When Decorum Requires Victims: Charles Krauthammer, Mortality, and Morality
A majority of Americans have cheered on the deaths of others in the form of war. But some ghouls are more equal than others.
Note: I wrote the following in early 2010 for a book I was commissioned to do on the incompetence of American punditry. I’m making it available here to serve as a counterweight to the vapid hagiography that began appearing on the subject of Charles Krauthammer from the moment he announced that he will soon be dead from cancer. I don’t believe there’s much to be gained in explaining at length why I don’t share in the belief that anyone who is dying, or recently dead, or something, must not be criticized. I’ll merely state that I believe it is more important to assess the process whereby a nation chooses its wise men and its wars than it is to grant vague blanket courtesies to those who have had a role in these things.
As shown below, Krauthammer does not deserve the commendations he is receiving; more importantly, the very act of glossing over those acts he claims not to regret all but ensures that the same pattern will continue, with the same consequences for those abroad whose own misfortunes do not take up as much space in America’s collective mind. I agreed with Christopher Hitchens when he attacked the still-warm corpse of Jerry Falwell; I sympathize with the Italian mother who supposedly fired one bullet each into the corpse of Mussolini for every son she had lost to him; I don’t begrudge the American soldier his satisfaction, or relief, that he has killed an enemy that may or may not have been a threat to him or to the population he believes himself to be serving. I have nothing but contempt for those who believe that decorum is more important than our responsibility to examine the impact our actions have on others.
To that end, I’ve genuinely tried to consider the point of view that writing mean yet accurate things about a powerful person who has been afflicted with some common misfortune — in this case, mortality — actually does some special degree of harm to other human beings that is fundamentally worse than any other harm one can do — in this case, pushing for additional wars in which the lives of millions are at stake without bothering to notice that the expertise he has offered on previous wars has always turned out to be wrong. I’ve engaged on the issue with everyone who has seriously approached me about it, and would be happy to debate anyone prepared to defend and explain their own position. There are many positions that I disagree with but which I nonetheless respect, just as I respect those holding them; the placing of decorum and death-taboo over the actual lives and rights of the millions that our politics are ultimately supposed to protect is not one of those positions.
It may also be worth adding that Krauthammer once dismissed the “host of teary anecdotes before congressional committees” that Gulf War vets were making in support of their contention that they were suffering from an unknown illness they believed to be connected to U.S. munitions used in Desert Storm, and perhaps in other theaters of war as well. As he argued there, the world does not run on anyone’s feelings. He was right. He was wrong to claim that studies had essentially proven their claims to be a fiction; years later, it would become clearer — and eventually acknowledged by Veterans Affairs after years of political pressure from above had finally been overcome — that the vets had been right, and that the earlier studies had failed to consider such things as depleted uranium as a potential cause. If you think it ghoulish to disregard the dying, then, you may safely despise Krauthammer as much as you might despise me for pointing all these things out now, when the story of America in its decline threatens to solidify into a polite falsehood that can teach us nothing.
Krauthammer says he has no regrets about his career. I have regrets about mine. Going after men whose high reputation comes at the expense of others, and of the truth, is not among them.
Charles Krauthammer is today widely considered to be among the Republican Party’s greatest intellectual assets. In a profile piece that appeared in mid-2009, Politico’s Ben Smith proclaimed the Canadian-born commentator to be “a coherent, sophisticated and implacable critic of the new president” and a “central conservative voice” in the “Age of Obama.” Around the same time, New York Times mainstay David Brooks characterized him as “the most important conservative columnist right now.” When Krauthammer was presented with an award that summer by Rupert Murdoch in recognition of his having done a lot of whatever it is that makes Rupert Murdoch happy, Dick Cheney himself was on hand to congratulate him. In liberal terms of achievement, this is somewhat akin to winning an award from Noam Chomsky while being fêted by the ghost of Louis Brandeis. Krauthammer’s prestige is such that, when foreign publications find themselves in need of someone to explain the conservative outlook, they are as likely to turn to our chapter subject as to anyone else. In October of 2009, Der Spiegel published a particularly comprehensive interview in which Krauthammer held forth largely on foreign policy. Among other things, he derides Obama as a wide-eyed amateur who lacks the columnist’s own grounding in reality:
I would say his vision of the world appears to me to be so naïve that I am not even sure he’s able to develop a doctrine. He has a view of the world as regulated by self-enforcing international norms, where the peace is kept by some kind of vague international consensus, something called the international community, which to me is a fiction, acting through obviously inadequate and worthless international agencies. I wouldn’t elevate that kind of thinking to a doctrine because I have too much respect for the word doctrine.
