THURSDAY, 12 JULY 2007 — 4 pm ACELA/AMTRAK — NEW YORK TO DC
NeoCon High Priest Bill Kristol sits one row behind liberal blog-phenom diva Arianna Huffington and proceeds to chat about his role in nudging and tweaking President Bush’s language.
Kristol was sitting a row behind me, talking on his cell phone with someone who apparently shared his optimism. “‘Precipitous withdrawal’ really worked,” I overheard him say, clearly referring to the president’s use of the term in that morning’s press conference. “How many times did he use it? Three? Four?” he asked his interlocutor, and the conversation continued with a round of metaphorical back-slapping for the clever phrase they had “come up with.”
I, of course, have no idea who was on the other end. Tony Snow, perhaps? After all, he and Kristol were colleagues before Snow left Fox. But whoever it was, the emphasis during their conversation on the significance of the “clever” phrase has been emblematic of the White House prepping of the president.
Instead of sending their boss out with the real facts or logical arguments, Bush’s aides and their friends (see Kristol) concoct some nonsense phrase in the spin lab, hand it to him and tell him to go out there and repeat it as often as he can. The latest is “precipitous withdrawal.” It’s the new “cut and run.”
It’s actually not all that new: back in January 1969, Richard Nixon used it again and again in his famous “Silent Majority” speech: “The precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would be a disaster not only for South Vietnam but for the United States and for the cause of peace.” Again and again throughout the speech, Nixon used the phrase to paint the nightmarish consequences of a “precipitate withdrawal” from Vietnam.
Almost forty years later, George Bush is using the slightly tweaked “precipitous withdrawal” to paint his own nightmarish scenario of what will happen if American forces leave Iraq. And for that, apparently, we have Bill Kristol to thank. At least partially.
After Arianna’s encounter, Bill Kristol published what many in the reality-based world consider to be one of the single most duplicitous and Orwellian treatments of Bush’s years in office titled “Why Bush Will Be a Winner.”
I suppose I’ll merely expose myself to harmless ridicule if I make the following assertion: George W. Bush’s presidency will probably be a successful one.
Let’s step back from the unnecessary mistakes and the self-inflicted wounds that have characterized the Bush administration. Let’s look at the broad forest rather than the often unlovely trees. What do we see? First, no second terrorist attack on U.S. soil — not something we could have taken for granted. Second, a strong economy — also something that wasn’t inevitable.
And third, and most important, a war in Iraq that has been very difficult, but where — despite some confusion engendered by an almost meaningless “benchmark” report last week — we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome.
It’s unbelievable to me that Bill Kristol sees Iraq on a positive course — but clearly part of the game here is to sound reasonable and hold out a glass of half full optimism that scratches into popular hope.
But what about a less-varnished treatment of what Bill Kristol’s crowd thinks. . .
Writer Johann Hari did something I very much want to do which was to embed himself anonymously as a listener and chronicler of neocons talking to their followers on a recent cruise that included many leading neocon personalities (There is another coming up soon with other pugnacious nationalist personalities like John Bolton.)
Here are a number of the gems from Hari’s brilliant cruise ship sleuthing:
. . .A sweet elderly lady from Los Angeles is sitting on the rocks nearby, telling me dreamily about her son. “Is he your only child?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “Do you have a child back in England?” she asks. No, I say. Her face darkens. “You’d better start,” she says. “The Muslims are breeding. Soon, they’ll have the whole of Europe.”
. . .As [Hillary-Ann] explains the perils of Republican dating, my mind drifts, watching the gentle tide. When I hear her say, ” Of course, we need to execute some of these people,” I wake up. Who do we need to execute? She runs her fingers through the sand lazily. “A few of these prominent liberals who are trying to demoralise the country,” she says. “Just take a couple of these anti-war people off to the gas chamber for treason to show, if you try to bring down America at a time of war, that’s what you’ll get.” She squints at the sun and smiles. ” Then things’ll change.”
. . .There is something strange about this discussion, and it takes me a few moments to realise exactly what it is. All the tropes that conservatives usually deny in public — that Iraq is another Vietnam, that Bush is fighting a class war on behalf of the rich — are embraced on this shining ship in the middle of the ocean. Yes, they concede, we are fighting another Vietnam; and this time we won’t let the weak-kneed liberals lose it. “It’s customary to say we lost the Vietnam war, but who’s ‘we’?” the writer Dinesh D’Souza asks angrily. “The left won by demanding America’s humiliation.” On this ship, there are no Viet Cong, no three million dead. There is only liberal treachery. Yes, D’Souza says, in a swift shift to domestic politics, “of course” Republican politics is “about class. Republicans are the party of winners, Democrats are the party of losers.”
