If you are looking for reassurance at this time of international crisis, do not consult Newt Gingrich. “We are in the early stages of what I would describe as the third world war,” says the former speaker of the House of Representatives, who is currently a member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board. Mr Gingrich is not alone in his diagnosis. Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, said last week that: “The third world war, I believe, has already started. What we’re seeing today in the Middle East is a chapter of it.” Even President George W. Bush has casually endorsed the idea. He told a television interviewer last May that the passengers who fought back against their hijackers on September 11 2001 had staged “the first counterattack to world war three”. Symbolically, Mr Bush has placed a bust of Churchill (a gift from the British), in the Oval Office.
Any argument simultaneously associated with Newt Gingrich, the Israeli ambassador to the UN and President Bush is likely to be dismissed on those grounds alone in much of Europe. But the “third world war” crowd deserve a careful hearing. Essentially, they make two points. The first is that Islamist extremists are already waging a multi-front war. Fighting is under way in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine – and a confrontation with Iran is looming. Those inclined to dismiss this multi-front war as essentially a broad regional conflict are reminded that Islamist terrorists have also struck in New York, Madrid, London, Bali and elsewhere. The second argument is that these conflicts are all linked because Islamism is a “seamless totalitarian movement” – in the words of Michael Gove, a British Conservative member of parliament and author of a new book on the subject*. Mr Gove and many neo-conservatives in America argue that Islamism is a direct descendant of the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century because, like them, it is implacably and violently hostile to western, liberal democracy.
The British government seems to subscribe to at least part of this argument. Tony Blair, prime minister, has spoken of an “arc of extremism” from Afghanistan to the Middle East. And while most British officials are not temperamentally inclined to talk about “third world wars”, they do see worrying links between the various conflicts. One reason the British have been unexpectedly sympathetic to the Israeli effort to blast Hizbollah out of existence is that they believe that many of the roadside bombs used to kill British soldiers in Iraq are based on technology supplied by Hizbollah.
But the idea of a “seamless totalitarian movement” also has some obvious holes in it. It requires making almost no distinction between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the “war on terror”. It glosses over the fact that Saddam Hussein was not an Islamist – and that it was the American-led invasion of Iraq that turned the country into a honey pot for “Islamofascists” (to use the neo-cons’ preferred term). And it struggles to make sense of the fact that the single biggest source of bloodshed in the Middle East at the moment is internecine conflict between Sunni and Shia extremists in Iraq. Indeed, some of those who now worry most about Shia militancy had convinced themselves a couple of years ago that the real problem in the Middle East was Sunni radicalism – and that the Shia were a key part of the solution.
But perhaps the most telling argument against the “world war three” thesis is that even many of those advancing it do not appear to believe their own rhetoric. In the same Fox News interview in which Mr Gingrich painted “a worldwide picture of efforts to undermine and destroy our civilisation”, he was asked by a clearly embarrassed interviewer about those who argue that “look, this is a costly war and maybe it includes raising taxes on the upper income to fight it”. Mr Gingrich was having none of it. The third world war will apparently not require “raising a penny in taxes”. Clearly, we are not yet at the blood, sweat and tears phase. The Bush administration is similarly reticent. It argues that we are engaged in a struggle to save western civilisation. But it is still all but inconceivable that the administration would re-introduce the draft – or even sharply raise taxes on petrol – to help win that struggle.
The constant analogies between the war on terror and the war on Nazism do still matter, however. Choose the wrong analogy and you may end up choosing the wrong policy as well. Slogans about “Munich” and appeasement have been heard before some of the worst foreign policy disasters of the past 60 years – such as the Suez crisis and Vietnam. The same talk was heard before the invasion of Iraq and is now rife in connection with Iran.
But there have been other events in history besides appeasement and there are other decades that can be learnt from besides the 1930s. In fact, the struggle between western liberalism and Islamism may end up looking a lot more like the cold war than the second world war. In the cold war, people had to get used to the idea that normal life was taking place against the backdrop of terrifying risks that could not be eliminated by military action alone: then it was Soviet missiles, now it is the fear that a terrorist might get hold of a nuclear bomb. Then, as now, there were episodes of “hot war” – in Korea and elsewhere. But the cold war ultimately turned on a struggle between ideologies and social systems, rather than armies.
Communism finally imploded because it could not produce prosperity or a decent society. Militant Islamism – a miserable, medieval philosophy – is bound ultimately to go the same way. In Iran, which has had to live with a fundamentalist regime since 1979, there is plenty of evidence of popular disillusionment with the system, particularly among the young. It is this disillusionment that offers the best hope for the kind of “regime change” that actually lasts. Incapable of offering the hope of a decent life (at least on earth), Islamism’s only real recruiting sergeant is an appeal to a sense of Muslim humiliation and rage against the west. There may be further occasions when the “war on terror” requires military action.
But each new military front will be eagerly greeted by Islamists as a validation of their world view. It is no accident that one man who would happily embrace Mr Gingrich’s vision of a “third world war” is Osama bin Laden.
*Celsius 7/7 by Michael Gove. Orion books. £9.99