabia with the Prophet Muhammad, it had by the 11th
century fostered a civilization advanced in art, science, medicine and military
prowess. In 1187, the warrior Saladin, confirmed by the Baghdad caliph as sultan
of Egypt and Syria, defeated European Crusaders in the Holy Land.
Now, both bin Laden and Hussein have appealed to past glories.
Hussein styled himself a new Saladin, a descendant of the Prophet. The
other day, the Iraqi regime issued a statement in Hussein's name denouncing U.S.
"aggression against the fortress of faith."
And bin Laden, whose terror network circles the globe, has called for
Holy War against "Crusaders and Jews" to restore fundamentalist,
anti-Western governance in the Islamic world. He's sided with Iraq in the war
even though he despises Hussein's secularism.
Many in the Islamic world celebrated the 9/11 attacks, and now thousands
fill the streets of Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and other Muslim and Arab nations
protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Indeed, as the splendor and power of Islam faded after its zenith, much
of the Islamic world was colonized by Western powers, and 20th century
decolonization left behind much poverty, many despotic governments and
autocracies -- and a residue of rage.
Targeting just "militant" Islam is tricky. There's spillover.
In his "World War IV" piece, Cohen expressed hope not only that
this can be done, however, but that there will be another kind of spillover as
"Muslim fanatics" face "almost as many enemies among moderate
Muslims as among infidels."
He wrote, further, that by non-military backing of pro-Western elements
in countries like Iran -- where there's popular outrage against a repressive
theocracy -- the United States can win the broader "contest for free and
moderate governance in the Muslim world."
And, finally, Cohen asserted that by using military force selectively --
"Iraq is the obvious candidate" -- America will gain respect.
No way, some say.
"You don't teach someone democracy by dropping bombs on them,"
protests Mohammed Abu-Nimer, an American University professor who teaches peace
and conflict resolution. "Eliot Cohen is helping the small minority of
militant Islam to expand its public legitimacy, and that's dangerous."
Abu-Nimer, author of "Peace-Building and Non-Violence in
Islam," believes there is indeed a "solid base in the Muslim world and
religion for pluralism."
But "I get very concerned when I see a U.S. official, or Cohen,
saying this is a war between us and militant Islam. It's very difficult to keep
the separation." Such rhetoric, he worries, could promote a "clash
between religions or civilizations."
Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace finds
the World War IV notion -- or at least the suggestion of U.S.-imposed regime
change in Iraq as part of a strategy to promote moderate governance in the
Muslim world -- a "dangerous fantasy, because there isn't a democratic
kernel within each of these countries waiting to blossom.
"Bringing democracy to the Middle East should be our goal, but it's
going to take a very long time and it won't be hastened by occupying one of the
key Arab nations. This is a social experiment that's been tried before -- it's
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, another Washington
think tank, says the current situation "threatens to become World War IV if
the U.S. takes the lesson from this attack on Iraq that . . . we can do it
wherever, whenever and against whomever we choose. It's very frightening."
The United States is following, Bennis believes, a "law of empire."
Leon Fuerth, who was Vice President Al Gore's national security adviser,
calls the World War IV notion "a large and interesting idea [and] probably
a good fit for the way the administration sees what's happening."
But, he wonders, is "an explicit philosophy based on dominance and
the exercise of American power without external constraint going to be a force
that will motivate others to stay with us to deal with the whole set of dangers
and struggles that constitute [the] metaphor for World War IV?"
In a phone interview, Cohen sighs.
"One thing that troubled me," he says, "is that the World
War IV piece was read in some places as an argument for a primarily military
approach. In fact, we need both military and a whole host of non-military
As for militant Islam, he says what's happening is really an "internal
crisis" in the Muslim world as fundamentalists struggle for control with
the bulk of moderate Muslims -- and the United States is involved.
"Look," he says, "I don't think you'll see mass
conversions" to militant Islam. "Unlike communism and Nazism, radical
Islam doesn't offer anything that works. It has no viable alternative model for
economic development or governance.
"It's messianic and utopian and very dangerous . . . a view of the
world that can be tremendously cruel, particularly to women."
It "became a very large problem for the United States because of
weapons of mass destruction, and the kind of thing that happened September 11.
That's why this gets elevated to an extraordinarily high level of seriousness.
"If that potential didn't exist, frankly, we wouldn't care."
Ideas have consequences.
You could see it one recent morning as 20 protesters marched in front of
the nondescript downtown Washington office building where the American
Enterprise Institute is located.
Their chant, reminiscent of the Vietnam era: "Hey hey! Ho ho!
Richard Perle has gotta go!"
Perle is an avuncular guy based at AEI whose job is to sit around and
think, and talk with other thinkers -- like Cohen and Woolsey -- about global
strategy. Which is just what he's doing inside, in a "Black Coffee
Briefing" on "The Road to War and Beyond."
More than 100 reporters jam the room, furiously taking notes. TV cameras
capture every word. When it's over, reporters mob Perle and his co-panelists.
The scene is almost surreal. The reporters aren't asking Perle about the
controversy over his business deals that will, a few days later, result in his
stepping down as chairman of the Defense Policy Board -- though he remains an
They're asking about his ideas. Ideas like militant Islam, and
democratizing the Middle East, and what's next after Iraq.
They're interested because the bureaucrats and pols running the world's
only Hyperpower -- including the president -- need to know, broadly speaking,
what to think.
They need guidance, context, vision -- and Perle, Cohen, Woolsey and
others in the AEI orbit have Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ear. They have
Vice President Cheney's ear. And so they've got the president's ear.
In short, if there's a new American Imperium, the AEI group is its
intellectual Praetorian Guard. Some 20 AEI scholars serve in the Bush
administration, and though Cohen isn't on today's panel, he's a member of AEI's
Council of Academic Advisers, present in spirit.
