February 22, 2000

The Amazing Colossal Arrogance of Bill Kristol

It is typical of our ignorant and fatuous media that a dangerous opportunist like Bill Kristol gets a free run for his money. Invariably described as a "top Republican strategist" Kristol is guaranteed a respectful hearing wherever he goes. With his trademark ingratiating grin, his honeyed words and his obvious ease amidst the illustrious company of "Jim" and "Sam" and "Bob" and "Cokie" and "Mark" and "Charlie," Kristol is now so firmly a pillar of the Establishment that no one dares to scrutinize his reputation, his motives, or his writings. The reality is that Kristol is a political adventurer. Like all political adventurers he rants and raves about "national greatness." His ‘ideas" are pretty nebulous. The only policy he is really committed to is reckless belligerence towards other nations. His journalism for some years now has consisted of nothing more than a search for a political figure that he can piggy-back to power on.

Kristol’s current fixation is John McCain. This happened quite suddenly—after McCain’s New Hampshire triumph, in fact. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Kristol and David Brooks declared: "[L]ike Reagan and Gingrich, McCain attacks a Republican establishment that has already rotted from within….It cannot save a faltering campaign no matter how well funded it might be, no matter how many firewalls it claims to erect….Indeed, this became almost comically evident the last week in New Hampshire when the Bush campaign rolled out Jack Kemp, John Sununu, and George Bush the elder to prop up a faltering candidate. And whom did the Bush team bring out the day after New Hampshire, when they presumably should have learned that voters were looking for new blood and new themes? Dan Quayle." Note Kristol’s shameless opportunism. What exactly is wrong with George W. Bush? Two months ago he could barely contain his enthusiasm. Here is what he and Robert Kagan wrote last November about Dubya: "George W. Bush’s…speech at the Reagan Library represents the strongest and clearest articulation of a policy of American global leadership by a major political figure since the collapse of the Soviet Empire. In his call for renewed American strength, confidence, and leadership, Bush stakes a claim to the legacy of Ronald Reagan." The "legacy of Ronald Reagan"! There is no higher praise than that. Bush declared he was ready to fight a Cold War that ended more than ten years ago. Congratulations were in order.

So what happened? New Hampshire convinced Kristol that Bush was a loser. It was time to jump ship. Kristol has never been one to let loyalty stand in the way of the main chance. Witness the sneering at his two former employers—"George Bush the elder" and Dan Quayle—the two men to whom Kristol owes his present elevation. Had he not served as Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, Kristol would today be yet another hack looking for a job on the Washington Times.

It is now John McCain’s turn to wear the mantle of "Ronald Reagan." Kristol and Brooks rhapsodize about the journeyman Senator from Arizona: "The issue that gave the McCain campaign its initial boost was Kosovo. He argued that America as a great champion of democracy and decency could not fail to act. And he supported his commander in chief despite grave doubts about the conduct of the war….For McCain, the president is, above all…two things: citizen reformer and commander in chief. These two fundamental elements—reform for the sake of citizenship and leadership in the service of American greatness—undergird a not yet fully developed program." Much of this is, of course, hot air. To be sure, Kristol and Brooks like McCain because he is ready to bomb recklessly. But, hell, he looked as if he was on a roll.

After McCain’s humiliation in South Carolina, Kristol has decided to hedge his bets. Writing in the Washington Post, he muses: "If Bush prevails, the rebellious impulse embodied by the McCain campaign will reemerge after a Bush general election defeat, or for that matter, during a Bush presidency, if he were to win. If McCain is the nominee, he will have to give shape to the inchoate movement he finds himself leading, and content to the embryonic message he is grappling to articulate." Having lavished so much praise on McCain, Kristol reveals how insincere it all was. He has nothing but disdain for his hero. The poor man apparently has no understanding about the movement he accidentally "finds himself leading." His only hope of winning is if lets Kristol and Brooks and Kagan give "content" to the "message he is grappling to articulate."

We know only too well what this "message" is. Writing in the July/August 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs, Kristol and Kagan expressed their disdain for traditional Republican prudence: "Today’s lukewarm consensus about America’s reduced role in a post-Cold War world is wrong. Conservatives should not accede to it; it is bad for the country and, incidentally, bad for conservatism. Conservatives will not be able to govern America over the long term if they fail to offer a more elevated vision of America's international role.

"What should that role be? Benevolent global hegemony." One would have thought "benevolent global hegemony" is an oxymoron. Since the rest of the world does not want US hegemony, it cannot possibly be described as "benevolent." But then Kristol has no interest in the views of the people over whom the United States is to exercise power.

"The ubiquitous post-Cold War question—where is the threat?—is thus misconceived," Kristol and Kagan write. "In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible." When you come across a passage like this, substitute the words "German" and "Germany" for "American" and the "United States" and then see how it sounds. Kristol’s invocation of power for its own sake and justifying it by our supposed superiority over other lesser people eerily echoes the demagoguery of other reckless adventurers.

Kristol’s love for armaments is weird, though perhaps not unusual for a bookish man who has never faced a threat more menacing than a surly waiter at Palm. In a recent issue of the Weekly Standard, Kristol wrote: "Through the Clinton years, congressional Republicans have been complicit in the neglect that is sapping American military strength to the point where a majority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff now admit their services are not up to the demands of the national military strategy…. Defense spending is now far below the requirements of American strategy and global leadership." We are living in a time of peace. The United States is much stronger than anyone else. And there is Bill fulminating about our supposed military unpreparedness. What are the "demands of the national military strategy"? Kristol does not spell them out. No one can. He wants an extra $100 billion a year for the Pentagon. But that would be nowhere near enough to finance the running of the world to serve America’s interests.

"Americans should be glad that their defense capabilities are as great as the next six powers combined," Kristol and Kagan wrote, "Indeed, they may even want to enshrine this disparity in US defense strategy….Perhaps the United States should inaugurate such a two- (or three-, or four-) power standard of its own, which would preserve its military supremacy regardless of the near-term global threats." Interesting. Military capabilities should have no connection with any "near-term global threats"! This truly is a demented vision. One, moreover, that is sure to enrage other powers enough to force them to take countermeasures of their own. That, of course, would serve as justification for yet further US military expenditures. In the end it will end up in war as it always has in the past.

"The United States achieved its present position of strength not by practicing a foreign policy of live and let live, nor by passively waiting for threats to arise, but by actively promoting American principles of governance abroad—democracy, free markets, respect for liberty," Kristol and Kagan bluster on. "Without a broad, sustaining foreign policy vision, the American people will be inclined to withdraw from the world and will lose sight of their abiding interest in vigorous world leadership. Without a sense of mission, they will seek deeper and deeper cuts in the defense and foreign affairs budgets and gradually decimate the tools of U.S. hegemony." Not only should America’s leaders threaten countries that pose no threat to us, they must lie to the American people who might otherwise take the perfectly sensible view that they do not want to pick fights with everyone under the sun.

Kristol’s ideas are truly dangerous. Combined with his ambition and dissimulation, it makes him one of the most pernicious figures to have emerged on the American scene for a long time.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Tuesday.

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