In pronouncing judgment upon a president’s competence in the arena of foreign policy, Krauthammer thereby implies that he himself knows better. It is a fine thing, then, that we may go through the fellow’s columns from the last 10 years and see for ourselves whether this is actually the case. In 1999, NATO sought to derail yet another potential humanitarian disaster in the Balkans by way of an air bombing campaign against Serbia. Krauthammer promptly denounced Bill Clinton in a column that begun thusly:
On Monday, as “genocide” was going on in Kosovo (so said the State Department), Bill Clinton played golf. The stresses of war, no doubt. But perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he needed to retreat to shaded fairways to contemplate the consequences of his little Kosovo war.
Our columnist seems to have since changed his mind on the propriety of playing golf in the midst of conflict, but then if we are to concern ourselves with every little thing for which he has denounced his opponents while giving a pass to his allies, we will be forever distracted, so knock it off. Better for us to note that Krauthammer uses the term “genocide” in quotes and implies such a characterization to be the work of the foolish Clintonian State Department; the intent here is to cast suspicion on Clinton’s judgment by implying that no such thing as genocide is actually taking place. And in the very next paragraph, when Krauthammer asserts that NATO’s intervention thus far has failed to prevent “savage ethnic cleansing, executions of Kosovar Albanian leaders, the forced expulsion of more than 100,000 Kosovars” — with no such terminology being put in quotes this time — the intent is to cast even greater suspicion on Clinton’s judgment by implying that some sort of genocide is taking place.
Krauthammer goes on to argue that air strikes would be insufficient to force Serbian forces from Kosovo. Bizarrely enough, he even tries to convince his readers that General Wesley Clark agreed with him over Clinton, quoting the then NATO commander as telling Jim Lehrer, “we never thought that through air power we could stop these killings on the ground.” No doubt due to space constraints, Krauthammer leaves out the rest of Clark’s answer, in which it is explained that “the person who has to stop this is President Milosevic” and that the purpose of the air campaign was to force him to do just that — which, of course, it did.
Even after Clinton’s “little Kosovo war” proved successful, Krauthammer remained ideologically committed to chaos in the Balkans, having also predicted in 1999 that NATO’s involvement “would sever Kosovo from Serbian control and lead inevitably to an irredentist Kosovar state, unstable and unviable and forced to either join or take over pieces of neighboring countries.” When an ethnic Albanian insurgency arose in Macedonia along its border with UN-administered Kosovo in 2001, he felt himself vindicated, announcing that “the Balkans are on the verge of another explosion,” making several references to Vietnam, and characterizing our continued presence in the region as a “quagmire.” The violence ended within the year, having claimed less than 80 lives. Kosovo has since joined both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and is now recognized by three of five permanent members of the Security Council; as of late 2009, Macedonia is preparing for membership in NATO as well as the European Union.
Like most others who had cried apocalypse in Kosovo, Krauthammer bumbled into the Afghanistan war in a haze of amnesia and inexplicable self-regard. When New York Times contributor R.W. “Johnny” Apple wrote a piece in late October 2001 proposing that the conflict could develop into a “quagmire,” our columnist ridiculed him for using a term that he himself had wrongly applied in his own Balkans-as-Vietnam column from earlier in the year. The Apple article in question proved to be among the more prescient compositions of that period. Unlike Thomas Friedman, who was in those days proclaiming that Afghans don’t really mind having bombs dropped on them and was otherwise engaged in the inexplicable application of scare quotes around the word “civilians,” Apple predicted that civilian casualties would become a major source of discontent among the population and that this might very well be problematic for U.S. efforts to win such people over. He ended the piece by pointing out that there exists “a huge question about who would rule if the United States vanquished its foe. Washington never solved that issue satisfactorily after the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, and solving it in Afghanistan, a country long prone to chaotic competition among many tribes and factions, will probably not be much easier.” And, of course, he was right.
