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Hawking War Guilt | The Nation

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Hawking War Guilt

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One of the most dispiriting causes of the biggest strategic blunder in American history may be the least understood: from the run-up to the Iraq War in 2002 until at least the 2006 elections, it wasn't the Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters who stampeded the chattering classes and liberal audiences toward our still-unfolding disaster. It was the "best" thinkers, writing in the New York Times Book Review and The New Republic, who cued the orchestra of high-minded opinion to play a medley of half-truths and hosannas in support of the war.

About the Author

Jim Sleeper
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of Liberal Racism and The Closest of Strangers:...

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There had been nothing like it since John Dewey and The New Republic supported America's entry into World War I to "make the world safe for democracy"--a liberal intervention that won militarily but unleashed humanity's darkest disasters. The Iraq venture, too, has been backed by Wilsonian "tough liberals" fighting a "good fight" for democracy. Now they're trying to shift the burden of responsibility to dissenters, whom the war hawks marginalized so fully that they relieved them of any responsibility at all.

Before the first shot in the Iraq War was fired, its intellectual supporters--future Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus (then a contributing editor at Vanity Fair), New Republic editor Peter Beinart and literary editor Leon Wieseltier; and writers Paul Berman, Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Ignatieff, Joe Klein, George Packer and Jacob Weisberg--struck pre-emptively at many who foresaw reruns of the Vietnam War's trumped-up pretexts, overkill and quagmires.

The Iraq War would be different, its enthusiasts insisted, invoking the cautionary specter of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler in 1938 but never the equally ill-fated liberal war fevers of 1914. By the time Paul Bremer had to be spirited secretly out of the Green Zone, no antiwar movement or Congress had forced the United States to "fight with one hand tied behind our back," as Vietnam warriors had charged. No Jane Fonda had visited a Middle Eastern Hanoi to aid and comfort the enemy. The Iraq War's masterminds and cheerleaders had done all that themselves. (Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, for example, claimed the war's aftermath would require only 75,000 US troops and $16 billion a year, and he accused dissenters of harming the democracy crusade, even after Abu Ghraib guards, not war critics, had demoralized the effort.)

Yet intellectual hawks' assaults on leftists and liberals intensified in the Times Book Review and The New Republic. It was easy enough to condemn protesters who consider Islamist terrorists just anti-imperialists in a hurry and who ignore Norman Thomas's admonition not to burn the American flag but to wash it. But even the silliest protests were reactive, not causal, to the storm of intimidation and lies.

As storm damage rose, the Times's Tanenhaus published a steady stream of put-downs of dissenters. Some critics were simply ignored: Al Gore's The Assault on Reason wasn't reviewed; nor was former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis's Excellence Without a Soul, which argues that liberal education at Lawrence Summers's Harvard was compromised by too much money, power and public relations. Others received prissy put-downs, as has Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal in the October 21 Book Review. His The Great Unraveling, too, got condescending treatment, from Peter Beinart, in May 2003. Not all reviews of "political" books were unfair. But more typically we've had Berman sneering at Francis Fukuyama's apostasy from neoconservatism, Brooks lampooning an academic psychologist for urging Democrats to get tough, Klein coronating Beinart's term-paperish The Good Fight, Henry Kissinger coronating himself in a review about Dean Acheson and Brookhiser ruling that Hendrik Hertzberg's time had passed.

Some of the reviews staged anthropologically perfect re-enactments of the Salem witch trials, which enlisted prominent opinion-makers of their time to identify scapegoats for a community's sins and fears. The intellectual hawks, displacing their own terrors onto the left, fell into the arms of a dysfunctional militarism, without, of course, ever bearing arms themselves or, in most cases, even visiting Iraq.

Beinart greeted Krugman's The Great Unraveling in the Book Review by announcing that "most Americans do not consider the Bush Administration corrupt, and Paul Krugman cannot convincingly prove it is." Even when Beinart admitted, in The Good Fight, that he'd been wrong about the war, he leapt to cast Michael Moore as a greater danger to the Republic than Karl Rove. Tanenhaus assigned Beinart's book to the peripatetic journalist Klein, once a biographer of Woody Guthrie, later a scourge of the left, now Time magazine's apostle of civic virtue.

As Iraq fell apart, the Book Review became a neoconservative damage-control gazette, where Beinart atoned by hustling the embarrassing Norman Podhoretz's World War IV offstage. His sniffing that Podhoretz writes as if "dodging I.E.D.'s on his way to Zabar's" only highlighted the smallness of their differences.

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