The Joan Walsh Syndrome 

Joan Walsh, the political editor who appears often on MSNBC with Chris Matthews, is emblematic, for me, of a type I know all too well: the well-meaning Bay Area liberal. Her politics exemplify the psychology of our opinion elites who got behind Barack Obama in a big way. Exuding reasonableness from every pore, she radiates a kind of diffuse benevolence modified only by a slight wrinkling of the brow – a measure of her concern that someone, somewhere, is suffering from an overlooked injustice. As President Obama takes on the burden of office, and, in the process, sheds his campaign promises like yesterday’s fashions, it’s fascinating to observe the reaction of his most ardent supporters, of which it is fair to say Ms. Walsh is one.  

In a recent review of Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks’ recent tome, The Gamble, Walsh suddenly discovers that the “surge” in Iraq was a success, and berates herself for ever having opposed it. General Petraeus, the architect of the Bush administration’s newly aggressive – albeit “smart” – strategy, is portrayed as an heroic innovator, who ignored liberal critics like herself – and, to whom she delivers a gentle slap for famously calling him “General Betray-us.” Against all these liberal voices, Petraeus, she avers, went on to achieve an “inspiring” victory over the forces of Darkness in Iraq. Walsh contrasts a picture of an “incompetent” war, waged by Bushian “knaves and buffoons,” to one that deserves admiration if not quite whole-hearted support on account of the men who lead it: Petraeus, retired Gen. Jack Keane, and Gen. Raymond Odierno. Commander-in-chief Obama goes unmentioned, but you get the idea.

In any case, you have a “responsibility” to read the Ricks book, Walsh avers, in order to “have some of your prejudices challenged.”  

It’s a “prejudice,” you see – not a considered opinion – that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan should never have been launched to begin with, no matter how “smart” the strategy employed nor how “inspiring” the leadership.  

The Petraeus clique, we are told, was “appalled” by Abu Ghraib and other abuses, because it widened the insurgency and backfired in our faces: perhaps their objections didn’t quite attain the high moral tone of liberal concerns, but, heck, the result was the same. In any event, Petraeus and his co-thinkers launched “their own insurgency,” says Walsh, to wrest “control of the disastrous war as it spiraled out of control in 2006.”  

Heaven forfend that the Americans should lose control of their conquered province – or of anything, for that matter. Liberal, conservative, left or right, when you’re talking about America, it really makes no difference – Yankee arrogance is a well-nigh universal trait no matter where one sits on the political spectrum.  

The real clue as to where Walsh’s sympathies lie is her description of the Brave New Strategy of Petraeus and his confreres: 

“In a near-complete strategic turnaround, surge adherents argued that the way to victory was not killing as many Iraqis as possible but protecting them, building alliances by respecting Iraqi culture and religion.” 

One imagines a contingent of US soldiers showing up in a village and announcing: “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you!”  

It is the domestic mantra of the Obama administration transferred to the international scene. What could make a Bay Area liberal happier?  

Yes, but what about ostensible liberal opposition to the war, and to the interventionist policies of the previous administration? Well, that’s not so important anymore, except to wild-eyed radicals like 

“If you were a fan of MoveOn’s “General Betray Us” ad – I was not – you might have a hard time with Ricks’ high praise for Petraeus’ counterinsurgency planning and execution. He doesn’t idealize Petraeus, he shows us his ambition and quotes skeptics and critics, but it’s hard not to come away admiring what the controversial general accomplished in just two years. I had a harder time with the way Ricks lionized Gen. Jack Keane and his friends at American Enterprise Institute, the neocon think tank partly responsible for the disastrous Iraq war. I remember making fun of AEI’s color-coded, Google-mapped surge sales brochure back in 2006, as well as its “neighborhood watch” approach to pacifying Iraq. It was tough for me to believe that one set of plans hatched at AEI destroyed Iraq, while another might begin to heal it.” 

MoveOn is dissed as a collection of ill-mannered malcontents, while AEI, the War Party’s high command, is praised as a bastion of healers. The mind reels. Not since the breaking of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the overnight transformation of America’s fellow travelers from opponents of war to brazen jingoes, have we seen the likes of this.  

According to Walsh, the new policy, spearheaded by Petraeus, is more “realistic.” Gone are the effusive paeans to implanting democracy in the arid Middle Eastern soil, replaced by promises of eventual departure: 

“Ricks thinks Petraeus stated the new goals to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in April 2008: ‘We’re not after Jeffersonian democracy. We’re after conditions that would let our soldiers disengage.'” 

We’re there so we can leave. True enough – in Bizarro World.  

