February 20, 2002

Norman Podhoretz rallies the War Party

The annual dinner of the American Enterprise Institute, attended by the elite opinion-makers, the movers and shakers of the conservative movement, was a truly solemn event. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and a renown neoconservative, was scheduled to address the crowd. The gravity of the occasion was underscored by Christopher Demuth's gushing introductory remarks, wherein he cited William F. Buckley, Jr., who said of Podhoretz: "Never (that I know) has a single lifetime borne such literary and philosophical fruit." A uniquely bitter fruit, and oddly shaped, is what we get from the author of Ex-Friends – a volume dedicated solely to the task of savaging his old friends on the Left (and, of course, making himself look good).


Indeed, the excoriation of his enemies, both real and imagined, has been the leitmotif – and, it often seems, the chief pleasure – of Podhoretz's career. Boy, did he have a good time at AEI, where he managed to fit each and every one of them – from Mary McCarthy to Pat Buchanan – into the hour or so of his speech. It was a real stemwinder, alright, a clarion call to arms for all those neoconservatives who go to bed at night and dream of bombs falling on Baghdad.


The subject of his talk, "whether 9/11 hurled us into a new era of American history," Podhoretz approached with his characteristic focus on the titanic ideological battles (and petty bitch-fights) of the past, especially those in which he was personally involved. Yes, it seems like the war spirit has finally been imbued in the American people, he enthuses: just look at all those flags out there! And there are other hopeful signs, he opines: for much of the Left, the events of 9/11 and its aftermath served as a kind of "inverse Krontstadt," a fundamental disillusionment with their supposedly "anti-American" ideals: "What it did," says Podhoretz, "was raise questions about what one of them called their inveterately 'negative faith in America the ugly.'"

Now this is certainly an odd historical analogy to make before an audience of ideologically-committed conservative policy wonks and their monied patrons: a reference to an incident that took place in the early days of the Bolshevik coup, whose heroes and villains loom large in the Marxist iconography but would seem obscure, to say the least, on the Right. But that is the special conceit of the neocons, who like to flaunt their leftist origins as if to say "we're not like the rest of you right-wing rubes." The rubes love it.


Podhoretz segues into a poem by W. H. Auden, which, "although it contained hostile sentiments about America left over from Auden's Communist period, but the opening lines are so evocative of September 11, 2001 that it is no wonder they were quoted so often in the early days of this new war."

"I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade."


This "dishonest decade," though, turns out to be not the Clinton years, but, incredibly, the 1960s. This is really the source of the backlash that Podhoretz fears, and which he warns against in his speech. Yes, the pro-war consensus and enforced intellectual conformity of the post-9/11 era is wonderful, in Poddy's view, because it harkens back to the 1950s, an era in which the twin engines of the Welfare-Warfare State were roaring and seemingly unstoppable. It was a time when the "End of Ideology" had been proclaimed by Daniel Bell and friends, and the formerly flaming ex-radicals settling comfortably into the role of middle class parlor pinks and right-wing social democrats – Podhoretz among them – were fully prepared to believe they represented the apotheosis of political and esthetic development. It was a perfect, Podhoretzian world.


Utopia did not last long, however, and, adding insult (and autobiography) to injury, Podhoretz claims it was toppled by a somewhat ragtag movement, of which he was a "leader." Podhoretz, invariably self-referential, illustrates this point by telling a story about a meeting he once addressed that was attended by young people described by a friend who turned to him and said: "Do you realize that every young person in this room is a tragedy to some family or other?" As to what that said about the adults present, one can only ruefully surmise. In any event, complains Podhoretz, this is precisely why he can't "fully share the heady confidence of my political friends" that the present stultifying political atmosphere is "a permanent and not an ephemeral change." Look, after all, at what those disheveled juvenile delinquents were up against:

"The ideas and attitudes of the new movement, cleaned up but essentially unchanged, would within a mere ten years turn one of our two major parties upside down and inside out. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared that we would 'pay any price, bear any burden,' and so on, 'to assure the survival and the success of liberty.' By 1972, George McGovern, nominated for President by Kennedy's own party, was campaigning on the slogan, 'Come Home, America.' It was a slogan that almost perfectly reflected the ethos of the embryonic movement that I had addressed in Union Square only about a decade before."


