The Duck of Minerva

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John Podhoretz: fearless intellectual

August 2, 2006

Just when you thought the Corner couldn’t become any more of refuse pile than it already is, J-Pod brings forth a defense of his “kill them all and let g-d sort them out” approach to counter-insurgency. Turns out, he’s a courageous intellectual posing the tough questions.

Interesting. Seems to me that in 1982, in Hama, Hafez al-Assad wiped out an uprising against his regime by slaughtering 25,000 over a weekend. And in 1991, Saddam Hussein took down the Shiite uprising with similar viciousness. The idea that such monstrous tactics don’t work is ludicrous. They do work. But I think it’s fair to say that we would rather our civilization die than that we commit such acts. Right now, Israel has decided to halt its war because of an airstrike that caused 60-plus civilian casualties. The fundamental question I was posing is this: What if only a civilization willing to commit them can successfully extirpate a conscienceless menace like Islamic extremist terror?

This is not a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know if this is the right question. But we are back, it seems, at the point at which Herman Kahn wrote Thinking About the Unthinkable. Even the act of trying to think through the nature of the struggle we’re facing is itself deemed criminal.

Podhoretz’s self-serving analogy between himself and Kahn strikes me as either completely disingenuous or incredibly scary. The relevant parts of Kahn’s book discuss strategies for and implications of waging nuclear conflict. Podhoretz’s contribution to policy making is to reiterate the well-known point that “draining the sea” can be an effective counter-insurgency tool for self-serving dictators and military juntas. So either Podhoretz’s analogy makes no sense, or he genuinely believes that the US needs to contemplate a global “world war” comprised of mass slaughter between two “civilizations.”

It doesn’t take a fearless intellectual to point out that, for example, if the US killed every Muslim in the world it wouldn’t face much of a threat from Islamic terrorists. It takes a fool with no sense of the constraints imposed by American objectives or, to put it differently, a basic recognition that the means one deploys shapes the ends one reaches. It takes a real fool to think that throwing around an example or two of successful brutal counter-insurgency campaigns is some sort of contribution to our understanding of how to fight against a guerilla movement.

I would wonder if Podhoretz has a clue about any issue of the broader strategic picture: continued American hegemony depends not simply on the size of its military but the legitimacy of the American-led order. The United State’s days as the sole superpower are almost certainly numbered; how it weathers that transition depend on whether it has many willing partners or very few. Seriously contemplating mass slaughter is not a sign of intellectual courage; Podhoretz should leave counter-insurgency discussions to the grownups.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.