Out of Power, Right-Wing Hawks Turn Dovish - Rolling Stone
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Out of Power, Right-Wing Hawks Turn Dovish

It’s been interesting, watching the seamless transition many conservatives seem to be making now, from brainless war-drum-beating to Randian isolationism. Six or seven or eight years ago, I seem to remember, anyone who even hinted that not using military force to resolve any foreign policy dispute, no matter how trivial or how imaginary the justification, was to be considered a traitor.

Now, all of the sudden, Republicans are on the outside looking in, and entering a presidential election season, they’ve suddenly decided to play the pacifist card. It makes sense, given the appalling and completely senseless bloodshed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and God knows where else, but it drives me crazy to see the same people who were waving pom-poms for the original invasions suddenly switch sides now.

I’m thinking in particular about New York Times boy-conservative columnist Ross Douthat, who just yesterday wrote a long column called “Rand and Rubio?”  about the sudden divide among conservatives on the use-of-force issue.

Years ago, Douthat was just another flag-waver gleefully pumping up the lie about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs and berating anyone who advised any other action beyond invasion. In late 2002, just after the vote giving Bush the authorization to go into Iraq, he wrote a column for the National Review about Iraq war debate on the Senate floor, and quoted this bit by Phil Gramm:

[Imagine] there’s this rattlesnake nesting in your rock garden. And our colleagues are saying, Well, look, if you go in there and you try to find that rattlesnake and try to kill him, he’s liable to bite you. And the probability of being bitten is lower if you leave him alone.

And for a short period of time, they’re right. There’s no doubt about the fact that if you put on your snake boots and you get rat-shot in your pistol and you go out there with a stick, you start poking around trying to find him, the probability during that period of time that you’re going to get bitten does go up.

But I think most rational people get their pistol and get that stick and go out there because that rattlesnake’s going to be out there for a long time …

About this idiotic gibberish, Douthat commented: “We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.” Then, in what was par for the course for conservative pundits back then, Douthat went on his obligatory rant about how glad we should all be that we had real men in office and not vacillating pacifists of the sort known (supposedly) to inhabit the other party. “At least no one was suggesting we put Jimmy Carter in charge,” he wrote, adding:

And what about [Carter]? Was it just a coincidence that he picked up his long-desired Nobel on the very day when a U.S. president somewhat less beloved in Oslo and sundry other smugly pacifist quarters was taking another step toward war with Iraq? Well, the Nobel judges denied that there was any connection . . . oh wait, no, they actually didn’t. In fact, in a shockingly brazen admission, the chairman of the Nobel committee, on Gunnar Berge, told the press that Carter’s victory “should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken,” and added that it’s “It’s a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States.”

Ah, those Nobel judges — so neutral, so unbiased, so apolitical! Still, at least Berge got the metaphor right. There’s nothing quite so petulant, so childish, so harmless and so worth ignoring as a “kick in the leg.”

Nothing so worth ignoring, as an objection that we rush into Iraq. He turns out to have been wrong about that, and admits that, sort of. But Douthat, like a lot of conservatives (and many Democrats, of course), appears to be taking the line that the source of his error lay in the fact that Saddam seemed to have weapons of mass destruction. Douthat has written extensively on the subject, saying repeatedly  that if you take WMDs out of the equation, the justification for war just wasn’t there, the implication being that he wouldn’t have been cheerleading so hard without the WMD factor:

But the pre-war debate revolved around weapons of mass destruction for a reason: It was “the one reason everyone could agree on,” as Paul Wolfowitz famously put it …. Strip away Saddam’s (supposed) rearmament and the imminent threat it (supposedly) posed, and the fact that you had nine other “here’s why this might be a good idea” reasons for war did not a strong-enough justication for war make.

And how was it that people like Douthat came to believe that Saddam had WMDs? It turns out that it was because Saddam Hussein was tricking the world into believing he had them. In a review of the Matt Damon movie Green Zone a while back, Douthat complained that the liberal-slanted film spent too much time pushing the idea that “we” were “lied” to:

“The ‘we’ is the audience, Matt Damon’s stoic soldier and the perpetually innocent American public. The ‘they’ is the neoconservatives, embodied by a weaselly Greg Kinnear … capable of any enormity in the pursuit of their objectives.”

