The Political Animal

The Causes of ISIS

Establishing what caused ISIS has become, for many, something of a cause. I have not researched exactly when the debate began – what was, as it were, the cause of the debate over the cause of ISIS – but certainly soon after its sweep from Syria into Iraq began, and unsurprisingly if even earlier, people began to seek to account for it.

Aside from the customary ambient smoke of conspiratorial accounts, an immediate choice was the Obama administration’s obvious utter failure, post withdrawal from Iraq, to anticipate and clandestinely target the organization. Soon enough, another “cause” came to supersede that one, that of the Iraq War, and the forces it unleashed (I choose that dead metaphorical verb purposefully) across the region. The argument rages on, but let us recognize in considering it, the ideological war behind it. The initial offering, above, comforts supporters of the Iraq War, the second contests it on behalf of the war’s opponents. Who lost China, the quintessential Cold War ideological contest in political historiography, has been replaced now by who caused ISIS.

The latest entry in the contest comes from Kyle W. Orton in “How Saddam Hussein Gave Us ISIS,’ in The New York Times. It is a fine and enlightening piece and a much needed addition to the historical account. Orton explains how the Iraqi Baath party transformed over Hussein’s rule from a secular party into a party both strategically and peformatively Islamist, if not authentically so. What further interests me about the essay begins with the “gave us” in the title. Like my “unleashed,” it is an imprecise substitute for “caused,” which is itself a word, going back to Aristotle’s four causes, that is conceptually complex.

Most arguments about causation, especially the political, are simplistic. When one claims that the Iraq War caused ISIS, or that Saddam Hussein “gave us” us ISIS, what exactly is one saying? Is the writer seriously asserting that a phenomenon – this complex phenomenon – had but a single cause, without which it would never have arisen? One hopes not, but when the argument over causation is a cover for partisan campaigns to cast blame, it frequently descends to that kind of reductionism.

Intentional or not, Orton’s argument deflects responsibility from the destabilizing effects of the American invasion of Iraq. (It also adds considerable weight to the always reasonable pre-invasion concern that Hussein might cooperate with Al-Qaeda.) As he wrote even before the Times op-ed, at greater length and with even richer support, “The Islamic State Was Coming Without the Invasion of Iraq.” Here we have the further uncertain formulation “was coming.” But as Orton acknowledges in the Times,

The Arab nationalist Baath Party, which seized power in 1968 in a coup in which Mr. Hussein played a key role, had a firmly secular outlook. This held through the 1970s, even as religiosity rose among the Iraqi people. [Emphasis added]


In some respects, Mr. Hussein’s government was following rather than leading public opinion, as Iraqis fell back on their faith for solace under the harsh international sanctions. [Emphasis added]

In the latter observation, we have the introduction of yet another cause – post Gulf War economic sanctions – that segments of the anti-Western left will be happy to entertain. The first observation opens up a whole history of Islamist developments over the twentieth century. There was, says Orton, a rise in religiosity prior to and independent of Hussein’s transformations, a rise he as much as followed as led. We know, from Saudi Arabia to Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood and beyond, that both Sunni and Shia developments were emerging, theologically and geopolitically, in conflict with each other, with existing secular governments, and with the West. When we seek to assign causation, when we seek to ascribe blame, how reductively do we simplify to reach a point other than that of genuine, useful understanding?

The verbs matter, as they reflect – if we do not wish to achieve the reductive simplicity that passseth understanding – what aspect of causality we clearly intend. Orton claims Saddam Hussein gave us ISIS. If he means laid considerable groundwork for it, Orton makes a strong case. He also argues that ISIS was coming without the Iraq War. That may well be – again, he makes a strong case – but part of the open question is when, and much of what we should be thinking about when we question, meaningfully, what caused ISIS, is what caused the rise of ISIS now, under these conditions.

Orton closes in the Times, by stating,

The Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it is the afterlife of that regime.

The first clause, as to “created,” seems clearly true; the second clause, with its vaguer ideation of “afterlife,” only partially so.

In his earlier essay, Orton offered in closing,

To put it simply, the Saddam regime’s reputation for keeping a lid on religious militancy and sectarianism is exactly wrong; by commission and omission it brought both things to levels Iraq has scarcely ever known in its history.

Here, the judgment seems properly the reverse, that the last clause is, as Orton so well argues, clearly true. As to the well-known, also dead metaphorical “lid” of the first clause, lids are popped or blown, their contents, already there, released into the surroundings. Dogs, already living and breathing, and straining for release, to track or attack, are unleashed. Waters, already rising, “burst” dams, “break” levies. Pick your metaphor, choose your verb. The Iraq War, like all acts, caused some things to happen, and when it comes to the good and the bad, you don’t get to pick and choose.


The Political Animal

Iraq and “Last Days in Vietnam”

At the Los Angeles Film Festival I caught Rory Kennedy’s powerful and moving Last Days in Vietnam. If you think you are familiar with the story of the botched and frantic – and heroic – American evacuation of Vietnam, with the fall of Saigon, including some many tens of thousands of lucky Vietnamese, this film will set you straight. There is an iconic photo from that time of desperate Vietnamese climbing a spindly ladder to the narrow roof top of the American Embassy and the last helicopter out. In truth, it was not the American Embassy (rather the home of the assistant CIA station chief) and there were many more helicopters. There is much, much more to the story. It is a tragic story, and near its close, ex CIA operative Frank Snep, one of a host of American and Vietnamese who recount their experiences of the evacuation, offers the sadness with which he recalls the end of the United States experience in Vietnam and how it represents for him the nature of the whole experience.

The North Vietnamese committed their massive violation of the Paris Peace Accords, by invading the South, in February of 1975, twenty five months after the accords were signed, and the subsequent withdrawal of American combat forces. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon. The American evacuation, because U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin until then refused to even consider planning one, was effected in a single day, April 29, 1975, into the dark morning of the thirtieth.

The consequences for the South Vietnamese, especially those known to be allied with or sympathetic to the U.S. were great. Up to one million Vietnamese were subsequently interned in the infamous reeducation camps, where mortality rates have been estimated at 10% per year. “Boat people” refugees numbered 1.6 million. What followed were decades of economic stagnation, and for those of the South, the loss of political freedom that persists today.

As the North’s rapid advance southward progressed, President Gerald Ford appeared before Congress with a request for over $700 million to fund an American response, including the possibility of the reintroduction of American military forces. The American people and their representatives were in no mood. As the end credits rolled, carrying with them the enormous sense of the loss, the folly, and the betrayals worked into the very start of that American endeavor, the thought occurred to me: who would argue now, after that long war, fought at such price, with no gain, that the United States should have returned to Vietnam in 1975, in the baseless belief it could have achieved in the end any of what it had failed to achieve the last time around?

Instantly, the answer occurred: the same people now arguing for a return to Iraq, who wish we had never left, who never learn from history. For these people the sum total of political wisdom in international affairs is Hobbes, Machiavelli, and von Clausewitz, Munich and the historical anomaly of total victory in the Second World War, and an American Exceptionalism perverted from an empirical historical achievement into a moral inherency that paves an imperial road not only to folly but to ruin.

If one were to draw out the implications of the judgment these voices make on American military dominance in the post-War era, the seeds of national decadence were planted almost at the reaping of the nation’s greatest harvest: from Korea to Cuba to Vietnam, Taiwan, Iran, Afghanistan and beyond, nothing but lack of national will, a weakness of backbone to fight the ultimate fight, the failed moral courage to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe.” Kennedy completed the thought, “in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He neglected to add in foreign lands, and even when one needs to construct the friend out of grass or clay. The only truly morally sufficient, which is to say total, military achievements were the pathetic accomplishment of invading Granada and the discretely achievable goal of capturing Manuel Noriega in Panama. Even the resounding military success of the Gulf War was compromised, to these foreign policy hands, by George H.W. Bush’s careful decision not to move on Baghdad, a decision ratified in its own resounding fashion by the Iraq War. That is to say the judgment not to advance on Baghdad was confirmed for all but those for whom it was a moral as much as a strategic failure, and who hawked a whole new ward to achieve that end.

Who in 1975 would have been led by McNamara, Rusk, or Westmoreland back into the paddies of Vietnam? Who would not have cried out in repugnance at the shameless reappearance of any of them on the national stage in order to pretend to strategic wisdom, never mind moral suasion, while hawking further military misguidance? These are people who would have reduced the Thirty Years’ War to the bromide of “staying the course.”

While the Arab world continues to struggle in its political development, related, profound strains of Islamic culture reject modernity and illiberally, even barbarically erupt against it. Influences go back a century and far longer. The program and the pitch for external imposition of liberal democratic structures over these conditions has been already an intellectual scandal with mortal consequences and of historic proportion. Those who once again make the pitch – the Cheney’s, McCains, Kristols, Wolfowitz’s, et al – deserve the censure of history, not the spotlight of lazy broadcast journalism and the assembly line of op-ed pages.

As tragic were the consequences of South Vietnam’s fall, there is no reason at all to believe a reengagement there would have produced a lesser tragedy to substitute, or a lesser failure than the first engagement. When the mission is mistaken, no amount of backbone, bombast, or bombing will extract success from it.

The arrogant misreading of history is that missionary liberal democracy can redirect world historical and long-term regional social developments through force of imperial might and inherent moral superiority. This arrogance is, in fact, a signature of post-Columbian imperialism. And when the folly has ended, imperial democracy leaves the Sykes–Picot Agreement or the patchwork of African nation-states and comforts itself in mad, blind delusion that it left the places it tarried better off for the visit. The greater and tragic truth is that we are guided through history by the vaguest sense of a destination while wearing a blindfold. Just ask the people unlucky enough to host the imperial visits.

From the fallout of the Arab upheavals, so sadly and natively labeled the Arab Spring, to the theocratic insanity and barbarism that has come to possess too broad a strain of Islam, the Middle East and North Africa will host dangers for the liberal democracies and the United States for an immeasurable time to come. There may well be times, soon and later, when the United States will need to carry out smaller and larger military operations to destroy enemies and counter threats there. It has not been called by some the Long War unknowingly. But such purposeful actions in self-defense and in careful protection of the national interest are a categorical remove from nation building, and from committing the nation’s human and other resources on behalf of nations and governments that offer no manifest political and cultural alliance. Such military miscalculations – such as the Iraq War in the first place, and any return there to bolster the Iraqi government – actually have, and would, work counter to American self-defense and the protection of American interests, by draining will and resources from what must be accomplished in the attempt achieve what cannot.

James Madison, on a very different domestic topic, warned in Federalist No. 10 that

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.

He understood that the times, as the leaders, would not always be so great. They were not great or enlightened in 2003. The same figures, unreconstructed and unconscionable, are no greater now, their cause and argument no more supported by the short or longer history of events. They are a danger to the republic. The doors need be barred against them.


The Political Animal

Masters of War

masters “Masters of War,” compellingly titled, fortuitously timed in its creation, ranks among Bob Dylan’s most jejune songs. The apparent good fortune of its historic timing emerged out of a natural uprising from circumstance. Given that circumstance, and the song’s generalized complaint, how, it almost seems, could the United States not have become fully drawn into a Vietnam War? The song’s lyrics are commonplace at best, its ideas simplistic, its attitude simple minded – much of what is spoken about war is. But the song did not arise out of nowhere, was not merely the febrile complaint of a barely post-adolescent artist. There are, however much more complexly than the song suggests, masters of war.

The masters of war want an American war in Syria. They do not, as Barack Obama does, want a punitive or preventive strike against Syria in response to Syria’s chemical weapons use, in order to uphold international prohibition. They mock such an action. They mock it in itself and they mock it because it is, or was, the plan of Barack Obama. They refuse, still, to acknowledge that Obama early on made the clear choice not in any way to enter the Syrian civil war, because he believed there was little the United States could do and that it would only replicate an error of war the country has made already too many times. But whatever Obama does, if it is not in accordance with the aggressive Bush-era “freedom agenda,” has been, is, and will be called by his usual foreign policy critics “feckless” and “dithering.” They mean weak and cowardly. That is the way masters of war speak when you do not give them what they want. What they want, this time, is an American war in Syria.

My last post, “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon,” attempted to limn the follies and even bad faith often to be found at far ends of the war question and now, particularly, a Syrian “war” question. I enclose “war” in those challenging marks because what I endorsed at the end of “Forgetfulness Is a Chemical Weapon” is, as President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have presented it, a limited military action with two aims. The first is to deter the Bashar al-Assad regime from further use of chemical weapons. The second, collaterally, is to degrade the regime’s ability to further use those weapons and even, perhaps, its prospects of prevailing in the civil war. That last outcome could hasten – appears the only thing that might hasten – a move toward a political settlement and thus the end of the current bloodletting. Every other idea at “intervention” seems likely only to increase the death toll and draw the United States into actual, protracted war.

To be clear, however, the second goal is subsidiary and opportunistic in light of the first. Without the chemical weapons use, there has been no policy to pursue that second goal.

We should always be concerned about the uncertain consequences of military action, even when we think ourselves compelled by moral imperative as much or more than by the calculus of security and interests. We should be more concerned then, as we may act too rashly, driven by the values that impel us and not with sufficient focus on the effects of our actions. The best intentions may have the worst consequences.

With those concerns as pretense and cover, the usual political elements fashioning themselves as “antiwar” have reflexively appeared. In their opposition, they organize not against war in most places in the world, but against any action by the U.S. or the West in armed conflict. They contort even the most moral of purposes, in support of even their own highest ideals, into perversions of imperial power to be opposed. After organizing not at all for two years to “stop” the Syrian civil war, now they gather in spiritual enclaves to “stop” a war that for them began only as the U.S. might become attached to it and will escape their attention whenever the U.S. might move on. One death by Western bombs is an imperial outrage, 100,000 by tyrants are not theorizable for politicking. These protesters of war cannot lose the moral authority they lost long ago.

Preening “antiwar” protesters are not a fixed political block, however. Their numbers can swell and recede as people are led by their understanding to see the world. Doesn’t that make them ripe for manipulation. Are not we all, always.

The masters of war seek now again to manipulate public opinion, just as they did as proponents of the Iraq War, in just the same ways.

The single most cited account of the situation in Syria over the past two weeks was an Op-Ed by Elizabeth O’Bagy in the Wall Street Journal. Titled “On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War,” the column sought to counter one of the greatest concerns regarding support for Syrian rebels – that they are constituted significantly of Islamist jihadists. O’Bagy, who has spent much time in Syria, informed us otherwise.

