Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Best Defense....

Jonathan Chait has a brilliantly disingenuous piece in The New Republic today, the sole purpose of which is to criticize those who criticized TNR for publishing made-up stories by Scott Beauchamp about the soldiers in Iraq. Making the decision that the best defense is offense, Chait begins attacking Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard, arguing that their criticism of TNR's decision to publish Beauchamp's stories are indicative of the descent of neoconservatism from "idealism and liberalism" to a "noxious residue of bullying militarism." It starts out thusly:
The topic was The New Republic's decision to publish an essay by Scott Beauchamp, an American soldier serving in Iraq, detailing some repugnant acts he said he and his comrades committed. Legitimate questions have been raised about this essay's veracity. (We've been publishing updates on our continuing efforts to get answers to them at tnr.com.) But Kristol rushed past these questions, immediately declaring the piece a "fiction."
Let's be honest - they're more than just "legitimate questions." At least a third of his story has proven to be entirely false - the incident with the disfigured woman occurred - if at all - in Kuwait, before he was even in Iraq. What's more, TNR has been far from forthcoming on their investigation - blaming everyone from the military to conservative bloggers for impeding their own, in-house investigation. In fact, and I admit to not having read everything everyone at TNR has said about this scandal, but Chait's line here is the first I've seen from someone at TNR admitting that the questions have any legitimacy at all. When he admitted that the incident with the disfigured woman occurred in Kuwait and not Iraq, editor Frank Foer simply left it at that, as if all it was was a discrepancy in location - no mention of that fact that this revelation cast doubt on Beauchamp's entire argument.

Chait then levels a number of charges at Kristol to back up this accusation. First, Kristol's response to the Beauchamp scandal "provides a full summary of the decrepit intellectual state of neoconservatism."
First, there is Kristol's curious premise that TNR only published this essay because we have "turned against" the war. If Beauchamp's writings were TNR's attempt to discredit the war, why would his first contribution describe a pro-American Iraqi boy savagely mutilated by insurgents? For that matter, why would we work to undermine the war by publishing a first-person account on the magazine's back page rather than taking the more straightforward step of, say, editorializing for withdrawal?

The notion that TNR published a Diarist merely for the edification of readers, rather than to advance a political agenda, did not occur to Kristol, because he could not imagine doing any such thing himself. He once explained his belief in the philosopher Leo Strauss to journalist Nina Easton thusly: "One of the main teachings is that all politics are limited and none of them is really based on the truth." Whether or to what degree Beauchamp's Diarist is true could not matter less to him.
TNR has Beauchamp's previous stories behind a subscriber firewall, so I can't read the entire story about the Iraqi boy. I would need to know more about the story in order to know what position on the war, if any, the story put forth, but writing about a boy mutilated by terrorists does not a pro-war story make. If we were to assume recognizing the savagery of terrorists equaled support for the war, there would be (almost) no one opposing the war in Iraq. But let's say it was a resolutely pro-war story - a number of questions have been raised by the Weekly Standard, among others, about that story as well. You would think that would mean the Weekly Standard cared more about being accurate than supporting its position on the war. Not according to Chait.
Two years ago, my colleague Lawrence Kaplan--who once co-authored, with Kristol, a book arguing for the war--wrote a poignant cover story describing how the dream of creating a liberal Arab state had died. Kristol, naturally, denounced his inconvenient observation. "The fact remains that it is today more possible than ever before to envision a future in which the Middle East and the Muslim world truly are transformed," he insisted. "For this, no one will deserve more credit than George W. Bush." Of course, this was an opinion, not a "fact." But the failure to distinguish between fact and opinion is typical of his mentality.
Good grief. I guess this is supposed to illustrate how Kristol and the Weekly Standard get fact and opinion muddled and wouldn't care so much if a pro-war story turned out to be fabricated. To back this claim, Chait takes a Kristol quote where he utilizes a figure of speech to make it look like he didn't know the difference between his own opinions and fact. "The fact remains..." is used all the time with opinion statements. And this is Chait's damning evidence of Kristol's alleged distaste for facts?

