Commentary Magazine


Topic: Walter Lippmann

A Moment for Political Courage

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before. Read More

According to media accounts, in his State of the Union address, President Obama is going to avoid dealing with our entitlement crisis. The question is: will Republicans?

That is setting up to be the key debate of the next several months.

There is one line of argument, articulated by Ramesh Ponnuru, that insists that for House Republicans to take on entitlement reform would be noble but politically suicidal. The reasoning is that (a) for the next two years, reform is impossible unless and until President Obama takes the lead on it; (b) Republicans have no mandate for reform even if they wanted to; and (c) every time they have tried to reform entitlements in the past (George W. Bush on Social Security and Newt Gingrich on Medicare), they have paid a high political price.

The more responsible approach would be to champion cuts in discretionary spending and continue to insist on the repeal of ObamaCare. That would be entirely enough, this argument goes; to do more will require a Republican president willing to educate the nation on the entitlement crisis and to do something about it.

The counterargument is that we are in a new and different moment when it comes to entitlement reform. Due to the financial crisis of 2008 and the spending habits of President Obama and the 111th Congress, what was a serious problem has become an acute one. In the past, the deficit and debt were manageable; now, every serious person who has studied this matter concedes, the situation is unsustainable. The public understands this in one way or another; and if they’re not yet ready to take on entitlement reforms, they are certainly educable in a way that has never been the case before.

The way to frame this argument, according to those who want to take on entitlement programs, is to simply state the reality of the situation: we can act now, in a relatively incremental and responsible way, in order to avoid the painful austerity measures that are occurring in Europe and elsewhere. Or we can delay action and, at some point not far into the future, be unable to avoid cuts that will cause a great deal of social unrest.

So we’re clear, the entitlement that really matters is Medicare. “The fact is,” my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin told Michael Gerson, “Medicare is going to crush the government, and if Republicans leave it unreformed then the debt picture is very, very ugly. They might never — literally never — show the budget reaching balance. Not in the 10-year window and not if they take their graphs out a hundred years. Obama could probably show balance just past the budget window in the middle of the next decade because of the massive Medicare cuts he proposes, even if in practice they will never actually happen.”

To get a sense of what we’re talking about, Veronique de Rugy has put together a very useful chart that can be found here.

It makes the point that cutting discretionary spending only makes a small difference in the overall budget picture. She lays out the difference between the Republican Study Committee plan, which cuts $2 trillion over 10 years and is therefore a good deal more aggressive than the House Republican leadership proposal, and where spending would be without those cuts over the next 10 years. As you will see, it’s a small difference. Spending keeps growing rapidly either way. Without entitlement reform, then, this is about as much as we could reasonably do — and it just isn’t that much.

In other words, if Republicans don’t take on Medicare, their credibility as a party of fiscal responsibility and limited government will be shattered. The math guarantees it. The GOP, having made the 2010 election largely (though not exclusively) a referendum on the deficit and the debt, will be viewed as fraudulent.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, as Gerson explains, if Republicans don’t touch Medicare, their budget approach — on paper, at least — will have less long-term debt reduction than Obama’s, both because Obama supports tax increases and he uses a slew of budget gimmicks to make his health-care plan appear to be far more affordable than it really is.

It’s a pretty good bet that the president will advance the same kind of gimmicks in his 2012 budget. If so, then unless Republicans are willing to champion Medicare reform (meaning changing it from a defined benefit program to a defined contribution program), Obama will be able to position himself as a budget hawk, at least compared to the GOP. This could have devastating political effects, including dispiriting the Republican base and the Tea Party movement. Having just elected Republicans in large measure to stop the financial hemorrhage and to restore fiscal balance, voters will not react well when they are told, in so many words, “Never Mind.”

So count me as one who believes Republicans need to embrace entitlement reform in general, and Medicare reforms in particular, because not doing so is irresponsible. It means willfully avoiding what everyone knows needs to be done in the hope that at some future, as-yet-to-be-determined date, a better and easier moment will arrive.

