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Floats Like A Vulture | The Nation

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Floats Like A Vulture

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Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

Things That Matter
Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.
By Charles Krauthammer.
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Krauthammer does have his amiable side (or corner). The first section of Things That Matter, labeled “Personal,” contains a few affectionate portraits: of his older brother; of a kindly dean who made it possible for him to continue in medical school after a paralyzing accident; of a beloved, famously eccentric mathematician; of an obscure major-league baseball player’s brief, brilliant comeback several years after an initial flop. But these ingratiating pieces are few and a little awkward. Lightness of touch doesn’t come naturally to Krauthammer; he’s too embattled.

The object of his hostility is… why, you, dear Nation reader. I suspect that if Krauthammer were asked to sum up everything he stands against intellectually in two words, they would be “The Nation.” Virtually every position regularly espoused in this magazine, and on the left generally, comes under his fire. Even where there is a measure of agreement—sexual equality, gay marriage, stem-cell research, evolution—it is grudging and usually accompanied by a rebuke to callow radicals. When it comes to political economy and, especially, foreign policy, Krauthammer’s contempt is unabashed.

Sometimes it unhinges him. One column tells of a ’60s radical who took part in a bank robbery in which a policeman was killed. She escaped, became a chef, lived undetected for twenty-three years and finally turned herself in. The moral of the story, according to Krauthammer: “It starts with people power. It ends in polenta. A fitting finish to the radical ’60s.” Another column sensitively discusses the case of a 39-year-old woman who gave birth at home using a lay midwife and whose baby died. “It was about the mother’s karma,” Krauthammer sneers. “It was about the narcissistic pursuit of ‘experience,’ the Me Generation’s insistence on turning every life event—even those fraught with danger for others—into a personalized Hallmark moment.”

As these jibes suggest, the Hammer strikes hard, though not always discriminatingly. He is tough, all right, and excruciatingly serious, though not quite in the complimentary sense that Walzer meant those epithets. Still, he is not merely provoking but—unlike his less acute comrades George Will, William Kristol and David Brooks—often thought-provoking as well. Because he fiercely despises left-wing opinions rather than, like Will et al., smugly ignoring them, he has a nose for their weaknesses. Which is, after all, a blessing, however bitter, for those of us who profess them.

He is furious, for example, at the suggestion that the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World should be an occasion for “repentance and reflection” about the unhappy (for its inhabitants) sequel. “For the left,” he jeers, the anniversary “comes just in time. The revolutions of 1989 having put a dent in the case for the degeneracy of the West, 1992 offers a welcome new point of attack.” True, mistakes were made. “The European conquest of the Americas, like the conquest of other civilizations, was indeed accompanied by great cruelty. But that is to say nothing more than that the European conquest of America was, in this way, much like the rise of Islam, the Norman conquest of Britain and the widespread American Indian tradition of raiding, depopulating and appropriating neighboring lands.” Besides, he concludes, “the real question is, What eventually grew on this bloodied soil? The answer is, The great modern civilizations of the Americas—a new world of individual rights, an ever-expanding circle of liberty.”

Was there really nothing special about the conquest of the Americas? By the end of the nineteenth century, the indigenous population had shrunk by 90 percent, according to some estimates, with 95 percent of its land lost through violence or fraud. Millions were enslaved; hundreds of tribes, languages and cultures in both hemispheres simply disappeared. Nothing on this scale happened during the rise of Islam or the Norman conquest of England, much less in pre-Columbian America. The “circle of liberty” did not expand for most of the population of South America until quite recently, as US dominance declined. And even where it did expand—among the white population of the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—the expansion turned erratic as the society was regimented by mass production, plundered by a rising finance capitalism, and battered by storms of political hysteria.

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Still, some deep and troubling questions lurk beneath Krauthammer’s crass celebration of America’s manifest destiny. The flowering of equality, self-reliance and civic virtue in the nonslave states from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century is one of the political wonders of the world, a signal achievement in humankind’s moral history. It was made possible by a great crime: it all took place on stolen, ethnically cleansed land. Likewise that other pinnacle of political enlightenment, Athenian democracy, which rested on slavery. But in both cases, didn’t the subordination or expropriation of the many allow the few to craft social relations from which the rest of the world has learned invaluable lessons? Is some such stolen abundance or leisure a prerequisite of moral and cultural advance? Even if we acknowledge the dimensions of the crime, can we really regret the achievement? Krauthammer is no help in answering such questions, but he is clever enough (and truculent enough) to force them on our attention.

Krauthammer is an unapologetic, even strident hawk. He chides Jeane Kirkpatrick, no less, for suggesting that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States might become “a normal country in a normal time.” On the contrary, he admonishes, we live in a permanently abnormal world. “There is no alternative to confronting, deterring and, if necessary, disarming states that brandish and use weapons of mass destruction. And there is no one to do that but the United States,” with or without allies. Of course, there is no question of deterring or disarming the United States. The very idea is outlandish: America is uniquely benign and that “rarest of geopolitical phenomena,” a “reluctant hegemon” almost quixotic in its “hopeless idealism.” Only twisted leftists would deny that freedom is “the centerpiece” of American foreign policy.

The United States, it is true, has no concentration camps or overseas colonies, and our government regularly proclaims its devotion to freedom. For Krauthammer, those facts evidently outweigh our having subverted dozens of governments, many of them democratically elected, and supported dozens of others that were not democratically elected at all, with the only consistent motive being the promotion of a favorable investment climate for American business. Actual history is thin on the ground in Things That Matter.

Even so, there’s a shred of plausibility to Krauthammer’s arrogant unilateralism. He proposes an interesting coinage, the “Weapon State”: a category of anomalous states with little popular support, shallow historical roots, weak civil societies, unbalanced economies, overdeveloped militaries, and powerful grievances or militant ideologies. They are not what social scientists call “rational actors.” Such states, Krauthammer argues, may well have fewer inhibitions about using weapons of mass destruction or massacring civilians on a vast scale than more developed and democratic states. Iraq under Saddam Hussein is Krauthammer’s prototype of a Weapon State; North Korea and Libya are other examples. Because nuclear emergencies or ongoing genocide may require instant response, and Security Council action may be delayed or vetoed by a single major power, a status quo hegemon may be a good thing to have on hand in certain circumstances.

International law is currently a weak reed, and international institutions are mostly dysfunctional. Might not the United States sometimes have to act unilaterally to save innocent lives or keep the peace in a supreme emergency? It is true (though you won’t learn it from Krauthammer) that the United States has done a great deal to undermine international law and institutions, having used weapons of mass destruction for political purposes (Hiroshima and Nagasaki); supported their use by client states (Saddam’s Iraq against Iran); approved the slaughter of civilians on a vast scale by other clients (Indonesia in 1965 and again in East Timor; Turkey against the Kurds); ignored an adverse judgment of the International Court of Justice (which ordered the United States to pay reparations for its aggression against Nicaragua); and repeatedly declared its readiness to use force without Security Council authorization, in defiance of its most important treaty obligation, the United Nations Charter. But so what? Even bad governments can do good things, sometimes even for bad reasons. The fact that the United States killed 1 million or more Indochinese civilians during the 1960s and ’70s and bombed to the ground virtually every structure in North Korea during the 1950s does not disqualify it from saving civilians in Rwanda, Darfur or Congo. Legality is very important, but not all-important.

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