Long after others had abandoned the illusion of quick and long-term success in Central Asia, Krauthammer was still mocking anyone foolish enough to express concern over whether the illusion might be illusory. “Before our astonishing success in Afghanistan goes completely down the memory hole, let’s recall some very recent history,” Krauthammer politely suggested in a December 2004 column. “Within 100 days, al Qaeda is routed and the Taliban overthrown. Then came the first election in Afghanistan’s history. Now the inauguration of a deeply respected Democrat who, upon being sworn in as legitimate president of his country, thanks America for its liberation . . . What do liberals have to say about this singular achievement by the Bush administration? That Afghanistan is growing poppies.” This was indeed noted by liberals of the time — along with a whole range of other concerns that Krauthammer does not bother to address, with one exception:
The other complaint is that Karzai really does not rule the whole country. Again the sun rises in the east. Afghanistan has never had a government that controlled the whole country. It has always had a central government weak by Western standards. But Afghanistan’s decentralized system works. Karzai controls Kabul, most of the major cities, and much in between. And he is successfully leveraging his power to gradually extend his authority as he creates entirely new federal institutions and an entirely new military.
As it turns out, this “deeply respected Democrat” won the 2009 election by deeply undemocratic means, further de-legitimizing himself in the eyes of Afghans already angry over the corruption that marks not only Karzai’s cabinet but also certain members of his immediate family. The former monarch’s authority, meanwhile, has not so much been “gradually extended” as it has since retracted. American analysts of both the private and public sort are now virtually united in their contempt for the fellow.
Krauthammer also explains to us the following:
What has happened in Afghanistan is nothing short of a miracle . . . Afghanistan had suffered under years of appalling theocratic rule, which helped to legitimize the kind of secularist democracy that Karzai represents.
The “secularist democracy” of Afghanistan proclaims Islam to be its official religion, holds that none of its civil laws may violate the teachings of Islam, and punishes conversion from Islam by death — all of which was already the case at the time of Krauthammer’s writing.
Three weeks into the Iraq conflict, Krauthammer was hailing it as “The Three Week War” and mocking those who weren’t. Six months later, he was calling for some perspective.
On the reconstruction of Iraq, everybody is a genius. Every pundit, every ex-official and, of course, every Democrat knows exactly how it should have been done. Everybody would have had Iraq up and running by now, and as safe as downtown Singapore. Everybody, that is, except the Bush administration which, in its arrogance and stupidity, has so botched the occupation that it is “in danger of losing the peace” — so sayeth John Kerry, echoing Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy, and many others down the Democratic food chain. A bit of perspective, gentlemen.
The last time Krauthammer had called for perspective was two weeks into the Iraq conflict:
The first gulf war took six weeks. Afghanistan took nine. Kosovo, 11. We are now just past two weeks in the second gulf war. It’s time for a bit of perspective. This campaign has already been honored with a ‘quagmire’ piece by The New York Times’ Johnny Apple, seer and author of a similar and justly famous quagmire piece on Afghanistan published just days before the fall of Mazar-e Sharif and the swift collapse of the Taliban.
I try not to resort to numbered lists, but fuck.
- Afghanistan did not so much take nine weeks as it did more than a decade.
- Kosovo did indeed take just 11 weeks, during which time Krauthammer kept calling the whole thing a “quagmire” and comparing it to Vietnam and continued to do so for years afterwards.
- Krauthammer makes fun of Johnny Apple for having written an earlier piece warning that Afghanistan might develop into a “quagmire.”
- Krauthammer makes fun of Johnny Apple for having written a more recent piece warning that Iraq might develop into a “quagmire.”
- Krauthammer makes a passing reference to the “swift collapse of the Taliban.”
- The paragraph itself does not really flow all that well.
The column that Krauthammer wrote six months into the Three Week War ends with the following taunt:
Losing the peace? No matter what anyone says now, that question will only be answered at the endpoint. If in a year or two we are able to leave behind a stable, friendly government, we will have succeeded. If not, we will have failed. And all the geniuses will be vindicated.
This was in 2003. In 2005, Krauthammer penned another column in which he acknowledged that his errors had assisted in the promotion and failed perpetuation of one of the most terrible foreign policy mistakes in American history, and of course he stopped making sarcastic attacks on those other commentators and public figures whom he had previously mocked for their far more accurate predictions. Having done a great deal of soul-searching and realizing that he had been dreadfully wrong about the three most recent American wars, and recognizing that the distribution of poor information harms the ability of voters and policymakers to make wise decisions regarding matters on which the lives and well-being of millions are at stake, he also decided to refrain from providing further commentary on military affairs. Then he blew up an Iranian missile silo with his mind.
