Tag Archives: 2003 Iraq War

Taking Exception To American Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse:

America’s Role in a World Transformed (Metropolitan Books 2020)

Andrew Bacevich is one of America’s most relentless and astute critics of United States foreign policy and the role the American military plays in the contemporary world.  Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University and presently president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Bacevich is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who served in the United States Army for over 20 years, including a year in Vietnam.  In his most recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, which came out toward the end of 2020, Bacevich makes an impassioned plea for a smaller American military, a demilitarized and more humble US foreign policy, and more realistic assessments of US security and genuine threats to that security, along with greater attention to pressing domestic needs.  Linking these strands is Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role to play in maintaining world order and promoting American democratic values beyond its shores.

In February 2022, as I was reading, then writing and thinking about After the Apocalypse, Vladimir Putin continued amassing soldiers on the Ukraine border and threatening war before invading the country on the 24th.  Throughout the month, I found my views of Bacevich’s latest book taking form through the prism of events in Ukraine.   Some of the book’s key points — particularly on NATO, the role of the United States in European defense, and yes, Ukraine – seemed out of sync with my understanding of the facts on the ground and in need of updating. “Timely” did not appear to be the best adjective to apply to After the Apocalypse. 

Bacevich is a difficult thinker to pigeonhole.  While he sometimes describes himself as a conservative,  in After the Apocalypse he speaks the language of those segments of the political left that border on isolationist and recoil at almost all uses of American military force (these are two distinct segments: I find myself dependably in the latter camp but have little affinity with the former).  But Bacevich’s against-the-grain perspective is one that needs to be heard and considered carefully, especially when war’s drumbeat can be heard.

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Bacevich’s recommendations in After the Apocalypse for a decidedly smaller footprint for the United States in its relations with the world include a gradual US withdrawal from NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic, an “exercise in nostalgia, an excuse for pretending that the past is still present” (p.50).  Defending Europe is now “best left to Europeans” (p.50), he argues.   In any reasoned reevaluation of United States foreign policy priorities, moreover, Canada and Mexico should take precedence over European defense.  Threats to Canadian territorial sovereignty as the Artic melts “matter more to the United States than any danger Russia may pose to Ukraine” (p.169).

I pondered that sentence throughout February 2022, wondering whether Bacevich was at that moment as unequivocal about the United States’ lack of any geopolitical interest in Ukraine as he had been when he wrote After the Apocalypse.  Did he still maintain that the Ukraine-Russia conflict should be left to the Europeans to address?  Was it still his view that the United States has no business defending beleaguered and threatened democracies far from its shores?  The answer to both questions appears to be yes.  Bacevich has had much to say about the conflict since mid-February of this year, but I have been unable to ascertain any movement or modification on these and related points.

In an article appearing in the February 16, 2022, edition of The Nation, thus prior to the invasion, Bacevich described the Ukrainian crisis as posing “minimal risk to the West,” given that Ukraine “possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression.”  Rather than flexing its muscles in faraway places, the United States should be “modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order” and avoid “[s]tumbling into yet another needless war.”   In a nutshell, this is After the Apocalypse’s broad vision for American foreign policy. 

Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Bacevich wrote an OpEd for the Boston Globe characterizing the invasion as a “crime” deserving of “widespread condemnation,” but cautioning against a “rush to judgment.”  He argued that the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine, as evidenced by President Biden’s refusal to commit American military forces to the conflict.  But he argued more forcefully that the United States lacked clean hands to condemn the invasion, given its own war of choice in Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opinion and the “rules-based international order” (Bacevich’s quotation marks).  “[C]coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades,” he wrote.  “By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years,” he added, alluding most likely to the United States’ support for the 2013-14 “Euromaidan protests” which resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it had “effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.”

Bacevich’s article for The Nation also argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was alive and well in Ukraine, driving US policy.  Bacevich defined the idea hyperbolically as the “conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny,” with these ramifications:

We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People.  We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives . . . American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.

Much  of Bacevich’s commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects his impatience with short and selected historical memory.  Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Bacevich told Democracy Now in mid-March of this year, “was done in the face of objections by the Russians and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.”  Russia was then “weak” and “disorganized” and therefore it seemed to be a “low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives.”  While the United States may have been advancing the interests of Eastern European countries who “saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity,” American decision-makers after the fall of the Soviet Union nonetheless  “acted impetuously and indeed recklessly and now we’re facing the consequences.”

