The Rebirth of the NYRB
The Review responded to the election of George W. Bush with dismay, and was quick to assail the Administration's rejection of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol and the ABM treaty. But the paper's reawakening really began with the events of September 11. A former State Department counterterrorism expert, Philip Wilcox Jr., crafted the Review's first response to the attacks. Responding to Bush's declared "war on terrorism," Wilcox wrote, "Armed force...while politically popular, is usually an ineffective and often counterproductive weapon against terror." The Administration, he insisted, should embrace a foreign policy that "moves away from unilateralism and toward closer engagement with other governments."
Wilcox's essay did much to define the Review's post-9/11 coverage. His principal arguments--that military power has stark limitations, and that multilateral diplomacy is essential--would be echoed (and expanded) in the weeks and months after September 11 by dozens of contributors, many of whom were skeptical of the US war in Afghanistan. "Accountants mulling over shady bank accounts and undercover agents bribing their way," Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit wrote a few months later, "will be more useful in the long-term struggle than special macho units blasting their way into the caves of Afghanistan." "Embarking on a full-scale war to rid oneself of terrorists is analogous to hunting a hornet with a Sherman tank," wrote Norman Mailer. "When the tank knocks down the house that shelters the hornet, the creature whips into the attic of the next house." In the wake of 9/11, the Review also published a barrage of essays documenting the perilous state of American civil liberties as a result of the "war on terror," alongside some remarkable reportage from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
But it was the Administration's obsession with Iraq that drove the Review to new heights of skepticism and indignation. In 1990 the paper supported the Gulf War on the grounds that it was a multilateral affair; but the editors came to realize that things would be different this time around. In September 2002 Frances FitzGerald published an essay titled "George Bush and the World," in which she contrasted the multilateral foreign policy of the first Bush Administration with the reckless, arrogant unilateralism of the second. Other Review writers were quick to take the full measure of Bush's foreign policy ambitions. "I find it increasingly hard to believe that Mr. Bush's objective is limited to seeing that Saddam Hussein has no weapons of mass destruction," Anthony Lewis wrote a few weeks later. "The history and the theology of the men whose advice now dominates Mr. Bush's thinking point to much larger purposes. I think this president wants to overthrow the rules that have governed international life for the last fifty years."
As war drew closer, and the press grew more accommodating and deferential, the Review's disgust increased, and the editors fired their heavy weaponry. Two months before the Iraq war, Joan Didion published "Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History," a melancholy account of her own journeys through the United States since 9/11 and a dark rumination on intellectual and political cowardice, the degradation of language, the machinations of faux patriots, the docility of our politicians and the closing of the American mind since the attacks on New York and Washington.
Shortly thereafter, Mailer surfaced with an essay titled "Only in America." Accompanied by David Levine's caricature of a swaggering George W. Bush outfitted in the costume of a Roman gladiator (with missiles protruding from his shield), Mailer's essay was a dazzling rumination on revenge, masculinity, sports, television, oil consumption, empire, the Bomb, and--most of all--the fate of American democracy:
Democracy, I would repeat, is the noblest form of government we have yet evolved, and we may as well begin to ask ourselves whether we are ready to suffer, even perish for it, rather than readying ourselves to live in the lower existence of a monumental banana republic with a government always eager to cater to mega-corporations as they do their best to appropriate our thwarted dreams with their elephantiastical conceits.
The fall of Baghdad only deepened the fury of the Review's contributors. Jason Epstein penned a scorching essay in which he compared President Bush to Captain Ahab, and wherein he invoked the specter of World War I with a quotation from Sigmund Freud: "Never has an event destroyed so much that was precious in the common property of mankind, confused so many of the most lucid minds, so thoroughly debased the elevated."
Last December, when many political observers were still giving the Administration the benefit of a doubt on Iraq's WMD potential, Thomas Powers insisted, in a much-read essay titled "The Vanishing Case for War," that anthrax, sarin, mustard gas, Scud missiles, biological warheads, etc. were nowhere to be found in Iraq. "There was no imminent danger--indeed there was no distant danger," Powers noted. "How is it possible then that the United States Congress allowed itself to be convinced to believe in this nonexistent danger, and to authorize in advance a war for which there was no justification?"
One notices a clear generational aspect to the Review's recent output: With certain exceptions, the finest writing has flowed from the pens of contributors over the age of 60. "It isn't a bunch of youngbloods doing the lively political coverage at the Review, it's the old pros who have been writing for them for years," says James Wolcott, a columnist for Vanity Fair. "To me it's similar to the situation that occurred before the war with Iraq, when it was the silver-haired brigade--Mailer, Vidal, John le Carré, Kurt Vonnegut, Jimmy Breslin--who were most vehemently opposed while so many baby boomer journalists and intellectuals, from Michael Kelly to Paul Berman to Andrew Sullivan, were on board with Bush. The silver foxes had enough history under their belt to recognize what a wrenching departure this optional pre-emptive war was from the past."