According to O’Bagy, jihadists like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq are not at the front lines leading the fight against Assad, but busy consolidating territorial gains in the North of the country, where they hope to establish an Islamist state. It is unclear whether that detail is meant to reassure about intervention or provoke Americans to prevention.

O’Bagy characterizes the other rebel forces, collectively, as “moderates.” Never does she explain that descriptor. She does not, for instance, say what it is they moderate between:  jihadists and what the West would call “liberals”? She advises at the end that the “U.S. must make a choice. It can address the problem now, while there is still a large moderate force with some shared U.S. interests, or ….” O’Bagy concludes with her best description of the “moderates” as a “force with some shared U.S. interests.” What a curiously tepid and vague endorsement. Could it be because what counts among “moderates” are Salafists, who while not jihadists seeking a universal caliphate, do wish to create a state existing under Sharia law? You will have to ask O’Bagy, so let’s.

According to a O’Bagy, in a 2012 report for the Institute for the Study of War,

  • Moderate political Islam is not incompatible with democratic governance. However, ultraconservative Sunni Islamists, known as Salafists, envision a new world order modeled on early Islam that poses a significant threat to both democracy and the notion of statehood. Salafi-jihadists are those who commit to violent means to bring about the Salafi vision.

  • It is difficult to distinguish between moderate Islamists and Salafi-jihadists in the context of the Syrian civil war.

  • The vast majority of Syrians opposing the regime are local revolutionaries still fighting against autocracy; while they are not Islamists, in the sense that their political visions do not depend upon Islamic principles, they espouse varying degrees of personal religious fervor.

In this context, but absent the same clear, specific, but uncertain account, O’Bagy now advocates support by the U.S, including “a major bombing campaign by the U.S., sophisticated weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapon systems,” with the “ultimate goal of destroying Assad’s military capability while simultaneously empowering the moderate opposition.”

O’Bagy was identified in the August 30th op-ed as “a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.”  A full week later, the Wall Street Journal was led to offer a correction beneath her article.

In addition to her role at the Institute for the Study of War, Ms. O’Bagy is affiliated with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit operating as a 501(c)(3) pending IRS approval that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition.

Even in its correction the Journal was not completely forthcoming. O’Bagy is not merely “affiliated with” SETF; she is identified at its website as its political director. SETF is a Syrian-led organization, via its board of directors and advisors, dedicated to enlisting U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. It has sponsored John McCain in his trips to Syria. Its executive director, Palestinian-born Mouaz Moustafa, has a LinkedIn profile that still identifies him also as the Executive Director at the Libyan Council of North America, where he played the same role advocating for American intervention in Libya.

Even the Institute for the Study of War holds nuggets of information to be uncovered. Its website lists at the highest level of management Dr. Kimberly Kagan as its president. Of course, the institute does have a board of directors, discoverable through Guidestar. It includes Bill Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney.

The deceptions and manipulations of the masters of war are broader even than these examples. The very framing of the issue to be clarified – whether the Syrian opposition is forbiddingly jihadist or “moderate” enough to comfort Americans in a military engagement – is a deception. The complexity of Syria, the reasons for the United States to avoid entanglement in its civil war, the reasons why President Obama has avoided it, are far greater than the one issue of who the opposition may truly be.

There is the role of Hezbollah and Assad’s possible fall back into Lebanon, further pulling that country into the mix. There are the sectarian divides of Syria, just as in Iraq, that will not disappear during a civil war and even once Assad may be ousted from power. There are the Kurds, angling across four nations – Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria – for a nation of their own. Now, in addition to Iraq, they have their foothold in Syria. There is an incipient reconciliation process afoot in Turkey between its government and Turkish Kurds that, given history, could collapse at any time, particularly under the effects on Turkey of emboldened Syrian Kurds on its border. Now, too, Turkey has come to think Syria’s jihadist Jabhat al Nusra a threat as well.  The possibilities for spiraling and expanding conflict are deep and many. Should they grow, the effects on more surrounding nations, like Jordan, with its currently quiescent Muslim Brotherhood, may grow.

The masters of war want to drag the United States into this. After Iraq and Afghanistan, following the toppling of the Taliban, with that record, they want more. They will tell us, too, that the failure of Afghanistan is that we did not commit well enough and long enough – Obama’s fault, of course. Think they will not say that about Syria, too – more, more, longer, longer – when all does not go as swimmingly as they suggest?

They scorned Obama for seeking only to stop Syria’s chemical weapons use – too little, too little, too little. They scorn him now that he pauses to pursue a diplomatic possibility of ensuring that end without a military strike. Now, suddenly, after two years of protracted civil war, if Obama does not launch a strike immediately (which is inadequate anyway), then he has thrown away all trust and respect and the future of the West. He has achieved so far, without launching a missile yet, Syrian admission of its chemical weapons program, Syria’s public acceptance of a proposal that they relinquish it, and Russia’s public agreement to the same principle. Who, a week ago, conceived that those accomplishments were even to be considered as a goal?

Are the masters of war happy? Do they credit these advances at all? Do they do anything but ridicule and degrade? No. They do not. They do only one thing.

Only one thing satisfies the masters of war.


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Israel The Political Animal

Reflections on the Spirit of Resistance


Paul Newman’s 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, the apex of journeyman Stuart Rosenberg’s directorial career, imbued popular culture with many iconic scenes and memorable lines. (“What we have here – is failure to communicate.” “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”) Among the famous scenes is that of the prison camp boxing match between George Kennedy’s alpha prisoner (the role that won him an Oscar and made him famous) and Newman’s smaller Luke.

As expected, Kennedy’s “Dragline” beats Luke good. But Luke will not stay down. He is woozily staggering with every blow, even knocked down by some of the head shots, but each time, against cries from his fellow prisoners and advice from Dragline finally to stay down and put an end to his whupping, the unconquerably recalcitrant Luke keeps rising up for more. Finally, Dragline just walks away, defeated in victory, and Luke has earned the heroic worship of all.

In addition to its inherent quality as a film and the quintessential, natural, non-hipster cool of its leading man, Cool Hand Luke was a film for its time. In an age of defining cultural rebellion, the film exalted the spirit of resistance against crushing, inhuman authority – in the film itself, the sadistic authority of a chain gang, for the culture that received it, any presiding force that would quash individual autonomy and personality.

The valorization of resistance as a human attribute is longstanding. From the slave rebellion of Spartacus and Masada to democracy creating revolutions and the Warsaw uprisings, the human spirit is stirred and encouraged to persist by the spirit of resistance. Most commonly since the Enlightenment, we see an ultimate expression of human nature in the natural uprising against oppressive forces.

In the United States, on Thanksgiving, we celebrate a story of resistance. That is not how most people think of the day, but that is one perspective on the story. We say we honor some congenial meal in which surviving Pilgrims of the Plymouth colony feasted with Massasoit and his men. But celebrations of survival, too, are testaments to resistance – resistance to the elements, to the forces of nature and circumstance, to those who may be aligned against us. We resist defeat in many ways.

Native America has a different perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday. That attendee of the first Thanksgiving Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag, engaged in his own resistance. He resisted over his lifetime as best he could the encroachment of the colonists on Wampanoag land and attempts to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity. Massasoit and all those who came after him lost in their resistance.

A lesson in this is that resistance, for all we exalt its spirit, neither endows any instance of it with justice, nor ennobles the goal in the service of which it stands its ground and refuses to bend. Neither victory nor loss are determinants of justice. The spirit may be willing, but the cause is weak. In the United States, the Mafia has resisted American law and its enforcement. In Mexico, drug cartels resist even the government’s militarized effort to stamp them out. During the Iraq War, there was an Iraqi insurgency – a resistance movement – and those even who claim to promote social justice who supported it and cheered the idea of it.

In the world today, many of the values of the international regime of laws, of human rights evaluation and critique, and of ideological sympathy are misguided by just such a disjunction between the spirit and the flesh – the actual substance of justice. The rules of a legal and human rights superstructure – the products of millennia of moral development – are abstracted from their substantial existence in the free, democratic nations that haltingly advance them and, in reality, often used as weapons against these very embodiments of the spirit.

Even honesty in itself is an empty shade if it is not in the service of a good. Shall we honestly express every critical and even accurate opinion of every potentially hurtful kind to those around us whom we love?

Resistance in itself is nothing. In the name of what – what ideas, what dream of human relationship – do we resist? Against what do we resist?

No honest consideration of ongoing conflict between Hamas controlled Gaza and Israel, between any anti-Semitic or Islamist culture and Israel, can take place without addressing these questions.

An anecdote:

Just over ten years ago, I was present at a large show and party at my wife Julia’s relatively new gallery – before, after that night, we both understood that security would always be necessary. I was alerted midway through the evening that a man none of our friends knew had been obnoxious to several women. None of the women had complained or made a scene, however, and there seemed no overt basis on which to take any action.

At the end of the evening, while saying goodbye near the door to some last visitors, I was told by a good friend that back in Julia’s office, where a few close friends were gathered privately, this man was present and refusing to leave. I went back to speak to him. He was beside Julia. I politely, regretfully advised him that the show was over and that we needed visitors to leave. He ignored me, asked a personal question of Julia, who uncomfortably declined to answer it, and when I saw that, though I was standing right in front of him, the man would not even look at me, I told him, at the point that he reached for Julia’s arm, that if he did not leave, I would have to call the police.

“How fast can you get to the phone?” the man replied, and lunged at me.

Taken by surprise, I was backed against a wall, where I began to struggle with the man. Two male friends quickly jumped in and the four of us tumbled to the floor in a heap of grappling bodies.

We have probably all seen video of men apparently very high on a drug who display extraordinary strength and require multiple police officers after very great effort and struggle, to restrain them. This man was such a man. He seemed high and irrational. One person who vaguely knew him thought, on the contrary, that he might actually be off his meds. Regardless, though all four of us were of roughly equal size, it took all the effort that three of us could muster to gain control of the man and restrain him on the floor, where he never ceased his resistance. Any let up by any one of us saw the serious attempt by the man to throw that person off him. Any one of us would have been beaten by him. Even two of us would not have been able to control him.

Others present called the police. In the meantime, for the twenty minutes it took the police to arrive, there was no let up for the three of us in exerting ourselves to retain control. We told the man many times that if he calmed down, we would ease up on him. He only fought back harder in response. Sometimes one of us might feel exceptionally angered by the man’s ferocity and exert himself, arguably, too forcefully, and the other two would check him. The man all this time, whenever his face was positioned to do it, would spit on us, until we had to expend ourselves to assert even more control and hold his face pressed to the ground so that he could no longer reach us with his spit.

More naturally violent people than we, of whom there are many, would not have been satisfied with controlling the man’s violence and would have brutally ended the conflict with what would necessarily have been a very violent beating. Indeed, were there no police to come to the rescue, there would have been no alternative to that violent beating, and there would have been much bodily and other physical damage all around.

When the police finally did arrive, the scene they found was one of four bodies so entwined on the ground that in taking control of the situation they had actually to touch arms and legs and ask to whom each one belonged. Certainly, the entangled circumstance into which they walked told no obvious story, though it would have been easy to conclude that three men had ganged up on a fourth.

Everyone present confirmed the same account, however, and our troubled gallery goer was escorted to a cell.

That’s my account anyway, the only one you have. You have to believe me, and if you think you have some reason to mistrust me, perhaps some ideological dispute, you may think I have slanted or even entirely misrepresented elements of the story. I think I am a fairly swell guy, but wouldn’t you know that there are people out there who, on the basis of things I have written, have had some not very nice things to say to me?

Of course, there are some events and histories that have considerably greater public and evidentiary records than my wrestling match just off the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Oddly, for some people, that does not make a difference.

People resist the truth, too.


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The Unsound Judgment of Peter Beinart


Just over two years ago, I wrote a post titled “The Unsound Judgment of Andrew Sullivan.”

Sullivan, for all his true virtues, is a man of strikingly unsound judgment. He swings, he swings frequently, he swings with emotion from one impassioned response to another, a kind of journalistic Thaïs transforming regularly from the life of a courtesan to the devotions of ascetic convert, and always extreme in his commitment, whatever it is. On the ridiculous level, this results in his campaign against male circumcision (a fair enough position to take) by mischaracterizing it as “male genital mutilation.” His infatuation with Ron Paul, before succumbing to Obama, was typical on a more important level. Paul’s libertarianism has a quintessentially American appeal for some (and Sullivan’s Americanism is another of his impassioned conversions), but from his fiscal ideas to his 30s-era isolationism to his documented history of prejudices and conspiracy mongering, the shallow American individualism is a primer coat covering a totally cracked pot. And it was like Sullivan to inhale the steam without ever detecting the leaks.

Not to let my commentary date, Sullivan subsequently endorsed Paul in the 2012 Presidential election Republican primaries.

Peter Beinart, who certainly has written plenty, in addition to the similar journalistic careers he and Sullivan share as former editors of The New Republic, has not been a daily blogger for well over a decade like Sullivan, so has been driven less to ill-considered daily opining. But he appears to be making the most of his opportunities, and the result is the same dramatically – because, on a large scale, unreliable and fallacious – unsound judgment. It is not simply a matter of ever having been wrong, but of how one is wrong, what one makes of it, and whether one continues to be wrong in the same way on different issues.

In December 2004, Beinart famously wrote for TNR, “A Fighting Faith,” an acute, but too ideally titled call to attention directed at fellow liberals for a post 9/11 world. Belief is empirically grounded and moves us by reason; faith blinds and tends to the missionary. The title foresees the end of the article and the end of Beinart’s political passage over the next decade. But for now, the piece began,

On January 4, 1947, 130 men and women met at Washington’s Willard Hotel to save American liberalism. A few months earlier, in articles in The New Republic and elsewhere, the columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop had warned that “the liberal movement is now engaged in sowing the seeds of its own destruction.” Liberals, they argued, “consistently avoided the great political reality of the present: the Soviet challenge to the West.” Unless that changed, “In the spasm of terror which will seize this country … it is the right–the very extreme right–which is most likely to gain victory.”

