Why the Right Has Fallen Victim to Wishful Thinking

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Mr. Carpenter holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Illinois and is a syndicated columnist. Please consider contacting your local newspaper to carry his column.

In the April 10 edition of Slate, founding editor Michael Kinsley sketched a portrait of America's consensus on the seemingly erstwhile Iraq Question ("Unsettled: Victory in the war is not victory in the argument about the war"). "We've won," he wrote on the majority's behalf, and "there is no quagmire. Saddam is dead, or as good as [dead]…. It was all fairly painless…. Those who opposed the war look like fools. They are thoroughly discredited and, if they happen to be Democratic presidential candidates … they might as well withdraw and nurse their shame somewhere off the public stage. The debate over Gulf War II is … over … and the anti's were defeated as thoroughly as Saddam Hussein."

Few would contest that Kinsley's portraiture bears a striking resemblance to today's national hubris. Virtually no inward questions are asked any longer, while comfortable conclusions are easily and readily drawn. Rare is the bird at the office watercooler who wonders aloud if we haven't gone over the edge of cockiness, if we're thinking clearly about consequences, or if we're thinking at all. Most are too busy praising our $1-billion-a-day military for thumping nearly undefended piles of sand and rubble to be bothered by perspective -- historical or predictive -- and the rest, one supposes, are too busy worrying about Bush Recession II to much care. Whether from acute exhilaration or chronic distraction, we're floating on a bubble of nationalist conceit.

It's a bubble easy to pop, which Kinsley promptly does merely by asking a few rather obvious questions; obvious, that is, to those still unpersuaded of Gulf War II's nobility, or those simply of a searching mind. Just how, for instance, was "Operation Iraqi Freedom" the effect of 9/11's cause? What of the looming threat once posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? Did it -- did they -- ever exist as the president's much-vaunted war justification claimed? What are the ultimate financial and human costs of dethroning one man? How many others have we turned against us? Was the invasion worth rankling so many old allies and laying waste to the United Nations' legal standing? Is pre-emptive war ever a just war when grounded in auto-defensive concoctions of others' purported may's, maybe's and might's? Will, as a matter of consistent policy, other nations' human rights violations now trigger U.S. belligerency?

However rhetorical Slate's chief editor intended some of these questions -- and these are but a few of the full itemization -- he concedes that answers are still in the offing. For now, history's jury deliberates, so the war's proponents should ideologically "chill out for a while" and their dovish counterparts should stand tall with intellectual rigor intact. At least, that is, till a verdict is in.

Notwithstanding his admonition against rushed judgments, Kinsley makes clear that though he "hope[s] to be proven wrong," as a war opponent he wholly expects to be proven right. So far the preponderance of evidence appears to be on the opposition's side and, of course, the burden of proof rests with the war's prosecutors.

Mr. Kinsley's position is that of a realist. Oddly enough, or so some might think, it's the Bushie ideologues -- those who get teary-eyed over Realpolitik stuff -- who conversely are simply betting on the come line and, no doubt, praying for vindication. This showdown is a classic reflection of 20th-century role reversals among progressives and conservatives. The American Century began with the former as little more than yearning ideologues and the latter as hard-nosed realists. It ended with quite the opposite.

The reason, in part, is that progressives had history on their side and began folding historical knowledge into contemporary opinion. More on that in a moment. Conservatives, on the other hand, chucked objective history lessons during the onset of the Great Depression. As legendary historian Richard Hofstadter first outlined New Deal political transitions in his 1955 masterpiece, The Age of Reform, progressives did while conservatives fiddled. To overcome economic and social devastation, FDR's Brain Trust tried most anything that might work, using government and empirical data as the tools of salvation. If something didn't work, they just tried something else and to hell with ideology. Progressives were morphing into realists.

Naturally, the new economics horrified conservatives. But rather than pitch forward-looking solutions to a desperate public, they began prattling about idyllic yesteryears when the needy didn't exploit government (only the unneedy did that). In short order, conservative politicians metamorphed into bottomless wells of platitudes about imaginary good old days ruined by sinister government intervention. They continued fiddling and fine-tuning ideological fantasies until they got right with the New Right of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then, by commercializing politics, opening the floodgates of demagoguery and tapping every known white middle-class prejudice, the Newt Gingriches of this world became Network-Peter Finch-like prophets of political fancy. George W. is merely the latest and most successful of the Age of Demagoguery's idols.

