Armchair Warriors, Exeunt Omnes

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, Peter Beinart, 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.

You might think that Berman would be more troubled by that kind of cluelessness -- by Charles Krauthammer's apparent hope that his own attacks on Fukuyama's recollections of Krauthammer's war-mongering will make us forget that he had been calling for an American invasion of Iraq since 2001, or by David Brooks' discovery just last month that Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks stifled serious analysis and preparation for the complexity of the challenge in Iraq.

Four years ago, Brooks was regaling Yale students with his idealism about the impending Iraq War, chiding doubters among them for indulging the "cynical" thinking that "if we try to champion democracy in Iraq, we will only screw it up." Two years later, as things were going from bad to worse, he wrote, C'mon people, let's get a grip, urging us to stay the course, as I pointed out in TAP on March 20. Now he has been reduced to writing, in effect, Let's get a God. In his April 13 column, Brooks emerged from a Passover Seder brandishing the Exodus story as an Iraq War precedent and justification, which he wrote reminds us that human beings can transform themselves and ... that people who embark on generational journeys are the realistic ones.

But the Exodus story -- like that of the American Puritan migration and the civil-rights movement which it inspired -- shows us that oppressed people struggle to transform themselves and embark on their journey out of bondage with help only from God's mighty hand and outstretched arm. These are popular, bottom-up struggles, fraught with self-doubt and corruption but redeemed by indigenous spiritual and political leadership and the courage of countless ordinary people. No foreign army invaded Egypt to set off the Exodus, or England to loose the Puritan migration, or the American South to begin the civil-rights movement. (The federal marshals and National Guard troops in the South came long after the movement was well underway, and they were Americans.) And leaders such as Moses, John Winthrop, and Martin Luther King, Jr. came from the people they led. Bush is no Iraqi Moses, Dick Cheney no Aaron, Donald Rumsfeld no Joshua, Condoleezza Rice no Miriam.

A better model than the Exodus for Brooks' sophistical exegesis of the Iraq War is Napoleon. Claiming the mantle of the French Revolution, he tried to use the French army to liberate other peoples who weren't ready to liberate themselves. Napoleon's misappropriation of France's already-fraught revolution resembles the Bush administration's use of the American republican tradition to justify its crusade to spread democracy to the Middle East. Brooks' conflation of Bush's crusade and American "national greatness" with the Hebraic covenantal tradition and its Puritan and American-revolutionary emulations is even more gross a miscarriage of any American civic-republican mission than Napoleon's vision was of the France's revolution.

If Berman weren't so busy trying to stage his own exit from the Iraq War, he would try to help us see how Brooks' use of religious traditions is uninformed, superficial, and as shamelessly opportunistic as it is sentimental. Since Berman found his way to warmaking through a lengthy and imaginative perusal of Islamicist texts, sacred and political, he should be able to plumb the Hebrew and Puritan histories that Brooks has misread.

Berman might even discover what the scholar Shalom Goldman found: One of George W. Bush's eighth-generation lineal antecedents, the Rev. George Bush, a New England Calvinist divine who ended up a mystical Swedenborgian, was in 1830 the first teacher of Hebrew at New York University and the author of a tract denouncing Islam and proving Muhammad a false prophet. That may be the only remaining justification for staying the course and calling Fukuyama weak for abandoning it. Kvetching about Fukuyama's opportunism and drawing specious analogies to Exodus won't do.

If Berman, Krauthammer, Brooks, Beinart and other philo-tyrannical minds aren't going to keep on shouting triumphally about democracy amid the fog of war they helped to create, let them join Fukuyama in an exodus off the stage, rather than standing just inside the exit, bidding him good riddance. Let them stop deflecting their political and moral discomfort -- as some on the left have done, too -- into attacks on the few who've demonstrated some intellectual honesty amid so much intellectual disgrace.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale.

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