During World War II, only one major liberal organization, the Union for Democratic Action (UDA), had banned communists from its ranks. At the Willard, members of the UDA met to expand and rename their organization. The attendees, who included Reinhold Niebuhr, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, and Eleanor Roosevelt, issued a press release that enumerated the new organization’s principles. Announcing the formation of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the statement declared, “[B]ecause the interests of the United States are the interests of free men everywhere,” America should support “democratic and freedom-loving peoples the world over.” That meant unceasing opposition to communism, an ideology “hostile to the principles of freedom and democracy on which the Republic has grown great.”

At the time, the ADA’s was still a minority view among American liberals. Two of the most influential journals of liberal opinion, The New Republic and The Nation, both rejected militant anti-communism. Former Vice President Henry Wallace, a hero to many liberals, saw communists as allies in the fight for domestic and international progress. As Steven M. Gillon notes in Politics and Vision, his excellent history of the ADA, it was virtually the only liberal organization to back President Harry S Truman’s March 1947 decision to aid Greece and Turkey in their battle against Soviet subversion.

But, over the next two years, in bitter political combat across the institutions of American liberalism, anti-communism gained strength. With the ADA’s help, Truman crushed Wallace’s third-party challenge en route to reelection. The formerly leftist Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) expelled its communist affiliates and The New Republicbroke with Wallace, its former editor. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) denounced communism, as did the NAACP. By 1949, three years after Winston Churchill warned that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe, Schlesinger could write inThe Vital Center: “Mid-twentieth century liberalism, I believe, has thus been fundamentally reshaped … by the exposure of the Soviet Union, and by the deepening of our knowledge of man. The consequence of this historical re-education has been an unconditional rejection of totalitarianism.”

Today, three years after September 11 brought the United States face-to-face with a new totalitarian threat, liberalism has still not “been fundamentally reshaped” by the experience.

In all of this, and most of what followed, Beinart was right. He understood, too, what disabled the liberal response to his call.

Instead, Bush’s war on terrorism became a partisan affair–defined in the liberal mind not by images of American soldiers walking Afghan girls to school, but by John Ashcroft’s mass detentions and Cheney’s false claims about Iraqi WMD. The left’s post-September 11 enthusiasm for an aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda–epitomized by students at liberal campuses signing up for jobs with the CIA–was overwhelmed by horror at the bungled Iraq war.

A major reason for Beinart’s support for the Iraq War was his belief in the existence of Iraqi WMD. But it was not his only reason. He ends,

Of all the things contemporary liberals can learn from their forbearers half a century ago, perhaps the most important is that national security can be a calling. If the struggles for gay marriage and universal health care lay rightful claim to liberal idealism, so does the struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world. It, too, can provide the moral purpose for which a new generation of liberals yearn.

A “struggle to protect the United States by spreading freedom in the Muslim world” – in Iraq and Afghanistan – is not liberalism. It is neoconservatism, especially as a Paul Wolfowitz, I think sincerely, and a Dick Cheney, cynically, have further fashioned it. The United States may wish for freedom in the Muslim world, should help support it benignly when the  opportunity presents, and should not actively ally with forces that prevent it, but a liberal vision of American foreign policy should not seek actively, in missionary excess, to spread freedom.

To have been wrong about the existence of WMD is to have been mistaken. To have been misled in so many of the particulars in the evidentiary case for war is to have been betrayed by one’s government. To have conceived a missionary purpose to the Iraq War was to be misguided in oneself.

This latter error haunted Beinart, who began, ultimately, to attempt redress. While many have referred to the attempt as an apology, I have not found that word anywhere. It has certainly been a mea culpa. In the The Good Fight: Why Liberals, and Only Liberals, Can Win the War on Terror, and in multiple other venues, after acknowledging the mistakes about WMD, the missionary military ideal, and trust in the Bush administration, Beinart goes further.

Partly, I was wrong on the facts. I could not imagine that Saddam, given his record, had abandoned his nuclear program, even as the evidence trickled out in the months before the war. And I could not imagine that the Bush administration would so utterly fail to plan for the war’s aftermath, given that it had so much riding on its success. But even more important than the facts, I was wrong on the theory. I was too quick to give up on containment, too quick to think time was on Saddam’s side. And I did not grasp the critical link between the invasion’s credibility in the world and its credibility in Iraq. I not only overestimated America’s capacities, I overestimated America’s legitimacy.

As someone who had seen US might deployed effectively, and on the whole benignly, in the first Gulf war, the Balkans and Afghanistan, I could not see that the morality of US power relies on the limits to US power. It is a grim irony that this central argument is one I ignored when it was needed most.

This acknowledges the distinction between liberalism and neoconservatism. However, from acknowledging errors in fact, Beinart proceeds to recanting what he now puts forward as flaws in belief. But to recognize that subsequent factual revelations about Iraq invalidated the conclusions about war drawn from them is not to delegitimize the premises upon which the argument was made, upon which one constructs a philosophy and a policy. Yet this is what Beinart leads himself to do, even as he grasps to preserve a vision of anti-totalitarian liberalism. And what we see is that his misperception now is rooted in his misperceptions before. Beinart’s confession drew mixed reactions from the left quarters he had previously criticized: there was appreciation of an honest self-appraisal, but lingering anger over the fullness of the earlier attack. For those quarters still do not share Beinart’s more benign vision of the first Gulf war, the Balkans and even Afghanistan. (All one need do is review the pages of The Nation from the last quarter of 2001 to be reminded that the far or “anti-imperial” left did not require six years of Bush administration ball dropping to oppose that engagement too.) Beinart argues forcefully for traditional international liberal values in addressing inequity and powerlessness, but on the key issue that both Afghanistan and Iraq raised – the willingness of the left to conceive legitimate American use of military force in defense of legitimate interests, against illiberal adversaries – Beinart now defers to liberal democratic consensus, which should rather be a means to community, not a method of irresolution.

So Beinart stands, more generally. Now, in the past year and half, Beinart, in article and books, has become a fierce “liberal Zionist” critic of Israel. In “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” The Crisis of Zionism, and repeated regular columns Beinart has, in extraordinary contradiction, allied himself with the very left elements he criticized. This week, continuing his profoundly mistaken history in portraying Israel’s West Bank settlements as the cause of continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he advocated in The New York Times boycotting the settlements. This is an attempt at nuance that has pleased no one, even as it so mistakes the issue

Writes Gary Rosenblatt of Beinart’s “myopia” in The Crisis of Zionism,

He seems to view the Mideast crisis through the prism of the settlements as front and center – the very core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He has little to say about the very real concerns of Israelis or about the history and context of a problem that goes back decades, if not centuries.

Says Sol Stern in the aptly titled “Beinart the Unwise,”

What is wrong with Beinart’s book is contained within its title, The Crisis of Zionism. Zionism itself is not in crisis. The liberal Zionism Beinart espouses is, because Beinart and others like him have decided to condition their belief in a Jewish national homeland on its pursuit of policies that make them feel good.

This is the very general case. Here is Elder of Ziyon offering a fisking in demonstration of how completely misrepresentative Beinart is in his particulars.

Peter Beinart in the New York Times has another incredibly misleading article about – well, you know what its about.

TO believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer.
On the one hand, the Israeli government is erasing the “green line” that separates Israel proper from the West Bank. In 1980, roughly 12,000 Jews lived in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem). Today, government subsidies have helped swell that number to more than 300,000. Indeed, many Israeli maps and textbooks no longer show the green line at all.

In 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel called the settlement of Ariel, which stretches deep into the West Bank, “the heart of our country.” Through its pro-settler policies, Israel is forging one political entity between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — an entity of dubious democratic legitimacy, given that millions of West Bank Palestinians are barred from citizenship and the right to vote in the state that controls their lives.

For Beinart’s thesis to be correct, you must believe that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO has no political legitimacy, or power.

Yet it is recognized as a full state by 129 nations; its citizens vote (at least in theory) to elect their leaders, it has autonomy, a territory that all accept as controlled by its own security forces, a court system, an Olympic team, and its own passports. According to at least one distinguished legal scholar, it is considered a full state under international law. The World Bank is putting out reports about how ready the territories are for statehood. The entire Oslo process – that Israel still supports – was designed to give full self-determination to Palestinian Arabs in the territories, and (more recently) statehood. For Beinart to turn around and state that all of these don’t exist, and that for some reason the territories are (as he tries to coin the term) “nondemocratic Israel,” is nonsense. Israel has no intention of integrating Ramallah or Jericho into Israel. And as recently as January, Israel tried to hold negotiations with the PLO, and the other side refused.

Beinart, in his attempt to sound an alarm for Israeli democracy, chooses quite deliberately to ignore everything that happened to the Palestinian Arabs since 1994.

It is Palestinian Arab intransigence, not Israeli settlements, that has stopped a Palestinian Arab state. Beinart’s willingness to blame only one side shows that he is not being as evenhanded and “pro-Israel” as he tirelessly claims to be.

But, you might counter, what about Area C? Israel does indeed control all aspects of the lives of Arabs who live there, and while they vote in PA elections, they do not have much say in their own political affairs. Doesn’t Israel’s presence there endanger Israeli democracy?

The number of Palestinian Arabs in Area C is about 150,000 (about 2.5% of all Palestinian Arabs.) Which means that the percentage of people living under Israeli sovereignty who do not have political rights is, today, about 1.9%.

By way of contrast, the percentage of people living in US territories who are not represented in Congress and who cannot vote in presidential elections – those in Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and elsewhere – is about 1.3%.

So is Israel’s control of Area C a danger to Israeli democracy? Not unless you think that US territories endanger US democracy too. The idea is ridiculous. It is an issue, it is not a death-blow to democracy.

To go further, if Israel would decide to annex Area C, wouldn’t that solve all the problems? No demographic issue, giving the Arabs there full citizenship – and Beinart’s argument is down the drain.

Somehow, I don’t think that Beinart would support that solution, or even a modified version of that solution. Because he has bought into the Palestinian Arab narrative that the artificially constructed 1949 armistice lines – which were not considered international borders before 1967 and were always meant to be modified in a final peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world – are somehow special, and that no peace can possibly result from a change in those lines that would include, say, Ariel.

This is a detail of specific knowledge that few people – few people, even, with strong views and of active involvement – have of conditions and history. It is public figures such as Beinart who, instead, more generally shape the moral sense of those ethically compelled to care about so central an international issue. What is the further reasoning process, beyond what we already see, that takes on this responsible role? Beinart has begun to answer his critics. In the following, he responds to what he characterizes remarkably as “right-wing critiques” – remarkable when one considers Beinart’s post 9/11 analysis and the profoundly illiberal character of so many of the forces, Palestinian and other, that oppose Israel.

The first [critique] is that it lets Palestinians off the hook. As Ambassador Michael Oren wrote, my proposal “absolves the Palestinians of any responsibility for the current situation, including their rejection of previous peace offers, their support for terror, and their refusal to negotiate with Israel for the past three years.” Oren has it exactly backwards. What actually absolves the Palestinians of responsibility is the growth of Israeli settlements.

Let’s assume that the Palestinian leadership hasn’t come to terms with the hardest concessions that a two state deal would likely require of them: a merely symbolic refugee return and something less than full control over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It’s much easier for Palestinian leaders to evade those issues when they can point to the expansion of Ariel, a settlement that stretches thirteen miles beyond the green line….

When I called the West Bank settlements “An Historic Error,” I did so not just because I think them an ethical misjudgment, but because they have, indeed, provided the Palestinians more than three decades of excuse making, over thirty years opportunity to absolve themselves of responsibility, as Beinart puts it, for their statelessness. What Beinart completely, simply obtusely misses, however, is the key element to that excuse making, in addition to the settlements themselves: the cooperation of people like Beinart in accepting the excuse. The excuse – any excuse – has practical value only to the degree that those hearing it are willing to grant it acceptance and legitimacy – which is exactly what Peter Beinart does. If Peter Beinart and others did not use this excuse of the Palestinians as an argument against Israel, it would cease to have force and the Palestinians would cease to rely on it. It is an excuse not merely blindly accepted by Peter Beinart – it is an excuse manufactured precisely for Peter Beinart.

Even as Beinart locates error, he commits another; even as he exposes a ruse, he perpetuates it. Even as he swings from one strongly held view to its contrary, missing the essential detail in the haze of misty political faith, and the inclination to pursue it boldly, his arguments become less and less sound. And so do his judgments.


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The Wisdom of G.H.W. Bush – and Barack Obama


Whatever one’s judgment about the goal of the Gulf War of 1991, it is difficult to argue (which hardly means that no one will) that it was not superbly managed and prosecuted. The deeply and broadly experienced George Herbert Walker Bush, in contrast to his shallow but zealously missionary son G.W., famously chose, after driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait, not to pursue the Iraqi army to Baghdad. The subsequent abandonment of the Iraqi Shia to Saddam’s revenge after Bush encouraged them to rise up was the war’s one great screw up. That tawdry entailment of proxy geopolitics gets balanced in the historical memory with the multiple subsequent lessons of how flinty is the taste for battle on behalf of people who otherwise despise you. One weighs that loss against the gain of the no fly zone and the genuine rescue of Iraq’s Kurds, who gained not only their lives but the opportunity, perhaps never more boldly seized, to build a vibrant society under constant threat of tyranny.

Son G.W., we know, screwed the pooch to world record levels in pursuing mock wars of high minded liberation. His Iraq war is over, managed carefully to an end, in the circumstances presented to  him, by Barack Obama. But G.W. screwed up more than one war in display of the anti-wisdom of his father. In Afghanistan, with the Taliban driven from power and a base for Al-Qaeda eliminated, its leadership driven from the country, the Gulf War model would have suggested declaring victory and moving on to what should have been the only Long War, against transnational terrorizing Islamism. Instead, stuck in Iraq, Bush and NATO piddled about half-heartedly for six years in a further war of nation building and battle against insurgency.

When Obama came to office, he felt again compelled by circumstance , as well as the promise of the military and the wonder what if we hadn’t screwed it up for six years, to pursue a truer commitment and see if that would make the difference in eliminating AfPac as a future base for terrorism. Obama made a major commitment, but he did not go all in, as the martial voices of the imperial GOP will always have us do, sending legion after legion into battle. Do any but unanchored GOP presidential candidates and the usual Republican Cato the Elders still believe that creating a stable, reliable ally in Afghanistan is an achievable end, a fight worth fighting any longer?

