Oh, it was glorious fun, yielding the kind of satisfaction that us anti-interventionists rarely get to enjoy: not one but two prominent neoconservatives who have been wrong about everything for the past decade – yet never held accountable – getting taken down on national television. Tucker Carlson, whose show is a shining light of reason in a fast-darkening world, has performed a public service by demolishing both Ralph Peters and Max Boot on successive shows. But these two encounters with evil weren’t just fun to watch, they’re also highly instructive for what they tell us about the essential weakness of the War Party and its failing strategy for winning over the American people.
Tucker’s first victim was Ralph Peters, an alleged “military expert” who’s been a fixture on Fox News since before the Iraq war, of which he was a rabid proponent. Tucker starts out the program by noting that ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a Russian airstrike and that the talk in Washington is now moving away from defeating ISIS and focusing on Iran as the principal enemy. He asks why is this? Why not take a moment to celebrate the death of Baghdadi and acknowledge that we have certain common interests with the Russians?
Peters leaps into overstatement, as is his wont: “We can’t have an alliance with terrorists, and the Russians are terrorists. They’re not Islamists, but they are terrorists.” He then alleges that the Russians aren’t really fighting ISIS, but instead are bombing hospitals, children, and “our allies” (i.e. the radical Islamist Syrian rebels trained and funded by the CIA and allied with al-Qaeda and al-Nusra). The Russians “hate the United States,” and “we have nothing in common with the Russians” –nothing!” The Russians, says Peters, are paving the way for the Iranians – the real evil in the region – to “build up an empire from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.” Ah yes, the “Shia crescent” which the Israelis and their amen corner in the US have been warning against since before the Iraq war. Yet Tucker points out that over 3,000 Americans have been killed by terrorists in the US, and “none of them are Shi’ites: all of [these terrorists] have been Sunni extremists who are supported by the Saudis who are supposed to be our allies.” And while we’re on the subject: “Why,” asks Tucker, “if we’re so afraid of Iran did we kill Saddam Hussein, thereby empowering Iran?”
“Because we were stupid,” says Peters.
Oh boy! Peters was one of the most militant advocates of the Iraq war: we were “stupid,” I suppose, to listen to him. Yet Tucker lets this ride momentarily, saving his big guns for the moment when he takes out Peters completely. And Peters walks right into it when Tucker wonders why we can’t cooperate with Russia, since both countries are under assault from Sunni terrorists:
“PETERS: You sound like Charles Lindbergh in 1938 saying Hitler hasn’t attacked us.
“TUCKER: I beg your pardon? You cannot compare me to somebody who makes apologies for Hitler. And I don’t think Putin is comparable.
“PETERS: I think Putin is.
“TUCKER: I think it is a grotesque overstatement actually. I think it’s insane.
“PETERS: Fine, you can think it’s insane all you want.”
For the neocons, it’s always 1938. The enemy is always the reincarnation of Hitler, and anyone who questions the wisdom of war is denounced as an “appeaser” in the fashion of Neville Chamberlain or Lindbergh. Yet no one ever examines and challenges the assumption behind this rhetorical trope, which is that war with the enemy of the moment – whether it be Saddam Hussein, the Iranian ayatollahs, or Vladimir Putin – is inevitable and imminent. If Putin is Hitler, and Russia is Nazi Germany, then we must take the analogy all the way and assume that we’ll be at war with the Kremlin shortly.
After all, Charles Lindbergh’s opponents in the great debate of the 1940s openly said that Hitler, who posed an existential threat to the West, had to be destroyed, and that this goal could not be achieved short of war. Of course, Franklin Roosevelt pretended that this wasn’t so, and pledged repeatedly that we weren’t going to war, but secretly he manipulated events so that war was practically inevitable. Meanwhile, the more honest elements of the War Party openly proclaimed that we had to aid Britain and get into the war.
Is this what Peters and his gaggle of neocons are advocating – that we go to war with nuclear-armed Russia and annihilate much of the world in a radioactive Armageddon? It certainly seems that way. The Hitler-Lindbergh trope certainly does more than merely imply that.
Clearly riled by the attempt to smear him, Tucker, the neocon slayer, then moves in for the kill:
“I would hate to go back and read your columns assuring America that taking
out Saddam Hussein will make the region calmer, more peaceful, and America safer,
when in fact it has been the opposite and it has empowered Russia and Iran,
the two countries you say you fear most – let’s be totally honest, we don’t
always know the outcomes.
”They are not entirely predictable so maybe we should lower that a little bit rather than calling people accommodationist.”
This is what the neocons hate: reminding them of their record is like showing a vampire a crucifix. Why should we listen to Peters, who’s been wrong about everything for decades? Peters’ response is the typical neocon riposte to all honest questions about their policies and record: you’re a traitor, you’re “cheering on Vladimir Putin!” To which Tucker has the perfect America Firster answer:
“I’m cheering for America as always. Our interests ought to come first and to the extent that making temporary alliances with other countries serves our interests, I’m in favor of that. Making sweeping moral claims – grotesque ones – comparing people to Hitler advances the ball not one inch and blinds us to reality.”
Peters has no real argument, and so he resorts to the method that’s become routine in American politics: accuse your opponent of being a foreign agent. Tucker, says Peters, is an “apologist” not only for Putin but also for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Again, Tucker answers smears with cold logic:
“So because I’m asking rational questions about what’s best for America I’m a friend to strongmen and dictators? That is a conversation stopper, not a beginning of a rational conversation. My only point is when Syria was run by Assad 10% of the population was Christian and they lived in relative peace.”
