Jonathan Chait - Sub-Standard
by Jonathan Chait
Post date: 08.22.07
Issue date: 08.27.07
It's hard to believe that, not so long ago, neoconservative foreign policy thinking overflowed with ideas and idealism. The descent has been steep, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the pages of The Weekly Standard--particularly in William Kristol's editorials, which have come to consist of stubborn denials of any bad news, diatribes about internal enemies, and harangues against the cowardice of Republican dissenters.
Kristol's sensibility is perfectly summed up in one representative passage from a recent issue. The topic was The New Republic's decision to publish an essay by Scott Beauchamp, an American soldier serving in Iraq, detailing some repugnant acts he said he and his comrades committed. Legitimate questions have been raised about this essay's veracity. (We've been publishing updates on our continuing efforts to get answers to them at tnr.com.) But Kristol rushed past these questions, immediately declaring the piece a "fiction." Offering up his interpretation of why tnr would publish such slanders, he concluded, in an editorial titled, "They Don't Really Support the Troops":
Having turned against a war that some of them supported, the left is now turning against the troops they claim still to support. They sense that history is progressing away from them--that these soldiers, fighting courageously in a just cause, could still win the war, that they are proud of their service, and that they will be future leaders of this country.
In just two sentences, this passage provides a full summary of the decrepit intellectual state of neoconservatism. First, there is Kristol's curious premise that tnr only published this essay because we have "turned against" the war. If Beauchamp's writings were tnr's attempt to discredit the war, why would his first contribution describe a pro-American Iraqi boy savagely mutilated by insurgents? For that matter, why would we work to undermine the war by publishing a first-person account on the magazine's back page rather than taking the more straightforward step of, say, editorializing for withdrawal?
The notion that tnr published a Diarist merely for the edification of readers, rather than to advance a political agenda, did not occur to Kristol, because he could not imagine doing any such thing himself. He once explained his belief in the philosopher Leo Strauss to journalist Nina Easton thusly: "One of the main teachings is that all politics are limited and none of them is really based on the truth." Whether or to what degree Beauchamp's Diarist is true could not matter less to him.
Two years ago, my colleague Lawrence Kaplan--who once co-authored, with Kristol, a book arguing for the war--wrote a poignant cover story describing how the dream of creating a liberal Arab state had died. Kristol, naturally, denounced his inconvenient observation. "The fact remains that it is today more possible than ever before to envision a future in which the Middle East and the Muslim world truly are transformed," he insisted. "For this, no one will deserve more credit than George W. Bush." Of course, this was an opinion, not a "fact." But the failure to distinguish between fact and opinion is typical of his mentality.
Next, there is Kristol's assumption that to concede that troops do terrible things in a war is to denounce the war as a whole. Of course, George Orwell, among many others, has written about the ways that the experience of war--and, especially, foreign occupation-- can blunt moral sensibilities. It should be possible to believe this and still believe in the overall justness of a war. (Certainly Orwell himself was no pacifist.) There is an old leftist belief that, if soldiers have done horrifying things, then the war is evil. This turns out to be the Standard's view as well.
Then there is Kristol's accusation that critics of the war don't "support the troops." I wonder if, back in his youthful days teaching political philosophy, Kristol ever imagined he would one day find himself mouthing knucklehead slogans like this. I shouldn't need to say this, but apparently I do: I strongly support and respect the troops and would desperately like them to succeed. My respect, unlike Kristol's, extends to soldiers who don't share my politics, and isn't contingent on the fantasy that all of them are saints.
Obviously, the way you support the troops is contingent upon your analysis of the war. If you think the war is succeeding, then supporting the war is a way of supporting the troops. If you think the war is doomed to failure, though, proposing that more troops die in vain is not a way of supporting them.
The most incredible part of Kristol's diatribe is his accusation that critics of the war really believe that the war is going well: "They sense that history is progressing away from them--that these soldiers, fighting courageously in a just cause, could still win the war." Now, perhaps Kristol truly believes that there is good news in Iraq hidden beneath the surface, but can he possibly believe that this good news is so obvious that even liberals believe it? And that liberals, including liberals who initially supported the war, are now trying to undermine it even though--nay, because--we believe the United States is winning?
The theme of traitorous liberals is becoming a Standard trope. Last week's cover depicted an American soldier seen from behind and inside a circular lens--as if caught in the sights of a hostile sniper--beneath the headline, "does washington have his back?" The Weimar-era German right adopted the metaphor of liberals stabbing soldiers in the back. Kristol is embracing the metaphor of liberals shooting soldiers in the back. I suppose this is progress, of sorts.
There was a time when neoconservatives sought to hold the moral and intellectual high ground. There was some- thing inspiring in their vision of America as a different kind of superpower--a liberal hegemon deploying its might on behalf of subjugated peoples, rather than mere self-interest. As the Iraq war has curdled, the idealism and liberalism have drained out of the neoconservative vision. What remains is a noxious residue of bullying militarism. Kristol's arguments are merely the same pro-war arguments that have been used historically by right-wing parties throughout the world: Complexity is weakness, dissent is treason, willpower determines all.
Kristol's good standing in the Washington establishment depends on the wink-and-nod awareness that he's too smart to believe his own agitprop. Perhaps so. But, in the end, a fake thug is not much better than the real thing.