Today's progressives not only use history profitably -- which I swear, we're getting to -- a good number of them have history as their paycheck. Just as today's Common Man -- you know, the still-paranoid Right -- loves to protest, it is unmistakably true that the history profession is filled to the brim with intellectually incestuous Lefties. Some came that way, others became that way upon exploring the repeated disasters of the Right's plutocratic dreams.

As historians they not surprisingly happen to know some useful things about history and use them as well, as do progressives in general more so than others. Both know the common futility of the best-laid plans -- the gotcha of unintended consequences -- whether from the Left, Center, or Right. They know, for example, that in so many ways and for so many years, the losing South won the Civil War. They know of WWI's forsaken expectations, of Woodrow Wilson's idealistic demise. They know of the succeeding war's aftermath and its reversal of fortunes at home, of the whiplash of so-called McCarthyism and the death of anticipated and attainable social promise. They know of the best and the brightest's tragic arrogance throughout not one, but several presidential administrations. The dashed hopes of classical liberalism, the exhaustion of reform, Reconstruction's quickly trashed social and political aspirations, progressives' early care and feeding of white backlash. None of these samplings was expected; rather, predictions to the contrary ruled -- and therein lies the norm.

That is where Kinsley & Co.'s realism and historians' empiricism amiably meet on the unsettled Iraq Question. The weight of evidence -- lost historical hopes and analogies -- indicates a coming bust in the Middle East. Realists feel it and reality-based historians and progressives sense it. Only the Right's reigning ideologues choose to ignore what there is of the past's concreteness and proceed on wishes and wants. They do so not at their peril, but ours.

© Copyright 2003 P. M. Carpenter

Mr. Carpenter's column is published weekly by History News Network and buzzflash.com.

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William H. Leckie, Jr. - 4/30/2003

In case anybody's forgotten or never knew, after a series of spectacular victories against the Persians, Julian took a mortal spear thrust at Ctesiphon and Rome, under Jovian, Valentinian, and Valens, abandoned Mesopotamia. The pagan order he tried to restore--Julian, that is--never came back and the Church was very happy to see him go.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 4/29/2003

If my sources are correct, Newt's a client of the "Future Shock" Tofflers, or used to be. Representing suburban Atlanta, cavorting on stage with kiddie sci-fi turtles, and who knows what other strange things. If History's betting on a Mutant Ninja congressman from the land of suburban conformity, franchise ticky-tacky, feel-good seeker churches, and the Confederate battle flag, we're in deep trouble. Makes'im an odd duck paired with Kirk (whose ideas at least were honest), and Buckley--a Cold War dinosaur out of the Ivy League--at least has a big vocabulary, but hasn't had a new idea since God and Man at Yale.

I'm not sure these days that History's on anybody's side. We can say with confidence the US Supreme Court's on George II's and Sandra Day O'Connor can eat a banquet meal without getting an upset stomach and Scalia's family has nice government jobs, but the verdict's not in yet on anything bigger, unless you count Halliburton and Bechtel.

I have read and listened to right-wing scholars whose work I otherwise admire invoke imperial Rome as a model for the upcoming Pax Americana, leaving out all kinds of unpleasantries that they know about. Interviews on PBS and NPR and think-tank money are bad for historical memory, I guess, but good for prophesy about History. They've made me think the imperial vision--complete with pagan virtue!--most relevant might be that of Emperor Julian, who carried on the good fight against Persia (it's back?), dedicated himself to Helios and classical philosophers (think of the Straussians), and promised to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (think of the neocon chickenhawks). Forshadowing, repeating, favoring...History's "choices" are anyone's guess, and I hear the whoosh of the wings of the Owl of Minerva.

But Newt? The militant chihuahua of the Defense Policy Board, who assiduously got his deferments back when? He, whose endorsement of the neo-paganism of Kaplan's Warrior Politics, is like Henry Kissinger claiming modesty?