Of course, I can't tell you the context of this quote. Did Kristol "denounce" Kaplan? Or, as this quote suggests, did he simply disagree with him? The Kristol quote does not appear anywhere else on the internet besides this story from Chait. Was it in a Weekly Standard article that has been taken down? Was it on Fox News or some other program? You'd still think there'd be a transcript. Or was it in private discussion with Chait or another individual who then relayed it to Chait?
Next, there is Kristol's assumption that to concede that troops do terrible things in a war is to denounce the war as a whole. Of course, George Orwell, among many others, has written about the ways that the experience of war--and, especially, foreign occupation-- can blunt moral sensibilities. It should be possible to believe this and still believe in the overall justness of a war. (Certainly Orwell himself was no pacifist.) There is an old leftist belief that, if soldiers have done horrifying things, then the war is evil. This turns out to be the Standard's view as well.
Interesting. Let's go to the tape:
Liberals may want to win a war on terror without fighting, and are shocked that in a war, crimes and abuses occur. But here's the hard, Trumanesque truth: In war, terrible things happen, including crimes and abuses and cover-ups.

Let's be clear: Crimes and cover-ups cannot be excused or tolerated. They must be investigated, and the individuals involved, and their commanders, must be held accountable and punished. As the Marine Corps commandant points out, the Marine Hymn pledges that we "keep our honor clean." This is happening. All nations' soldiers commit crimes, and decent nations punish them.

-- William Kristol, The Weekly Standard, 12 June 2006

In the battle for Muslim hearts and minds--which many on the left and right believe is the only solution to Islamic terrorism aimed at the United States--things have just gone to hell thanks to a perverse, kinky group of American soldiers and their military-intelligence overlords who seem to have mixed the U.S. armed forces' manuals on interrogation with S&M techniques.

-- Reuel Marc Gerecht, The Weekly Standard, 24 May 2004

THE IMAGES OF MISTREATMENT and outright sadism that emerged from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last year shocked America and the world. The cruel acts illustrated by the photos reflected poorly upon the U.S. military: How, many wondered, could America win support for the war on terrorism--a war that is as much about ideas as it is military objectives--if its soldiers treated the enemy in such a way?


[...] But as "The Torture Question" makes clear, something has been flawed about America's policy toward enemy combatants and interrogations. It's a practice in search of a clear policy to guide it.

-- Christian Lowe, The Weekly Standard, 18 October 2005

Congressman Hunter has wise advice on what we should do as the true story of Haditha unfolds. "We should slow down and let the military justice system work and let the chips fall where they may," he says. "The military system has integrity." Hundreds of Marines and Army soldiers have been punished, many severely, for abusing Iraqis. Eight Marines were charged last week with murdering an Iraqi man.

-- Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard, 3 July 2006
I think you get the idea. Neither Kristol nor any of his colleagues at The Weekly Standard think that admitting that abuses happen in war mean that you think the war is lost. It's more that they don't think reputable magazines should be publishing false stories of the morally deadening effects of war in order to get the readers to call into question the war itself. Crazy for them to think that! Back to Chait's article:
Then there is Kristol's accusation that critics of the war don't "support the troops." I wonder if, back in his youthful days teaching political philosophy, Kristol ever imagined he would one day find himself mouthing knucklehead slogans like this. I shouldn't need to say this, but apparently I do: I strongly support and respect the troops and would desperately like them to succeed. My respect, unlike Kristol's, extends to soldiers who don't share my politics, and isn't contingent on the fantasy that all of them are saints.
Actually, fully two years after TNR's then-editor Peter Beinart, published an editorial for the magazine regretting its support for the war, claiming that "our strategic rationale for war has collapsed," Kristol made perfectly clear what he thought of Beinart. Putting him in the "pro-American left" camp, Kristol pointed out that Beinart supports "the war against the jihadists." Kristol also distinguished Beinart and the pro-American left from the anti-American left by noting that their decline in support for the war was the result mre of sorrow than anger over incidents like Haditha and Abu Ghraib. I'm not saying Chait falls into one or the other of these categories, but as a general concept, his past words show Kristol does not equate supporting the war in Iraq with supporting the troops - instead, he's able to distinguish between those who do actually support the troops, like Beinart, and those who simply claim to.
The most incredible part of Kristol's diatribe is his accusation that critics of the war really believe that the war is going well: "They sense that history is progressing away from them--that these soldiers, fighting courageously in a just cause, could still win the war." Now, perhaps Kristol truly believes that there is good news in Iraq hidden beneath the surface, but can he possibly believe that this good news is so obvious that even liberals believe it? And that liberals, including liberals who initially supported the war, are now trying to undermine it even though--nay, because--we believe the United States is winning?
So there are no liberals who are so opposed to the war that they're unwilling to accept when progress is made? How about Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), who claimed that, were Gen. Petraeus to come before Congress in September and argue that the surge was suceeding, it would be a "real big problem" for Democrats? One would think success in Iraq would be a good thing for all Americans. Or how about Hillary claiming in a VFW speech that new tactics in Iraq were working, only to have her campaign later clarify that she only meant the new tactics in al-Anbar, not elsewhere in Iraq? Or how about Harry Reid's jubilant prediction that Democrats would pick up Senate seats as a result of the war? Obviously not all opponents of the war/surge are beign disingenuous and looking only at the political effects of the war - but I think one can accurately say many politicians are.