This week’s Quran burnings at Bagram Airforce Base, and the ugly murderous reaction to the incident, reinforce two lessons at least. It is very little reported why the Qurans were considered fuel for a fire. The evidence is that Taliban prisoners were passing messages to each other by writing in Qurans. Apparently, in another life affirming expression of God’s eternal love, this is a blasphemy calling for death. These Qurans might have been used for a propaganda victory over the Taliban. Well, we have our Seal Team Sixes and we have our book burnings. Life and war are messy, and screw ups really are the norm, you know. But a mistake is a mistake, and a burned book, even on purpose, is a burned book. The homicidal rage that has followed it is a degeneracy of human development that not many Americans will care to accept in return for the expenditure of American resources, blood, and will.

Obama, though, has seen this coming. Not all that long, really, after he upped the ante in Afghanistan, he began to gather his chips toward the edge of the table. He will get us out as best he can, playing the cards he was dealt. He will continue to fight the war Bush mostly mouthed, the diffuse and international war of terror groups and replicating cells. He will get no credit for that from his political enemies. You have to wonder how much credit he will ever get for devoting so much of the energy of his two presidential terms, should he get them, to carefully cleaning up the war making misadventures of his predecessor. History judges those kinds of achievements, which are a little too subtle, and honest, for the campaign trail.

Similarly, against the first push he faced to initiate a war of his own, in Libya, Obama refused to commit American ground troops or even to engage without an international coalition he insisted take the lead. This was not Roman enough for the GOP, but Libya is not looking so swell right now. Obama managed to meet what was pressed upon him as a moral obligation, to save those threatened by Gaddafi, but like Bush the Elder in the Gulf, he did not over commit the country to its detriment. In the same way, against those who would have Obama bomb Iranian nuclear sites now, and those for whom no amount of negotiation with an obdurate foe is ever enough until it has managed a course to failure, Obama seeks to work the force of arms against the force of genuine and biting international policy sanctions. If the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program is somehow peacefully diffused, it will be one of the signal geopolitical achievements of our era, and it will be Obama’s.

It is hard not to believe that G.H.W. would not have enjoyed a policy conversation with the current president more than one with his son. That would earn Obama condemnation from opposing quarters, but that’s pretty much the way it has been. But the truth is that in between the two men, you can’t find a surer presidential hand in foreign policy.

Now what Obama has to do in the next nine months is not break any pledges on taxes.


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The Political Animal

Bile as Argument


Several days ago, a late reader of my post “Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, and the War of Ideas” sent me an insulting private email. Since this is a blog with a public commenting apparatus, I am always struck when people choose to insult me privately rather than offer counter-arguments and insult in the public forum. I have considered this phenomenon in the past. There is, in part, I think, recognition, in the mere insult, that a boundary is being transgressed, a level sunk below, and the consequent concern that the comment will be deleted. The private email ensures, at the very least, that I will receive the verbal shiv, because, as I said before, the writer “imagines the whispered remark the more deeply wounding insult, like a blade inserted at close quarters.” The writer also probably imagines the unlikelihood that the victim will make the insult public, and thus be challenged to defend his form of argument. People are free to imagine whatever they like.

The writer, Robert Pentangelo, wrote the following:

By the way, you neocon apologist, since you finally ascertained that the Bush administration got it wrong on Iraq:

1.  Where are your blogs condemning them for their lies and manipulations?
2. Where are your blogs  condemning Snitch for his continued war mongering AFTER you in your brilliance finally figured out the truth.

You are the dishonest bullshit artist, not Mr. Greenwald.

The first point to make is that Pentangelo wrote in response to a post that was not a defense of the Iraq War or a criticism of Glenn Greenwald’s own position on the Iraq War, but a criticism – as just about always when I write about Greenwald – of the manner in which Greenwald argues: its dishonesty and its, technically speaking, nature as bullshit. In my post, in fact, I highlighted how Greenwald’s deceptive argument, purporting to serve as resistance to some prohibition against speaking ill of the dead, specifically Christopher Hitchens, and as some sort of consideration of the “protocol for public figure deaths,” was actually the latest of Greenwald’s frequent exercises in personally trashing anyone who, as he did, supported the Iraq War, but who has either not recanted his support or, like Greenwald, simply, conveniently built a public career on never acknowledging his former support in the first place. There will be another post on this tomorrow. Pentangelo, an apparent Greenwald fanboy, continues in the manner of his hero by ignoring the subject of the post and wants to focus, instead, on Iraq. As there is always someone wrong on the Internet, for the Pentangelos and Greenwalds there is always still someone out there who thought differently from them (well, not, actually, Greenwald) on Iraq and who has not yet been reviled as lower than a snail’s ass. They cannot rest.

Penatangelo wonders where are my blogs condemning the Neocons and Bush administration for their “their lies and manipulations” on Iraq. Apparently one of those for whom the mouth is to off more readily than the bother is to research, Pentangelo seems not to know that the Iraq War began in March 2003 and I did not begin to blog until November 2008. For the first year of my blogging, the focus was on my travels in Indian Country. I haven’t skewered the Kennedy  administration for the Bay of Pigs yet, either, but I’m sure I’ll get caught up. Anyone who has read this blog knows where I stand in relation to the Bush administration, and, for instance, on still lively issues during the life of this blog such as torture.

But this is not about me, though the Greenwald’s and Pentangelos will always personalize the issues in ad hominem attack rather than honest consideration of ideas. (This, by the way, is not ad hominem, because the very issue is the person and how he argues, and I am offering idea and illustration in support of my claim.) Greenwald himself even offered a recent defense of the procedure.

Is it really “a sign of decency” to refuse to view any political ideas as not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but as a reflection of the person’s character? Obviously, there are many political disagreements — most — which can and should be conducted in perfectly good faith without the need for personal animus. Conversely, though, aren’t there some political views so repellent and sociopathic that “a sign of essential decency” is to make it personal, rather than refusing to do so?

Of course, nearly everyone will think that of course there are views so repellent we need to make them personal – Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot, and George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Christopher Hitchens, George Soros, Saul Alinsky and, yea, Barry Obama. For among the corrupting influences on the right of the American political scene whom Greenwald may be said to simulate, Newt Gingrich is one. It is Gingrich more than any public figure in American politics who originated – consciously, purposely originated – what became known as the “politics of personal destruction.” It was Gingrich who engineered the GOP ascent into the congressional majority by determining that the loyal, collegial opposition would be henceforth enemies of America. The clarion call of the far right fringe – the John Birch Society – would become the everyday thrust of mainstream political attack. Are there “any political ideas” Greenwald asks that are “not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but … a reflection of the person’s character?” Sure, we will agree. But if “repellent and sociopathic” begin at Hitchens and, might I float, Glenn Greenwald, what room does that leave for Saddam Hussein and Bashir Assad – spawn of Satan? Is that even worse?

The language, the terms of the debate, is so excessive, so broadly cast that once you determine to use those nets, the stock is quickly depleted. It happens every time.

I’ll suggest to Robert Pentangelo that he try to argue any issue in American politics without sputtering out “neocon” like a “you know” tic. That he is probably too old for the resort to “Snitch.” (Hitchens, Hitch, Snitch,.Get it? Ha!) That if he calls someone dishonest, he actually point out a dishonesty – a determinable truth and a misrepresentation of it – and, if a “bullshit” artist, he offer up the turd, with a clear analysis of its properties. It’s dirty work, but some of us have to do it. Until then, he doesn’t engage in any kind of worthwhile argument at all. He merely serves as an object lesson.


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The Political Animal

Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, and the War of Ideas

John Cook of Gawker writes of Christopher Hitchens that he “loathed sentiment, welcomed combat, and delighted in inflicting hard truths.” Cook undoubtedly means “sentimentality,” which masquerades everywhere as sentiment, in which case he is indisputably right about Hitchens, who would have begrudged those now attacking him only the regrettable spectacle (he surely would have believed) of their being so thoroughly wrong and their case so poorly argued. He would never have denied their – “right” is not the word; one might better say – natural uprising against him. He would simply have fought back against them.

Glenn Greenwald, who cites Cook approvingly, has written a much noted piece entitled “Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths,” in which he protests that no one

should … be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden

further, that

demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of [the praise] be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize….

This is the setup, the rationale, for Greenwald’s attack on Hitchens, Greenwald’s own moralizing corrective: some unspecified bar has been put up, prohibition established, against speaking ill of Hitchens. Where, pray tell? Hitchens died Thursday, December 15. Most obituaries appeared the following day. Over the first couple of days came the remembrances in praise and appreciation of those who thought most well of him. This is to be expected. Greenwald’s post appeared at Salon on Saturday the 17th, a mere two days after Hitchens died. Whence in those two days came the premised objection to speaking ill of the dead? Did some pal of the recently departed communicate privately to Greenwald insisting no one speak ill of his Hitch? Who?

We begin, then, with Greenwald, as is so often the case, with a fundamental dishonesty. He brings his straw man with him, and, of course, then, provides the crows, much like the army of writers and dissenting voices on Israel who write in major forums all over the country that one is “not allowed” to write critically of Israel . Something else is at work, and Greenwald will, in time, reveal it, as Cook does from the start. Writes Cook in his first sentence,

The outpouring of grief, goodwill, and teary encomia that has attended news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing would—if he was anything like the persona he presented in print—have turned his stomach.

The link, if you follow it, will be to a Huffington Post collection of tweets that appeared in the first hours after Hitchens’s death. If you read them – some from the notable, some not – you will find them not all that teary, even mixed in their consideration. What they do offer, certainly, is praise, “goodwill” and “grief.” That truly seems to be the objection.

In contrast Katha Pollit, at The Nation, whom I rarely admire, came neither to praise nor bury Hitchens. She has many old, ideological and professional bones to pick with him and might have taken the opportunity of Regarding Christopher to pick them clean. She does set them on the plate. But her consideration is of the person, the individual and the public figure, and all in all, she offers her human, not tendentious, regard. After much fair criticism, she ends:

I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm. But as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?

Greenwald and Cook have a different agenda, and isn’t a meditation on the “protocol for public figure death.”  It is partly a justification for criticism after death, but why should one feel one needs a justification? Maybe for Greenwald it was this:

I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him.

Hmn. He doesn’t say. Rarely wrote about Hitchens when alive, lays out an elaborate rationale for attacking him immediately after death. What would the pugnacious Hitch have to say about that weasel-turd of a maneuver? Because “there was nothing particularly notable about him”? Really? That why everyone is talking about him, because there is nothing notable about him? And it is his death that made him notable? And unavailable, now, to respond?


Writes Cook,

In that spirit, it must not be forgotten in mourning him that [Hitchens] got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong.

Now I must beg to differ with Cook, not about whether Hitchens got the decision Cook speaks of – support for the Iraq War – wrong, but as to what, in fact, “the single most consequential decision” of Hitchens’s life was. I claim that it was his break with the far left over Afghanistan and Islamism. In that break, the anti-totalitarian Hitchens forever separated himself from eight decades of modern left folly and moral degeneracy in defense of, and excuse for, every form of nominally anti-Imperial totalitarianism, from Marxist-Leninism to Islamist theocracy.

In contrast, many on the left – such as Hitchens’s consequently former colleagues at The Nation – opposed even the War in Afghanistan, and later – in lineal argumentative descent – the Iraq War. And this, if one focuses on Cook’s and Greenwald’s own concentrations, is what both are really writing about. Cook, as we see, makes that clear from the start. It is not, truly, that Hitchens got the single most consequential decision in his life wrong. It is that Cook thinks the Iraq War the single most consequential political event of his life, and he cannot forgive Hitchens for making a different choice in it. The same is true of Greenwald, but in his dishonesty, he offers up the red herring of opposing hagiography. Greenwald is consistently representative of a manic element on the left that will to its end days (like lingering 60s culture warriors) demonize any prominent figure who supported the Iraq War. There isn’t any excess – of moral righteousness, contempt, or vicious attack – of which naysayers accuse Hitchens in his public life that they do not exhibit against notable Iraq War proponents. One can find much to support the charge against Hitchens. Here, similarly, is Greenwald on Hitchens:

he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them.

Ah, but the likeminded will think – missing the point – but Greenwald is right. And Hitchens was wrong. And as I say, Greenwald was not about correcting posterity on Hitchens, but on the Iraq War, one proponent at a time. They did not make different, arguable choices; they were “fanatics…driven by a toxic mix of barbarism” and more.

I owe it to reader Rob that I can cite the following from the preface of Greenwald’s first book, “How Would A Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok.”

During the lead-up to the invasion, I was concerned that the hell-bent focus on invading Iraq was being driven by agendas and strategic objectives that had nothing to do with terrorism or the 9/11 attacks. The overt rationale for the invasion was exceedingly weak, particularly given that it would lead to an open-ended, incalculably costly, and intensely risky preemptive war. Around the same time, it was revealed that an invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein had been high on the agenda of various senior administration officials long before September 11. Despite these doubts, concerns, and grounds for ambivalence, I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush administration. Between the president’s performance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the swift removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that I wanted the president to succeed, because my loyalty is to my country and he was the leader of my country, I still gave the administration the benefit of the doubt. I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country.

It is little known that Greenwald supported the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan before it. He does not mention it in writing anymore and rarely speaks of it. He supported the war for the same reason I did: he believed that Iraq possessed WMD and that the potential consequences of that possession could not be risked. When no WMD were found, it made no difference to Hitchens, who too characteristically belittled the significance of the non-finding, and those to whom it mattered, and continued to promote many other rationales for the war that were forceful and honorable, but for me circumstantially undeterminative. Without a belief in the existence of WMD I would not have supported the war and neither, it appears, would Greenwald have. For Greenwald, however, the knowledge that a government in which he had placed a level of trust, had, at the very least, gotten it so wrong – if not manipulated the nation into war – has led to an abiding campaign of extraordinary vituperation against not just the government officials responsible, but others, outside of government, particularly journalists, who had argued for action and the rightness of it.