Homer Simpson - 4/29/2003

Yet another historian without a clue.

John Moser - 4/29/2003

"I think the left has history and religious ethics on its side. The right has ... Kirk, Buckley, and Gingrich? Not much of a debate."

Wow, the sheer magnitude of the question-begging going on in this statement makes me wonder what "regular reader" has been "regularly reading." This might come as something of a surprise, but Messrs. Kirk, Buckley, and Gingrich believe that they have "history and religious ethics" on their side as well.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 4/28/2003

Any side is doomed with The Newt on its team.

reader - 4/28/2003

Do yourseld a favor. Start commenting on the proliferating right-wing websites out there. They'll embrace you without criticism, because the same neanderthalic minds will be right in tune with you.

HNN is for thinking, contemplative readers. No one cares about being called a commie or traitor or unAmerican reprobate as your side seems to focus on; only, because, it has no rational respones to opposing opinions stated here.

Your "cutting" barbs are a source of amusement only to those you target. You prove every week how little you have to contribute - except and entertainment value.

regular reader - 4/28/2003

Still, the left continues to articulate non-violent solutions (which you could trace to biblical origins), while the right prefers to shoot from the hip. The differnce is now becoming the norm -- not to mention reflexive offensiveness.
So one final time, the beginngig proposition that left and right labels mean little ignores fundamental differnces in a thier Weltanshaungtungen. I think the left has history and religious ethics on its side. The right has ... Kirk, Buckley, and Gingrich?
Not much of a debate.

Homer Simpson - 4/28/2003

You haven't noticed that both sides are doing the same thing.

Bush is dumb.
Bush is stupid.
Bush is a Nazi.

This is the Homer Simpson News Network.

This is, in actuality, a forum for crack addicts.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 4/28/2003

I wasn't referring to the neocons, but rather the general acceptance--growing throughout the 20th century--of the philosophical skepticism which characterized the continental right. I suspect Jacob Burckhardt--not Nietzsche--is the best example of this sensibility. Among neocons, the idea that power is what can preserve order in a world in which traditional values no longer can be sustained is an underlying theme--hence the prevalence of watered-down Straussian ideas and the neo-Hobbesianism of Michael Oakeshott. Far from being skeptical of government, for the elite right the deployment of government power for elite ends in the name of order--whether at home or abroad--is explicit. The "Burckhardtian" (and pop-Straussian)nature of this worldview is most openly promoted in a little book by Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics. Take a look at it.

regular reader - 4/27/2003

Good post, William.

You mentioned the left has "embraced a skepticism it shares with conservative elites," suggesting agreement with a previous post saying that left/right labels are increasingly irrelevant.

But "shares" should be past tense. In the late 60s and 70s many among the leftist "elite," especally academics, blended into traditional conservative thought -- they're now known as neocons.

However, while the left continued to evolve (or devolve) in different ways, it still remained largely the "left." Conservatism, on the other hand, soon radically departed from the kind of Burkean philosophy on which it was founded. Conservatives turned the camp completely on its head.

So yes, those on the left still possess a philosophical skepticism of government. But conservatism today is absolutely positive of everything it believes. There's the Truth -- theirs -- and then there is the other stuff that the unenlightened believe.

I'm just saying that the labels now mean something different from 40 years ago, but the 2 schools are even more at odds with each other than before.

Thanks for hearing me out.

William H. Leckie, Jr. - 4/27/2003

The labels "Right" and "Left" have indeed become obsolete, and in brief here's why:

They're categories that emerged from the French Revolution and remain as legacies of 19th century political, social, and historical thought.

That longish period collapsed in World War One, gave rise to a whole series of upheavals and extended conflicts that brought the "short century," the 20th, to a close.

Alas, the revolutionary expectations that came out of 1789 are gone; elite conservatives and certainly "progressives" in the academy now share many assumptions about such things from epistemology to the nature of historical change, a chunk of them derived from 19th century continental reaction.

