In National Review Online, Stanley Kurtz has an interesting critique of my recent Washington Monthly article “Practice to Deceive” and a critique of … well, I guess of me. Let me just take a moment to respond to three of Kurtz’s points.
The first is regarding the concept of deception, which is central to the article. Kurtz says that none of the democratizing vision of the neocons is a secret. It’s actually been written about widely in the conservative press. Yes, I agree. And I’ve said as much repeatedly. Kurtz implies that my saying it in TPM means that I’m backtracking from my argument. But this isn’t true. The argument I am making is that there are many thoughtful and intelligent people who believe this is a good thing to do. Go back and read the last year of The Weekly Standard and see. Neoconservatives in the administration share these views but also know that such a grand plan would be almost impossible to sell to the American people, so they really haven’t tried. Instead they’ve sold regime-change in Iraq along the more modest lines of Saddam’s WMD and his relationship to terrorists. It’s good sleight of hand to say I’m accusing people of a “conspiracy” because, by common consent, people who believe in “conspiracy theories” place themselves beyond the pale of purely rational argument at some level. Kurtz is using the phrase, not me. I’m saying something more prosaic and direct: the administration hasn’t been honest about its intentions or goals. That may be true or false. But it’s a direct allegation, not a conspiracy theory.
The second issue is what we might call Bush White House Kremlinology. Has President Bush really signed on to the maximalist democratizing, regime-change vision? Aren’t there more moderate neoconservative voices, sometime-Realists like Condi Rice, and even those like Colin Powell who never bought into the idea in the first place? Yes, of course there are. Frankly, that’s one of my great hopes. Such as it is. Indeed, Kurtz too expresses some concern about the aims of the more maximalist democratizers. The reason I think it is both accurate and fair to focus on those with the maximalist position is that it is this group that has consistently played the winning hand in pretty much every key intra-administration debate leading us to where we are today. So when we look at the future and where we’re going with this I think it’s more realistic to look at Cheney, Rumsfeld and their advisors rather than positing a point equidistant between Cheney and Powell and believing that that point is our final destination. I hope for the latter. But it’s a hope not based on experience.
The third point is more broad-ranging. Kurtz wants to portray my position on the war as a symptom or example of a deeper Democratic malady. To put it metaphorically, he’s saying that in the heart of even a seeming Joe Lieberman lurks a secret Ron Dellums. Not so fast. This is another way to polarize and thus simplify the argument, setting up straw men, and so forth. And Kurtz is only able to do it by asserting that I say things I’ve never said: that I’m indifferent to the issue of nuclear or other WMD proliferation, that I’m possibly a down-the-line UN man, or just generally that because I didn’t think we should start this war when we did that suddenly I’m Teddy Kennedy or Walter Mondale and have recanted views expressed on Iraq and other issues over the last two years. (If I wanted to be snarky I guess I could note that my indifference to nuclear proliferation is rather belied by my repeated insistence that North Korea’s resumption of plutonium production must be confronted immediately — hopefully through diplomacy, but through war if necessary — even as the administration has repeatedly expressed openness to the idea of allowing North Korea to become a nuclear power.) None of this is true. I just didn’t think we should pull the trigger when we did or, under the circumstances then prevailing, perhaps ever. It was a tough call, which I’m content to live with. Subsequent events may show I was right or wrong. Either is certainly possible. But the decision hardly makes me a dove.
More broadly, Kurtz is saying I’m in the camp of those who think nothing really changed after 9/11, that the nexus of terrorism, WMD proliferation, high-technology, globalization and the rest of it can just be handled by the same old-fashioned strategies we used ten, twenty or forty years ago.
This isn’t true, of course. But let me finish on this point of ‘everything changing.’ Much did change with 9/11 and more generally with the less visible changes that preceded and presaged it. But neither neoconservatives nor neoliberals have really changed all that much. Many of the same formulas and approaches the neocons now advocate are ones they advocated a half a dozen years ago when the bete noirs were China and others — greater skepticism toward Europe, more comfort with unilateral assertions of force, skepticism about the whole concept of deterrence, and so forth. The more things change, etc. The ‘everything changed’ argument often really boils down to ‘everything we were always for turns out to be right’ and if you don’t agree then you’re not serious about 9/11.
Neoconservatives and neoliberals just have different basic ways of approaching foreign policy — neither necessarily more hawkish or dovish. That was true before 9/11 and it’s true now. Who’s right has to be hashed out on the merits. Just referring to WMD or 9/11 won’t do.