So is it World War Three yet? One of the smartest figures in American politics says that it's here -- the Big One. "This is World War III," Newt Gingrich told The Seattle Times last week. As they say in the South, that puts the hay down where the horse can get it.
The former Speaker of the House, architect of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, has been making the same point in other venues, too, such as Fox News; the meme even caught the eye of Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert. Yet lest anyone doubt that Gingrich himself is serious, he even published an article in Human Events, entitled "A Third World War." In Gingrich's mind, the deadly attacks -- "on an almost daily basis in Baghdad, and previous attacks in New York, Washington, London, Madrid, Bali, Beslan, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Sharm-el-Sheikh, New Delhi, Amman and many other cities" -- make the reality of world war unmistakable.
Gingrich's point is that the quicker we understand that we are in World War III, the quicker we will think about winning it. "The minute you use the language" of WW III, he told the Seattle newspaper, public opinion starts to shift; people then start saying, "OK, if we're in the third world war, which side do you think should win?"
But let's back up a bit. We might ask: Are we really in World War Three? Have we gone past the point of no peaceful return?
Here are five points to ponder about world wars, and rumors of world wars:
First, one of the hardest things to know about history is where you are in an historical epoch. For example, if you had been alive in Europe in 1337, hearing about Edward III's invasion of France, how could you have known what to call the latest outbreak of fighting? And who could have imagined that this fighting would still be raging 50 years later, in 1387? Only in the next century, the 15th , might you begin to think -- if you were still alive -- that perhaps that multi-decade conflict would some day be known as "The Hundred Years' War" -- although strictly speaking, it lasted for 116 years, all the way to 1453. Similar points could be made about the Thirty Years' War and the Seven Years' War; not only was the right name for them not clear until after they were over, but their true significance was not apparent until much later -- e.g. that the end of the Thirty Years' War spelled the end of wars of religion (at least in Europe, at least until recently), and that the end of the Seven Years' War spelled the end of French influence in North America, thus freeing the American colonists to think about their own independence.
In our own time, observers have struggled with the right word for the mostly peaceful, and yet always intense, struggle between the US and the Soviet Union after 1945. "Cold War" was the consensus term, but others begged to differ; in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn suggested at a Harvard commencement that the US was, in fact, in the midst of World War Three, but that Americans, lulled by Kissingerian détente, didn't recognize the truly desperate nature of the struggle. Two years later, the American people elected Ronald Reagan, who shared many of Solzhenitsyn's dire forebodings about the Soviets, and the Cold War took a new turn, even if it managed to stay cold.
After 9-11, pundits and others started groping around for a new phrase to describe the world situation. Just two days after the attacks, The New York Times' Thomas Friedman asked, "Does my country really understand that this is World War III?" In 2002, Commentary's Norman Podhoretz skipped ahead of Friedman, declaring that "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." (In Podhoretz's reckoning, the Cold War rates as World War III.) And just this month, Sean Hannity ventured that we are now in "World War Five."
But Gingrich, a smart man with a politician's gift for making complicated things simple, has chosen to go with "World War III." After all, in the minds of most Americans, the last world war was the one that ended in 1945. So if there's a new world war today, it's the third one.
Second, Gingrich, having laid claim to WW III as a concept, is now out to give history, and the Bush administration, a little shove. Taking the Republican president to task, Gingrich told The Seattle Times, "They haven't crossed the bridge of realizing this is a war." And if the Bush people did cross over to that new geopolitical realization, he continued, they would not even be thinking about pressuring Israel to ease up on its current Lebanon offensive, because America and its allies are in this world war in order to win, on all fronts. And so, the Georgian continued, if Washington and Jerusalem saw the situation clearly, "Israel wouldn't leave southern Lebanon as long as there was a single missile there. I would go in and clean them all out and I would announce that any Iranian airplane trying to bring missiles to re-supply them would be shot down. This idea that we have this one-sided war where the other team gets to plan how to kill us and we get to talk, is nuts."
Indeed, Gingrich's stance toward the Bush administration, these days, borders on ridicule. As he told The Washington Post, "We have accepted the lawyer-diplomatic fantasy that talking while North Korea builds bombs and missiles and talking while the Iranians build bombs and missiles is progress. Is the next stage for Condi to go dancing with Kim Jong Il? I am utterly puzzled."
It should be noted here that Gingrich, the fiery rhetorician, is also Gingrich, the ambitious politician. It is widely believed that he is running for president. And so perhaps, some suggest, he is heating up his rhetoric in order to heat up Republican primary voters in 2008. Some might further argue that Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran, obnoxious as they are, don't exactly rate as superpowers. So it's hard, by this reckoning, to imagine fighting a full-fledged World War against third-rate players. Some might also venture that neoconservative hawks who supported the Iraq war, including Gingrich, might find it preferable to go "double or nothing" in the overall Middle East rather than to try to sort out the mess that's specific to Iraq. That is, on the theory that the best defense is a good offense, someone in Gingrich's shoes might prefer going on the military offensive, carrying the war to new fronts -- Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, Pyongyang -- rather than getting thrown on the political defensive, trying to explain what went wrong in Baghdad.