Contemporary popular "conservatism" is based on a melange of ideas--at their base 19th century liberalism--that range from an irredentist populism and triumphalist nationalism to 19th century millenalist theology in pop form. While many of its advocates seem blithely unaware of it, even such crazy movements as anti-creationism in the US depend on not the Bible but ideas about science that are naively positivist. This is paralleled in right-wing legal circles for public consumption by such things as Constitutional "strict construction," derived from the theological notion of sola scriptura. But in fact, both law and theology as well as science have moved well beyond post-Kantian ideas. They're not going anywhere, either.

The age of grand narratives is indeed over; we need new ones. The Left, having embraced a skepticism it shares with conservative elites, has nothing much to say; the Right has only money and power, and the nihilism of the Straussians and neo-Hobbesians.

I've left out a lot, but for those interested in serious discussion instead of putting up with the same old schoolyard nonsense of the usual cast of splenetic right-wingers, I'll risk putting this out as an initial, and openly informal sally into uncharted waters!

NY Guy - 4/27/2003

Mr. Frequent reader,

If you read this board in the past you will see that Carpenter has become the HNN Poster Boy for meaningless debate and is merely a "I hate Bush" commentator. His introductory comments are so baseless that he has been asked to stop embarrising HNN and only submit his latest rant on how much he hates Bush. Suetonius' asks if HNN's effort to promote their Poster Boy is the philosophy accepted by HNN and that is the reason they are trying to get him more coverage. You want to debate. Let us hear you comments why Mr. Carpenter is given special priveliges, published each week, attempts to promote his philosophy, etc. What is next, HNN trying to get him a radio show. I am sure you have an opinion.

Frequent reader - 4/26/2003

You wrote with some hope I assume, "this site is to examine pieces like this and debate them academically."

As a regular reader that's what I hoped for as well. But take a look at the responses to this article from opposition voices. Do you see one analytical comment? Do you see any examination? See anything academically grounded? Do you see "debate"?

Nope. Nothing but childish ad hominems and worthlessness such as "damn stupid" and "commie" and "I agree" with what's-his-name.

You want debate? Then debate. Argue the points. And get others --and I must say they're usually on the right -- to do the same.

Suetonius - 4/26/2003

Why does the identification of Carpenter carry this on it:

". Please consider contacting your local newspaper to carry his column. "

when the ostensible purpose of this site is to examine pieces like this and debate them academically? Is this actually a site interested in advocacy?

Faber - 4/25/2003

What a cutting rebuttal.

You be right. We all commies. We all stupid. We losers.

You Amerikan. You be smart. You be winner.

Orson Olson - 4/25/2003

What Homer sez.

Tom Kellum - 4/23/2003

In these days of modern times, when even Senator Santorum can't tell the difference between the ACs and the DCs, it's probably safer to just be a plenipotenitary unto yourself.

Joey Giraud - 4/23/2003

Interesting. You say conservatives used to care about history, but now fool themselves with fanciful notions of "the Good Old Days," and have reality resistant ideological convictions. OTOH, liberals used to be the foolish, angry ideologues but are now (at least circa GulfWarII ) the ones who understand the relevent historical lessons and are more realistic.

I agree. This fits with observation.

In my opinion, a strong self-identification with either the Left or the Right is an indicator for thoughtlessness.

Homer Simpson - 4/22/2003

This guy is so damn stupid I wouldn't even let him on the Simpsons.

Why do all the commies think they're so damned smart? They lost, didn't they?

Suetonius - 4/21/2003

A case in point:

The Daily Telegraph 22/04/03

Galloway was in Saddam's pay, say secret Iraqi documents

By David Blair in Baghdad

George Galloway, the Labour backbencher, received money from Saddam Hussein's regime, taking a slice of oil earnings worth at least £375,000 a year, according to Iraqi intelligence documents found by The Daily Telegraph in Baghdad.

A confidential memorandum sent to Saddam by his spy chief said that Mr Galloway asked an agent of the Mukhabarat secret service for a greater cut of Iraq's exports under the oil for food programme.

He also said that Mr Galloway was profiting from food contracts and sought "exceptional" business deals. Mr Galloway has always denied receiving any financial assistance from Baghdad.

Asked to explain the document, he said yesterday: "Maybe it is the product of the same forgers who forged so many other things in this whole Iraq picture. Maybe The Daily Telegraph forged it. Who knows?"

