William Pfaff died on April 30, 2015. His death is nothing less than a serious loss to the shrinking number of American daily newspaper columnists who question and contest American Exceptionalism and its “unnecessary and unwinnable” wars.
Pfaff was the singular heir of American writers who preceded him in condemning our historic addiction to war. And the more he criticized the U.S. for shooting first and thinking later, the fewer America dailies printed his columns. The New York Times, which owns the International Herald-Tribune where his work regularly appeared, rarely if ever published his piercing anti-interventionist columns. He was, after all, an outspoken opponent of the Iraq invasion when the paper went overboard in favor of the war. His few daily newspaper outlets were limited essentially to Newsday and the Chicago Tribune though liberal journals like the New York Review of Books, William Shawn’s New Yorker, which printed some seventy of his pieces, and Commonweal, the liberal Catholic magazine, welcomed him.
Search the major print and electronic media and there aren’t many bigtime pundits writing for bigtime newspapers who condemned LBJ’s or Bush 1 and 2’s wars and questioned our obsession with a “guns first” approach. There aren’t too many wondering aloud why we remain bog down in the Middle Eastern quicksand and have poked our slowly increasing military noses nose into the Russian-Ukrainian struggle. Pfaff, virtually alone, raised a fundamental question rarely posed: “Has it been a terrible error for the U.S. to have built an all-but-irreversible worldwide system of more than 1,000 military bases, stations, and outposts? This seemingly was created to enhance U.S. national security, but what if it has actually done the opposite, provoking conflict and creating the very insecurity it was intended to prevent”? That was William Pfaff, smarter, shrewder and more razor-sharp than all the rest. If you doubt this please read his last book, “The Irony of Manifest destiny” and comment.
Russell Baker, another notable pundit, said that Pfaff, in “article after article [wrote] what should have been said week after week [in Washington] as Bush’s cheery civilian warriors marched us into the Middle East.” And it’s still the same as the Imperial City’s resident hawks, their wealthy donors and bribers, the unaccountable culture of second-hand Think Tankers, our Merchants of Deaths and everyone’s money-making lobbyists for special and foreign interests, are as immersed as ever in the old tough guy Cold War mythology. Not many pundits have lately asked who has ordained that our sons and daughters be sent everywhere to intervene militarily in age-old and basically unsolvable religious-political conflicts that are none of our business. Pfaff, with a minimum of banalities, practically alone and fiercely independent, would have none of it.
Here is one of his gems:
“The ‘war of civilizations’ explanation is wrong and dangerously so…it is essential that the west now cease its interference, it cannot reconcile the Syrians or the Sunnis and Shiites, or the conflicts in the Maghreb and the Sahel mainly produced by climate and history. The West has suffered the delusion that a war on these people would produce modernity and democracy. War is a destroyer, which includes among its victims those who initiate it.”
He took on Israel’s American take-no-prisoner supporters, the Third Rail of American politics. Fortunately for Pfaff, the ground had already been prepared for the right of the bravest of the brave of a non-Jew taking on the burden of criticizing Israeli policies. The U.S., he wrote, has given Israel massive financial, diplomatic and military support and has the right to tell Jerusalem to settle with the Palestinians and establish a genuine two-state agreement.
Truth is, there are a shrinking number of American Jews who now equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism – a falsehood which has silenced non-Jewish critics, but never Pfaff, who was in no way anti-Jewish. (Confession: I once published one of his articles in a Jewish publication I co-edited). As my late friend, the prescient Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, among the more learned of scholars of Zionism, predicted twenty-five years ago: American Jewry “is an organized and ageing half moving right and a younger, more liberal group increasingly abandoning Jewish organizations and declining to offer financial support” – the real money comes from the relatively few billionaires and millionaires whose wishes determine organizational and Israel Lobby policies. M.L. Rosenberg, who once worked for AIPAC, added, “politicians think the way to a Jew’s heart and pocketbook is through Israel. Soon enough they will understand that the way is through social justice issues here in America.” That includes uninterrupted warmongering.