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“Short and selected historical memory” also captures Bacevich’s objections to the idea of American exceptionalism.  As he articulates throughout After the Apocalypse, the idea constitutes a whitewashed version of history, consisting “almost entirely of selectively remembered events” which come “nowhere near offering a complete and accurate record of the past” (p.13).  Recently-deceased former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s 1998 pronouncement that America resorts to military force because it is the “indispensable nation” which “stand[s] tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future” (p.6) may be the most familiar statement of American exceptionalism.  But versions of the idea that the United States has a special role to play in history and in the world have been entertained by foreign policy elites of both parties since at least World War II, with the effect if not intention of ignoring or minimizing the dark side of America’s global involvement.

 The darkest in Bacevich’s view is the 2003 Iraq war, a war of choice for regime change,  based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction.  After the Apocalypse returns repeatedly to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, but it is far from the only instance of intervention that fits uncomfortably with the notion of American exceptionalism. Bacevich cites the CIA-led coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, the “epic miscalculation” (p.24) of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and US complicity in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, not to mention the Vietnam war itself.  When commentators or politicians indulge in American exceptionalism, he notes, they invariably overlook these interventions.

A  telling example is an early 2020 article in  Foreign Affairs by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.  Under the altogether conventional title “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden contended that the United States had “created the free world” through victories in two World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote, “does not just define our past.  It will define our future, as well” (p.16).  Not surprisingly, the article omitted any reference to Biden’s support as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Biden had woven “past, present, and future into a single seamless garment” (p.16), Bacevich contends.  By depicting history as a “story of America rising up to thwart distant threats,” he had regurgitated a narrative to which establishment politicians “still instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions” (p.17) — a narrative that in Bacevich’s view “cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny” (p.16).  Redefining the United States’ “role in a world transformed,” to borrow from the book’s subtitle, will remain “all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United Sates is history’s chosen agent and recognize that the officials who call the shots in Washington are no more able to gauge the destiny of humankind than their counterparts in Berlin or Baku or Beijing” (p.7).

Although history might well mark Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an apocalyptic event and 2022 as an apocalyptic year, the “apocalypse” of Bacevich’s title refers to the year 2020, when several events brought into plain view the need to rethink American foreign policy.  The inept initial response to the Covid pandemic in the early months of that year highlighted the ever-increasing economic inequalities among Americans.  The killing of George Floyd demonstrated the persistence of stark racial divisions within the country.  And although the book appeared just after the presidential election of 2020, Bacevich would probably have included the assault on the US Capitol in the first week of 2021, rather than the usual transfer of presidential power, among the many policy failures that in his view made the year apocalyptic.  These failures, Bacevich intones:

 ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds.  The costs, approximately a trillion dollars annually, were too high.  The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media (p.3).

In addition to casting doubts on the continued viability of NATO and questioning any US interest in the fate of Ukraine, After the Apocalypse dismisses as a World War II era relic the idea that the United States belongs to a conglomeration of nations known as  “the West,” and that it should lead this conglomerate.  Bacevich advocates putting aside ”any residual nostalgia for a West that exists only in the imagination” (p.52).  The notion collapsed with the American intervention in Iraq, when the United States embraced an approach to statecraft that eschewed diplomacy and relied on the use of armed force, an approach to which Germany and France objected.   By disregarding their objections and invading Iraq, President George W. Bush “put the torch to the idea of transatlantic unity as a foundation of mutual security” (p.46).  Rather than indulging the notion that whoever leads “the West” leads the world, Bacevich contends that the United States would be better served by repositioning itself as a “nation that stands both apart from and alongside other members of a global community” (p.32).

After the apocalypse – that is, after the year 2020 – the repositioning that will redefine America’s role in a world transformed should be undertaken from what Bacevich terms a “posture of sustainable self-sufficiency” as an alternative to the present “failed strategy of military hegemony (p.166).   Sustainable self-sufficiency, he is quick to point out, is not a “euphemism for isolationism” (p.170).  The government of the United States “can and should encourage global trade, investment, travel, scientific collaboration, educational exchanges, and sound environmental practices” (p.170).  In the 21st century, international politics “will – or at least should – center on reducing inequality, curbing the further spread of military fanaticism, and averting a total breakdown of the natural world” (p.51).  But before the United States can lead on these matters, it “should begin by amending its own failings (p.51),” starting with concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide within the United States.