According to Douthat, the real liar in the movie shouldn’t have been Greg Kinnear’s neoconservative, but Saddam Hussein:

The narrative of the Iraq invasion, properly told, resembles a story out of Shakespeare… You had Saddam Hussein himself, the dictator in his labyrinth, apparently convinced that pretending to have W.M.D. was the best way to keep his grip on power.

If you follow the syllogistic construction here: Ross Douthat wouldn’t have been waving pom-poms for the Iraq war and berating the pacifists who opposed it were it not for the WMD issue. Andhe apparently believed that Saddam had WMDs not because the Bush administration doctored the intelligence, or because we were just a bunch of hyperaggressive, greedy assholes grasping for any reason to stick our flag in the middle of one of the world’s largest oil preserves, but because Saddam Hussein fooled all of us.

I bring this up because Douthat for some time now has been wearing the cloak of foreign-policy prudence and reserve, as though he wasn’t at one time the guy talking about shooting the rattlesnake first and asking questions later.

“Ultimately, though, what the war in Iraq has really impressed upon me is the bluntness of military force as an instrument of state,” he wrote last year, “and the difficulty of predicting any of the long-term consequences that flow from a decision to make war.”

And yesterday, comparing the war-and-more-war position of Florida’s Marco Rubio and the Randian isolationism of Rand Paul, Douthat wrote:

The country is weary of war, but the story Rubio tells, with eloquence and passion, is still tremendously appealing — the story of a great republic armed and righteous, with no limits on what it can accomplish in the world.

This is a story that many conservatives — and many Americans — want to believe. Once, I believed it myself.

But that was many years and many wars ago, and now I think Rand Paul is right.

Look, people are entitled to have changes of heart. They are also entitled to learn from experience. And most importantly, people are entitled to be wrong. We all are, from time to time. And if people like Ross Douthat emerge from the experience of observing the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascoes finally understanding “the bluntness of war as an instrument of state” and the “difficulty of predicting” any war’s “long-term consequences,” that’s great. I applaud it.  

But I don’t buy it. What happened back in ’02 and ’03 isn’t can’t be summarized as simply as a simple policy disagreement that Douthat, through the folly of inexperience, happened to be on the wrong side of. The mere fact that the Douthats of the world supported the war wasn’t what made them so obnoxious.

Much more important was the shameless witch-hunting of antiwar voices, and the impugning of the patriotism of people who advocated the very sort of caution Douthat now claims to endorse. Douthat, remember, contributed to the National Review’s obnoxiously-titled “Kumbaya Watch,” pitched as “the latest in anti-American commentary from the left.” In that column he hounded critics of the president and/or those who didn’t advocate immediate war against the Muslims, and wondered aloud about the political bias of organizations like ABC News (they wouldn’t let their reporters wear American flag lapel pins!).

The recent conversions to the cause of foreign-policy prudence by people like Douthat would be obnoxious even if they were believable. It’s easy to respect the position of someone like Ron Paul – he’s been against the war from the start, and for the same reasons throughout.

But people like Douthat didn’t start becoming pacifists until a) the occupation of Iraq went south, helping derail the Bush presidency, and b) Barack Obama became president and started taking ownership of new adventures in places like Libya. Before then, he was just another jingoistic twit doing the “Gooble, gooble, one of us!”chant on the march to war.

And let’s be honest. Even a child could have seen, back then, that the whole WMD thing was, transparently, total bullshit and a canard – that they were going in to Iraq anyway, for other reasons, no matter what the intelligence said or didn’t say. I mean, for God’s sake, Bush was trying to convince us that Saddam was going to use unmanned drones to spray poison gas over American cities – drones that would have been launched from Saddam’s giant secret fleet of aircraft carriers, apparently. What adult person actually believed this stuff?

All of this was obviously ridiculous at the time, but when anyone tried to point that out, people like Douthat put us on “Kumbaya watch,” questioned our allegiances, called us Muslim collaborators, etc., etc. Now they want to talk about prudence and the “long-term consequences” of war? Bite me.  


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