And that’s really the whole point: the War Party wants to stop the conversation. They don’t want a debate – when, really, have we ever had a fair debate in this country over foreign policy? They depend on fear, innuendo, and ad hominem “arguments” to drag us into war after war – and Tucker is having none of it.
So why is any of this important? After all, it’s just a TV show, and as amusing as it is to watch a prominent neocon get creamed, what doe it all mean in the end? Well, it matters because Tucker didn’t start out talking sense on foreign policy. He started out, in short, as a conventional conservative, but then something happened. As he put it to Peters at the end of the segment:
“I want to act in America’s interest and stop making shallow, sweeping claims about countries we don’t fully understand and hope everything will be fine in the end. I saw that happen and it didn’t work.”
What’s true isn’t self-evident, at least to those of us who aren’t omniscient. Many conservatives, as well as the country as a whole, learned something as they saw the disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria unfold. On the right, many have rejected the neoconservative “idealism” that destroyed the Middle East and unleashed ISIS. When Donald Trump stood before the South Carolina GOP debate and told the assembled mandarins that we were lied into the Iraq war, the chattering classes declared that he was finished – yet he won that primary, and went on to win the nomination, precisely because Republican voters were ready to hear that message.
Indeed, Trump’s “America First” skepticism when it comes to foreign wars made the crucial difference in the election, as a recent study shows: communities hard hit by our endless wars put him over the top in the key states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This, and not “Russian meddling,” handed him the White House.
Tucker Carlson’s ideological evolution limns the transformation of the American right in the age of Trump: while Trump is not, by a long shot, a consistent anti-interventionist, Tucker comes pretty close. He is, at least, a realist with a pronounced antipathy for foreign adventurism, and that is a big step forward from the neoconservative orthodoxy that has bathed much of the world in blood.
If the demolition of Ralph Peters was the cake, then the meltdown of neoconservative ideologue Max Boot the next evening was the frosting, with ice cream on the side.
Perhaps the neocons, having been trounced in round one, thought Boot could do better: they were mistaken. Tucker took him apart simply by letting him talk: Boot didn’t answer a single question put to him, and, in the course of it all, as Boot resorted to the typical ad hominems, Tucker made a cogent point:
“[T]o dismiss people who
disagree with you as immoral – which is your habit – isn’t a useful form of
debate, it’s a kind of moral preening, and it’s little odd coming from you,
who really has been consistently wrong in the most flagrant and flamboyant way
for over a decade. And so, you have to sort of wonder, like –
”BOOT: What have I been wrong about, Tucker? What have I been wrong about?
”CARLSON: Well, having watch you carefully and known you for a long time, I recall vividly when you said that if we were to topple the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, the region will be much safer and the people who took their place would help us in the global war on terror. Of course it didn’t happen –“
Boot starts to completely melt down at this point, screeching “You supported the Iraq war!” To which Tucker trenchantly replies:
“I’ve been wrong about a ton of things, you try to learn your lesson. But when you get out there in the New York Times and say, we really should have done more to depose Qaddafi, because you know, Libya is going to be better when that happens. And then to hear you say we need to knock off the Assad regime and things will be better in Syria, he sort of wonder like, well, maybe we should choose another professions. Selling insurance, something you’re good at. I guess that’s kind of the point. Are there no sanctions for being as wrong as you have?”
Why oh why should we listen to Peters and Boot and their fellow neocons, who have been – literally – dead wrong about everything: their crackbrained ideology has led to untold thousands of deaths since September 11, 2001 alone. And for what?
In the end, Boot falls back on the usual non-arguments: Tucker is “immoral” because he denies that Trump is a Russian agent, and persists in asking questions about our foreign policy of endless intervention in the Middle East. Tucker keeps asking why Boot thinks Russia is the main threat to the United States, and Boot finally answers: “Because they are the only country that can destroy us with a nuclear strike.”
To a rational person, the implications of this are obvious: in that case, shouldn’t we be trying to reach some sort of détente, or even achieve a degree of cooperation with Moscow? Oh, but no, because you see the Russians are inherently evil, we have “nothing” in common with them – in which case, war is inevitable.
At which point, Tucker avers: “Okay. I am beginning to think that your judgment has been clouded by ideology, I don’t fully understand where it’s coming from but I will let our viewers decide.”
I know where it’s coming from. Tucker’s viewers may not know that Boot is a Russian immigrant, who – like so many of our Russophobic warmongers – arrived on our shores with his hatred of the motherland packed in his suitcase. There’s a whole platoon of them: Cathy Young, who recently released her polemic arguing for a new cold war with Russia in the pages of Reason magazine; Atlantic writer and tweeter of anti-Trump obscenities Julia Ioffe, whose visceral hatred for her homeland is a veritable monomania; Gary Kasparov, the former chess champion who spends most of his energy plotting revenge against Vladimir Putin and a Russian electorate that has consistently rejected his hopeless presidential campaigns, and I could go on but you get the picture.
As the new cold war envelopes the country, wrapping us in its icy embrace and freezing all rational discussion of foreign policy, a few people stand out as brave exceptions to the groupthinking mass of the chattering classes: among the most visible and articulate are Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, journalist Michael Tracey, Prof. Stephen Cohen, and of course our own Ron Paul. I tip my hat to them, in gratitude and admiration, for they represent the one thing we need right now: hope. The hope that this madness will pass, that we’ll beat back this latest War Party offensive, and enjoy a return to what passes these days for normalcy.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.