Moreover, in terms of Gingrich's political positioning, it's often wise for a hawk to play what might be called "The Churchill Card." What's that? Playing the Churchill Card means steadily issuing dire warnings about external threats. Churchill was proven right, of course, but worst-case scenario-izers are not always proven right. However, even when they are wrong, the issuers of dark tidings can always say, "I was right to point out the danger, indeed, my actions helped forestall the danger; I should at least get credit for thinking seriously about serious problems." And so it is with Gingrich in '08: Now, nobody can accuse him of not grappling with weighty matters. And parenthetically, we might add that the same stake-out-the-worst-case-scenario logic holds true for other concerns, such as, for example, global-warming; if the situation doesn't end up being as serious as the doomsayers insist it will be, the doomers will then pat themselves on their gloomy backs for preventing calamity.
Third, if this is a real world war, expect the era of big government to come back, and to come back with a vengeance. Federal spending went up seven-fold during World War One, and went up seven-fold again during World War Two. And of course, before the second war, Uncle Sam's budget had already been swollen by the New Deal, so the fiscal septupling meant that Washington swallowed up an astonishing 43.6 percent of GDP at the height of the war. Needless to say, taxes went way up, too: During World War I the top income tax rate soared to 77 percent; in World War II, it went to 94 percent.
Oh, and back then, there was a little thing called the draft. Even if our high-tech military is never hungry for manpower the way it was in WW 2 -- when more than 10 percent of Americans were in uniform -- as Thomas Donnelly has written, it's hard to imagine that we could fight Gingrich's WWIII with our current small military establishment.
Fourth, if this a true world war, the ugly issue of war crimes will arise -- and not just on a small scale, as, allegedly, in Haditha, Iraq. After the last World War, Gen. Curtis LeMay, who supervised much of the bombing of Germany and then Japan, was moved to observe that it was a good thing that the US had won, because if we had lost, the Allied firebombing of German cities would have been regarded as a war crime -- never mind that the Germans had started it.
So today, while most Americans are strongly in Israel's corner, most people around the world seem to be sympathizing with the Arabs. And so, fairly or not, the hulking institutions of international justice are clanking into place, ready to sit in judgment. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has issued a statement in which she asserts that both sides in the Lebanon fighting could bear "personal criminal responsibility" for the cross-border attacks, "particularly those in a position of command and control." That is to say, in her mind, behind-the-lines politicians would not be exempt from potential prosecution.
But of course, neither Israel nor the US has much to worry about -- so long as we don't lose.
Which brings us to...
Fifth, if this is a true world war, expect the unexpected -- including the possibility of losing.
No, we aren't going to lose to the likes of Syria or Iran, although it's possible we could lose a city or two to a lucky (from their point of view) nuclear shot. Indeed, it's hard to imagine that any conflict worthy of the title "world war" would not feature nukes. After all, WWII ended with atomic blasts: Is it really plausible that the next big world war would de-escalate back down to pure conventionality?
Moreover, world wars, if they are true world wars, have a way of escalating beyond any reckoning. On June 28, 1914, the day that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (man not band) was assassinated, few had any idea that WW I would erupt just five weeks later -- and, of course, nobody could have known that the fighting would come to be labeled as WW I.
So how might the current squareoff between the US and Israel, on the one side, and Hezbollah & Co., on the other, turn into a genuine planetary conflagration? Well, for example, Pakistan might choose against us. In fact, that country already looks a lot like an enemy: It is helping the neo-Taliban against us in Afghanistan, it is harboring, almost certainly, Osama Bin Laden, it has been in cahoots with Iran and North Korea. And last but definitely not least, it possesses some 75 atomic weapons -- even as many noisy Pakistanis are declaring that the entire Muslim Ummah should benefit from the existence of these Islamic Bombs. Oh, and did I mention a possible role for Russia? Or China? Now don't think of me as a defeatist; I would bet on the US to win Gingrich's WWIII. But of course, after that could come WW IV, and V, and on and on.
Moreover, in the spirit of lessons that might be learned from the Hundred Years' War, maybe the current conflict will stretch so far into the future that nobody's present-day crystal ball could offer the least bit of insight into things to come. It's worth noting that the best-remembered battle of the Hundred Years' War was at Agincourt, in 1415 -- the smashing English victory immortalized by Shakespeare -- and yet four decades later, when the fighting finally stopped, the French had won the war.
Newt Gingrich is always provocative, and with his PhD in history, he knows more about the past than just about any politician. But those of us listening to him should beware the power of a forceful argument, and be especially wary of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Because while Gingrich might have the power -- or more to the point, gain the power, if he were to win the White House in '08 -- to start WW III, he would almost certainly not also be in a position to guarantee its outcome.
The US enjoyed a "streak" in 20th century world wars -- two hot and one cold -- and that has left us, perhaps, feeling cocky about the outcome of next Big One. But perhaps caution is in order, because if there's one lesson history teaches us, it's that nothing lasts forever. All "streaks" come to an end, just as all things must pass.
James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.