Sometime a political party needs to comfort itself with the axiom that good policy makes good politics. That isn’t always the case, certainly, but often it is. In any event, if the GOP avoids reforming Medicare, there is no way any Republican lawmaker, when pressed by reporters on fiscal matters, can make a plausible argument that their actions are remotely consistent with their stated philosophy.

They will hem and haw and duck and dodge and try to change the subject — and they will emerge as counterfeit, deceptive, and unserious. Here it’s worth recalling the words of the columnist Walter Lippmann, who wrote:

With exceptions so rare that they are regarded as miracles and freaks of nature, successful democratic politicians are insecure and intimidated men. They advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies. The decisive consideration is not whether the proposition is good but whether it is popular — not whether it will work well and prove itself but whether the active talking constituents like it immediately.

Perhaps I’m asking GOP lawmakers to prove themselves to be miracles and freaks of nature. But if I am right in my analysis, that is what is called for. It would mean Republicans have an enormous public-education campaign ahead of them. They will have to explain why their policies are the most responsible and humane. They will need to articulate the case not simply for entitlement reform but also for limited government. And they will need to explain, in a compelling and accessible way, why limited government is crucial to civic character.

None of this is easy — but lawmakers weren’t elected to make easy decisions. They were elected to make the right ones. And reforming Medicare is, in our time, the right decision.

Let’s get on with it.

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On Human Nature and Capitalism

The American Enterprise Institute’s online magazine The American has posted an essay I co-wrote with Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, on “Human Nature and Capitalism.” We argue that the model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one prefers to the political system one supports.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature (to paraphrase 20th-century columnist Walter Lippmann). The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which that picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create. They are the foundation stone.

You can read the whole thing here.

The American Enterprise Institute’s online magazine The American has posted an essay I co-wrote with Arthur Brooks, president of AEI, on “Human Nature and Capitalism.” We argue that the model of human nature one embraces will guide and shape everything else, from the economic system one prefers to the political system one supports.

At the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature (to paraphrase 20th-century columnist Walter Lippmann). The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which that picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, and the civilizations we create. They are the foundation stone.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Obama Should Heed His Own Advice

This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:

The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.

I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”

On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.

In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”

So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.

Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.

I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

This weekend President Obama delivered the University of Michigan commencement address and returned to a favorite theme of his: the need for civility and respect in public discourse. In the president’s words:

The… way to keep our democracy healthy is to maintain a basic level of civility in our public debate…. we cannot expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question someone’s views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like “socialist” and “Soviet-style takeover;” “fascist” and “right-wing nut” may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, or our political opponents, to authoritarian, and even murderous regimes.

… The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It prevents learning — since after all, why should we listen to a “fascist” or “socialist” or “right-wing nut?” It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate that we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.

So what can we do about this?

As I’ve found out after a year in the White House, changing this type of slash and burn politics isn’t easy. And part of what civility requires is that we recall the simple lesson most of us learned from our parents: treat others as you would like to be treated, with courtesy and respect.

These are wise words that should be taken seriously. Especially by the president himself.

I say that because President Obama’s party and his chief defenders — including the DNC, Speaker Pelosi, and Majority Reid — have routinely engaged in the kind of vilification the president condemns. Think of the assault on the Tea Party Movement and those who attended town-hall meetings last summer; they were accused of being racists and bigots, “an angry mob,” practitioners of “un-American tactics,” “astroturfers” and Nazi-like, and potential Timothy McVeighs. Harry Reid referred to people who showed up at town-hall meetings as “evil-mongers.” Representative Alay Grayson, in characterizing the GOP health-care plans, said that “the Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick…. This is what the Republicans want you to do.”

On and on it goes, issue after issue, slander after slander. Yet President Obama has done nothing to call off the attack dogs in his own party, despite his enormous influence with them.

In fact, Obama himself has engaged in ad hominem attacks to a degree that is unusual for a president. He constantly impugns the motives of those who have policy disagreements with him. His critics are greedy, venal, irresponsible, demagogic, cynical, bought and paid for, spreaders of misinformation, distorters of truth. “More than any President in memory,” the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Mr. Obama has a tendency to vilify his opponents in personal terms and assail their arguments as dishonest, illegitimate or motivated by bad faith.”