. . .A fracture-line in the lumbering certainty of American conservatism is opening right before my eyes. Following the break, Norman Podhoretz and William Buckley — two of the grand old men of the Grand Old Party — begin to feud. Podhoretz will not stop speaking — “I have lots of ex-friends on the left; it looks like I’m going to have some ex-friends on the right, too,” he rants — and Buckley says to the chair, ” Just take the mike, there’s no other way.” He says it with a smile, but with heavy eyes.
Podhoretz and Buckley now inhabit opposite poles of post-September 11 American conservatism, and they stare at wholly different Iraqs. Podhoretz is the Brooklyn-born, street-fighting kid who travelled through a long phase of left-liberalism to a pugilistic belief in America’s power to redeem the world, one bomb at a time. Today, he is a bristling grey ball of aggression, here to declare that the Iraq war has been “an amazing success.” He waves his fist and declaims: “There were WMD, and they were shipped to Syria … This picture of a country in total chaos with no security is false. It has been a triumph. It couldn’t have gone better.” He wants more wars, and fast. He is “certain” Bush will bomb Iran, and ” thank God” for that.
. . .A few floors away, Podhoretz tells me he is losing his voice, “which will make some people very happy”. Then he croaks out the standard-issue Wolfowitz line about how, after September 11, the United States had to introduce democracy to the Middle East in order to change the political culture that produced the mass murderers. For somebody who declares democracy to be his goal, he is remarkably blase about the fact that 80 per cent of Iraqis want US troops to leave their country, according to the latest polls. “I don’t much care,” he says, batting the question away. He goes on to insist that “nobody was tortured in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo” and that Bush is “a hero”. He is, like most people on this cruise, certain the administration will attack Iran.
Podhoretz excitedly talks himself into a beautiful web of words, vindicating his every position. He fumes at Buckley, George Will and the other apostate conservatives who refuse to see sense. He announces victory. And for a moment, here in the Mexican breeze, it is as though a thousand miles away Baghdad is not bleeding. He starts hacking and coughing painfully. I offer to go to the ship infirmary and get him some throat sweets, and — locked in eternal fighter-mode — he looks thrown, as though this is an especially cunning punch. Is this random act of kindness designed to imbalance him? ” I’m fine,” he says, glancing contemptuously at the Bill Buckley book I am carrying. “I’ll keep on shouting through the soreness.”
. . .The familiar routine of the dinners — first the getting-to-know-you chit-chat, then some light conversational fascism — is accelerating. Tonight there is explicit praise for a fascist dictator before the entree has arrived. I drop into the conversation the news that there are moves in Germany to have Donald Rumsfeld extradited to face torture charges.
A red-faced man who looks like an egg with a moustache glued on grumbles, ” If the Germans think they can take responsibility for the world, I don’t care about German courts. Bomb them.” I begin to witter on about the Pinochet precedent, and Kate snaps, “Treating Don Rumsfeld like Pinochet is disgusting.” Egg Man pounds his fist on the table: ” Treating Pinochet like that is disgusting. Pinochet is a hero. He saved Chile.”
“Exactly,” adds Jim. “And he privatised social security.”
. . .I spot the old lady from the sea looking for her suitcase, and stop to tell her I may have found a solution to her political worries about both Muslims and stem-cells.
“Couldn’t they just do experiments on Muslim stem-cells?” I ask. ” Hey — that’s a great idea!” she laughs, and vanishes. Hillary-Ann stops to say she is definitely going on the next National Review cruise, to Alaska. “Perfect!” I yell, finally losing my mind.
“You can drill it as you go!” She puts her arms around me and says very sweetly, “We need you on every cruise.”
As I turn my back on the ship for the last time, the Judge I met on my first night places his arm affectionately on my shoulder. “We have written off Britain to the Muslims,” he says. “Come to America.”
Listening to what the other side really believes — unvarnished and up front — is important. And many of the folks we have allowed to run the White House share the views that Arianna Huffington and Johann Hari have reported.
Cheney’s wing of the foreign policy establishment which is served by ideological officers outside the administration like Kristol and Podhoretz denies empirical reality and reason.
I had the chance to chat about this Bill Kristol encounter with Arianna Huffington at her Washington home last night at a grand affair of her many blogging and political friends in Washington, and I agreed with her that what she heard Kristol say on the train and what Hari reported from the cruise show that modern neoconservatism has become a reality-denying cult.
And for those who think that the neocons are out and gone — think again. They continue to embed most corners of America’s policy establishment.
— Steve Clemons