The antiwar movement of the 1960s, as Podhoretz correctly points out, "was bucking a national consensus that came close to being universal." Yet Podhoretz has a conspiracy theory to explain the popular backlash against that war, and he trots it out once again as a warning that the same "elite" villains who supposedly sold out the US last time are about to do it again. The idea that the war was eventually unpopular – with the military as well as people – because it was wrong to have become involved in the first place, both strategically and morally, is naturally dismissed out of hand by Podhoretz, who further asserts that

"The problem is that Vietnam was a popular war. At the beginning, all the major media—from the New York Times to the Washington Post, from Time to Newsweek, from CBS to ABC—supported our intervention. So did most of the professoriate. And so did the public."


Podhoretz assumes that the public will follow the pundits and the professoriate wherever they decide to go: but it ain't so. Nor is it so that the public was vehemently in favor of militantly prosecuting a distant war in a strange land that it knew nothing about, at least in the beginning: indeed, the public did not want a military confrontation with the Soviet Union, over Vietnam or anything else, as underscored by the effectiveness of Lyndon Baines Johnson's infamous television ad attacking Barry Goldwater as a warmonger. Who can forget the little girl picking daisies, as a disembodied voice counts down: "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six – " and the screen explodes in a flash of white light as a mushroom cloud is superimposed over the girl's sweet face.

Poddy's memory, always selective, may simply be failing, and he blithely barrels right along:

"No matter. Even when all but one or two of the people who had either directly led us into Vietnam, or applauded our intervention, commenced falling all over themselves as they scampered to the head of the antiwar parade, public opinion continued supporting the war."

The public didn't like the antiwar movement. That doesn't mean they loved the war. Yet the myth of the Stab in the Back is one that has been so assiduously cultivated by the neocons that, by now, it is immune to challenge, at least in their eyes: it has the fixed form of a traditional religious invocation, which Pope Poddy, the Vicar of the Neoconservative Church, renders with perfect pitch:

"But public opinion had ceased to count. Indeed, even reality itself had ceased to count. Consider the Tet offensive of 1968. It was, as all now agree and some vainly struggled to insist then, a crushing defeat for the Communists. But Walter Cronkite had only to declare it a defeat for us on the CBS Evening News, and a defeat it became."

This is utter nonsense. To begin with, as John E. Mueller points out in War, Presidents, and Public Opinion, the American people turned against the war in October of 1967, three months before Tet. The first large-scale American military expeditions to Vietnam were supported by large majorities: 61 percent in 1965. For the next 30 or so months, that majority dwindled, until, in 1967, when 46 percent opposed the war, and 44 percent approved of US policy. Yet the war dragged on for 5 more years.


As for Walter Cronkite brainwashing the American people into somehow believing that a great American "victory" was really a terrible defeat, the anti-populist, elitist attitude of the neocons is here displayed in all its contempt for the ordinary American. Dean Rusk displayed the same dull incomprehension when asked to explain the political backlash at home after the alleged "victory" of Tet:

"Even though it was a considerable military set-back for the North Vietnam-ese and Vietcong out there on the ground, it was, in effect, a brilliant political victory for them here in the United States. I'm not sure I fully understand the reasons why that should have occurred, but it became very clear after the Tet offensive that many people at the grass roots, such as my cousins in Cherokee County, finally came to the conclusion that if we could not tell them when this war was going to end, and we couldn't in any good faith, that we might as well chuck it."

In order to win the war, American generals were asking for 200,000 more soldiers. But the decisive factor was that this war was televised and brought home in a way that no other had been before – or has since. Every night, on the television news, the nation watched American grunts fighting and dying in the green hell of Vietnam: the casualty lists shown at the end of each broadcast were a silent parade of faceless names that seemed to go on forever. Rusk's cousins in Cherokee County didn't need Walter Cronkite or anyone to tell them that what was visible on the screen: we were alien invaders in a foreign country. Should we "pay any price, bear any burden" for a godforsaken jungle on the other side of the world? It wasn't the American people, after all, who first conceived our crusade to stamp out Communism in Southeast Asia, but "the best and the brightest," as David Halberstam dubbed them.


Podhoretz blames the familiar bogeymen: the pointy-headed professoriate, the public intellectuals, the artists, Hollywood, "the usual suspects," but also is eager to point an accusing finger at "administrators and bureaucrats" who themselves absorbed the "anti-American" culture of defeatism, and went soft in the end. In his view, it could happen again. How? The same intellectual subversion that undermined the Golden Age of the pro-war 1950s:

"Now here we are in the early days of another war that may well be supported by an even larger percentage of the public than Vietnam was at the beginning. Today, however, the numerically insignificant opposition is stronger than it was in the early days of Vietnam. The reason is that it now maintains a tight grip over the institutions that had been surrendered to the anti-American Left by the end of the 60's."