Just kidding. Instead, he eventually took to denouncing retired military figures as the “I-know-better generals” for second-guessing Rumsfeld, whom he continued to support well after even William Kristol had begun calling for the defense secretary to be dismissed. “Six of them, retired, are denouncing the Bush administration and calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation as secretary of defense,” he noted in the April 2006 column. “The anti-war types think this is just swell. I don’t.” He then explains the various things that he knows better than the “I-know-better-generals”:
In his most recent broadside, retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste accuses the administration of ‘radically alter[ing] the results of 12 years of deliberate and continuous war planning’’ on Iraq. Well, the Bush administration threw out years and years and layer upon layer of war planning on Afghanistan, improvised one of the leanest possible attack plans and achieved one of the more remarkable military victories in recent history. There’s nothing sacred about on-the-shelf war plans.
More like General Wrong Batiste, amirite? Man, these guys aren’t just generals — they’re I-know-better generals! Whatta buncha maroons!
The failure of so many retired military men to understand things they obviously understood perfectly well was eclipsed by another, deeper concern on the part of our intrepid military historian:
We’ve always had discontented officers in every war and in every period of our history. But they rarely coalesce into factions. That happens in places such as Saddam’s Iraq, Pinochet’s Chile or your run-of-the-mill banana republic. And when it does, outsiders (including United States) do their best to exploit it, seeking out the dissident factions to either stage a coup or force the government to change policy. That kind of dissident party within the military is alien to America. Some other retired generals have found it necessary to rise to the defense of the current administration. Will the rest of the generals, retired or serving, now have to declare themselves as to which camp they belong?
When the surge was proposed in 2007, Krauthammer was among the few conservatives to come out against the idea, explaining in a 2007 column that the strategy “will fail” due to the perfidy and incompetence of the Maliki government. “If it were my choice,” he wrote in January, “I would not ‘surge’ American troops in defense of such a government. I would not trust it to deliver its promises.” The guy was pretty down on Maliki for a while, in fact, elsewhere asserting that the U.S. “should have given up on Maliki long ago and begun to work with other parties in the Iraqi Parliament to bring down the government” and call for new elections. “As critics acknowledge military improvement, the administration is finally beginning to concede the political reality that the Maliki government is hopeless,” he elsewhere observed. “Bush’s own national security adviser had said as much in a leaked memo back in November. I and others have been arguing that for months.” Later in the year, the surge had become a reality and Krauthammer had become a convert, his original objections having disappeared in the face of what was beginning to seem like a viable strategy. Meanwhile, though, a number of his congressional co-ideologues had adopted his own past objections:
To cut off Petraeus’ plan just as it is beginning — the last surge troops arrived only last month — on the assumption that we cannot succeed is to declare Petraeus either deluded or dishonorable. Deluded in that, as the best-positioned American in Baghdad, he still believes we can succeed. Or dishonorable in pretending to believe in victory and sending soldiers to die in what he really knows is an already failed strategy. That’s the logic of the wobbly Republicans’ position. But rather than lay it on Petraeus, they prefer to lay it on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and point out his government’s inability to meet the required political “benchmarks.” As a longtime critic of the Maliki government, I agree that it has proved itself incapable of passing laws important for long-term national reconciliation.
But first comes the short term. When Petraeus proposed the surge, Krauthammer opposed it — which is to say that by his own logic, Krauthammer himself must have likewise considered Petraeus to be “either deluded or dishonorable” insomuch as that our columnist believed that the surge would be a failure and thereby waste American lives. He does not bother to note that he himself opposed the strategy that nobody else must now oppose lest they insult Petraeus in the same manner that Krauthammer apparently did. He also doesn’t bother to note that he, like all these “wobbly Republicans,” also considered Maliki to be incapable of making use of any such surge. Instead, he here deems the surge as falling under the category of “short term” reconciliation and that Maliki is capable of taking advantage of such — without, of course, admitting that he himself had argued the exact opposite case seven months before. At any rate, Krauthammer today considers the strategy to have been a success after having initially predicted its failure. Thus it is that this most respected of conservative commentators may be the only pundit in the country to have been wrong about every significant U.S. military question of the last decade.
When Barack Obama began positioning himself as a presidential aspirant towards the end of 2006, Charles Krauthammer offered some encouraging words. Obama, he wrote at the time, has “an affecting personal history.” More importantly, he had something in common with another once-popular presidential aspirant, Colin Powell; both, it turned out, were black. “Race is only one element in their popularity,” Krauthammer noted, “but an important one. A historic one. Like many Americans, I long to see an African-American ascend to the presidency. It would be an event of profound significance, a great milestone in the unfolding story of African-Americans achieving their rightful, long-delayed place in American life.” The column made a strong case for Obama’s candidacy in terms of his identity, but included not a word concerning what the first-term Senator might bring to the table in terms of policy.