The reality is, if there are supporters of the war who, at times, have stubbornly refused to see the realities of the situation in Iraq, there have also been opponents of the war who have stubbornly refused to see the changing realities of the war. Interestingly, those who initially supported the war, and now oppose it, often fit in the latter category. I think here of Andrew Sullivan, who continues to deny any and all successes Gen. Petraeus or the surge might have had (usually in posts that come shortly after promising to "consider" the potential success, in an attempt to sound reasonable). His low point came when he attacked Gen. Petraeus for appearing on Hugh Hewitt's radio talk show, then claimed he did no such thing. (He then failed to point out that Petraeus went on to appear on Alan Colmes' radio talk show.) Others who have turned against the war include Rod Dreher (who questions whether we can trust Petraeus and wants troops out now, even if genocide is the result) and Dan Drezner (who is so mad about Iraq that he refuses to acknowledge - for fear of getting trapped into supporting action against Iran - repeated attacks on American soldiers by Iran or Iran-backed terrorists. Instead he cites a report based on a walkabout through a single Afghan town near the border with Iran as proof that Bush is stirring up trouble where there is none to be found).

My point is that it is easy to fall into these traps whereby you have so much staked on a position on a single issue that it no longer matters what the reality is. This was the case for many supporters of the war, although, ironically, the Weekly Standard was not one of them - as Chait points out in an earlier article, neoconservatives (Kristol especially) were early critics of the way the administration was handling the war. What's more - among reasonable commentators - it has often been the converts to the anti-war position who have been most strident in refusing to budge. Perhaps its a "we won't get fooled again" mentality, I don't really know. But like Sullivan, Dreher and Drezner, TNR fits into this category. I don't particularly think they are anti-military - the other three cited above aren't - bud I do think they became so invested in their new position on Iraq that, whether they realized it or not, Beauchamp's fiction just seemed to fit their mold of the Iraq war and how soldiers act in that specific war - as if there is something intrinsic to the Iraq war that makes it more evil and corrupting than other wars. And so we got Scott Thomas, Baghdad Diarist, fabulist.

3 Comments:

Blogger Brian said...

No offense but what was so unbelievable about STB's story? That he ran over some dogs? That he made fun of a woman in a mess hall? The original line from the people on the right side of the aisle was that he didn't exist. When he was proven to exist they then suddenly focus on one small detail and then build that into he is completely lying? No offense but I know lots of people both in and out of the Army who have done some pretty stupid things (as evidenced by Michael Vick). What makes STB's story so unbelievable? Keep in mind most of the time he was writing about himself.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Brian,

The 'original line' was not that STB didn't exist. Nor was it that soldiers don't do stupid, depraved, or criminal things. It was that the particular details of this particular soldier's stories were not believable, for reasons outlined here in the first piece to call BS: http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/013/889yghpf.asp?pg=1

12:52 AM  
Blogger The Harlem Ghost said...

Brain,

the running over dogs story and the skull wearing story were NOT about himself and the one incident that was about himself was supposed to show the effect of being at war on his mental state ... except that the Kuwait revision removes the "at war" context ...
As usual liberals think they know veterans ... their exposure to veterans is usually limited to "stories" they've read ...
Sad really ...

8:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home