So President Obama lacerates his critics for engaging in the very activity he indulges in. And he does so in the haughtiest way imaginable, always attempting to portray himself as hovering above us mere mortals, exasperated at the childish and petty quality of the political debate, weary of the name-calling. How hard it must be to be the embodiment of Socratic discourse, Solomonic wisdom, and Niebuhrian nuance in this fallen and broken world.

Here is the rather unpleasant reality, though: our president fancies himself a public intellectual of the highest order — think Walter Lippmann as chief executive — even as he and his team are accomplished practitioners of the Chicago Way. They relish targeting those on their enemies list. The president himself pretends to engage his critics’ arguments even as his words are used like a flamethrower in a field of straw men. It’s hard to tell if we’re watching a man engaged in an elaborate political shell game or a victim of an extraordinary, and nearly clinical, case of self-delusion. Perhaps there is some of both at play. Regardless, President Obama’s act became tiresome long ago.

I am reminded of the line from Emerson: “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

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The Secret History of Neoconservatism

The furor over the supposedly perfidious influence of “neocons” in the making of Bush foreign policy seems to have died down a bit. But it will nevertheless remain part of the lasting legend about this administration. Bob Kagan, one of our foremost foreign policy sages, has a must-read article on the subject in the latest issue of Lawrence Kaplan’s new foreign policy quarterly, World Affairs.

Kagan makes many valuable points, but in essence his argument is that there is absolutely nothing new or foreign about the “neocon” vision—combining power with idealism to make the defense of democracy a central tenet of American policy. The more fevered critics of the neocons insist on explaining their world view with reference to Leon Trotsky, Leo Strauss, and other philosophers of marginal influence in modern America. (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally have never read a single book by either Trotsky or Strauss.) They would be better advised, Kagan notes, to look to figures as varied as Alexander Hamilton, William Seward, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Dean Acheson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, all of whom advocated an expansive vision of America’s role in the world.

The opposing viewpoint—which denounces American “imperialism” and abjures the defense of liberty abroad—has an equally long history.  It lists among its proponents not only modern-day neocon-bashers such as Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan, but also such illustrious predecessors as the “progressive” historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams and realpolitik thinkers like Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann.

Nor is this the first time that the more fevered critics of the war effort have wound up charging that the country was “lied” into war by nefarious conspirators. Today it’s neocons. In the past it was banana companies, “merchants of death,” and international bankers. Such assertions have been heard about the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (In other words, after every conflict that has turned out to be tougher than anticipated.) Even when it came to World War II, some die-hard isolationists accused FDR of somehow forcing Japan to fight us and of deliberately not warning Pearl Harbor in advance of the attack.

Kagan does not deny that folly and miscalculation played a large role in planning the Iraq War. But, as he notes, there is nothing unique about America being overweening or imprudent in the pursuit of its ideals. The only way to avoid such setbacks is to pursue an isolationist or narrowly realpolitik agenda—which would wind up causing us far greater problems in the long run.

The furor over the supposedly perfidious influence of “neocons” in the making of Bush foreign policy seems to have died down a bit. But it will nevertheless remain part of the lasting legend about this administration. Bob Kagan, one of our foremost foreign policy sages, has a must-read article on the subject in the latest issue of Lawrence Kaplan’s new foreign policy quarterly, World Affairs.

Kagan makes many valuable points, but in essence his argument is that there is absolutely nothing new or foreign about the “neocon” vision—combining power with idealism to make the defense of democracy a central tenet of American policy. The more fevered critics of the neocons insist on explaining their world view with reference to Leon Trotsky, Leo Strauss, and other philosophers of marginal influence in modern America. (I can’t speak for anyone else, but I personally have never read a single book by either Trotsky or Strauss.) They would be better advised, Kagan notes, to look to figures as varied as Alexander Hamilton, William Seward, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Dean Acheson, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, all of whom advocated an expansive vision of America’s role in the world.

The opposing viewpoint—which denounces American “imperialism” and abjures the defense of liberty abroad—has an equally long history.  It lists among its proponents not only modern-day neocon-bashers such as Michael Moore and Pat Buchanan, but also such illustrious predecessors as the “progressive” historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams and realpolitik thinkers like Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann.

