World War III?
'We're in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War, and, frankly...we don't have the right attitude.' -- Newt Gingrich, on NBC's Meet the Press, July 16, 2006
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE | Jul 25, 2006
In the Clinton era, Newt Gingrich was the most powerful Republican in the United States, leading his party to a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. He's been out of office for the better part of a decade now, but he still packs a punch. The former House Speaker sits on the influential Defense Policy Board, which advises Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He's even flirting with a run for president. And so it was that Gingrich was chatting with Tim Russert on Meet the Press last weekend about the escalating conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. It's more than a squabble, he said. It's much more ominous. In fact, it's the next world war.
"We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the Third World War," Gingrich declared. "And frankly, our bureaucracies aren't responding fast enough, we don't have the right attitude about this." Missile launches by North Korea, bombs in Mumbai, a war in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq "funded largely by Saudi Arabia and supplied largely from Syria and Iran," terrorist plots in Britain, Miami, Toronto and New York -- are all connected, in Gingrich's view. "I believe if you take all the countries I just listed, that you've been covering, put them on a map, look at all the different connectivity, you'd have to say to yourself this is, in fact, World War III. You've got to understand these dictatorships all talk to each other," he continued. "There's public footage from North Korean television of the Iranians visiting with Kim Jong Il the dictator, and a North Korean missile manufacturing facility. The Iranians have now unveiled a statue of Simón Bolívar in Tehran to prove their solidarity with Venezuela. I mean, these folks think on a global basis."
For adherents of this view, calling it a world war is not just a matter of taxonomy. It implies a course of action for the United States, if not all the West. If, for example, the current fighting between Hezbollah and Israel leads to an attack on Israel by Syria or Iran, Gingrich asserted, it should be considered an attack on the United States. "I'm saying the first step has to be to understand, this is an alliance -- Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas -- and you can't deal with it in isolation."
Perhaps testing to see whether this was merely one controversialist's off-the-cuff remark, CNN's Larry King tried the quote out on another Republican presidential contender, Arizona Senator John McCain, who serves on the armed services committee and spent years as a POW in Vietnam. McCain said he agreed with Gingrich "to some extent. I think it's important to recognize that we have terrorist organizations who are dangerous by themselves, and are now being supported by radical Islamic governments."
Gingrich and McCain were only the highest profile voices in a flurry of discussion about whether a third world war is indeed underway. "This is like Hitler taking over Czechoslovakia. That's the stage we're at right now," former CIA officer Robert Baer told CNN Headline News last week.(Baer was the inspiration for George Clooney's character in the Oscar-winning film Syriana.)American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen told Fox News on July 10 that we are in World War IV(the third having been the Cold War)and that it began with the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. The world war talk proliferated to the point that the liberal media watchdog group, Media Matters for America, began keeping a tally on their website.
But the discussion has not been confined to talk-show sabre-rattling. Serious players in the unfolding crisis have been talking this way since long before this latest round of violence in the Middle East. Speaking to The Economist magazine in 2004, the former head of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, Efraim Halevy, said of former CIA director George Tenet: "Mr. Tenet was in office for seven years and his many successes cannot be publicly revealed. But there is one achievement of which one can speak: the rare knack he had of pulling together a genuine international effort in this third world war against Islamic terror and the proliferation of WMD."
More recently, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman, told the Security Council on May 30: "Today we must sadly and emphatically state that terrorism is indeed the third world war. This is World War Three. As this is a world war, the allies should fight this axis of terror, just as 60 years ago the Allies fought the Axis." He singled out Iran, Syria and "the terror organizations they finance, harbour, nurture and support," accusing them of targeting "innocents wherever they are." The Syrian diplomat, Ahmed Alhariri, countered that if it was a world war, Israel was to blame. "The constitution of UNESCO tells us that 'wars begin in the minds of men,' and it appears that this is what is in the mind of Israel," he said.
Even U.S. President George W. Bush, who has emphasized diplomacy over confrontation in dealing with the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, has himself used the phrase. In May, referring to the passenger revolt on hijacked Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, he said, "I believe that it was the first counter-attack to World War III."(The President was commenting on a Wall Street Journal essay by David Beamer, whose son Todd died in the crash, and who called the act "our first successful counterattack in our homeland in this new global war -- World War III.")