There is in Greenwald’s conduct a quality of animus found in the innocent betrayed, which, clearly, inferentially, he believes himself to have been. It is notable that Greenwald, now so prominent a political voice is so new not just to public advocacy, but to politics itself. He tells us also in the preface of his first book,

I never voted for George W. Bush—or for any of his political opponents. I believed that voting was not particularly important. Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track. Whether Democrats or Republicans held the White House or the majorities in Congress made only the most marginal difference. I held views on some matters that could be defined as conservative, views on others that seemed liberal. But I firmly believed that our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse, by our Constitution and by the checks and balances afforded by having three separate but equal branches of government. My primary political belief was that both parties were plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive, but that as long as neither extreme acquired real political power, our system would function smoothly and more or less tolerably. For that reason, although I always paid attention to political debates, I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process. I had great faith in the stability and resilience of the constitutional republic that the founders created. All that has changed. Completely.

One does not wish to fault any individual’s personal and intellectual development, but Greenwald’s is an influential, relentlessly judgmental, unsentimental and unforgiving voice in public affairs, and one must note that so well educated a man, with his legal expertise foundational to his political analysis and reputation, believed until well into his late thirties – after the 2000 Supreme Court elections decision and two wars – that “voting was not particularly important.” His knowledge of American political and economic history was such that until near 2005 he believed there was only a marginal difference made in electing Democrat or Republican and his political ideas were sufficiently amorphous as to find no coherent direction toward the left or the right, a characteristic noted of Greenwald even now. From this long-delayed and still ungrounded political consciousness comes now, daily, a kind of fury in rebellion at the late-discovered imperfection of the forces that rule (who are only the mirror of ourselves) and if you depart from its possessor on dark and difficult matters you are a scoundrel, sir – and oddly enough, multiple manipulations of fact, argument, and intent will be whipped up to expose hypocrisy.

All of which is to say that Greenwald shouldn’t worry about speaking ill of the dead. The dead if they were living would surely speak ill of him, dead or alive, and recognize, too, a faux-decorous essay for precisely what it is, just a little camouflage in the war of ideas, of which reputations and the bodies that bore them are in the end reduced to a long frontline’s fodder anyway.


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The Political Animal

9/11/11: Home


(The last in a thirteen-part series.)

What was the response to 9/11 on the political left, the direction from which was quickly drawn the historical cover of the “squandered sympathies” meme? There is no single answer. The “left” is not a unitary political tendency. It is stalwart, mainstream Democrats in the U.S. and the liberal “scoundrels” Slavjo Zizek scorns. It is readers of The Nation who vote for Democrats and others who still rationalize the Weathermen and will ever defend the Rosenbergs. It is those who sit at the feet of the Chomsky-Buddha, to the romancer of totalitarian Marxism, Zizek himself. To recognize the extremes of antipathy that emanated from the farther reaches of that spectrum, one can examine the historical record, as I have briefly done. One can also seek lineal relation.

The extremes of anti-Americanism of the Oughts find their focal point surrounding the Iraq War. By the launch of that war, the squandered sympathies meme was well established, and little that followed could do other than amplify it. It was the policies – the misguided reaction – that Iraq represented that produced the antipathy, the loss of sympathy; it was not present already on 9/11. So the misdirection leads us. However, now that we have some representative examples of the antipathetic response to 9/11, let’s briefly examine a too little known example of the worst of Iraq War anti-Americanism.

On August 18, 2004, by which time the American action in Iraq had descended into all out murderous chaos, Arundhati Roy delivered a speech in San Francisco before the American Sociological Association subtitled “Public Power in the Age of Empire.” (The title itself is quite silly.) The reader should recall the venue and the audience when I say that I happened by chance to hear a recording of the speech on radio station KPFK (Pacifica Radio) in Los Angeles, and that the speech was frequently interrupted by cheers. (Video here.) The speech in many respects could have been delivered by Chomsky, though Roy, a far better writer than Chomsky, offered moving, if unoriginal, flourishes that highlight the dangers of eloquence. Roy advocated violence, however, in a manner that goes beyond Chomsky.

To understand the import of the speech, and its central proclamation, we need only recall, regardless of one’s considerations of the Iraq fiasco, that the nature of the insurgent forces opposing the U.S. was without doubt – even for Roy.  Nonetheless:

The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle.

Did not Roy herself find this alliance just a little problematic? Indeed, she did. But she dealt with the problem handily.

Of course, [the Iraqi resistance] is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery, and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity.

Of course, too, this is precisely the reasoning that American cold warriors themselves used to rationalize cooperation with oppressive regimes in opposition to Marxist expansion, and that U.S. has used in maintenance of its geopolitical interests the Middle East – and which the likes of Roy have used for decades as the demonstration par excellence of America’s moral corruptness.

Roy (and, from the cheers, too many in the American Sociological Association) posits here an ethical system that turns upon one fundament only: power and one’s relation to it. Only this kind of ethics – whether it be the power-based value system of a Saddam Hussein or its inverse, as we find it in the kind of monistic, post-colonial, ideologically world-rectifying system propounded by Arundhati Roy – could lead to a call for missionary alliance with the “Iraqi resistance.” In light of this, references in Roy’s speech to democracy and to non-violence are incoherent absurdities.

Although the kind of allegiance Roy claimed in her speech provides sufficient evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the thinking behind it, we should not overlook the analytical and emotional distortions that guide it as well. It was such distortions that enabled the left’s response to 9/11. Though Roy offered mock regret over the apparent necessity of violence in resisting “empire,” her warped characterizations of history and events, in fact, encouraged violence. She claims,

Whenever civil resistance has shown the slightest signs of evolving from symbolic action into anything remotely threatening, the crack down is merciless. We’ve seen what happened in the [anti-globalization, WTO, etc.] demonstrations in Seattle, in Miami, in Göthenberg, in Genoa.

We saw what happened, indeed. It was merciless. The demonstrators were rounded up in Gulags, not to be seen for decades. Many were shot in dank prison cells in the dead of night, and their names erased from official records. Others merely had the tongues cut out or were given acid baths. The mayors of Seattle and Genoa entertained themselves with videotapes of the torture. Some were gassed to death. Others were blown up by police who had turned themselves into human bombs. A few who had managed to escape were lured back by vows of forgiveness and then murdered. Merciless. And it is only the intellectual fools at their zenith, the privileged products of relatively free societies, who can characterize as merciless – against the backdrop of true historical and contemporary state brutality – such policing as occurred in those cities.

So, again, hear the inheritor of Herman Goering: a victor’s justice, which is to say a victor’s and a relative morality.

Terrorism is vicious, ugly, and dehumanizing for its perpetrators, as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

Accordingly, all violence is the same, indistinguishable: the cold and brutal, the defensive, the protective. War. Terrorism. All the same. Just violence. No need to think by whom, against whom, for what reason – after what other efforts for how long to achieve what. No. The single principle of reality – power, the power of “empire” and the aspiration to invert it – determines everything, so we may assume the terrible face of moral blankness while we vocalize justice, upend Martin Luther King in his heaven, and perorate:

Then, from the ruins of Afghanistan, from the rubble of Iraq and Chechnya, from the streets of occupied Palestine and the mountains of Kashmir, from the hills and plains of Colombia and the forests of Andhra Pradesh and Assam comes the chilling reply: ‘There’s no alternative but terrorism.’ Terrorism. Armed struggle. Insurgency. Call it what you want.

In Roy’s swooning raptures over the impulse to armed struggle (yes, she calls the impulse “chilling,” but we see she wears a heavy overcoat) can be found the implosive contradiction and the corrosive hypocrisy in much of the Marxist and Marxist-infused postcolonial critique. The sources are varied and deeply theoretical, but the practical political criticism that is applied from this theorizing is always invested with a supreme moral outrage and condescension. Whence springs this value laden indignation? From dialectical materialism? From the study of discourses and grammatology? No. There is no basis for it there. There is – to choose a word – no foundation for indignation in historical and economic analysis only. There is no should in matter. Materialism, philosophies of language, and archaeologies of power can point the way to efficiencies in human relations and exchange that have moral effects, but they cannot found an ethics, and the fierce moralizing of those who oppose Western power and who reviled the U.S. on 9/11 has its springs in the religious ethical systems that for good and ill helped to found the modern world of Western liberal democracy, and in the enlightened humanism that emerged and departed from those systems.

Such are the politics of the moral imagination, however, that this historical accordance is ignored. And scorn is heaped upon the civilization that provides the measure by which to revile it.

*          *          *

And so to Adler, above the Atlantic. Or is it Chomsky? Or Adsky? Call him Adler. What is identity anyway? It is Adler who wings his way home aboard US Air, unmolested, to live another day, to teach, to write. And it was someone else who died in the towers. Or was it his brother?

We had crossed the Atlantic. I had gazed from my window at the grids of American cities and towns below. Now Julia and I stood in the baggage area of Pittsburgh’s international airport waiting to collect our baggage and pass through immigration and customs before boarding our flight to Los Angeles. We were home.


I had been in Pittsburgh only once before, for a weekend, more than ten years earlier. The place where I was born and had lived most of my life was hundreds of miles behind me, the place I lived now, over two thousand miles ahead. If I had walked out the doors into the October air to make my way, I’d have known not a body or soul. Home?

However senselessly, though very much a matter of sense, I felt it. I would rather live in Paris than Pittsburgh. But I felt it. We looked around, understood every scrap of conversation, read every face, understood the interactions around us. We gathered up our bags.

Standing in line to pass through immigration, we awaited readmittance. A formality. Yet it is not a vacant doorway. Someone is there to judge, to assess the terms. Of reentry as well as entry. One has rights, of course. But rights are the entailment of a system that affords or recognizes them; rights are not the absence of governance, a free passage. Rights are conduct exercised, not ignored. For the right to be recognized, the system must operate. So even if for no other, concrete purpose, someone stands at the door. Someone stands at the door to say that there are distinctions, borders, lines of demarcation. Once, between what we now call nations, these were only ideas, made real by the assertion of power and control. Then there were markers, on land or paper. And laws that encoded these marks, rendered ideas once again. Whence we come to the transcendence of those borders, which is an idea too. But like the laws that codify the borders, their transcendence – their elimination – must be agreed to, as well as the terms of the elimination, the new reality, the new idea. One cannot surrender one’s difference in the name of unity – either out of love or guilt, for that is not a synthesis, but a submission, a form of slavery. Justice among people is negotiated; it is not given as a gift. So someone stands at the door, and one is reminded, as one rarely is without going abroad, that residence is the source and product of dualities: citizen and non, part and apart, legal and illegal, in and out, here and there, home and away.

It was our turn now.

Julia and I handed the immigration officer our passports, along with the forms that listed the countries we had visited. The officer glanced up at us, expressionless. He looked back down at the documents. Julia asked me what countries we had visited, when she realized she had forgotten to list a couple. Like the good Nebraskan she is, she said so. The immigration officer, with his best official poker face, continued to peruse our passports, never looking up.

“Well,” he said, “we’ll let you back in anyway.”

He flipped the pages of the passports. There was nothing more for him to see, to consider. It was just the process, a reminder of the process. It is not a vacant door.

The officer exchanged a word or two with Julia. She softens everyone, even if only a little. And then from Julia – I no longer remember what made her say it:

“It’s good to be back home.”

The officer handed us back our passports.

“It’s good to have you back home,” he said.


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The Political Animal

David Brooks on Joe Lieberman: Muddled Moderation

Gore/Lieberman 2000 campaign logo
Image via Wikipedia

There is more than a superficial appeal to the calming voice. While it sounds reasonable, and it appears to spy a path from lost to found – “if you can keep your head when all around you” and all that – it also reassures.  Often it is the still center that saves us.

But sometimes it’s just a muddle.

The moderating conservatism of David Brooks seems, in part, so moderate because conservatism today is otherwise so reactionary. The world is not always so moderate, though – the universe not so conservative a place. (Oh, that? That’s just a supernova destroying a planetary system, a black whole sucking in all light and matter and the time-space continuum.) It is one thing to have a moderate temperament; it is another to project a valuable moderation onto the stuff around you that is neither valuable nor moderate. So today, increasingly of that habit, David Brooks comes not to bury Joe Lieberman but to praise him. Titling Lieberman “A Most Valuable Democrat,” Brooks considers,

The question is whether politicians with Lieberman’s moderate and independent profile can survive in the current political climate. “I have more warm relationships with Democrats in Washington than in Connecticut,” Lieberman acknowledges.

It would be nice if voters made room for a few independents like this. There have been times, like during the health care debate, when I found Lieberman’s independence befuddling and detached from any evident intellectual moorings. But, in general, he has shown a courageous independence of mind.

There are plenty of team players in government who do whatever the leader says. There are too few difficult members, who have complicated minds, unusual perspectives, the toughness to withstand the party-line barrages and a practical interest in producing results.

No doubt, Republicans would like a whole party of “most valuable democrats.” But what is Lieberman most valuable for? There is no reason not believe his support of the Iraq War, based on what he knew at the time, to be anything but principled. However, his departing insistence, now, that the “evidence was very clear” from the Iraq Survey Group’s Duelfer Report that Saddam Hussein was developing WMD is pure Cheneyesque self-justifying dishonesty. It is not simply untrue of Iraq; it is untrue of the report.

Brooks cites a number of senators who allow that Lieberman drove them mad, but that they liked him. But there is a reason “friend” and “colleague” are not synonyms for “historian.” Even some very bad people have friends who will toast them and report of their love for their mothers. People have public records, and those must be judged on their own.

Publicly, the Democrat Joe Lieberman not only campaigned against a historic Democratic and American presidency, and for the Republican candidate; declaring Barack Obama not qualified to be president, he appeared very publicly and gladly – one might easily say smugly – at the Republican national convention. It is worth noting, first, how simply, plainly mistaken Lieberman was in all this. Only the purest of ideologues, incapable of separating policy difference from judgment of competence, can argue that Obama has not revealed his eminent personal qualification for the presidency. John McCain, in contrast, despite his many years of public service experience, fumbled his candidate response to the 2008 financial crisis, fostered in his campaign the beginnings of the demagogic hate fest against Obama that followed for two years, and recklessly and incompetently foisted on American society, in Sarah Palin, the most pernicious influence on the political scene since George Wallace and, before him, Joe McCarthy.

All this Joe Lieberman supported, in return for which he wanted to retain his homeland security committee chairmanship in a Democratic senate. He was, in other words, willing to sacrifice for his conscience.

The Democratic senators who voted, with Obama’s support, to let Lieberman retain that chairmanship, did so for practical political reasons – to retain his 60th vote as often as possible. That was a mark of their good sense and responsibility, not Lieberman’s. Writes Brooks,

There’s a theory going around that Lieberman was embittered by the trauma of 2006 when Democratic primary voters in Connecticut defeated him because of his support for the Iraq war. There’s little evidence to validate this.