When the letter from the head of the Iraqi intelligence service was read to him, he said: "The truth is I have never met, to the best of my knowledge, any member of Iraqi intelligence. I have never in my life seen a barrel of oil, let alone owned, bought or sold one."

In the papers, which were found in the looted foreign ministry, Iraqi intelligence continually stresses the need for secrecy about Mr Galloway's alleged business links with the regime. One memo says that payments to him must be made under "commercial cover".

For more than a decade, Mr Galloway, MP for Glasgow Kelvin, has been the leading critic of Anglo-American policy towards Iraq, campaigning against sanctions and the war that toppled Saddam.

He led the Mariam Appeal, named after an Iraqi child he flew to Britain for leukaemia treatment. The campaign was the supposed beneficiary of his fund-raising.

But the papers say that, behind the scenes, Mr Galloway was conducting a relationship with Iraqi intelligence. Among documents found in the foreign ministry was a memorandum from the chief of the Mukhabarat to Saddam's office on Jan 3, 2000, marked "Confidential and Personal".

It purported to outline talks between Mr Galloway and an Iraqi spy. During the meeting on Boxing Day 1999, Mr Galloway detailed his campaign plans for the year ahead.

The spy chief wrote that Mr Galloway told the Mukhabarat agent: "He [Galloway] needs continuous financial support from Iraq. He obtained through Mr Tariq Aziz [deputy prime minister] three million barrels of oil every six months, according to the oil for food programme. His share would be only between 10 and 15 cents per barrel."

Iraq's oil sales, administered by the United Nations, were intended to pay for only essential humanitarian supplies. If the memo was accurate, Mr Galloway's share would have amounted to about £375,000 per year.

The documents say that Mr Galloway entered into partnership with a named Iraqi oil broker to sell the oil on the international market.
The memorandum continues: "He [Galloway] also obtained a limited number of food contracts with the ministry of trade. The percentage of its profits does not go above one per cent."

The Iraqi spy chief, whose illegible signature appears at the bottom of the memorandum, says that Mr Galloway asked for more money.

"He suggested to us the following: first, increase his share of oil; second, grant him exceptional commercial and contractual facilities." The spy chief, who is not named, recommends acceptance of the proposals.

Mr Galloway's intermediary in Iraq was Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian. In a letter found in one foreign ministry file, Mr Galloway wrote: "This is to certify that Mr Fawaz A Zureikat is my representative in Baghdad on all matters concerning my work with the Mariam Appeal or the Emergency Committee in Iraq."

The intelligence chief's memorandum describes a meeting with Mr Zureikat in which he said that Mr Galloway's campaigning on behalf of Iraq was putting "his future as a British MP in a circle surrounded by many question marks and doubts".

Mr Zureikat is then quoted as saying: "His projects and future plans for the benefit of the country need financial support to become a motive for him to do more work and, because of the sensitivity of getting money directly from Iraq, it is necessary to grant him oil contracts and special and exceptional commercial opportunities to provide him with an income under commercial cover, without being connected to him directly."

Mr Zureikat is said to have emphasised that the "name of Mr Galloway or his wife should not be mentioned".

Suetonius - 4/21/2003

Mr. Carpenter's unusually toned-down piece has neglected one crucial detail that historians will be attempting to grapple with for the next thirty years: the secret side of this war that involves intelligence, espionage and back-room diplomacy.

It is impossible for either side to say that "they were right" when we have barely a fraction of this story. There are glimmers from open source intelligence groups like Debka and Stratfor, and a careful eye reading more than one regional paper can detect the altered shadows of things that are going on. Until we know these stories, and the secrets they yield us about, for example, the true dispersal some of the four tons of weaponized smallpox from the Soviet Union into the Middle East, we won't know whether the war was a success or not...and the Pentagon is not telling us anytime soon.

Thomas Gallatin - 4/21/2003

What is "right" about the wrong-headed chickenhawks who have hijacked American foreign policy ?

What is "left" of coherence and consistency amongst propopents of civil liberties, international understanding, and collective security ?

While Mr. Carpenter may be an expert on the HISTORY of right-wing
demogaguery in America, the old classifications therein implied do not last forever, and seem increasingly irrelevant to what is actually going on today.