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.
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.
No less embarrassing was the sophistical David Brooks, sometimes mentioned as liberals’ favorite conservative. Writing for a Yale student publication in 2002, he’d chided those who feared that “if we try to champion democracy in Iraq we will only screw it up.” Two years later, as we did screw it up, Brooks was writing, “Come on people, let’s get a grip.” By 2006 he was urging Americans to meet “savagery” with savagery in Iraq, where insurgents “create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.” His scapegoats included supporters of Ned Lamont’s Senate race in Connecticut against Joe Lieberman–nihilists who “tell themselves that their enemies are so vicious they have to be vicious too.” In August, in a review for Tanenhaus of Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, Brooks lampooned liberal academics as would-be coup plotters.
Paul Berman, reviewing for Tanenhaus the ex-war hawk Francis Fukuyama’s second thoughts about neoconservatism, succumbed to his own obsessions with war critics. Trying to distinguish between Fukuyama’s neo-Wilsonianism and his own finer visions of apocalyptic struggle, Berman became diverted by his detractors: “The Nation has become The Weekly Purge,” he complained, meaning that it was holding the war’s deep thinkers accountable for its costs.
Berman is now shuttling in and out of the Times Book Review and Wieseltier’s literary section of The New Republic, which has become a halfway house for penitent hawks. Too full of himself for penitence, Berman devoted 28,000 words there last spring to the insidious Islamo-fascism in Western common rooms, with a snide aside about a supposed enabler, New York Review of Books contributor Ian Buruma. Berman attacked in his familiar faux-French, faux-simple style, an intellectual’s equivalent of “What part of that sentence don’t you understand?”
That only recalled Wieseltier’s own diatribe of August 2004, in Tanenhaus’s Times Book Review, against a novel by Nicholson Baker about a man who wants to kill President Bush because of the war. Wieseltier departed from the novel to excoriate liberals for demonizing Bush; he didn’t mention a letter to Bush he’d signed with forty neoconservatives in 2001 urging that “the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
The New Republic recently published two pained elegies to American conservatism by Tanenhaus. In one, Tanenhaus insinuates himself retroactively into William F. Buckley Jr.’s early war skepticism. In another, he decides that anti-Communist crusader Whittaker Chambers escaped the “haunted air” of ideological certitude in his later years and would have dismissed Bush’s Manichaean zeal “with the sly half-smile of a melancholy man who knows better.”
Like other penitents, though, Tanenhaus still can’t resist a little left-bashing. Quoting George Orwell’s observation that English intellectuals’ attraction to Stalinism “betrayed ‘a secret wish…[to] usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip,” Tanenhaus instructs readers that “It is no less true today. The intellectual left, most conspicuously in its Ivy League, Manhattan, and Hollywood variants, still clings to its dream of the whip handle, just as the educated right dreams of the day when the intelligentsia will be the first to feel the stinging cord.” That closing gesture toward balance (“the educated right”) seems only a fig leaf for a hawkish lust to catch leftists dreaming of whips.
Writers who consume themselves this way resemble George Santayana’s fanatic, who redoubles his energy when he has forgotten his aim–and forgets that it is he, not his opponents, who lost the war. But to gloat would be to risk stumbling into the hawks’ abyss. It would be better to urge Tanenhaus, Wieseltier et al. to rediscover Eugene V. Debs and Martin Luther King Jr., who understood that civic-republican crusades and rebellions are best when grounded in affirmations of civic trust that require a canny strength to sustain. Debs, King, Gandhi and Eastern European dissidents learned how to extend trust in ways that elicit it, even in the teeth of violent oppression. Why can’t our war hawks learn it in New York and Washington?
Left and liberal wrongs acknowledged, the deeper danger now is American conservatism’s inability to reconcile its keening for a sacred, ordered liberty with its obeisance to every whim of capital. Why keep blaming the consequences on enemies abroad and traitors at home or indulging a Grand Inquisitor’s ritualized submission to whatever the national-security and corporate-consumer juggernauts are insinuating into our lives? Only someone denying the real dangers would give as much credibility and cachet as Tanenhaus and Wieseltier have to writers who can’t stop blaming a “hate-America” left.