Really? Here is Brooks again on what the consequences would have been if the Democrats had not permitted Lieberman his committee chairmanship.

If Lieberman had not been welcomed back by the Democrats, there might not have been a 60th vote for health care reform, and it would have failed.

There certainly would have been no victory for “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal without Lieberman’s tireless work and hawkish credentials. The Kerry-Lieberman climate bill came closer to passage than any other energy bill. Lieberman also provided crucial support or a swing vote for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the stimulus bill, the banking bill, the unemployment extension and several other measures.

This is to say, according to Brooks, that Lieberman’s recent support for repealing DADT, for which he has received much congratulation, would have been sacrificed to pique for not retaining his chairmanship? A man of conscience? Most valuable Democrat?

Brooks says there is little evidence of Lieberman’s bitterness over his 2006 rejection by Connecticut Democrats. In addition to the 2008 Republican convention, Brooks might look to his own words.

There have been times, like during the health care debate, when I found Lieberman’s independence befuddling and detached from any evident intellectual moorings.

Goodness. What might that have been about?

If you want to be valued for your independence and conscience, you can stab Caesar if you think it’s the thing to do. But you don’t ask for return of the dagger – clean, if you please – and then twist it in again.



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Culture Clash

Quote of the Day

[Keith] Richards is a working class lad from Dartford – amongst other things, he was probably rebelling against being patronised by men called Dorian.

via Mick Hartley: Keef on Iraq.

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The Political Animal

The Afghanistan Rorschach

People read the Afghan War through thick ideological spectacles that magnify what they focus on and that draw the unintegrated elements in the picture to the blurred periphery. They read Afghanistan as they read the political life of the planet. They understand its history and current state of affairs, and make predictions for its future, according to their ideological predispositions. Of course, most people do this most of the time about most things, political or not, and it is to be expected. It is just that complex situations – situations in which we are most in need of thinkers and strategists able to break free of the perceptual constraints that narrow vision – are the very situations in which people fall back most readily on automatic thinking.

A more isolationist, libertarian strain on the Right would have us avoid such messy entanglements, and even already entangled, withdraw. More mainstream, imperial conservatives argue steadfastness in pursuit of ultimate victory, and since a war of the nature of Afghanistan, and what was made of it, will never be pursued with a full-throated national battle cry, anything short of ultimate victory will always be attributed by these conservatives, as for Vietnam, to the absence of that steadfastness. Convenient, now, for such conservatives, is that the war is being pursued by a Democratic president. While elements of the Left already think that Obama is waging the Afghan War and other battles against terrorism too much like a Republican, for these conservatives, the only way Obama could wage war adequately would be to do it as an actual Republican. Failure in Afghanistan, for them, however defined, will always be his fault, and not the product of conditions.

A far Left strain, reflexively critical of any American exercise of power, even after attack, opposed the Afghan War from the start. Distracted for six years by Iraq, this element now finds the current messy state of affairs in Afghanistan conducive to its automatic assertions of a war’s dubious morality and predictions of strategic futility. It is worth noting on that point that the same prediction was made of the once horrific Iraq War, which, think what one wishes of its origin and ultimate outcome, has not turned out to be “another Vietnam.” Nation building, an overweening project in war of some on the Right, is an easy target for many on the Left who curiously, contradictorily, put much store in world building.

A quieter, less certain voice on the world-building Left is properly concerned about the rights of women in Afghanistan, and the further depths to which they may return after any kind of compromised U.S. withdrawal. In a fascinating way, it is this issue of women that manages to concentrate many of the contradictions in the Afghan situation and in people’s arguments about it. The Right will vocalize strenuously about human and political rights when that line reinforces an already decided strategic concern – in Iran, for instance. Latin America, where such human rights concerns were never well integrated by the Right with U.S. economic interests, never has drawn similar attention – unless the offender was perceived to be on the Left, like Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez. Some on the Left will sing the praises of human rights so long as that song does not disharmonize with the melody of American militarism. So now, as fears rise among some about those potential consequences for women – witness this week’s Time Magazine – a counter narrative is already being written by the war’s most ardent Left opponents that the rights of Afghan women are already again in decline and cannot be salvaged by an American presence.

Here is some interesting insight the other day from The New York Times:

As Afghan and Western governments explore reconciliation with the Taliban, women fear that the peace they long for may come at the price of rights that have improved since the Taliban government was overthrown in 2001.

“Women do not want war, but none of them want the Taliban of 1996 again; no one wants to be imprisoned in the yards of their houses,” said Rahima Zarifi, the Women’s Ministry representative from the northern Baghlan Province.

Interviews around the country with at least two dozen female members of Parliament, government officials, activists, teachers and young girls suggest a nuanced reality — fighting constricts women’s freedoms nearly as much as a Taliban government, and conservative traditions already limit women’s rights in many places.

Women, however, express a range of fears about a Taliban return, from political to domestic — that they will be shut out of negotiations about any deals with the insurgents and that the Taliban’s return would drive up bride prices, making it more profitable for a family to force girls into marriage earlier.

The insights here include two contradictory ones: the current state of women’s rights is more nuanced than the counter narrative, by self-serving inclination, will relate to us, and if Afghan women, despite their fears, “do not want war,” what almost surely Quixotic battle should be waged by foreign forces on their behalf?

Grand battles on behalf of the highest liberal ideals cannot and should not be fought by the United States alone, and the Afghan War, despite all NATO cover is a U.S. war. Such idealistic commitments, along with the protection of economic and ideological interests too far flung, form an unsustainable strategic course for the country. However Left or Right would burden us with either, as well as steadfast commitment to a strategic course urged by the Right in part because it is a Democratic president who might relent from it, these commitments should be avoided. But none were ever the reason the U.S. went to Afghanistan. The U.S. went to Afghanistan not to overthrow the Taliban in righteous indignation at its barbarity. The nation went to deny its Islamic terrorist enemies a national base from which to operate. The role of Pakistan greatly complicates the problem, but to point out formidable complication is not to eliminate the problem or to rationalize ignoring it because it suits our ideological bias. It seems clear that the Obama administration does not now conceive of building a nation in Afghanistan to make Americans happy and proud. It hopes through battlefield success to moderate conditions so as to enable an accommodation with Taliban elements that will join a government which will not welcome destabilizing terrorists. In the worst case, that would be another Paris Peace Accords. In the best case, there would still, in the region, be the threats from Pakistan to confront.

The next year, a full year after the surge and leading to the target date for some kind of initiated draw down of forces, should reveal a lot. In any case, we need to read the text before us and not the one behind our eyes.



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The Political Animal

Tony Judt, the Kurds, and Captive Minds

The attempt to stand outside history and see ourselves in it is like trying to look at the back of one’s head: it is a trick done with mirrors, over the shoulder. The effort is unsteady, and the first thing you are likely to see is your own face.

Yesterday The New York Times reported on developments in Iraqi Kurdistan. The focus of the story was a topic for another day, but along the way, the accounting of Kurdish efforts in that region was much as we always hear.

Mr. Agresto said he had accomplished in the Kurdish region what he had failed to do in the rest of Iraq, namely introduce American-style liberal arts education….

The majority of Kurds are grateful for the American-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein’s government and America’s support of the no-flight zone in the 1990s that helped them establish their present autonomy. Thousands of foreigners, including many Americans, now live and work in the Kurdish region, enjoying comforts that are rare in the rest of the country.

“We love them,” Haro Ahmed gushes about Americans.

His family owns a real estate conglomerate, whose assets include a sprawling mall in Erbil that would not be out of place anywhere in suburban America.

Mr. Ahmed has reserved space in the mall for several American fast-food chains and says he is in talks with Marriott to build a hotel and golf course nearby.

Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who briefly headed the reconstruction effort in Iraq after the invasion, says that it is precisely this pro-American attitude, coupled with the region’s oil wealth and strategic location between Iran, Syria and Turkey, that makes Kurds the perfect partner in Iraq.

“Why we do not wrap our arms around them, I do not understand,” General Garner said.

When the Ottoman Empire was dissolved after the First World War, the Kurds, who had long enjoyed independent principalities and desired complete independence, did not get their own nation. More than thirty million are now split among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. We know, perforce, some of the modern history of the Kurds in Iraq. In Turkey, according to Wikipedia,

The region saw several major Kurdish rebellions during the 1920s and 1930s. These were forcefully put down by the Turkish authorities and the region was declared a closed military area from which foreigners were banned between 1925 and 1965. The use of Kurdish language was outlawed, the words Kurds and Kurdistan were erased from dictionaries and history books, and the Kurds were only referred to as Mountain Turks.[27]

In 1983, a number of provinces were placed under martial law in response to the activities of the militant separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).[4] An extremely violent guerrilla war took place through the rest of the 1980s and into the 1990s. By 1993 the total number of security forces involved in the struggle in southeastern Turkey was about 200,000, and the conflict had become the largest civil war in the Middle East.[28] in which much of the countryside was evacuated, thousands of Kurdish-populated villages were destroyed and numerous extra judicial summary executions were carried out by both sides.[23] More than 37,000 people were killed in the violence and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homes.[29] [Emphasis added]

This was Turkey alone. Comparisons to another Middle-Eastern conflict can be made on your own. Meanwhile the Kurds, within a few years of suffering the genocidal chemical attacks of the Saddam Hussein tyranny, took advantage of the no-fly zone established after the Gulf War to develop a semi-autonomous political and social infrastructure in preparation for events the Iraq War did bring about. Even during the worst of that war, and all throughout, the Kurds of Iraq were creating the conditions of their future. It is not easy to imagine worse conditions under which to accomplish so much – all this without, still, a nation of their own, but with territory on which to organize themselves. Once again, comparisons to other Middle-Eastern groups can be made  in self-directed activity.

Why, one might ask, have the Kurds achieved these advances in Iraq, and not the other nations of their oppressed minority? The long answer is long, but the short answer is that independence, and futures, are created opportunistically. Iraq turned out, actually, to be the weak link among the four nations. The Kurds acted.

The Kurds in turn have leveraged their American connections, which in some cases go back decades, into an impressive lobbying and public relations machine in Washington.

Comparisons, comparisons. Note that the Kurds are not championed, in Iraq or anywhere, by those forces on the humanitarian Left who sip all the misapplied postcolonial clichés of Israel-Palestine like their morning coffee.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the Times report, on its blog The New York Review of Books publishes Tony Judt on Czeslaw Milosz, the latter’s famous The Captive Mind, and contemporary political matters analogously purposeful. Judt, the notable historian of modern Europe, is one of those people who does not just sip his morning Israel-Palestine, but mainlines it uncut, ill-cooked, and in used needles. Judt is a man of great learning who illustrates a sad truth, that of the uncertain journey from learning to well sifted wisdom – as a Mainer would say, in the kind of simple Americanism Judt might disdain – it is often so that “you can’t get theaah from heaah.”

Judt concentrates on the fascinatingly and, now, ironically Islamic notion of Ketman, as Milosz treated it in The Captive Mind.

Those who have internalized the way of being called “Ketman” can live with the contradictions of saying one thing and believing another, adapting freely to each new requirement of their rulers while believing that they have preserved somewhere within themselves the autonomy of a free thinker—or at any rate a thinker who has freely chosen to subordinate himself to the ideas and dictates of others.

This was the condition, as Milosz famously limned it, of the East European intelligentsia that succumbed to Stalinism. In attempting to adapt the notion to his contemporary purpose, Judt rather remarkably fails to distinguish between the romance of the Western and Eastern European intelligentsias, who were functioning under distinctly different circumstances. Of the Easterner’s Ketman, Milosz in 1951 might have appreciated Soviet Samizdat writer Sergei Dovlatov’s distillation of it thirty years later in his absurdist “Somebody’s Death”: “I left. Or, rather, stayed.”

But of the Westerner?

Milosz takes for granted his readers’ intuitive grasp of the believer’s state of mind: the man or woman who has identified with History and enthusiastically aligned themselves with a system that denies them freedom of expression. In 1951 he could reasonably assume that this phenomenon—whether associated with communism, fascism, or indeed any other form of political repression—would be familiar.

And indeed, when I first taught the book in the 1970s, I spent most of my time explaining to would-be radical students just why a “captive mind” was not a good thing. Thirty years on, my young audience is simply mystified: why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach. When I started out my challenge was to explain why people became disillusioned with Marxism; today, the insuperable hurdle one faces is explaining the illusion itself.

Contemporary students do not see the point of the book: the whole exercise seems futile. Repression, suffering, irony, and even religious belief: these they can grasp. But ideological self-delusion? [Emphasis added]

One really could write a very long essay on the compacted implications of this passage. There is a certain obvious truth recognizable to any teacher. Most students even at the best universities – and Judt teaches at NYU, a very fine one – are not deeply knowledgeable of history or of mental cultures not their own, and now, indeed, the communist world was pretty much gone when they were born. But be they students or not, Judt well knows the often youthful, and intellectual, identity of those who constitute the Western Left, and it is almost tautologous to state that the self-deluded cannot grasp self-delusion. The double bind of the ironist, too, is that while he stands in ironic relation even to his own irony, he is frequently blinded by it to the source of his irony. So, now, Judt wishes – ah, again, analogies! – to analogize the situation of self-deluded intellectuals in the closed communist societies of mid-century Europe to – well, read:

Recall the Ketman-like trance of those intellectuals swept up in George W. Bush’s hysterical drive to war just a few years ago. Few of them would have admitted to admiring the President, much less sharing his worldview. So they typically aligned themselves behind him while doubtless maintaining private reservations. Later, when it was clear they had made a mistake, they blamed it upon the administration’s incompetence. With Ketman-like qualifications they proudly assert, in effect, “we were right to be wrong”—a revealing if unconscious echo of the plaidoyer of the French fellow travelers, “better to have been wrong with Sartre than right with Aron.”

Today, we can still hear sputtering echoes of the attempt to reignite the cold war around a crusade against “Islamo-fascism.” But the true mental captivity of our time lies elsewhere. Our contemporary faith in “the market” rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgaenger—the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress, and History.

