Commentary Magazine

Sullivan's Travels

In a post early this morning, Andrew Sullivan concludes with this:

My only fear at this point is that by pointing this out, we may goad the Bushies and neocons into finding some kind of military escalation that would bring in the US. The US has no rational basis to be as committed to Georgia as Russia is; and has very little moral standing to protest an invasion of a sovereign country. [emphasis added]

This highlighted statement is an astonishing one. The clear implication is that what America did in going to war with Iraq is the moral equivalent of what Russia has done to Georgia. If this is Sullivan’s point–and I’m not sure what other point he could be making–then it is, I think, an indefensible one.

In the situation in Georgia, a lawful, self-governing nation which respects human rights (and happens to be an ally of the United States) is under attack. In Iraq, we deposed one of the most wicked and cruel regimes of modern times. Saddam Hussein committed genocide against his own people; President Mikheil Saakashvili has not. As for the nature of the "invading" nations: one (the U.S.) was performing an act of liberation; the other (Russia) is attempting to crush a newly-liberated nation. As for the legal justification for the war: Russia has none; the United States, on the other hand, won unanimous approval in the United Nations for Resolution 1441, which stated that Iraq was in material breach of its obligations and warned Iraq of "serious consequences" (which all parties understood to mean war) for its continued violations. In addition, Iraq, unlike Georgia, had violated 16 U.N. Security Council Resolutions in the course of a dozen years.

To assert, as Andrew does, that the United States has "no moral standing" to criticize Russia because of the Iraq war is silly. But Sullivan’s argument is all the more puzzling when you consider what he wrote prior to the Iraq war. For the uninitiated, here are some statements by Sullivan, picked almost at random in the months leading up to the Iraq war.

This from September 24, 2002:

[Gore’s] comments on the war do not surprise me. They don’t make Gore an isolationist, or a reluctant warrior on terror, or any other kind of ideologue. They just show that he is a pure opportunist, with no consistency in his political views on foreign or domestic policy. He’ll say whatever he thinks will get him power or attention or votes. How else to explain his sudden U-turn on Iraq? Two years ago, he was demanding that Saddam must go. Seven months ago, he was calling for a "final reckoning" with Iraq, a state that was a "virulent threat in a class by itself." Now, with Saddam far closer to weapons of mass destruction, Gore is happy to see Saddam stay in place. Even the New York Times, in a piece written to soften the hard edges of Gore’s attack on Bush, conceded that "his appearance here suggested a shift in positioning by Mr. Gore, who has for 10 years portrayed himself as a moderate, particularly when it comes to issues of foreign policy." You can say that again.

In the text of the [Gore] speech, I am unable to find any constructive suggestion made by Gore as to how to tackle Saddam’s threats. All he does is reiterate the idea that we need an international coalition, and that we need to be committed to Iraq after the war is over. Well: duh. Did he know of Condi Rice’s recent commitment to democracy in a post-war Iraq? As to the coalition argument, Gore, of course, spent eight years assembling a wonderful international coalition on Iraq, which agreed enthusiastically to do nothing effective at all. Now he wants us to wait even further, claiming that the administration has abandoned Afghanistan, while vast sums of U.S. money are being expended on rebuilding the country. And then he reiterates the bizarre notion that undermining one of the chief sponsors of terrorism in the world will somehow hurt the war against terrorism. Huh? Perhaps his lamest line was accusing the administration of dividing the country by hewing to a foreign policy of the "far right." In fact, of course, Bush is merely seeking to enforce the U.N. resolutions the Clinton-Gore administration allowed to become a mockery. And most Americans back him.

