Jim Sleeper: Public intellectuals, once supportive of the war, are now quietly exiting the stage they helped set

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.]

In a recent New York Times review of America at the Crossroads -- Francis Fukayama’s account of his change of heart on the Iraq War and the national-security strategy behind it -- Paul Berman revealed perhaps more than he intended about pro-war intellectuals who are now wavering. Like Berman more than like Fukuyama, many public thinkers who trumpeted reasons to invade Iraq -- David Brooks, and Charles Krauthammer come Immediately to mind -- have lately been squirming, bobbing, weaving, joking lamely, and sometimes even feigning a “stay-the-course” intrepidity as they try to exit the stage they helped set in the run-up to the war. It’s a sad, sometimes ludicrous, spectacle -- not because they’re wrong to change their minds but because, unlike Fukuyama, they're trying not to admit that they’re doing it.

Not unfairly, Berman characterized Fukuyama as a bit too primly calculating in breaking with fellow neoconservatives just as it was becoming obvious how misguided and misguiding their Manichaean militarism had been. But if Berman meant to draw a moral distinction between Fukayama and wavering pro-war left-liberals such as himself, his review suggested rather that it takes one to know one. Tellingly, Berman wasn't even done with Fukuyama before he turned his wrath on leftist critics of pro-war liberals and moderates: “The Nation has become The Weekly Purge,” he complained, meaning that that magazine is blaming pro-war deep thinkers such as Berman for the Bush administration's blunders and lies.

Berman has a point in lampooning people who write as if terrorists were just anti-imperialists in a hurry. For example, when Nation reviewer Daniel Lazare excoriated even the anti-war left-liberal Todd Gitlin, calling him an apologist for “belligerent nationalism” just because he’d affirmed American patriotism in voicing his dissent, the review set that magazine's recently improved book-review section back several years. Gitlin’s The Intellectuals and the Flag explains why and how he is a patriot after the fashion of the socialist leader Norman Thomas, who cautioned fellow anti-Vietnam War radicals not to burn the flag but to wash it. Lazare’s hatchet job on such a civic-republican stance against the Iraq War is a chilling reminder of the old Daily Worker.

But far more consequential than leftist witch-hunting is the intellectual dishonesty in the “tough-minded” posturing by “enlightened” pro-war liberals like Berman. True, Islamo-fascism can't be excused as a flawed but defensible Palestinian national-liberation struggle writ large. True, non-state terrorism demands responses which most knee-jerk anti-warriors haven't a clue how to frame. But just as clueless are those who helped mobilize American public support for a military and "national-security" response to Saddam Hussein and even to terrorism itself. ...

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