Well, NYRB would have to pay me (that’s Murray Hill 5 to dig into all these subtopics, but we begin, as I suggested above, with about as inapt an analogy – closed, undemocratic, illiberal, repressive and persecutory societies representing a totalistic utopian idea, compared to their opposite, in every respect, pursuing a single war – as one could possibly conceive. There is, of course, a conservative intelligentsia, and there were liberal public figures (we’ll postpone automatic intellectual election) who made their best judgment in choosing to support the Iraq War, but to suggest that the Western intelligentsia, as a class, was supportive of the war (Judt’s link leads to two, Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis) is as misrepresentative of historical truth as the analogy is a clunker.

Finally, Judt teaches The Captive Mind, yet his lesson for the contemporary scene is to be a leading voice in the demonization of the only democratic nation in the Mideast and to highlight for disparagement as a danger the notion of Islamofascism. I’ll refrain from the alternative Captive Mind analogy, and go instead for the metaphor. The standing outside history that historians pursue is a two-mirror trick. Here, Judt hasn’t gotten past the first: he is staring into his own face.



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The Political Animal

Greenwald-Goldberg II: This Time It’s Personal

There have been some more posts by both Glen Greenwald and Jeffrey Goldberg, with Joe Klein rousing himself from supine beach slumber (or whatever, on vacation) to throw a few punches in what has turned into a web free for all. And I should stay out of it? One can only imagine what Dave Weigel, whose firing begat all this, is thinking. I have offered my own thoughts already on the quality of Greenwald’s contribution. There has been more since, and one reader dug into my critique with some effort and offered his thoughts in the comments, deserving of response. I started to reply there, but the reply got lengthy enough for a post, so now it is that.

My further thoughts on Greenwald, in reply to a reader. The format is first, the reader’s quote of a passage from me, the reader’s commentary in italics, and then, in bold, my latest thoughts in response.


Your criticism of Greenwald:

“the tendency to characterise those who differed on Iraq not simply, if one believes it, as wrong, but as dishonest. ”

Here, you seem to imply that his belief in the dishonesty of many journalists who wrote pro-Iraq War coverage disqualifies him from making arguments that many journalists who wrote pro-Iraq War coverage were dishonest, by introducing a “tendency.” It seems like an attempt to poison the well and to create assumptions about his arguments without acknowledging their actual content.

The point is that Greenwald’s tendency is to characterize people as dishonest rather than provide evidence that they are dishonest. It is easy argumentatively to disagree with people, harder to prove them mistaken, and harder still to prove them dishonest. In fact, Greenwald in his original post makes not a single effort to establish dishonesty. He uses words like “error” and “false,” which apply to correspondence with fact, and once in his furious assault uses the slippery “falsehood,” which can denote the simply mistaken or a lie. He doesn’t even attempt to establish the lie, but the word has its connotation among the unsubstantiated charges of dishonesty.

“What loses, or should lose, trust is the overwhelming animus that motivates it. […]There is a difference, though, between having a point of view and even passions (and succumbing, as anyone will, to some ill-advised invective) and forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument.”

This passage seems to confirm that your interest is in raising doubts about his arguments by citing that he has strong beliefs in the positions that he argues for, and that should make us suspicious of his arguments because bad arguments are often made by people in order to convince other people to support positions that they believe in. Of course most arguments, bad or good, are made by people who believe in the positions that they are arguing for.

Yes, of course, but if that were the end of it, one could never revise one’s thinking. The reader used the word “beliefs.” I used “passions.” My point applies in either case, though the skepticism should be most raised by passions such as Greenwald’s. My phrase “forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument” refers to constituting and shaping the argument to suit the passion or belief, rather than developing the conviction according to where the evidence and reason take one – what, for instance, the Bush administration clearly did in repeatedly reshaping its justifications for the Iraq war, even retroactively, when former rationales began to fail. I don’t seek to raise doubts in Greenwald’s arguments simply because he has strong feelings, but because the strong feelings lead him regularly to slant and to overreach, by making claims, of dishonesty, he does not substantiate. Further, his clear suggestion that Goldberg was effectively functioning as an Israeli agent – “aimed at scaring Americans into targeting the full panoply of Israel’s enemies” – is even defamatory in nature if not legally establishable as such.

“There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass?”

To characterise the position of a person arguing against a press that “flatters and protects” powerful interests as a belief that the sole job description of a journalist is to “expose and embarrass” is to set up a straw man by creating a clearly false dichotomy.

On the contrary, here is Greenwald:

He apparently committed the gravest sin:  he exposed and embarrassed rather than flattered and protected a powerful government official, and in our upside-down media culture, doing that is a sign of irresponsibility rather than fulfillment of the basic journalistic function. [Emphasis added]

It is, indeed, a false dichotomy, created by Greenwald, not by me, and it is Greenwald in the emphasized language who claims that “to expose and embarrass” is “the basic journalistic function.”

“Greenwald (expose and embarrass) cannot hear Logan’s arguments[…]”

And you immediately assign that straw man as the central belief that motivates Greenwald in order to psychoanalyse Greenwald’s reaction to Logan, without even being considerate enough to hide the assigning of an irrational motivation to him within a rhetorical question (e.g. “Could an ‘expose and embarrass’ journalistic philosophy on Greenwald’s part have closed his mind to the actual arguments that Logan made?”)

Well, I established above that there was no straw man set up by me, though there was a false dichotomy presented by Greenwald. And if I became however clinical in my consideration of Greenwald, at least it was behaviorally so – I characterized his observable behavior in argument. He, on the other hands, makes scurrilous charges as to people’s motivations and even moral natures.

While you may not find many people who think that the only function of the press is to “expose and embarrass,” you will also not find many who think that to “flatter and protect” powerful people should be any part of the function of the press. Most agree that to “expose and embarrass” is one, very important, function of the press.

The reader here is adopting Greenwald’s own straw man, established via the false dichotomy. To repeat and extend a bit the quote offered earlier from my post:

There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass? What if the subject does not warrant exposure?

I go on to state of Lara Logan’s argument:

that the reporter is in a human relationship, which for Hastings permits developing the pretense of a trust the subject should not be fooled into placing, and for Logan includes the possibility of actually respecting the subject and what he does. Subjects can, in fact, warrant either treatment.

The reader is here arguing with a position I do not hold.

“Notice I used the words ‘fighting’ and ‘enemy.’ Greenwald is amongst those who insist on conceiving widespread and organized Islamic terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Other people claim the nature of war in the contemporary era – access to massive amounts of conventional weaponry and potentially WMD, and ease of organization across national boundaries of non-state actors – has necessarily altered. This raises a host of complex issues, including that of how to confront citizens who side with the enemy. Were they advancing on a battlefield with weapon in hand, there would be no question. But since Greenwald will not acknowledge these complex new developments, these complexities are not represented in the discussion and so cannot be considered. Further, he loads his presentation with prejudicial terms such as ‘assassination.'”

In this passage, you use “complex issues” as a substitute for an argument. Greenwald believes that these “complex issues” do not keep considering terrorism as a law enforcement problem from being better than other options. You do not. Greenwald explains why he thinks that it would be better to consider terrorism as a law enforcement problem. You explain that Greenwald’s prejudice (as embodied in his insistence on referring to the tracking down and killing of individuals who are not on a battlefield and haven’t been convicted of any crimes by the word “assassination.”) prevents him from considering “complex issues” raised by “other people.” This is not good.

Actually, in the post I cite, Greenwald explains nothing of the kind. He may well have at some point in the past. I do not know. I would guess so. I do not call his position on combating/policing (even the verb is in question) terrorism a prejudice. It is a judgment he has made. That’s fine. What I say is that he slants his presentation of the issue. The reader’s use of the word “battlefield,” as in “individuals who are not on a battlefield” does the same. This is the very issue that is in question, whether an evolution has occurred in the nature of warfare that alters the conception of what a battlefield is. Will we say of someone who is a member of an adversarial organization to the U.S. and who is sitting at a computer in a suburban apartment in Uzbekistan, in plain clothes, attempting to crash the U.S. energy grid, while compatriots are attacking the DoD and financial systems networks, that he is not on a “battlefield”? Yes, this is an idea that is fraught with “complex” and worrisome considerations. My claim is that Greenwald simplifies these issues to his own ideological ends by evading them. That is not good.

But this raises the issue of for whom it is Greenwald writes. Though he not inappropriately trades on his legal and constitutional credentials, and loads his posts with links, so that the well-considered intellectual quality of his offerings is clearly meant to make its impression, Greenwald writes in these instances, particularly of Goldberg and Iraq, in highly charged emotive terms, and with the deficiencies I have already reasserted. Here is a phrase he uses in variations, in this case of Goldberg,

who relentlessly pounded the drums for war from his keyboard, which helped to bring about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent human beings. [Emphasis added]

Now, this is an awful, lamentable truth, but it is a truth applicable to almost any war, be the war just or not. Human warfare is an awful, lamentable truth. It is a phrase, though, in the context of all the slanted argumentation and accusation and character condemnation, that serves as nothing more than a final, condescending screech at those fashioned by the cry to be one’s insensate moral inferiors. Surely, the fan base is pleased, but is this meant as genuine intellectual engagement with the issues? Are these arguments intended to influence anyone not swept up in their emotional current or who can conceive the dissents? I think not.

“it would take little effort to quickly concede ‘is not comparable’ if that is what he thinks, though this would lead Greenwald into that gray world he prefers to live beyond.”

I may not be understanding your metaphor correctly, but I read this as saying that by not explicitly characterising the Iraq invasion as not comparable to the Nazi invasion of Poland, he has chosen to stay in a world “beyond” a world of greys? My assumption is that this world “beyond” is a black and white one, though this comparison is a bit underwritten.

My question is: how would characterising the Iraq invasion as not at all comparable to a Nazi invasion avoid a black and white world, rather than the opposite?

It reads as if this is just a kludgy way of reinforcing the theme of some suspicious passion on Greenwald’s part, and combining it with a spatial metaphor which paints black and white beliefs as being “beyond” the “grey world” of pragmatism. It just sounds anti-intellectual to me, as if Greenwald is floating above the world that we live in, with its absolute and complete disimularity between the reaction of Sudeten Polish-Germans to the Nazis and Kurds to the Iraqi invasion forces, and choosing to fly around passionately and full of animus in his artificial black and white world created by his “closed, monovision of absolute [belief],” where people are held to what they have said and “complex issues” from the grey world are ignored. I don’t get it.

Let me see if I can clarify. Black and white is symbolic of simplicity, like the false dichotomy or dilemma of journalism that either “protects and flatters” or “exposes and embarrasses.” Gray represents complexity, the shades between black and white that contain exception, variation, permutation, multiplicity. Greenwald tends to reduce the latter to the former, for instance, in the follow-up post responding to Goldberg, when he countered Goldberg’s claim about the welcome response of the Kurds to the American invasion. Yes, Greenwald’s fundamental point is correct – this welcome response in itself is not dispositive of the justness or, at a minimum, defensible character of the war. But is that really the whole matter? Is it really as simple as that? This is when context matters.  Greenwald sought to give himself a “get out of jail free card”:

It should go without saying, but doesn’t: the point here is not that the attack on Iraq is comparable to these above-referenced invasions. It may or may not be, but that’s irrelevant.  The point is that every nation which launches even the most brutal, destructive and unprovoked wars of aggression employs moralizing propaganda to claim that their aggression engenders magnanimous and noble ends, and specifically often points to segments of the invaded population which welcome the violence and invaders.

Implied is that Greenwald is making a one-point comparison only – implied, but not actually stated, because Greenwald says the Iraq War “may or may not be” comparable to Nazi and other invasions. I stated that it would have taken little effort – no more than the “may or may not be” – to say that Iraq isn’t otherwise comparable, yet Greenwald very precisely chose not to make that effort. Is this a niggling point? Not if you are familiar with Greenwald’s politics and positions. Not if you read the conclusion to his post, when he writes,

The Jeffrey Goldberg Media continues to exert substantial influence and wreak real havoc, but as is true for most of America’s once-respected institutions — and, indeed, as is true for America itselfit’s inexorably weakening and crumbling, and the merit-free elites (like Goldberg) who cast themselves as the unfair victims are, in fact, the prime authors of their own demise. [Emphasis added]

This is one of those times at which Greenwald seems to run the circle to the meeting point on the Right. Any Tea Partier could have written that. To someone not in step with Greenwald, someone not convinced of the “depravity of Goldberg’s Iraq war justifications” [emphasis added], as Greenwald put it in his third update to the original Goldberg post, it may not “go without saying” that Greenwald doesn’t actually think there is a reasonable Nazi comparison, especially when he pointedly declines to say there is not, and then goes on to make another not-comparison comparison.

Finally, even when Greenwald adds, regarding any comparison or non-comparison, that “that’s irrelevant” – he’s wrong. It is relevant, not in and of itself, as I have already acknowledged, but in conjunction with other factors. It’s that complexity issue again. Who is not going to pay attention to how the nationals respond to an invading force, as some indication of the nature of things? How would the histories of the Second World War differ from what they are if the French and Italians had run from the Allied forces, if they had shot at them from the roof tops and waged insurgencies? And even then, insurgencies need to be scrutinized as to their membership, program, and ultimate purpose. Greenwald’s argument regarding the reception of invading forces is essentially a variation on “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” – probably the most ill-considered, unprincipled, and relativistic excuse for political wisdom circulating in the world today. As in all matters, the truth is arrived at through the hard intellectual work of sifting through the evidentiary sands of reality and learning to distinguish the fool’s gold from the real thing. T’aint easy. But if you can’t tell the Iraqi insurgency from the French Resistance, if you can’t see the difference between the Nazi invasion of Poland and the American invasion of Iraq, even if you opposed it, or it sticks in your craw to state it, you’re one of them 49’ers who’s goin’ home broke.

