Neoconservative pundits have a tendency to assert that something is true even if it is not and then repeat the assertion over and over again to give it credibility. Repeating a statement without subjecting it to any critical analysis is generally regarded as little more than a rhetorical gimmick. Last week’s New York Times featured two splendid pieces by neocon attack dogs Bill Kristol and David Brooks that show just how far it is possible to twist reality when supporting the Bush administration policies in Iraq.
David Brooks worked for Kristol at The Weekly Standard before joining the Times as its resident compassionate conservative. The soft-spoken and somewhat diffident Brooks is far cleverer than the smirking and arrogant Kristol, and he is better able to wrap his arguments in a social and ethical context that often appears to be convincing. But both he and his former boss are classic neoconservatives with the usual tunnel vision about the outside world. Both back John McCain for president, both still support the Iraq war, both are passionate about Israel, both approve of torture and until recently Guantanamo, and both favor a military option against Iran. There is no separation between them on most political issues.
Kristol’s piece, "Someone Else’s Alex," is the more ridiculous of the two. Kristol, who has never served his country in uniform and comes from a family that is much more inclined to heft a pencil than a rifle, frequently begins his articles by noting his reverence for the military, as if that validates his point of view. His article is an attack on MoveOn’s latest Iraq ad, and he begins by citing a previous MoveOn ad that "slandered" Gen. David Petraeus by referring to him as "General Betray Us." The citation of the previous ad’s alleged character assassination of the general is clearly intended to set the tone of the piece, which is a red-blooded exhortation to go to war to defend the homeland and all that we hold dear. Wrapping oneself in the flag in the beginning sets the proper tone, at least for Kristol and whatever audience he appeals to at the New York Times.
Kristol then goes on to excoriate the MoveOn ad’s presentation of a mother with her infant son, Alex. In the ad, the woman addresses John McCain and tells him that he can’t have Alex for his hundred years of war in Iraq. Kristol notes impishly that Alex would only be nine years old when John McCain leaves office, so he could not possibly serve in the army under President McCain, and, besides, there is no draft, so he wouldn’t have to go. Kristol then likens an extended Iraq occupation to Korea, Germany, and Japan and quotes what he describes as an actual mother of a soldier who complains that Alex’s mom wants "other people’s sons to keep the wolves at bay so that her son can live a life of complete narcissism." Yes, she reportedly said narcissism probably including such un-American activities as reading poetry, eating Chinese takeout, and writing letters to the editor saying that the French are not really so bad. Kristol tap dances a bit more on that theme and then concludes that the MoveOn ad is "barely disguised in its disdain for those who have chosen to serve" while noting inter alia a number of times that the U.S. has a volunteer military.
Kristol’s sensitivity about his own lack of any military experience in spite of his hawkish views can be noted in his strident support of volunteerism. At one point he says "the choice not to serve should carry no taint." A bit defensive, no? Does Kristol deep down feel somewhat tainted? And he of course builds his central argument against MoveOn on a false premise, i.e., that there are existential threats out there, "wolves" that have to be kept "at bay" by sending young Americans to the Middle East to fight. If the past seven years have taught us anything, it is that the contrary is much more likely true, that the real threat to our nation and its people comes precisely from going to places we are not wanted and we do not understand to fight other people’s battles. Kristol ascribes base motives and cowardice to those who do not defend their country in the wars that he and his friends choose to initiate but not to fight, and he makes the illogical leap of suggesting that the critics are disdainful of those who do serve.
David Brooks, in "The Bush Paradox," takes a different approach. His central thesis is that President Bush’s stubborn nature, his self-confidence, and his "unwillingness to admit defeat" has served him in good stead as he has defied advice and supported a surge that has brought success in Iraq. Brooks invariably looks for a clever way to package something simple, and, in this case, he is saying that Bush’s character flaw actually is his strength in the current context. He goes on to describe how when Bush repressed his instincts and listened to his more cautious generals and advisers he made mistakes in Iraq. Per Brooks, he had to reject the conventional wisdom and, relying on his own judgment, turn to a Pantheon of heroes named Petraeus, Odierno, McCain, Cheney, and the ubiquitous Fred Kagan to make things right. The selfsame Bush who made "bad calls" early on in the war "made a courageous and astute decision in 2006" to support the surge. Brooks dismisses the war critics by noting that they have been wrong in their own assessments of the progress being made, that "if the U.S. had withdrawn in the depths of the chaos, the world would be in worse shape today."
Brooks carefully avoids the issue of why America is fighting in Iraq at all. He is oblivious to the frightful devastation that the United States has inflicted on Iraq and its people. "The chaos" in Iraq it did not happen by chance; it was the gift of the White House and its frequently befuddled chief executive officer, whom Brooks is now praising for his steadfastness. He skates over the deliberate lies and deceptions that came out of the Bush administration to sell a war that was completely unnecessary. He also does not even touch on what has been produced in Iraq. The government of Nouri al-Maliki leans closer to Tehran than it does to Washington. It is corrupt and ineffective and does not even govern in any real sense. The divisions that have riven Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein have not disappeared, nor has the country become a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. International terrorism has not gone away. So much for 1 million Iraqi lives lost, more than 4,000 dead Americans, and trillions of dollars wasted. How does Brooks explain all that away? He doesn’t even try.
Opening the New York Times and reading Brooks and Kristol is like being neoconned again twice a week. One wonders how pundits who have been wrong so many times continue to have a distinguished platform to present their nonsense. It is no better over at the other "newspaper of record," the Washington Post, where Robert Kagan and the venomous Charles Krauthammer perform regularly. All four neocon pundit-experts also frequently enlighten the public on television, particularly on Fox News. It is not too late to recognize that these people have been wrong about nearly everything and have done irreparable damage to the United States. That they are clever and glib and represent themselves falsely as "conservatives" is not enough reason to continue to put up with them. The neocons should collectively apologize for what they have done, fold their tents, and disappear from America’s newspapers and television screens. Unfortunately, there is no chance that that will happen.