This was amply demonstrated in the heated debate in 2013 over Obama’s selection of Chuck Hegel as Defense Secretary. The Israel lobby, Christian Zionist, neocon and assorted 0bama haters opposed Hegel with a variety of arguments. Happily, Sen. Dianne Feinstein put a temporary stop to their views when she told her colleagues, “We cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war”
That’s pretty close to what Pfaff was inferring. “Why should Iran not have nuclear weapons?” he asked about the current debate. “Israel has them, India and Pakistan have them. Europe is full of them,” and of course the U.S., Russia, China and North Korea. But they’re all “unusable.” In “Iran and Nuclear Weapons” he decried the exaggeration of the danger and the emotional use of the word “existential,” used repeatedly by Netanyahu and then endlessly and mindlessly by so many others, implying that Israel’s very survival is at stake. A better, more rational solution, Pfaff offered, was an equitable and just diplomatic settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he predicted –though could not, of course, prove, who can?—would calm relations between Teheran and Jerusalem.
He was one of a handful (or less) of regular columnists to point out that the American love affair in the 70s with the Shah of Iran occurred while Washington’s schemers visualized him as “the agent of American power in the Middle East ended in provoking a fundamentalist Iran that became the most important American enemy in the region. The American invasions of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Sunni-ruled Iraq turned both into ruined and corrupt puppet regimes…. Whereupon Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab members have once again announced their dependence upon a foreign and interventionist power to defend their own integrity, an admission of impotence,” while their people “suffer the consequences.”
And then there’s Ukraine. In a series of columns and virtually alone save for a few historians of Russian history, Pfaff saw the Ukrainian crisis as an American-initiated crisis, one that at times created the possibility of an accidental war, a la Sarajevo. Rather than “a Russian strategy of aggressive expansion into Ukraine,” Pfaff saw it as “a bungled and essentially an American attempt to annex Ukraine to NATO and the European Union and to undermine the domestic political position of President Putin—which all has gone wrong badly and dangerously wrong.”
Since America’s military-industrial elites requires an enemy every few decades, the U.S. and its compliant mass media have routinely demonized Vladimir Putin as an almost- Tsarist, not-yet-Stalinist absolute monarch bent on conquest. Putin, hardly an angel (but who is?) has been damned for refusing to accept NATO’s (read the U.S.) military advance toward the very doorstep of Russia’s borders. NATO and American military hardware are in the Baltic States and Ukraine. Maneuvers are a regular feature. American “trainers” are now in Ukraine. Western warships cruise the Black Sea, home of Russia’s only European warm water port and its Black Sea fleet.
“There is only one possible solution now: negotiated truce on the Ukraine frontier, followed by Russo-American and EU agreement on the permanent existence of an independent and autonomous Ukraine. The alternative could be major war.”
And more: “What is Barack 0bama’s interest in all this? What about the Washington hawks responsible for what is happening? Why have they done this without an explanation to the American people?” The more Obama accedes to the hawks the more we need William Pfaff and people like him to remind us that Russia too has nuclear bombs. Lots of them.
What’s that definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and again, failing, and then doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome? Back in Vietnam days, Sen. Fulbright called it “the arrogance of power.”
Pfaff had his critics, both thoughtful and feverish. He was, for example, far too certain that had JFK lived he would never have dispatched hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam. A recent critical and credible rejoinder comes from Godfrey Hodgson’s observant new book “JFK and LBJ” where he expresses his doubts, especially because Washington’s VIPs, including JFK and his advisors (but never George Ball), had always bought into the notion that Moscow was pulling the strings of its alleged puppets in Hanoi and had to be stopped.
Pfaff was no outsider despite his dissenting views and that he and his wife were permanently settled in Paris. Yet he was more “American” than many of his critics. Reared in Iowa and Georgia, educated at Notre Dame, and unlike the many hawks who had never worn a military uniform he served as an infantry officer and Special Forces member during and after the Korean War. In addition, he never denied that he had worked for the CIA-funded Free Europe Committee, a Cold War group that sent broadcasts and literature behind the Iron Curtain.
I believe Scott McConnell of the invaluable anti-neocon American Conservative magazine put it best when he wrote that with Pfaff’s death, “Nowhere in the elite establishment newspaper sphere could you find regular, sustained, and well-informed criticism of an aggressive and overly militarized American foreign policy.”