Update: Some further consideration on the character of the argument taking place, mostly by Greenwald. Yaacov Lozowick, one might think, caviled with Greenwald over the applicability of the term “invasion” to German advances into the the Sudetenland, Slovakia, Austria, and Bohemia. It’ s pretty clear that Lozowick was focused on the combative element of invasion. Still, it appears from various posts – Brad DeLong and Kevin John Heller, for instance – that as the word cavil suggests, this was semantic distinction not worth making in this argument: historical reference to these advances as invasions are apparently rather common. What is clear, though, in all the back and forth, is how much personalized antipathy is involved – Brad Delong, whom I like intellectually, doesn’t, intellectually, like Goldberg, so DeLong is pleased to take that side of the argument – and how much the antipathy influences the argumentation, for no one more than Greenwald. It doesn’t take great insight to see that Lozowick was trying to score a quick hit on Greenwald (a temptation I quite understand), but what does Greenwald make of it? It is for him the

ironic attempt by Lozowick and Goldberg to minimize Hitler’s crimes by insisting that he never “invaded” Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Really. The author of one of the more prominent blogs in defense of Israel, of Right to Exist, A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars and of Hitler’s Bureaucrats, and former Director of Archives at Yad Vashem was trying “to minimize Hitler’s crimes.” This is serious, honest argumentation? In the very midst of complaining that others are distorting your own arguments? To quote Greenwald in that very regard, “It’s almost parody.”

Now, today, Greenwald has a post defending arguing against the invocation of Godwin’s law – the injunction against the common and trivial use of Nazi analogies. Except no one invoked it. People drew implications from it the Nazi analogy, and I have tried to show above why they were not engaging in distortion by doing so – let Greenwald attempt the same work regarding the preposterous claim of Goldberg’s and Lozowick’s attempt “to minimize Hitler’s crimes” – but no one invoked Godwin. And the advice against the too facile resort to Nazi analogies is not simply mistaken for Greenwald, but, in his typical hysterical overkill, odious. One can understand why he might feel this way, however – in order to leave them more readily employable, perhaps, for use against Israel?

Update II: Lozowick provides further support for his claim regarding “invasion” in the comments section of his original post.



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The Political Animal

Greenwald-Goldberg I: The Thrilla in Vanilla

Dizzy Gillespie statue
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Somewhere something irritated Dave Weigel. Those were the butterfly wings flapping. (Whatever provoked the irritating behavior – caused the wings to flap – has long dissipated into the stratosphere.) Weigel breezed into a little venting on a not-so-private-as-he-thought listserve, and someone fed those growing winds into a full public downdraft: the blogosphere was scattered to all corners in the crosscurrents as Weigel lost his job at the Washington Post. Everyone was now huffing like the West Wind. Then Jeffrey Goldberg went all Dizzy Gillespie on us and offered his own judgments – not his best reporting – which in several posts over the same day he gradually retracted. All in all, a brouhaha of a storm in journo-politico circles, a fly fart to everyone else.

Until Glenn Greenwald decided to huff and puff and try to blow Jeffrey Goldberg’s house down. Had it been my house with that kind of shit storm leveled at it, I would have delivered his legal Greenwald of a New York closing argument, but Goldberg, despite his serious resume, decided to be a nice Jewish boy and invite Greenwald on a trip with himto Iraqi-Kurdistan – so maybe Goldberg is cleverer than I am. But all this led me to be catching up on my reading of Greenwald, of whom I am not a regular reader for reasons that will become quite apparent.

WASHINGTON - MAY 14:  Former UK Prime Minister...
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Let it be known right away that I think Greenwald levies some very substantive criticisms against Goldberg regarding his reporting on the Middle East in general, and Iraq particularly, in the period leading up to the Iraq War. Goldberg chose not to respond to the criticisms. That might seem evasive, but the criticisms – about supporting the war and Goldberg’s allegiances to Israel – are not new, and I can well understand that it might be Goldberg’s position at this point that every time someone decides he wants to reargue these issues, Goldberg is not going to feel obligated to defend himself anew. Keep in mind that for a certain kind of political-absolutist Iraq War opponent, no kind of response other than self-commitment to a reeducation camp will suffice. And even then, upon release, the offender would have to bear daily to be spat upon in the street. In England, this monomania consists of a determination to have Tony Blair adjudged by God, man, and even himself, in shameful tears, a spawn of Satan who knowingly and willfully led England into and “an illegal and immoral” war, rather than someone, instead, who arrived at a different political – and moral – judgment than they did.

Greenwald wants Goldberg to admit his errors:

Given how completely discredited those articles are, those are awards [for Goldberg’s pre-war reporting] which any person with an iota of shame would renounce and apologize for, but Goldberg continues to proudly tout them on his bio page at The Atlantic.

Let me not be the one to abjure honest confession of error, if, indeed, such has been committed, but let’s not fool ourselves about the nature of such calls from our adversaries. On the one hand, Ross Douthat describes Weigel’s own mea culpa so:

a model mea culpa: Forthright and self-critical, rather than defensive and self-justifying.

On the other hand, the comments following Weigel’s account of himself, on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism, are not badly represented by the following:

How old is this guy? 10? Man get some Clearasil. No wonder he is a Marxist he is a dweeb and ugly goes right down the profile of a leftist. Ugly women emasculated men all become leftists as they can whine about being victims.

As Michael might more honestly have told Carlo near the end of Godfather I, “Just tell me honestly that you fingered Sonny, and then I’ll give you a plane ticket and let you live – until you get to the car, where I’ll have you strangled in the front seat.”

In this instance, Greenwald is not just finding fault with some of Goldberg’s reporting.

To see what a representative blight on journalism Jeffrey Goldberg is, one need not go back several years.

Even Goldberg’s backtracking later in the day was itself fueled by full-scale journalistic sloth and shoddiness.

Other recent comments from Goldberg illustrate the menace to journalism that he is.

And, to conclude:

The Jeffrey Goldberg Media continues to exert substantial influence and wreak real havoc, but as is true for most of America’s once-respected institutions — and, indeed, as is true for America itself — it’s inexorably weakening and crumbling, and the merit-free elites (like Goldberg) who cast themselves as the unfair victims are, in fact, the prime authors of their own demise.

It’s an indictment intended to be damning. Goldberg needed to respond to it, and the response he has chosen, rather than continuing debate, is to invite Greenwald to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to interview witnesses, thinking that might influence Greenwald’s thinking. I doubt it, and I will be surprised if Greenwald accepts.

Why, then, am I unsympathetic to Greenwald? For reasons, in fact, not unlike those that feed his antipathy for Goldberg, but that Greenwald never directly acknowledges. I have mentioned one of the reasons already: the tendency to characterize those who differed on Iraq not simply, if one believes it, as wrong, but as dishonest. Another reason for Greenwald’s antipathy emerges over the course of his attack.

Goldberg, whose devotion to Israel is so extreme that he served in the IDF as a prison guard over Palestinianswas described last year as “Netanyahu’s faithful stenographer by The New York Times’ Roger Cohen.

That fantastical, war-fueling screed — aimed at scaring Americans into targeting the full panoply of Israel’s enemies — actually won a National Magazine Award in 2003.

Two weeks ago, Goldberg — like all Israel-obsessive devotees — turned his ire toward Turkey for daring to oppose Israel’s policies.

As one emailer put it to me:  Goldberg is open about the fact that “he’s only interested in the plight of the Kurds when he can gleefully use it as a cudgel against Israel’s enemies.”

If anything provokes greater ire from Greenwald than does Goldberg it is Israel, and note that Greenwald goes so far as to accuse Goldberg of choosing his subjects and slanting his reporting with the aim only of leading the U.S. into war in Israel’s interests. This isn’t even a charge of dual loyalty. It is an accusation of serving as a foreign agent. It is also an example of what William F. Buckley, when he rejected John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, termed the “Birch fallacy.”

The fallacy,” I said, is the assumption that you can infer subjective intention from objective consequence: we lost China to the Communists, therefore the President of the United States and the Secretary of State wished China to go to the Communists.

Greenwald won’t mind my citing the conservative Buckley in criticism of him, since Greenwald used to write for paleoconservative Pat Buchanan.

What loses, or should lose, trust in Greenwald’s argument is the overwhelming animus that motivates it. Greenwald, who is all for showing one’s cards in displays of honest reporting and analysis – though he doesn’t quite here – would perhaps find no flaw in this. There is a difference, though, between having a point of view and even passions (and succumbing, as anyone will, to some ill-advised invective) and forming one’s arguments out of the passionate point of view, rather than the passion from the argument. The former leads to the kind of closed, monovision of absolute believers like Greenwald, and the kind of slanting of which he himself accuses Goldberg – not showing one’s cards, but stacking them.

In the days surrounding the Goldberg post Greenwald took up many big issues – well, that is what Salon pays him for. They are big issues because of their weight and because of their complexity, but Greenwald never sees the complexity. It is all always very simple and clear to him. For instance, Greenwald wrote about the controversy surrounding Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece on General Stanley McChrystal. The controversy for most of us was what McChrystal and others said of their civilian superiors; in the journalistic world the controversy was over Hastings’s reporting. Greenwald tellingly titled his post “The two poles of journalism.” Generally, this would lead to an analysis seeking some more nuanced ground between the poles. Not for Greenwald. Here is how he characterizes the criticism of Hastings and presents the two poles:

[Hastings] exposed and embarrassed rather than flattered and protected a powerful government official, and in our upside-down media culture, doing that is a sign of irresponsibility rather than fulfillment of the basic journalistic function.

Objectively put, no? No. There may be establishment journalists who flatter and protect, but that is no one’s argumentative position. And is it, rather, the job description of journalist to expose and embarrass? What if the subject does not warrant exposure? And anyone can be embarrassed. We are all that non-hero to our theoretical valet.

Greenwald rightfully went after Marc Ambinder for being among those, like David Sanger of The New York Times, who attended Vice President Biden’s pool party and had water gun fights with Rahm Emmanuel. One would think a high school newspaper editor would spy the cooption by power that represents. Ambinder never saw it. Still, in response to Greenwald, Ambinder wrote:

Greenwald demands skepticism toward those in power — which any good journalist must have — but then confuses this with implacable hostility. They are not the same. The job of a reporter is to question, understand, and inform. You need a vigorous skepticism to do this. But unreasoning hostility is as inimical to understanding as blind deference.

In considering the McChrystal imbroglio, then, Greenwald contrasts a video of Hastings with one of Lara Logan of CBS vehemently criticizing Hastings. Logan here is supposed to represent that other pole (flatter and protect), but that is because Greenwald (expose and embarrass) cannot hear Logan’s arguments: that the reporter is in a human relationship, which for Hastings permits developing the pretense of a trust the subject should not be fooled into placing, and for Logan includes the possibility of actually respecting the subject and what he does. Subjects can, in fact, warrant either treatment. However, that is a more stereoscopic vision Greenwald cannot have.

Greenwald wrote a post criticizing the use of the word “terrorist,”

the most meaningless and most manipulated word in the political lexicon.

It becomes clear relatively soon, however, that the post is another opportunity to bash Israel, and while the purpose of the post is avowedly to challenge the meaningful usage of the term, it unselfconsciously (self-consciousness requires a second train of thought, a second “vision”) states:

If any group meets the definition of “terrorism,” the Irgun does


It was once commonly accepted that Irgun members were Terrorists.  But that was then and this is now.

But the point of the post was to reveal the unreliable meaning of the word “terrorist,” resorted to these days – “now” – only to serve an American or Israeli agenda. Yet the sentence above offers the reverse, that now we have suffered some politically motivated debasement of a word that once had very clear meaning – that, if no one else, Jews could be terrorists.

Much as in his brief against Goldberg, Greenwald cannot resist stacking the rhetorical deck and skewing the presentation of an issue according to his position on it – precisely what he charged Goldberg of doing in his Iraq reporting. Here he posts on the very important subject of targeting American citizens who might be fighting with the enemy, Islamic terrorists, against the United States. Notice I used the words “fighting” and “enemy.” Greenwald is amongst those who insist on conceiving widespread and organized Islamic terrorism as a law enforcement problem. Other people claim the nature of war in the contemporary era – access to massive amounts of conventional weaponry and potentially WMD, and ease of organization across national boundaries of non-state actors – has necessarily altered. This raises a host of complex issues, including that of how to confront citizens who side with the enemy. Were they advancing on a battlefield with weapon in hand, there would be no question. But since Greenwald will not acknowledge these complex new developments, these complexities are not represented in the discussion and so cannot be considered. Further, he loads his presentation with prejudicial terms such as “assassination.” People like Greenwald do the same with Israel. Israel, too, for more than sixty years has had to fight a long war that does not fit conventional understanding, and the killing of the enemy in war, if we accept it as such, is not assassination.

In the “terrorism” post, Greenwald argues that Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen apparently based now in Yemen and considered an enemy combatant by the administration, is being wrongly targeted based on “his constitutionally protected advocacy of Muslims fighting against the U.S.” Mere advocacy of violence is a free speech right and Greenwald being a former “constitutional law and civil rights litigator” one might not bother to follow his link to the 1969 Supreme Court decision Brandenburg V. Ohio. and read it oneself. The exception to protect advocacy is “where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” with “imminent lawless action” having become the legal test. “Imminent,” of course, is not a precise term, but you can read here the history of Al-Awlaki’s “advocacy” and judge for yourself whether at this point he constitutes a danger of imminent lawless action. None of this you will read from Greenwald, for whom the complex tends to be inarguably simple.

In the current consideration – raised again by the Weigel incident – of what kind of journalism is superior, the traditional effort at an impossible objectivity or the acknowledgment to start of the biases at work, Greenwald does not offer a model case in support of the latter.

Update: Goldberg offers further response.

Update II: Greenwald replies to Goldberg’s initial response. As I anticipated, there will be no trip to Iraqi Kurdistan.

I’m not interested in an overly personalized exchange with Goldberg.

Along the way, Greenwald manages many unflattering juxtapositions to the Iraq War, including the Nazi invasion of various nations, in order to discount the relevance of how the Kurds may feel about the war, but these are not comparisons, he says. The Iraq War “may or may not be” comparable, “but that’s irrelevant” to his point. Still, it would take little effort to quickly concede “is not comparable” if that is what he thinks, though this would lead Greenwald into that gray world he prefers to live beyond. He even quotes Goldberg as having said that Greenwald has

an overly simplistic, black-and-white view of the situation

to which Greenwald responds

yes, I think unprovoked acts of aggression are clearly wrong; as lead Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson put it in his Closing Argument about the crimes of World War II:  “the kingpin which holds them all together, is the plot for aggressive wars.”

So we almost end with what certainly seems a comparison to Nazi aggression. I say almost end because though he had managed it till then, Greenwald in his closing sentence cannot resist dragging Israel into the matter, his point appearing to be that while the U.S. is wrong in what he considers an act of aggression, Israel is wrong even in self-defense.



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