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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.
Buy this book

Occasionally, Krauthammer is interestingly and usefully wrong. More often, though, he is tiresomely and mischievously wrong. His misconceptions begin with the Cold War. “Where would Europe be,” he demands, “had America not saved it from the Soviet colossus?” In fact, after World War II, the Soviet Union desperately sought a demilitarized Germany, having twice in three decades nearly been annihilated by that country. It offered to withdraw and allow free elections in a unified Germany in exchange for a guarantee that Germany would not be part of a hostile military alliance and that the Soviets would have a veto power over major foreign-policy decisions in the Eastern European countries—a kind of Soviet Monroe Doctrine. The United States, then enjoying a monopoly on atomic weapons, refused. Germany remained divided and the Red Army remained in Eastern Europe.

The Evil Empire never ceased its menacing machinations, and by the early 1980s cowed liberals were duped into supporting a nuclear freeze, “a form of unilateral disarmament in the face of Soviet nuclear advances,” according to Krauthammer. In fact, US nuclear superiority at that point (and throughout the Cold War) was unchallenged. Soviet “advances” almost always followed, and responded to, American advances; and most of the disarmament initiatives, including a self-imposed unilateral test ban in the 1980s—unilateral because the Reagan administration refused to follow suit—came from the USSR. Moreover, as sensible people understood, the probability of a lethal accident involving nuclear weapons had become terrifyingly high by the time the Cold War ended. According to a Brookings Institution study, the United States alone experienced nineteen nuclear alerts between 1946 and 1973. On two occasions—one for each side—a large-scale missile attack following a false warning of incoming enemy missiles was aborted within minutes of launch. Eric Schlosser reports in Command and Control that 1,200 nuclear weapons were in some way involved in accidents during the first two decades of the Cold War, at least two of which nearly caused catastrophic damage within the United States. As a former head of the US Strategic Command remarked: “We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect, the latter in greatest proportion.”

About Central America, Krauthammer resorts to brazen falsification. Reagan’s so-called “illegal war,” he writes, was really “an indigenous anti-communist rebellion that ultimately succeeded in bringing down Sandinista rule and ushering in democracy in all of Central America.” In reality, throughout the twentieth century, the United States supported business-friendly oligarchies and military dictatorships that violently suppressed all democratic stirrings. When Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown (with US support continuing to the bitter end), the CIA assembled, trained and paid thousands of former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen on either side of the Honduran border. There was no “indigenous anti-communist rebellion”; these Contras went on a rampage, torturing and murdering peasants and sabotaging agricultural collectives. During this onslaught, a national election was held—one that was far more democratic than any the country had seen under Somoza. The Sandinistas won, after which the United States organized an illegal international embargo that, as with Cuba, bled the country dry. As for the right-wing forces the United States supported in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, they were, if possible, even bloodier and crueler than the Contras.

Unsurprisingly (he began his career at The New Republic, after all), Krauthammer is less than wholly objective about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There would be no conflict, he insists, but for “the long history of Palestinian rejectionism”; talk of Israeli “intransigence” is “mindless.” His prime exhibits in evidence are the “three times” since 1994 when “Israel has offered the Palestinians land for peace…. And been refused every time.” These three occasions are Camp David (2000), Taba (2001), and a mysterious episode in 2008 when Ehud Olmert allegedly made an “incredible” offer, an “ultimate capitulation to Palestinian demands.” Each time, Krauthammer charges, the Palestinians walked away. They have never wanted a “final peace” if it meant “reciprocal recognition of a Jewish state.” They prefer “an independent Palestine in a continued state of war with Israel.”

Matters are not nearly so simple. At Camp David, Krauthammer writes, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered PLO leader Yasir Arafat “a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza—and, astonishingly, the previously inconceivable division of Jerusalem. Arafat refused.” What Barak actually offered was a West Bank divided into three cantons separated by salients containing 12 percent of the land and the vast majority of existing Israeli settlements; continuing Israeli control of the water resources; a Palestinian capital in Abu Dis, a village adjacent to Jerusalem; virtually no provision for Palestinian refugees; and an agreement that UN Resolutions 194 and 242 should no longer apply to the conflict. What is “inconceivable” is that anyone but a hasbarist would portray this as a reasonable offer.