A substantial portion of After the Apocalypse focuses on how racial bias has infected the formulation of United States foreign policy from its earliest years.  Race “subverts America’s self-assigned role of freedom,” Bacevich writes.  “It did so in 1776 and it does so still today” (p.104).  Those who traditionally presided over the formulation of American foreign policy have “understood it to be a white enterprise.”  While non-whites “might be called upon to wage war,” he emphasizes, but “white Americans always directed it” (p.119).  The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to show the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States, plainly fascinates Bacevich.  The project in his view serves as an historically based corrective to another form of American exceptionalism, questioning the “very foundation of the nation’s political legitimacy” (p.155).

After the Apocalypse raises many salient points about how American foreign policy interacts with other priorities as varied as economic inequality, climate change, health care, and rebuilding American infrastructure.  But it leaves the impression that America’s relationships with the rest of the world have rested in recent decades almost exclusively on flexing American military muscle – the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Bacevich says little about what is commonly termed “soft power,” a fluid term that stands in contrast to military power (and in contrast to punitive sanctions of the type being imposed presently on Russia).  Soft power can include such forms of public diplomacy  as cultural and student exchanges, along with technical assistance, all of which   have a strong track record in quietly advancing US interests abroad.

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To date, five full weeks into the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has conspicuously rejected the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Early in the crisis, well before the February 24th invasion, President Biden took the military option off the table in defending Ukraine.  Although Ukrainians would surely welcome the deployment of direct military assistance on their behalf, as of this writing NATO and the Western powers are fighting back through stringent economic sanctions – diplomacy with a very hard edge – and provision of weaponry to the Ukrainians so they can fight their own battle, in no small measure to avoid a direct nuclear confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.

The notion of “the West” may have seemed amorphous and NATO listless prior to the Russian invasion.  But both appear reinvigorated and uncharacteristically united in their determination to oppose Russian aggression.  The United States, moreover, appears to be leading both, without direct military involvement but far from heavy-handedly, collaborating closely with its European and NATO partners.  Yet, none of Bacevich’s writings on Ukraine hint that the United States might be on a more prudent course this time.

Of course, no one knows how or when the Ukraine crisis will terminate.  We can only speculate on the long-term impact of the crisis on Ukraine and Russia, and on NATO, “the West,” and the United States.  Ukraine 2022 may well figure as a future data point in American exceptionalism, another example of the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” to borrow from President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article.  But it could also be one of the data points that its proponents choose to overlook.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 30, 2022

 

 

 

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Filed under American Politics, American Society, Eastern Europe, Politics

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

Judt.1

Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History

Neo-Conservatives: Not Always Right

Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons

Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Turned the Jewish Left Into the Neo-Conservative Right 

                                                   

 [Introductory Note:  This is another comment that splices together two earlier pieces: Helibrunn from 2009, Balint from 2011, when it was posted on my Facebook page.]

I’ve always been fascinated by the so-called “neo-conservatives,” many of whom are former leftists – even Marxists! — who gave a particular twist to American conservatism in the last decades of the 20th century.  Neo-conservatives are often credited – blamed is a better word from my perspective – for pushing President George W. Bush to launch the 2003 Iraq war.  Jacob Heilbrun’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons surveys the personalities which have driven the neo-conservative movement, particularly Norman Podhoretz and the late Irving Kristol.  Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Turned the Jewish Left Into the Neo-Conservative Right has a narrower focus, as the title suggests, on the evolution of Commentary, one of America’s most influential magazines.  However, there is considerable overlap between the two books.  Podhoretz served as editor of Commentary for more than three decades, from 1960 to 1995, and Kristol was a frequent contributor to the magazine up to his death in 2009.

Podhoretz and Kristol were sons of Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s and began their reflections on politics as anti-Stalinist Marxists.  Heilbrun argues that Podhoretz, Kristol, and their neo-conservative soul mates were cantankerous and unusually sure of the rightness of their convictions as lefties.  As they cast aside most of their old convictions, they maintained this same cantankerousness and certainty.  On their rightward journey, they made a brief stop with traditional anti-communist liberalism, perhaps best represented by the Americans for Democratic Action.  But by the 1960s, the liberal ADA consensus was falling apart, caused by such factors as the excesses of the decade’s counter culture; the anti-Americanism and nihilism of much Vietnam war protest; the isolationism that seemed to grip the Democratic party between 1968 and 1972; a black power movement which manifested anti-Semitic tendencies; and, especially, Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.  Israel’s victory, Heilbrun emphasizes, gave the “first real impetus to the birth of the modern neoconservative movement” (p.83).