But, as befitting a man whose administration slept while al Qaeda’s threat grew, Gore seems more concerned with what Germany and France think than with any threat to this country or elsewhere from Saddam’s potential nukes and poison gas. He says we now live in a "reign of fear." Because of the continuing threat of terrorism? Because of Saddam’s nukes? Nope. Because of the Bush administration, a statement of moral equivalence that I’m genuinely shocked to hear from his lips. (He also slipped in a sly analogy to the Soviet Union’s "pre-emptive" invasion of Afghanistan. So Gore thinks Bush is the equivalent of the Soviet Union?) He says we have "squandered" the good will generated by the attacks of September 11. Really? A liberated Afghanistan, where women can now learn to read, where a fledgling free society is taking shape? No major successful terrorist attack on the homeland since the anthrax attacks of last fall? Growing support among Arab nations and at the U.N. for enforcing U.N. resolutions that Gore’s own administration let languish? Signs that Arafat may soon be sidelined on the West Bank? Squandered? The only thing that’s been truly squandered is what’s left of Gore’s integrity. At least Lieberman has been consistent. I must say, as a former Gore-supporter who was appalled by his campaign lurch to the left, that there are few judgment calls I’m prouder of than having picked Bush over Gore two years ago. Now I’m beginning to think we dodged a major catastrophe in world events.

This is from September 20, 2002:

SADDAM AND THE JEWS: I’m mystified why more hasn’t been made of Saddam’s assertion in his letter to the United Nations of the global threat of world Jewry. Here’s the key passage:

In targeting Iraq, the United States administration is acting on behalf of Zionism, which has been killing the heroic people of Palestine, destroying their property, murdering their children and seeking to impose their domination on the whole world, not only militarily, but also economically and politically.

Like the rest of the letter, this part is barely literate but its meaning is clear. Saddam is claiming that the U.S. is a tool of Zionist forces that are trying to take over the whole world! This isn’t like Hitler. It is Hitler. When a figure like this simply echoes Nazi language, why isn’t there universal shock and derision? Why isn’t that the headline? Or have we become completely inured to the fact that the 1930s are alive and well and centered in Baghdad and the West Bank?

And this, from the previous day:

IDIOCY OF THE WEEK: "The president made the case against Saddam Hussein as an outlaw and a malign dictator who represents ‘a grave and gathering danger.’ But the particulars of his tyranny rather strikingly resemble those of Saudi Arabia, which is our ally in the war against terrorism."

Let’s unpack this particular piece of characteristic inanity from Mary McGrory in the Washington Post last Saturday.

How is Saddam’s tyranny in Iraq strikingly similar in its particulars to Saudi Arabia?

Iraq is not a theocracy, as Saudi Arabia is. It’s an ostensibly secular military police state, run by a single despot. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, is an oil-rich, religiously conservative theocratic oligarchy. However noxious both regimes are, it’s indisputable that they are very different in their particulars.

Iraq has been developing weapons of mass destruction.

Saudi Arabia hasn’t, isn’t and won’t.

Saddam has fought two disastrous wars against its neighbors – Iran and Kuwait. He invaded Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia if the West hadn’t stopped him. Saudi Arabia has never invaded another country.

Iraq is in violation of umpteen U.N. resolutions. Saudi Arabia isn’t.

Iraq has gassed its own citizens and used chemical weapons in wartime. Saudi Arabia hasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. Saudi Arabia’s financing of Wahhabist Islam is deeply threatening to the region, Western interests and Western values. At some point, we’ll need regime change there as well, if we are to stop Islamo-fascism’s growth and appeal. But the very religiosity of Saudi Arabia distinguishes it from Iraq in the particulars of its tyranny. And its threat is financial and ideological, not military. We even have a military base there!

Now these are simple, obvious, readily available facts, obvious to anyone with even the slightest passing knowledge of the region and its history. Yet a leading liberal columnist is able to make such a statement and have it printed in the Washington Post. And the knee-jerk left wonders why it isn’t relevant any more.

And this, from September 04, 2002:

I’m awe-struck by Tony Blair’s impassioned defense of president Bush and the need to tackle Iraq yesterday. When his own party is gripped by anti-American bigotry and the tabloid media have fueled irresponsible hatred of president Bush, Blair showed real guts by coming out swinging in defense of American action. He described some of the criticism of America as "wrong, misguided and dangerous. I also think that some of the criticism of George Bush is just a parody. The person that I know and work with operates on these security issues in a calm and sensible and measured way." He went on: "Some of the talk about this in the past few weeks I have to say has astonished me. You would think that we’re dealing with some benign little democracy out in Iraq." Exactly. "Was Sept. 11 a threat to British national security or not?" he said. "My answer to that is yes. It wasn’t just a threat to America – they can perfectly easily have done it in London or Berlin or Paris or anywhere. And therefore it’s right that we respond to it together. If Britain and if Europe want to be taken seriously as people facing up to these issues do, then our place is facing them with America – in partnership, but with America." With this speech, Blair ranks for the first time with Margaret Thatcher, a leader who, on the most important issue of the day, manages to take a moral, clear and brave stand. I repeat: Now let’s get on with it. [emphasis added]