And here I thought I’d heard it all. Although, on second thought, haven’t we heard this somewhere before?  

Ah yes, now I remember: it was during the Vietnam war, when Lyndon Baines Johnson (and, later, Richard Nixon), rationalized the prosecution of a futile conflict waged under false pretenses on the grounds that we had to stabilize the South Vietnamese government as a prelude to drawing down troop levels.  

Yes, those were the bad old days when the Democrats were prosecuting an unpopular war, and the President of the United States was daily met with taunts of “Hey, hey, LBJ – how many kids did you kill today?”  

Those days, I’m afraid, seem to have returned, complete with Hubert Humphrey-style liberals of the Joan Walsh mode defending the administration against its Republican critics: 

“Petraeus’ restraint makes Sen. John McCain sound deranged when, during the presidential campaign, he promised we were on the verge in Iraq of gaining ‘a strong, stable, democratic ally against terrorism and a strong ally against an aggressive and radical Iran.'” 

Oh, those wild and crazy Republicans! The war aims of the new administration are much more modest: occupation lite.

It’s astonishing how quickly this administration’s supporters have taken up the cudgels in defending Obama’s war. Although perhaps Walsh did not choose the title of her piece, surely the editors of – the quintessential avatars of white-wine-and-brie liberalism – know what they’re about: “This war is our war.”  

It sure is, and it’s amazing how well it suits them – the role of apologists for mass murder and military occupation, that is.  

Throughout her article, Walsh keeps insisting she still wants US troops out of Iraq, and disagrees with Ricks’ conclusion that we must stay until 2015. Yet before she’s done the very concept of withdrawal begins to blur, in her mind, as it will in the minds of countless Obama-ites who will defend this administration ‘til the cows come home: 

“Appraising the difference between my conclusions and Ricks’ at the end of ‘The Gamble,’ I found myself thinking about the old adage, ‘Where you stand depends on where you sit.’ Ricks spent a lot of time sitting in (and courageously running around) Iraq and American military bases, admiring and respecting the courage and intelligence of the men and women who’ve turned this mess around as best they can, and he understandably doesn’t want their work to be in vain. I’m sitting in my office in California, where teachers and other public workers are facing furloughs and layoffs, and poverty, homelessness and crime are on the rise. So I still want troops out of Iraq as soon as possible. But reading this well-reported book may have changed even my notion of what that means.” 

Walsh may be for getting out of Iraq, but she considers this a “prejudice” – after all, where you stand depends on where you sit. Everything’s relative. Ricks may be right, for all we know. Why didn’t AEI’s plan for the surge turn out to be “healing”? And what does getting out of Iraq really mean, anyway? As Walsh puts it: “A lot depends on the meaning of ‘leave’ – as well as on the meaning of the term ‘combat troops.'” 

When you stop being a journalist, and start being an apologist for the regime, words cease to have any real meaning. They become a means to evade, not clarify, to flee from truth rather than reveal it. As Orwell put it

“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” 

Sheer humbug is what animates the Joan Walsh Syndrome, an ideological illness that has become pandemic among liberals since inauguration day, 2009. While Walsh is crying real tears over those overpaid, under-worked, and all too numerous “public workers” who have to take off two days a month without pay, 17,000 American “public workers” – the kind that come armed with guns and bombs – are being sent to Afghanistan by the One. About that she has nothing to say.  

Elsewhere in Salon, Walsh defends the Obama administration on another front: its apparent policy of continuing the Bushian (and Clintonian) practice of “rendition,” i.e. sending “war on terror” detainees to a country that will surely subject them to torture. Obama’s CIA will also, in certain instances, employ “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the sort employed by the KGB and the Gestapo. Walsh argues that, although the administration has stated what they might do, they haven’t quite done it yet, and so never mind. This is a variation of the “give Obama a chance” argument – after all, he doesn’t really mean it. It is also an indication of how quickly intellectual and moral corruption sets it the moment one becomes a servant of Power.  


If you go to the front page, you’ll see what looks to be our final appeal to our readers to rescue from oblivion. I don’t have a lot to add to that: it’s an appeal that clearly speaks for itself. I would only add that, unlike the suddenly silenced body of liberal “antiwar” opinion, we at have plenty to say about Obama’s war, and we are determined to say it no matter what the cost. Antiwar liberals, libertarians, and conservatives whose eyes are beginning to open need to speak out – and make sure the voices of dissent aren’t quelled in the age of Obama, where “unity” for its own sake is loudly insisted on. To heck with “unity”: US Out of Iraq and Afghanistan! Bring all our troops home now.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].