Less than two years later, Krauthammer was expressing disgust with those who would make the case for Obama’s candidacy in terms of his identity, rather than his policies. “The pillars of American liberalism — the Democratic Party, the universities and the mass media — are obsessed with biological markers, most particularly race and gender,” he helpfully explained, adding that the 2008 Democratic primary represented “the full flowering of identity politics. It’s not a pretty picture.” In his earlier Obama column, our columnist set out to explain that, should Obama run, “he will not win. The reason is 9/11. The country will simply not elect a novice in wartime.” He provides the senator with the following advice:
He should run in ’08. He will lose in ’08. And the loss will put him irrevocably on a path to the presidency . . . He’s a young man with a future. But the future recedes. He needs to run now. And lose. And win by losing.
Obama actually did end up trying this, although it didn’t go as planned. In the meantime, Krauthammer predicts, the White House will probably go to a Republican — “say, 9/11 veteran Rudy Giuliani.” Krauthammer also warns that the “reflexive anti-war sentiments” of the left “will prove disastrous for the Democrats in the long run — the long run beginning as early as November ’08.” The 2006 race, he notes in its aftermath, “was an event-driven election that produced the shift of power one would expect when a finely balanced electorate swings mildly one way or the other . . . Vietnam cost the Democrats 40 years in the foreign policy wilderness. Anti-Iraq sentiment gave the anti-war Democrats a good night on Tuesday, and may yet give them a good year or two. But beyond that, it will be desolation.” But then the 2008 election ended up being event-driven, too.
The following excerpts are taken from two columns Krauthammer wrote in 2001:
As the Bush administration approaches a decision on stem cell research, the caricatures have already been drawn. On one side are the human benefactors who wish only a chance to use the remarkable potential of stem cells — primitive cells that have the potential to develop into any body tissue with the proper tweaking — to cure a myriad of diseases. On the other side stand the Catholic Church and the usual anti-abortion zealots who, because of squeamishness about the fate of a few clumps of cells, will prevent this great boon to humanity.
There is a serious debate about war aims raging in Washington. And then there is the caricature debate in which, on the one hand, you have the reasoned, moderate, restrained doves who want very limited war aims. And on the other hand, you have the unreconstructed hawks — those daring to suggest that the war on terrorism does not stop with Afghanistan — aching for blood and continents to conquer.
This is probably one of the stupidest rhetorical tricks I have ever come across, and I’ve come across plenty of them in the course of reading through Krauthammer’s mediocre nonsense. I’ve also had to watch clips of him on TV, as the fellow is of course a prolific cable news pundit and not much better. Two days after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, he appeared on Fox News in order to allege that the Korean-born perpetrator was in fact a symptom of the problem of Islamic terrorism — a problem long underestimated by many of his ideological opponents, as he has explained at length elsewhere:
KRAUTHAMMER: And he did leave the return address ‘Ismail Ax.’ ‘Ismail Ax.’ I suspect it has some more to do with Islamic terror and the inspiration than it does with the opening line of Moby Dick.
BRIT HUME: Which was, “My name is Ismael.”
Close enough, Brit. But in his very next column, Krauthammer denounces “the inevitable rush to get ideological mileage out of the carnage,” ending the piece with the only moderately catty hope that “in the spirit of Obama’s much-heralded post-ideological politics we can agree to observe a decent interval of respectful silence before turning ineffable evil and unfathomable grief into political fodder.” He also announces that some people who advocate gun control have been trying to turn the shooting into a debate concerning gun control. Of course, Krauthammer thus has no choice but to join the debate as well.
It is true that with far stricter gun laws, Cho Seung Hui might have had a harder time getting the weapons and ammunition needed to kill so relentlessly. Nonetheless, we should have no illusions about what laws can do. There are other ways to kill in large numbers, as Timothy McVeigh demonstrated. Determined killers will obtain guns no matter how strict the laws. And stricter controls could also keep guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens using them in self-defense. The psychotic mass murder is rare; the armed household burglary is not.
He pauses long enough to lament that it “is inevitable, I suppose, that advocates of one social policy or another will try to use the Virginia Tech massacre to their advantage.”