If we venture into October 2002, you’ll find statements like this one (from October 16, 2002):

THE CASE FOR WAR: Thank God (and Marty Peretz, Roger Hertog and Michael Steinhardt) for the New Republic. No I’m not just sucking up. The maintenance of a robust domestic liberalism with foreign policy toughness and moralism is a public service. I say this as someone who dissents from some of their redistributionist economic policy. In this tradition, Jon Chait – one of the magazine’s most impassioned opponents of George Bush’s domestic agenda – seems to me to have nailed a couple of vital weaknesses in the liberal case against war. First, the notion that this war is somehow uniquely unilateralist or threatening to international law. On the contrary, Chait argues:

The more persuasive justification for war is that Iraq has violated a series of U.N. resolutions requiring its disarmament and compliance with weapons inspections. Yes, lots of countries violate U.N. resolutions. What makes Iraq’s violation a casus belli is that it agreed to disarm as a condition of ending the Gulf war. War with Iraq does not require trashing international law. Just the opposite: Sustaining international law is central to its very rationale.

Put like that, it’s obvious. Besides, do you recall all these internationalists getting uptight about the bombing of Kosovo, done despite no U.N. approval? But Chait’s better point is the way in which Bush’s threat of force has made inspections more rather than less viable:

If forced to choose between tough inspections and nothing, the allies have shown they prefer nothing. If forced to choose between tough inspections and unilateral war, it now looks as though they will choose inspections. Had Bush foresworn unilateral action, as liberals have implored, the prospects for the tough U.N. inspections they now urge would be nonexistent.

I wish Jon hadn’t engaged in some gratuitous Bush-bashing in the piece. But maybe it’s as well he did. He proves that you can be a Bush-hater and still support the war. Would that more liberals had the courage to overlook their dislike of the president and get to the point.

Or this, from October 10, 2002:

It seems to me that the critical part of President Bush’s elegantly constructed speech last night was his rebuttal of the only credible and responsible line of criticism from the Democrats:

Some have argued that confronting the threat from Iraq could detract from the war against terror. To the contrary, confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror … Terror cells and outlaw regimes building weapons of mass destruction are different faces of the same evil. Our security requires that we confront both. And the United States military is capable of confronting both.

As brief as this discussion is, it’s persuasive. When anti-war Democrats argue that we cannot "focus" on both Al Qaeda and Iraq, they make no sense at all. Philosophically, pre-empting terrorists from getting weapons of mass destruction must logically include preventing the allies of terrorists from harboring such weapons. And practically, I’ve yet to read a single, credible military account of why we cannot both disarm and remove Saddam and keep up the pressure on Al Qaeda at home and abroad. The whole "focus" issue is as fake as the whole "delay" issue, as Charles Krauthammer deftly pointed out yesterday. If Saddam has weapons, if he won’t give them up, and if such weapons are a threat to the region and to the U.S., what possible reason is there for delaying? These "arguments" aren’t really arguments, of course; they’re desperate rhetorical roadblocks thrown up by some Democrats terrified to face their responsibilities in a time of war. The last phony anti-war argument was that President Bush had yet to "make the case" for war against Iraq, as if grown-ups didn’t have the capacity to make their own minds up on the issue without constant guidance from the commander-in-chief. But that surely must now be in tatters as a point, since the president has made speech after speech in the last year clearly laying out the rationale for the war on terror, a rationale that has always included defanging Saddam. And now he’s gone and laid it out in full, at length and in detail in prime time. And what did the networks do, the same networks that routinely feature talking heads bravely pronouncing that the president hasn’t made his case? They ignored him. Of course they did. What losers and sophists.