While the WWIII discussion seems to have sprung up suddenly in the post-9/11 world of conflict and threat, the notion has a longer pedigree. During the Cold War, there was much worry that any number of proxy wars could escalate into a mutually destructive Armageddon between the superpowers. Some historians, in fact, consider the Cold War to have been the third world war. One of these was the senior French intelligence officer and author Count Alexandre de Marenches, who is also believed to have been first to suggest that international terrorism and rogue states were about to unleash the next world war. In 1992, he published The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage in the Age of Terrorism with the journalist David Andelman. It called for a "Decent People's Club" of nations to adopt a doctrine of certain destruction of extremists and dictators. The authoritative magazine Foreign Affairs felt his "extreme views" cast doubt on his judgment while running French intelligence.
It wasn't until after the attacks of Sept. 11, however, that the idea of a new world war began to receive serious consideration. Eliot Cohen, the director of strategic studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, declared in the Wall Street Journal, a little more than a month after the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, that the struggle against terrorism was more than a law-enforcement operation, and would require military conflict beyond the invasion of Afghanistan. Cohen, like Marenches, considered World War III to be history. "A less palatable but more accurate name is World War IV," he wrote. "The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multi-million-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map."
Cohen was no mere ivory tower spectator. Like Gingrich, he was a member of the Defense Policy Board, and also a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a group that successfully pushed for the toppling of Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War.(Cohen, who has a son serving in Iraq, has since criticized the way the war has been carried out.)
The coming war resembles the Cold War, Cohen wrote, in that "It is, in fact, global; that it will involve a mixture of violent and nonviolent efforts; that it will require mobilization of skill, expertise and resources, if not of vast numbers of soldiers; that it may go on for a long time; and that it has ideological roots." The invasion of Afghanistan, he said, would be "just one front in World War IV." The U.S. would have to continue to "target regimes that sponsor terrorism," beginning with the invasion of Iraq.
Cohen's use of the World War IV label was soon endorsed by James Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Clinton administration, who had urged the ouster of Saddam. He compared the war on terror to the struggle against Nazism, and warned that it would be longer than either world war that came before it. "I rather imagine it's going to be measured, I'm afraid, in decades," he said in a 2002 speech. He added: "I don't believe this terror war is ever really going to go away until we change the face of the Middle East."
Even the French leftist philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, adopted the expression to describe the war on terror, although he used it his own unique way: "There is no longer a front, no demarcation line, the enemy sits in the heart of the culture that fights it," he told the German magazine Der Spiegel. "That is, if you like, the fourth world war: no longer between peoples, states, systems and ideologies, but, rather, of the human species against itself."
Perhaps the most comprehensive take on the world war thesis has come from Norman Podhoretz, an influential author on the American right and former editor of Commentary magazine, on whom Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour the U.S. government can bestow on a civilian. In "World War IV: How It Started, What it Means, and Why We Have to Win," Podhoretz traces the global conflict back to the 1970s and the beginnings of Islamic fundamentalist terror. A succession of American presidents avoided military retaliation, he argues, only emboldening their enemies. The clash between militant Islamists and the West, which had been underway for years, only became clear with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in which Americans were attacked on their own soil -- "a feat neither Nazi Germany nor Soviet Russia ever managed to pull off."
"The great struggle into which the United States was plunged by 9/11 can only be understood if we think of it as World War IV," Podhoretz wrote in the September 2004 edition of Commentary. "We are only in the very early stages of what promises to be a very long war, and Iraq is only the second front to have been opened in that war: the second scene, so to speak, of the first act of a five-act play."
Podhoretz was reprising Cohen's theme at a time when the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq had surpassed 1,000, and public opinion polls showed that more than half of Americans considered the war to have been "not worth it." In the face of these doldrums, Podhoretz invoked the patience and fortitude that were necessary to win past global conflicts. "In World War II and then in World War III, we persisted in spite of impatience, discouragement, and opposition for as long as it took to win," he wrote. "And this is exactly what we have been called upon to do today in World War IV."