What this all boils down to, then, is a conspiracy theory that posits the existence of all-powerful elite – in government, media, and academia – which simply lacked the will to fight and conquer. Ordinary people were but powerless pawns in an internal struggle engaged in by their betters. Podhoretz's theory is based on a view of intellectuals and the media as sorcerers whose job it is to bewitch and delude the masses and whose power is practically unlimited.


The problem with this theory is that it cannot explain change, either a slight shift in opinion or an all-out revolution. Elite support for the Vietnam war was practically unanimous, in the beginning, including in the universities: indeed, the interplay of academia and the military and foreign policy bureaucracy was a key complaint of the New Left, in its earlier quasi-libertarian incarnation. If we look at the poll numbers, and examine the commentary of the time, the argument could be made that elite opinion trailed after popular opposition to the war. By 1968, not only the kids but a growing number of their parents opposed the war, and yet the war dragged on in much the same way as Podhoretz's AEI speech.


"Drip by insidious drip," as Podhoretz puts it, the poison of the American Fifth Column was injected into the American bloodstream, and our will – even that of the governing classes themselves, who had, after all, started this war – was sapped by the enemy within. And it is happening again, he warns, raising the alarm that colleges and universities are now instituting courses in Muslim studies, as if this could be some potential center of terrorism, and as if the study of Arab culture and languages could have an inherently subversive effect.

He takes the obligatory potshot at Susan Sontag, in what seems to be the War Party's favorite sport. "One of my old ex-friends, Susan Sontag, seized an early lead in this contest with a piece in The New Yorker, in which she asserted that 9/11 was an attack 'undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.' Not content with that, she went on to compare the congressional expressions of support for what she characterized as our 'robotic President' to 'the unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress.'"

Gee, how is it that a supposed "leftist" is showing disdain by referring to the enforced unanimity of a Soviet Party Congress. Formerly a founding mother of Radical Chic, Sontag was one of the left's earliest renegades: she was widely denounced when she stood up for Lech Walesa and Poland's Solidarity and, at a famous public meeting that I attended, bitterly denounced Communism as "fascism with a human face." Indeed, she was having "second thoughts" at roughly the same time as David Horowitz – albeit without becoming a rightwing version of her former self. So his caricature of Sontag is a lie, like so much of the war propaganda we are hearing today.


But Podhoretz, and the War Party, are not interested in such subtleties and fine distinctions. They, after all, are dealers in caricature: The "Axis of Evil," "national greatness conservatism," "benevolent global hegemony" – the grandiloquent phrases spring forth from their keyboards with wild abandon, the commanding tone brooks no disagreement or dithering, and speeches are written in the style of extended ultimatums – "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists."


I won't bother with his riff on poor old Norman Mailer, and the rest of the score-settling except to note how typical this is of the author. I mean, why does anybody care what Norman Mailer thinks about US foreign policy: the guy's a novelist, fer chrissake, in other words he's a professional liar. He makes up stories for a living. Podhoretz includes him in his rogues gallery of alienated anti-American intellectuals, but this just shows how completely out of touch and vindictive poor old Podhoretz really is: he just includes Mailer out of sheer personal pique, not because he represents anything aside from his idiosyncratic self. But then devil figures are an essential ingredient of any propaganda campaign, and it helps that Podhoretz hates Mailer's guts.


In describing Podhoretz's attempt to demonize unnamed college professors, and perhaps their students, as a traitorous fifth column, I won't compare him to the unfairly-maligned Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy may have been a blowhard and a publicity hound, but he was right in the basic thrust of his campaign: the US government had been infiltrated by the Soviets and their American sympathizers at the highest levels, starting in the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, as the Soviet archives have revealed, the extent of this infiltration was wider and deeper than even McCarthy had ever dared imagine. Podhoretz, though, is not half as good a polemicist: he cites exactly three unnamed professors making outrageous but suspiciously brief statements on 9/11, one expressing a kind of astonished admiration for the direct hit on the Pentagon. Podhoretz cites a report issued by Lynne Cheney's "American Council of Trustees and Alumni," which has a list – a list! – of supposedly subversive statements made by college professors and others: of course, the implicit threat is that such treason will cost them their (largely government-funded) jobs. The New York Times thought this rather gauche, says the outraged Podhoretz, who then throws the rubes some right-wing meat:

"When the ACTA report was issued, cries of 'McCarthyism'—that first refuge of a left-wing scoundrel—were heard throughout the land."