Or this, from October 4:

The invaluable Jeffrey Goldberg presents what is to my mind an unarguable case for removing Saddam from power [Goldberg’s pieces in Slate argued that "toppling Saddam is the best way toward what should be our main goal: a bourgeois Middle East" and that "The defeat of fascism is a profoundly moral cause…. writers who spend their days clinically examining the downside of invasion would seem less indifferent to the human toll of Saddam’s rule if they at least paid lip service to his many victims."] But his real discovery is a New York Times editorial of June 9, 1981. It concerned the Israelis’ pre-emptive strike against Saddam’s Osirak nuclear plant. Under the headline, "Israel’s Illusion," the Times declared:

Israel’s sneak attack on a French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression. Even assuming that Iraq was hellbent to divert enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, it would have been working toward a capacity that Israel itself acquired long ago.

There you have it: the moral equivalence, the short-sightedness, the moral preening, all disguising a fantastic error of judgment. If Saddam had had that nuclear capacity, there would have been no Gulf War, or one with disastrous consequences. The Times, of course, never learns. But this time, the security of the United States is at stake. We cannot let ourselves be led by the deluded and the defeatist any more.

And here’s a particularly noteworthy entry from November 4:

My inference from this letter [from the government of Iraq] is therefore a simple one: Saddam has no intention of allowing U.N. inspectors to find, detect or destroy any of his weapons of mass destruction. He has already declared in this letter that he has none, although we are now forced to wait 30 days while he formally decides to say the same thing. (Simple question: why can’t we now declare those 30 days over and move the schedule up? His declaration to the U.N. is surely a formal statement that he has no WMDs. And time now is of the essence.) Saddam has clearly decided that his main hope is in allowing the inspectors in and being ingenious enough to keep hidden from view any WMDs until such time as the spring comes. Then he has another year to play footsie and get his hands on the key materials for nuclear invulnerability. He will press his p.r. advantage any way he can, and his allies in the West, especially in the "anti-war" movement, can be relied on to spin Saddam’s line mercilessly. This means we need to give Blix more resources. We need to quadruple the number of inspectors and send them everywhere we can. Otherwise, we have as much chance of finding what Saddam "must safeguard" as DC cops did of finding Chandra Levy’s body. And it also means that "zero tolerance" of any Saddamite shenanigans must mean "zero tolerance." At this point, I find myself oscillating between hoping for a peaceful outcome while knowing that any peaceful but phony outcome now will only make a future war bloodier and more terrifying. So I’m hoping – yes, hoping – for war soon. And I think we can see from this deranged letter why we have no essential choice. [emphasis added]

Here’s a piece from January 14:

THE DELAYING GAME: No surprise that Hans Blix wants more time; that January 27 is now seen as the "beginning" of the arms inspection; or that other countries are quite happy to see the process drawn out indefinitely. This was always the danger of the U.N. route. The administration, as is its wont, seems to be saying almost nothing about its plans, which worries people like me. We can only hope that its a way to out-psyche Saddam. But it’s beginning to look like Saddam is out-psyching Bush. The question will therefore soon arise: can we wait until the autumn? My own view is that this would be a disaster. There is absolutely no guarantee that any weapons of mass destruction will be found by Blix’s merry men by then; and the long summer and fall will be a golden opportunity for other rogue states to take advantage of the U.S.’s preoccupation in the Gulf. Those who oppose the war now will oppose it then. And there will be further opportunities for terrorist attacks on the West. Moreover, nothing would galvanize our enemies more than to see how timorous Washington is when dealing with a murderous dictator who has violated the terms of the 1991 truce and continues to thumb his nose at the world. Our perceived weakness toward Saddam has already emboldened the North Koreans (whom it appears we are now willing to appease as well). It will embolden others – from the meddlesome French to the American left. What Bush is in danger of drifting into is Clintonism – dragged along by events, rather than determining them, acquiescing in evil rather than confronting it, and coming ever so close to appearing easily knocked off course. That hasn’t happened yet. But the danger signs are there. Saddam was right. Time is on his side. As we wait and wait for a conclusion we cannot even know will come, the anti-war lobby in this country will gain strength; and the remarkable success we have so far enjoyed in preventing another catastrophic terrorist attack will merely serve to lull Americans into another false sense of security. I’m not panicking – yet. But a question keeps nagging: Are we at war or not? If we are, when on earth are we going to get serious? [emphasis added]