Clinton was disgusted by Barak’s fakery and proposed an alternative, which formed the basis for discussions at Taba a few months later. Krauthammer calls this “an even sweeter deal,” which Arafat again refused out of hand. In reality, the Palestinians did no such thing. Nor was it a sweet deal or even a genuine offer; it was a campaign ploy. According to Israeli journalist Tanya Reinhart:

There was not even a serious attempt to hide the fact that these talks were part of the election campaign. “A senior source in Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s office says the purpose of the Israeli-Palestinian marathon talks starting on Sunday at Taba is to neutralize the Israeli Left….” It was clear from the start that the purpose of the talks was to produce some optimistic “statement for the press,” a goal that was essentially obtained: “Ehud Barak sent the leaders of the Left—Shlomo Ben-Ami, Yossi Beilin, and Yossi Sarid—to Taba, with the aim of attaining an ‘endorsement’ for his candidacy from the Palestinian Authority…. The three emissaries succeeded in fulfilling their mission. They convinced Abu Ala and his colleagues to sign a declaration stating that the two sides ‘have never been closer to reaching an agreement.’”

According to another Israeli journalist, there was clearly a “determined decision made by Barak not to reach a settlement with the Palestinians in the time that is left until the elections.” In any case, the Israeli offer at Taba differed very little from the one at Camp David: it too called for annexation of the settlements and surrounding land, though somewhat less of it; no Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem; and barely any notice of the refugee problem.

About Olmert’s “incredible” secret offer in 2008, little was known for several years. Last May, a report appeared in The Jerusalem Post with new information. Krauthammer’s claim that “every settlement remaining within the new Palestine would be destroyed and emptied” turns out to be inaccurate. Olmert proposed to keep 6 percent of the West Bank, including the largest settlements, still cutting the West Bank into three parts. Several Palestinian holy places would be returned or internationalized, which definitely did not amount to the “division of Jerusalem,” as Krauthammer thinks. And 1,000 Palestinian refugees—out of some 5 million—would be repatriated to Israel each year for five years. It was extraordinarily credulous of Krauthammer to imagine that Olmert, who in 2006 announced his intention to carry out Ariel Sharon’s plan for greatly expanding existing settlements in the West Bank, should only two years later have proposed dismantling every single one of them.

In the overcharged ideological atmosphere of Things That Matter, atheism and even veganism are suspect. Krauthammer summons us to remember the wise observation of Arthur Schlesinger (“and many others”) that “declining faith in the supernatural has been accompanied by the rise of the monstrous totalitarian creeds of the 20th century.” For “as Chesterton put it,” Krauthammer continues, “‘The trouble when people stop believing in God is not that they thereafter believe in nothing; it is that they thereafter believe in anything.’ In this century, ‘anything’ has included Hitler, Stalin and Mao.” It has also, I would remind him, included Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein and Albert Camus.

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And beware the moralizing tyranny of liberal educators: having replaced soulcraft with hygiene, they are scheming at this very moment to “teach your kids safe sex, take Alar off their apples, feed them yogurt and broccoli for lunch and, for the ride home, lash them to their safety seats in cars with mandatory air bags.” There is no end to this pernicious liberal nonsense, Krauthammer warns: witness “the mania for health foods,” which “feeds a nutritional fanaticism and fastidiousness that make Islamic and Jewish dietary prohibitions look positively, well, liberal.” Actually, as a practicing vegetarian with an Orthodox friend who observes Jewish dietary laws in their full rigor, I can assure Krauthammer that his concern for us deluded health food maniacs is misplaced.

For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply and get to the bottom of things in 800 words or twenty seconds.

By and large, the quality of the eighty-eight pieces in Things That Matter is proportional to their length. Hearteningly, Krauthammer mentions that he is, at long last, writing a book: two books, in fact, one on domestic policy and another on foreign policy. Perhaps in the course of them he will, at least occasionally, surprise himself and us, vindicating Mill’s generous hope.

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