From the late ‘60s onward, Kristol and Podhoretz began to preach more aggressive use of American power to oppose left-wing tyrannies and promote democratic values around the world.  Simultaneously, they became profoundly skeptical of the efficacy of centralized planning and collectivist action of the kind they had espoused as young Marxists.  Some time elapsed before they explicitly embraced the Republican party.  One subject I wish Heilbrun had elaborated upon is how Kristol and Podhoretz, as secular Jews, reconciled their views with those of the Christian fundamentalists who began to gain influence within the Republican Party during the Reagan presidency and maintain a pivotal role in today’s GOP.

This book is not only about Kristol and Podhoretz.  There are interesting portraits of Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, neither of whom bolted the Democratic Party, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who did (and in his later years, Moynihan backed away from many neo-conservative positions).  Heilbrun also includes portraits of such proponents of the Iraq war as Dick Chaney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and many more.  These portraits give portions of the book a People Magazine flavor.

But there’s no People Magazine flavor to the final portion, where Heilbrun discusses the Iraq war and delivers a scathing indictment of neo-conservatism.  Writing in 2008, Heilbrun surmised that neoconservative enthusiasm for the war had “quite possibly not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades” (p.274).  Four years later, this appears far too strong.  Although the discredited Iraq war was a central issue in the 2008 presidential election, that seems almost like ancient history in this election year.  Republican party candidate Mitt Romney seems to have taken his foreign policy positions from the neo-conservative playbook and strident conservatism of all stripes gives no sign of being ready to disappear.

At bottom, Heilbrun concludes, neo-consesrvatives are contrarians, far happier operating against the grain. They are  “temperamentally predisposed to seek extremes,” with a tendency to “scold, hector and denounce” (p.68).  Unfailingly certain of being always right, no matter how many times they changed their views over the years, it’s imperative for them to have, “somewhere, somehow, an enemy – both at home and abroad.  This suits their need to see themselves as lonely prophets standing in the breach between implacable foes on the one hand and weak-kneed liberals (and paper-pushing bureaucrats) on the other” (p.137).

Benjamin Balint shows how Commentary magazine has served as a vehicle for expression of Jewish-American thought from its beginning in 1946, with much reflection upon the role of Jews in the United States.  In its early post-war days, Commentary took decidedly liberal and progressive positions on public issues, from a mostly Jewish point of view.  Commentary was also firmly anti-communist, very much part of the liberal anti-Communist cold war consensus, with its style of “political pragmatism and moderation, its stress on incremental reform” (p.65).  Today, the Jewish viewpoint remains but Commentary has become a forum for neo-conservative thought, generally favorable to conservative and Republican Party positions, and largely contemptuous of liberal and Democratic positions.

In Balint’s study, the evolution of Commentary is itself a commentary on the acceptance and absorption of Jews into the American mainstream, where Jews discovered they could be fully Jewish and fully American at the same time.  Commentary’s evolution parallels that of Podhoretz, its editor in chief from 1960 to 1995.  Balint discusses some of the convulsions of the late 1960s and early 1970s which led Podhoretz and Commentary from the liberal left to the conservative right, much the same factors discussed in Heilbrun’s book.  By the mid-1970s, Balint recounts, the cast of mind of Commentary and Podhoretz was “fully formed and would remain firmly set” on the right side of the American political spectrum (p.134).

Balint summarizes Podhoretz’ left-right journey, and that of Commentary, as demonstrating how “deracinated outsiders had become insiders; under their own centripetal force they had thrust themselves from the margins to the inner most hub of American politics and letters” (p.203).  Less charitable is the view of an observer whom Balint quotes, that Commentary has come to reflect the views of “American Jews who have made it here and don’t want anyone rocking the boat” (p.115).  As one who does not share the neo-conservative persuasion, I found this view close to my own.  Still, the left-right evolution of Commentary is a fascinating story, which Balint details in a lively and breezy style, with scrupulous objectivity.

Thomas H. Peebles

July 29, 2012

Rockville, Maryland

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