Nor is this the first time that the more fevered critics of the war effort have wound up charging that the country was “lied” into war by nefarious conspirators. Today it’s neocons. In the past it was banana companies, “merchants of death,” and international bankers. Such assertions have been heard about the Spanish-American War, World War I, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. (In other words, after every conflict that has turned out to be tougher than anticipated.) Even when it came to World War II, some die-hard isolationists accused FDR of somehow forcing Japan to fight us and of deliberately not warning Pearl Harbor in advance of the attack.

Kagan does not deny that folly and miscalculation played a large role in planning the Iraq War. But, as he notes, there is nothing unique about America being overweening or imprudent in the pursuit of its ideals. The only way to avoid such setbacks is to pursue an isolationist or narrowly realpolitik agenda—which would wind up causing us far greater problems in the long run.

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Bookshelf

• Say what you will about Robert Novak—and some contributors to COMMENTARY have said plenty—he remains one of America’s most important newspaper columnists. In addition, Novak is also one of the the last of a dying breed of opinionmongers whose columns are reported rather than merely spun out of the parchment-thin air of their prejudices (which doesn’t mean he’s not prejudiced!). Thus, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, despite its monstrous length and penny-plain prose style, is significant by definition, just as a candid memoir by Walter Lippmann or Drew Pearson would have been similarly significant. Henceforth anyone who writes about journalism in postwar Washington will have to cite The Prince of Darkness as a primary source, just as anyone who reads it will learn from it—though certain of its revelations are, like those of most memoirists, unintended.

One of the things that has already struck many reviewers of The Prince of Darkness is the way in which its author has coddled his resentments throughout the course of a long, busy life. It seems to me noteworthy that a man as successful as Novak should still be capable of writing with such raw resentment of having been passed over as sports editor of his college newspaper, or that he should go out of his way repeatedly to make glowering mention of his unpopularity in Washington. Some anonymous wag once called John O’Hara “the master of the fancied slight.” I doubt that many of Novak’s slights are fancied, but they give much the same impression when consumed in bulk.

Read More

• Say what you will about Robert Novak—and some contributors to COMMENTARY have said plenty—he remains one of America’s most important newspaper columnists. In addition, Novak is also one of the the last of a dying breed of opinionmongers whose columns are reported rather than merely spun out of the parchment-thin air of their prejudices (which doesn’t mean he’s not prejudiced!). Thus, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, despite its monstrous length and penny-plain prose style, is significant by definition, just as a candid memoir by Walter Lippmann or Drew Pearson would have been similarly significant. Henceforth anyone who writes about journalism in postwar Washington will have to cite The Prince of Darkness as a primary source, just as anyone who reads it will learn from it—though certain of its revelations are, like those of most memoirists, unintended.

One of the things that has already struck many reviewers of The Prince of Darkness is the way in which its author has coddled his resentments throughout the course of a long, busy life. It seems to me noteworthy that a man as successful as Novak should still be capable of writing with such raw resentment of having been passed over as sports editor of his college newspaper, or that he should go out of his way repeatedly to make glowering mention of his unpopularity in Washington. Some anonymous wag once called John O’Hara “the master of the fancied slight.” I doubt that many of Novak’s slights are fancied, but they give much the same impression when consumed in bulk.

Fortunately, there are more compelling autobiographical revelations to be gleaned from The Prince of Darkness. It is hugely interesting, for instance, to read of how a youthful reading of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness turned a moderate-to-liberal Republican into the hardest of anti-Communists, or how a secular Jew should have felt moved to embrace Roman Catholicism late in life. Most interesting of all, though, is the black cynicism with which Novak writes of the politicians among whom he has moved for virtually the whole of his adult life. A few escape his contempt—he was impressed, for instance, by the depth of Ronald Reagan’s reading in the history of economics—but for the most part he views them as shallow power-seekers who use everyone around them, and are themselves used in turn.

