Tag Archives: 2003 Iraq War

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction



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.”

      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.

* * *

      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.


      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


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


Filed under History, Politics