And not to be forgotten is this one, from January 26, 2003:

And I’m frankly sick of the cheap vitriol directed at this president at this time. God knows the pressure he must be under. To see the shallow and self-interested jockeying in Paris and Berlin at a moment of grave international crisis is to observe politics at its worst. I’m not saying that opposition to Bush and the war policy is illegitimate. Of course not. Much of it is important and helpful. But the coarseness of some of it is truly awful. In some conversations I’ve had with people who strongly oppose war, I keep hearing this personal demonization of Bush as if he – and not the threat we face as a civilization – were somehow the issue. You hear it echoed in the callow obliviousness of a Maureen Dowd or the brutal lies of Michael Moore or the cheap condescension of the intelligentsia. You see it in the poisonous symbolism of some of the anti-war demonstrators. I keep thinking that this obsession with Bush is a way of avoiding the awful choices in front of us. But the choices are still there. And Bush’s speech tomorrow night represents his terrible duty to lead us to the right one.

And don’t forget this, from February 26, 2003:

GEORGE W. BUSH, NEOCON: It took a while, but the president’s transformation seems to be almost complete. From a candidate who projected a smaller defense budget than Al Gore, who pooh-poohed "nation-building," who spoke very modestly of the United States being a "humble nation," we now have a president saying the following:

We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary, and not a day more. America has made and kept this kind of commitment before – in the peace that followed a world war. After defeating enemies, we did not leave behind occupying armies, we left constitutions and parliaments. We established an atmosphere of safety, in which responsible, reform-minded local leaders could build lasting institutions of freedom. In societies that once bred fascism and militarism, liberty found a permanent home.

I’m a little troubled by the phrase: "not a day more." It’s as if the president still believes that a real commitment to Iraq and to the region as a whole will be unpopular at home. It needn’t be – if the president makes Iraq a corner-stone of this country’s commitment to a freer and therefore more stable world. Not quite a neocon – but well on the way.

I could go on and on (and on), but the point is clear enough. There was, in fact, hardly a bigger cheerleader for going to war with Iraq than Andrew Sullivan. And it won’t do for him to invoke the defense that he was misled into the war because Saddam did not possess actual WMD. It’s true that Saddam did not have stockpiles of WMD, as the Bush Administration, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller, John Kerry, and many others believed, along with the intelligence agencies of virtually every nation on earth. In retrospect, we know that Saddam engaged in a massive effort to mislead the world into believing he had WMD. The obligation was on him to comply with U.N. resolutions. He did the opposite, and he paid for his deception (and his cruelties) with his life and the end of his regime.

It is fine for people to change their positions over time, either because of new evidence or because of an evolution in their own views. And almost everyone who has said anything about Iraq has gotten something wrong. But few people have changed their minds as dramatically and emphatically as Sullivan has over the last few years.

It seems that whatever Sullivan happens to believe at the moment–the war is right or the war is wrong; neo-conservatives are intelligent and far-sighted or neo-conservatives are idiots and fools; Bush is awesome or Bush is awful; those charging Jewish Americans of having "divided loyalties" are engaging in libel or they are doing a wonderful thing for public discourse–you can count on him to hold those views with absolute certitude and to condemn in the harshest terms those with whom he disagrees. (I suppose this is what he means by proclaiming himself a "conservative of doubt.")

I have argued before that many columnists and commentators suffer from the opposite syndrome. They write with passionate conviction and certitude in The Moment–even when what they believe at that moment is significantly different than, or even the opposite of, what they once said and believed. They are, to amend an observation Michael Kelly made about Bill Clinton, "existential pundits, living with absolute sincerity in the passing moment." In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Season, Thomas More says to an associate: "Listen, Roper. Two years ago you were a passionate Churchman; now you’re a passionate–Lutheran. We must just pray that when your head’s finished turning, your face is to the front again." Like More, those of us who admire Andrew’s intelligence and talent can hope that when his head is finished turning, his face is to the front again.

About the Author

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.

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