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The Coming 'Stab in the Back' Campaign | The Nation

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The Coming 'Stab in the Back' Campaign

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Having exposed their country to the ignominy of certain defeat in Iraq, the Bush Administration and its neoconservative allies are seeking to salvage their crumbling reputations by blaming their critics for the catastrophe their policies have wrought. We are witnessing the foundation for a post-Iraq "stab in the back" campaign.

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The tactic--Dolchstoßlegende, which means, literally, "dagger stab legend"--is associated with attacks by German anti-Semites on Jews in the aftermath of World War I and is a familiar response for frustrated American right-wingers when reality fails to live up to their ideological fantasies. Following the inevitable collapse of nationalist China, unhinged accusations of a liberal conspiracy inside the US government that purposely "lost" China to the Commies ruled the foreign policy debate. Consider these words from GOP Senator William Jenner of Indiana: "This country today is in the hands of a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union.... [A] secret invisible government...[has] led our country down the road to destruction." The China lobby--the AIPAC of its day--tirelessly policed American politics to insure that no one with national aspiration dared recognize the reality of the Communist Chinese victory.

During Vietnam, Ronald Reagan tried to blame protesters for killing troops, charging, "Some American will die tonight because of the activity in our streets." The right created the myth of antiwar protesters spitting on soldiers, although a detailed study by Jerry Lembcke, in his The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, found not a single verifiable incident of such behavior. And while it is a given among conservatives--and even reporters--that critical media coverage somehow hampered the war effort, Daniel Hallin's The Uncensored War notes that most reports, particularly on television, rarely deviated from patriotic, pro-American assumptions. Indeed, the Army's official history of the media's role in the conflict, published by the Army Center of Military History, explicitly rejects this line. None of this prevented Norman Podhoretz from reviving the charge in 1982 with a thinly researched book-length essay called Why We Were in Vietnam. Fortunately, the country was not in the mood; the vast majority of Americans surveyed over the past thirty years have said US involvement was a mistake from the start. (Nowhere in his book did Podhoretz admit that one of those leftists calling explicitly for a US defeat was the then-editor of Commentary--a fellow by the name of "Norman Podhoretz." He argued in 1971 that a Vietcong victory was preferable to "the indefinite and unlimited bombardment by American pilots in American planes of every country in that already devastated region.")

The coming campaign's foundations are already in place. They rest on three building blocks: an attack on the loyalty of those willing to recognize reality; the construction of an alternative reality in which victory is deemed to be imminent; and, finally, a shifting of blame for a supposedly premature withdrawal to those who refuse to play along.

Matthew Yglesias, in the Center for American Progress's "Think Again" column, noticed preparations for such a campaign as early as May 2004. Roll Call's Morton Kondracke pretended that "the media and politicians" were "in danger of talking the United States into defeat in Iraq," while Tony Blankley of the Washington Times added, "the president's political and media opposition want the president's defeat more than America's victory." Two years later, when most Americans had turned against the war, Spencer Ackerman, writing in The New Republic, noticed that not a single contributor to a National Review symposium advocated withdrawal. Typical were comments like those of former Bush Pentagon analyst Michael Rubin, who announced, "The US is losing in Iraq because American politicians and the general public have not decided they want or need to win."

George W. Bush has both feet firmly planted in the "stab" camp, and offered it aid and comfort when he tried to link the "unmistakable legacy of Vietnam"--"boat people," "re-education camps" and "killing fields"--to calls for withdrawal from Iraq. Podhoretz's recent entry into the sweepstakes is, appropriately, a retread of his 1982 attack on his ex-friends and former self. In his clinically delusional book World War IV, Podhoretz paints Bush as a "great president" and professes to see in Iraq "enormous strides that had been made in democratizing and unifying the country under a workable federal system." No less implausibly, he compares war opponents, like former National Security Advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, to a "domestic insurgency" with a "life-and-death stake" in America's defeat. Podhoretz flatters himself and his fellow armchair generals with his claim that his screeds in Commentary and the Wall Street Journal editorial pages represent a "war of ideas...no less bloody than the one being fought by our troops in the Middle East."

Podhoretz's paranoid ravings notwithstanding, it is likely that he has been less effective in laying the groundwork for the post-Iraq stab campaign than second-generation neocon generalissimo William Kristol, who despite mountains of contrary evidence professes to detect an "astoundingly" successful surge and a military situation that is "better than anyone expected." Kristol's Weekly Standard recently ran a cover drawing of an American soldier viewed from behind within the sights of an unseen weapon, beneath the headline Does Washington Have His Back? Another Standard headline reads: They Don't Really Support the Troops.

Such visual, visceral propaganda attacks would have fit in perfectly with those employed against Jews by right-wing anti-Semites in the days before Hitler. One might have imagined that American neocons would have pulled back before crossing that line.

The campaign is coming; forewarned is forearmed.

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