He reminded Americans that the Cold War also had its moments where it looked like the other side was winning, and there were "plenty of missteps -- most notably involving Vietnam -- along the way to victory."
Podhoretz also used the world war characterization to defend various tactics being used by the Bush administration. He argued that each war brought with it institutional changes on the world scene: World War II led to the creation of the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Court of Justice. The Cold War spawned NATO. Likewise, he wrote, World War IV necessitated the controversial Bush doctrine of pre-emptive warfare, among others.
The believers in the world war view have argued that it demands everything from much greater military spending and readiness, to a commitment to "regime change" in Iran and a more confrontational stance on North Korea. In Gingrich's view, in the nearer term, it means supporting Israel's attacks on Lebanon until every last Hezbollalh rocket has been removed from the country.
It's a move of some consequence to recast a fight against terrorists and rogue dictators into a global conflict. The very term "world war" conjures up a conflict that required enormous sacrifice of blood and treasure by many nations over long periods of time. It entails sweeping changes in both domestic and international priorities. It suggests that the time for extraordinary measures has arrived.
As a result of these arguments moving out of scholarly journals and think tanks and onto cable news, critics have begun to question the wisdom and motives of the world war theorists. "It's too simplistic. I think it's done primarily for political reasons and has no real strategic validity," said P.J. Crowley, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration. It's also dangerous, he said. "Conceptualizing the war on terror as World War III potentially feeds the false perception that the West is at war with Islam, which is the way it is being perceived even though it is not the case," said Crowley, the director of national defence and homeland security at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
At a time when America is already struggling with a two-front war, "President Bush is right to advance that we must resolve challenges like Iran and North Korea diplomatically. Number one, they do not lend themselves to military solutions, and number two, even the U.S. does not have the military capability to make this a four-front war around the world," he said.
Critics also reject the parallels between the Cold War and the struggle against international terrorists. "There is strong U.S. support for having fought and won the Cold War. It was a long struggle, it was difficult and it was costly, but in the end the U.S. prevailed, hurray! There is a comfortable and popular narrative to tell," said Christopher Preble, the director of foreign policy studies, at the libertarian Cato Institute. "The problem is that the frame is almost entirely wrong because the kind of threat we're dealing with in terms of terrorism is much, much smaller than the dangers of many thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at the U.S., the Soviet Union and everywhere else. It is an order of magnitude at least different," he said.
Moreover, state sponsorship is not necessary for major terrorist attacks like those of Sept. 11, which cost only a few hundred thousand dollars, he said. "We know from the London, Madrid and Mumbai attacks that groups that have no affiliations to al-Qaeda or to a state sponsor are capable of killing a large number of civilians. But that doesn't fit in the frame," he said. The struggle against international terrorism is better thought of as an intelligence and law enforcement operation "that occasionally but rarely requires the traditional kind of war where you do knock off a state and engage in regime change. The case of Afghanistan is rare," he said.
And while the conversation about World War III or IV has been going on for half a decade, critics see the latest flare-up as having to do less with recent events around the globe, and more with the impending congressional elections in November, in which Republicans will face an electorate skeptical about the war in Iraq. "I think Mr. Gingrich is perhaps recasting this so that if it's perceived as something larger than Iraq, then the specific failures in Iraq become a detail," said Crowley.
Indeed, the Seattle Times reported that Gingrich told the newspaper in an interview that he is "very worried" about Republicans facing fall elections and says the party must have the "nerve" to nationalize the elections and make the 2006 campaigns about a liberal Democratic agenda rather than about President Bush's record. The Times quotes him as saying that while Americans may be critical of the Iraq war, public opinion can change "the minute you use the language" of World War III. The message should be, "Okay, if we're in the Third World War, which side do you think should win?" Gingrich said.
Gingrich denies that he is playing politics. "I think we need a national dialogue as Americans, not as Republicans or Democrats," he told Fox News. "But precisely in the experience of a world war, to say, what do we do as a people to defeat the terrorist alliance worldwide?"
Read Luiza Ch. Savage's weblog, Savage Washington
To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org