It was no accident that President Bush delivered a major speech at AEI in
February on his vision for the Middle East. "From Morocco to Bahrain and
beyond," he declared, "nations are taking genuine steps toward
political reform. A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring
example of freedom for other nations in the region."
A reverse domino theory?
The vision has been enshrined in the official U.S. "National
Security Strategy," which Bush sent to Congress last fall. It says the
"war of ideas [against] terrorism" includes supporting moderate
governments "in the Muslim world" -- but it also specifies that the
war "is not a clash of civilizations," but, rather, reveals a "clash
inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world."
Cirincione thinks any hopes for a "democratic tsunami" in the
Middle East will be dashed. Even "militant Islam," in his view, has
"legitimate grievances. The whole area has been shackled by autocratic
regimes set up by the retreating colonial powers, then propped up by one side or
the other during the Cold War.
"Now they feel they have an opportunity to overthrow these
governments, and suddenly a new colonial power appears, picking and choosing
which government will stay and which will go.
"Just look at it from their point of view."
But that point of view, says Middle East scholar Pipes, is "a
terroristic interpretation of Islam. . . . We defeated fascism in Italy, Germany
and Japan with military force. We defeated Marxism-Leninism through . . .
political and economic means.
"I don't know what the means will be in this case, but it must be
defeated and replaced with something moderate."
At the AEI Black Coffee Briefing, Woolsey sits to Perle's left. To his
right is Michael Ledeen, a Reagan administration national security consultant
and author of "The War Against the Terror Masters."
While World War IV isn't the main topic, the notion hovers along the
edges of the room like an uninvited guest.
"We're living through one of the most fascinating moments of history,"
Ledeen says. "It's rare that we can look at the world and see it ready to
pivot because the tectonic plates that were set in motion at the end of the Cold
War are still moving.
"No one would have dreamed," he adds with a wry grin, "that
the United States and Turkey might find themselves at war in the year 2003, and
yet it is imaginable."
Perle diplomatically jumps in for a bit of damage control -- facing a
Turkish TV reporter and cooing that, in his view, "the long-term and close
relationship" between the United States and Turkey needn't change.
As for militant Islam, Ledeen's views are widely known. "Islam was
once at the pinnacle of civilization," he wrote recently, "and so we
know that Muslims are capable of self-government.
"They have fallen [from past glory] and Osama and the mullahs say
they fell because they strayed from 'fundamentalism.' But we say they fell
because they failed to embrace freedom. That's the real clash of civilizations."
It's Woolsey who uses the broadest brush this morning. Mentioning World
Wars I and II, the Cold War and Iraq war virtually in the same breath, he says
all were launched for "freedom."
The Iraq war "and further efforts . . . in the Middle East are
essentially a long-term war, and that's why I like Eliot Cohen's formulation
that this is World War IV."
Woolsey attacks "the notion, especially in Europe but to some extent
in this country: 'You crazy Americans, there you go being idealistic again.
Everybody knows that Arabs can't run democracies.'
"There's only one word for that . . . 'racist.' "
And he goes on to sketch a history of the rise of democracies, from a
dozen in 1917 to 121 today -- "an amazing thing.
"And that development was one where all along the way the smart
money, the highly sophisticated individuals said . . . 'Germany, Japan, those
with an Asian culture . . . will never be able to be a democracy.'"
Just as the United States worked during the Cold War with "allies
and people like Sakharov and Walesa and Havel," it must now, in Woolsey's
view, support democratic forces in the Middle East.
"This takes time. . . . The problem is certainly not Islam. The
majority of the world's Muslims live in democracies. . . . We are going to have
to be involved for the next, I think, several decades in helping change the face
of the Middle East."
Perle again steps in to tweak the concept.
"There are things we can do and there are things we can't do,"
he says soothingly, "and we're not going to make war on the world for
democracy. That has never been the view of those of us who believe deeply in
trying to bring democracy to the Middle East.
"But we should be using all the instruments of American influence to
accomplish that purpose, and most of those instruments are not military."
A deft touch. Not damage control exactly, since Woolsey has been saying
essentially the same thing. Just a matter of reemphasis.
Call it nuance control.
World War IV? Muslims aside, opinions vary.
Kagan doesn't think we're in it -- though he's written that we're in a
"grave national crisis" and need more military spending.
"The question is, do we actually have major military conflicts going
on around the world? And the test would be, do we have to go to some sort of
mobilization beyond the ordinary to support our forces? Right now, we're not
doing anything like that."
"I'm more worried about American culture," says Victor Davis
Hanson, who teaches military history at the U.S. Naval Academy. World War IV may
come, he says, but right now, "I'm worried about the rise of radical
pacificism among a bored, pampered elite."
"I guess," Cohen says of "World War IV," that "I
used that phrase to remind us of what a dangerous world it is.
"The big difference between the U.S. and some Western European
countries is that we have a visceral understanding that it's dangerous, because
it reached out and tapped us on September 11."
We must, he says, fight.
"I think we'll survive no matter what, but the kind of society and
polity we are could be transformed by catastrophic events. This is like the
other World Wars in that what's at stake is happiness or misery for lots and
lots of people."
Back in 1997, he recalls, he predicted terrorists would hit the World
Trade Center again -- they'd already struck it in 1993 -- and that an enraged
America "would throw all caution to the winds.
"I was wrong. We've been remarkably measured and sensible. But if it
happens with nukes or biological weapons with hundreds of thousands of American
deaths, then I don't know what we'd do.
"This war is a defense of our civil liberties in a most fundamental
And, he adds, there's this:
"We gotta win."
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