Norm, I know about Senator McCarthy: Senator McCarthy was a childhood hero of mine, and, let me tell you, you're no "Tail-Gunner Joe"! The conspiracy you want to protect us from exists largely in your own mind, and, no matter what you say, does indeed seem like a theological dispute.


Much of Poddy's ire is directed at all those televised documentaries that, he claims, supposedly "sanitized" Islam: why I can just imagine old Norm sitting in his easy chair at home, hectoring the television with something very like the following foam-flecked diatribe:

"They therefore never ceased heaping praises on the beauties of that religion, about which few of them knew anything. But it was from the universities, not from the politicians, that the substantive content of the broadcasts derived, in interviews with Muslim academics whose accounts of Islam were—how shall I put it?—selectively roseate. Sometimes they were even downright untruthful, especially in sanitizing the doctrine of jihad or holy war, or in misrepresenting the extent to which leading Muslim clerics all over the world had been celebrating suicide bombers as heroes and martyrs."

In other words, they were hiding the "fact" that the Muslim religion is really vile, and violent, in its very nature. Of course, if anyone even implied such a thing about Judaism, that person would immediately, self-evidently, and quite rightly be tagged as a vicious anti-Semite. But Norman Podhoretz is permitted such things: it is, after all, the measure of his greatness, of his towering stature, that he is above it all, beyond good and evil.


Ah, but there was one exception: Fox News, which, according to Poddy, covered the war from "a pro-American perspective." He goes on to take a swipe at Christians like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who said the events of 9/11 meant that God's protection had been withdrawn from America on account of her sins, but his main targets on the Right are Pat Buchanan and columnist Robert Novak

"On the secular Right, we had the columnist Robert Novak, along with that born-again Coughlinite Pat Buchanan. In the opinion of these two, and others of like mind, it was not our disobedience to divine law but our friendliness toward Israel that had brought this attack upon us. That bin Laden had never been much concerned with the Palestinians made no difference to Buchanan and Novak: they knew better."

Aside from the idiotic epithet of "Coughlinite" – I wonder if Poddy knows that Father Coughlin was a rabid left-winger who once gave a sermon on the topic "Roosevelt or Ruin"– the clear implication is that Buchanan and Novak have a special antipathy for Israel. Since they both supposedly "knew better," their real motives were therefore questionable, if not outright incriminating. Except that it is absurd to say bin Laden had never been much concerned with the Palestinians. In a 1993 interview with bin Laden, Peter Berger, author of Holy War, Inc., reported the Evil One's own words:

"We declared jihad against the US government because the US government has committed acts that are extremely unjust, hideous, and criminal whether directly or through its support of the Israeli occupation of [Palestine]. And we believe the US is directly responsible for those who were killed in Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq…."


In addition, bin Laden pointed to Israel's 1996 bombing of a UN building in Qana, Lebanon, in which 102 Lebanese civilians, mostly women and children, were killed by shelling. But what's really curious is that Podhoretz's shining example of "pro-American" journalism, Fox News, just recently broadcast a four-part series raising the possibility that Israel played clandestine role in 9/11. Besides engaging in a massive spy operation, reported Carl Cameron of Fox News, the Israelis may have had foreknowledge of the attacks – and somehow neglected to warn us. All of which would seem to validate the skepticism of Israel exhibited by Messrs. Buchanan and Novak. So, along with Podhoretz, I say: hats off to Fox News, and long may they prosper!


While David Brooks thinks that Podhoretz is too pessimistic, because the Left is a spent force, I agree with Podhoretz that opposition is likely to reassert itself on a broad scale: and from the Right, as well as the Left, and the Center. This opposition is already forming, – from Chris Matthews to Pat Buchanan to the ordinary guy on the street – as the warhawks prepare the nation for the extension of the "war on terrorism" to states, such as Iraq, that even Podhoretz admits have no links to the events of 9/11. The American people want to get Osama bin Laden, but they do not envision the conquest of the Middle East and an all-out war on over 1 billion Muslims.


Brooks may be correct that the Left is too intellectually exhausted to put up much of a fight: what both Brooks and Podhoretz leave out is that a good deal of the Left has been in the interventionist camp at least since the Kosovo war. Podhoretz surely knows better, since he signed all those appeals for US military intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo that were also signed by prominent leftists: here is a man who never saw a military adventure he didn't like. That this shameless old narcissist, whose self-conscious pandering after every intellectual fad over the years has brought him into the conservative camp, is now honored as the veritable Pope (or co-Pope, along with the semi-senile Bill Buckley) of the Right is a sad commentary indeed. A more fitting Commander-in-Chief of the War Party would be hard to imagine.

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adj