A handful of Washington journalists have written of the inhabitants of their milieu with comparable candor, most notably Meg Greenfield in Washington, her posthumous memoir: “These are people who don’t seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.” But Novak’s honesty about the mutual manipulativeness of his relationships with the politicians he has covered exceeds anything I have hitherto seen in print. Among other things, he acknowledges that he’s more likely to trash you in print if you won’t talk to him off the record:

Am I suggesting a news source could buy off Novak with a hamburger in the White House? No government official or politician can secure immunity from a reporter by helping him out. Even my most important sources—such as Mel Laird and Wilbur Mills—were not immune from an occasional dig. Still, Bob Haldeman was treated more harshly because he refused any connection with me. He made himself more of a target than he had to be by refusing to be a source.

Even more revealing is Novak’s description of his relationship with Karl Rove:

What you did not find in my columns was criticism of Karl Rove. I don’t believe I would have found much to criticize him about even if he had not been a source, but reporters—much less columnists—do not attack their sources. . . . In four decades of talking to presidential aides, I never had enjoyed such a good source inside the White House. Rove obviously thought I was useful for his purposes, too. Such symbiotic relationships, built on self-interest, are the rule in high-level Washington journalism.

Perhaps I’m not enough of a cynic to appreciate fully Novak’s point of view—I’ve spent little time in Washington and less, thank God, in the company of politicians—but even so, I find that last sentence chillingly bleak. Imagine spending a half-century working in a town where the naked pursuit of self-interest governs all your personal relationships! Seen in that lurid light, the title of The Prince of Darkness, though it is Novak’s well-known nickname, ended up putting me in mind of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s fictional portrayal of the ceaseless backstabbing engaged in by Satan’s staff of tempters. Small wonder that Novak finally got religion. No doubt a day came when he looked around him and found himself echoing the terrible words of Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistophilis: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”

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Should We Be Patient With al Qaeda?

I took apart a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Thompson yesterday, which had tried to tell us what the American statesman, George F. Kennan, were he still alive, would have said about counterterrorism.

Thompson has written back, complimenting my remarks as “very smart and complicated” and “much better than some of the other comments I’ve been getting.” But he does take issue with much of what I said, including my contention that he was being dishonest.

In the face of his very gracious note, I gladly retract that last charge. But what I do leave standing is my assertion that his piece is deeply illogical and, if this is not too unfriendly a word, disingenuous.

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I took apart a New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Thompson yesterday, which had tried to tell us what the American statesman, George F. Kennan, were he still alive, would have said about counterterrorism.

Thompson has written back, complimenting my remarks as “very smart and complicated” and “much better than some of the other comments I’ve been getting.” But he does take issue with much of what I said, including my contention that he was being dishonest.

In the face of his very gracious note, I gladly retract that last charge. But what I do leave standing is my assertion that his piece is deeply illogical and, if this is not too unfriendly a word, disingenuous.

I won’t summarize the argument so far. Interested readers can click on the relevant links above. But it beggars the imagination that in the war-ravaged year of 1947, when the danger of Soviet expansionism loomed so large, Kennan had in mind, as Thompson asserts, only a non-military means of checking it.

Yes, Kennan wrote a letter to Walter Lippmann saying that we should not intervene militarily in Greece, Turkey, and Iran, where an East-West contest for power was on-going. But he never mailed that letter. Perhaps this was at the request of his boss, Secretary of State George Marshall, as Thompson suggests. Or perhaps, after reflection, it was not his considered opinion: after all, as I noted yesterday, he did speak in his X article in Foreign Affairs of a “firm containment designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Either way, this one letter cannot be taken to mean that in those years Kennan stood opposed to the use of military force to contain the USSR in all instances.

And yes, Kennan was an advocate of “patience,” as Thompson accurately states. But patience at what? Back in those years, it seems fairly clear that he meant the U.S. should be patient in resisting Soviet expansionism, including by military means, until Communist rule changed or collapsed. He did not mean patiently going to church Sunday after Sunday to pray for a miracle.

Finally, if Kennan (the later Kennan, that is, the one who had disowned the writings of the earlier one) turned out to be wrong about the cold war—as Thompson acknowledges he was both in his Times op-ed and in his comment on contentions—why should we now accept his faulty approach in dealing with al Qaeda? I called this illogical yesterday, and I call it illogical again today.

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