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No We Can’t By: Bruce Thornton
City Journal | Thursday, September 18, 2008


From the days of ancient Athens, the citizens of democracies have been querulous warriors. Key democratic institutions such as free speech and citizen control of the military ensure that ordinary people take an active interest in the progress of war, freely (and often loudly) offering criticism and demanding results. Such criticism typically expressed impatience with military and political leaders for not doing everything they could to win wars as quickly as possible. Yet as David Horowitz and Ben Johnson argue in their bracing analysis of American defeatism, the antiwar movements from Vietnam to the present conflict in Iraq represent something very different: criticism aimed at expediting not victory, but defeat.

Once a leader of the New Left, Horowitz has become the bête noir of the American Left through his books, speeches, and online magazine Front Page, where Johnson is managing editor. In Party of Defeat, the authors relentlessly expose the cant, hypocrisy, and suicidal self-loathing of what these days passes for progressive thought, which has corrupted the Democratic Party through its radical activist base and compromised America’s security. The Democrats’ attack on President Bush in the midst of a war, the authors conclude, is “the most disgraceful episode in America’s political history.”

Party of Defeat opens with the Vietnam War-era hijacking of the Democratic Party by antiwar radicals, whose ultimate purpose wasn’t so much to end the war, but to discredit and weaken the political, social, and economic foundations of America. For the radical Left, then and now, “no longer regards itself as part of the nation,” Horowitz and Johnson write. “This Left sees itself instead as part of an abstract ‘humanity,’ transcending national borders and patriotic allegiances, whose interests coincide with a worldwide radical cause.” As such, it must work against America’s interests and success, disguising its activity as “dissent” or a more general antiwar sentiment.

George McGovern, who captured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972, embodied the leftist vision of capitalist America as a malignant aggressor responsible for global suffering and oppression. Though Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over McGovern that year ratified most Americans’ rejection of the radical worldview, the Watergate scandal empowered a Democrat-controlled Congress to cease support for South Vietnam and to eviscerate our intelligence agencies. Nixon’s political disgrace also made possible the election of Jimmy Carter, who largely shared the left’s view of a dysfunctional America. Carter, Horowitz and Johnson charge, “cut back America’s military defenses, hamstrung America’s intelligence agencies, and weakened the nation’s resolve.” And Carter abandoned the Shah of Iran, whose overthrow by radical Islamists in 1979, followed by the kidnapping of American diplomatic personnel, marked the first jihadist challenge to America.

Carter’s ineffectual response to this attack invited more, particularly in the 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Clinton, a much shrewder politician than Carter, understood that appearing weak on national defense was political suicide after the success of Ronald Reagan, whose strengthening of America’s military helped bring down the Soviet Union. Yet for all of his cruise-missile bluster, Clinton still endorsed the fundamental hostility to the military and indifference to national defense that now seem part of the Democrats’ political DNA.

During his tenure, “the analytical and operations branches of the CIA were cut by 30 percent,” the authors point out. Under Clinton, further, “the agency drastically reduced its recruitment of new case officers . . . and closed bases, including the station in Hamburg, where Mohammed Atta’s cell planned 9-11.” The cuts also led to a decline of agents in key Muslim countries. And Clinton “raised the wall between the FBI and the CIA higher than before, which fatally obstructed the efforts to capture the 9-11 plotters,” Horowitz and Johnson report. “As commander-in-chief [Clinton] was generally AWOL on the battlefront with the global Islamic jihad.”

Equally disastrous was Clinton’s failure to understand the motives of the jihadists, treating their attacks as criminal offenses rather than as acts of war. The first World Trade Center bombing, the debacle in Mogadishu, the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, the bombings of the embassies in Africa—“Bill Clinton’s response to the four terrorist bombings and the humiliating ambush in Somalia could be summarized as nothing, nothing, failure, nothing, and capitulation.” Aversion to casualties and ingrained hostility to anything other than a symbolic use of military force kept Clinton from responding more forcefully. Nor, despite numerous opportunities, did he authorize the killing of Osama bin Laden, who had declared war on America, and who in numerous writings and interviews explicitly linked America’s vulnerability to its failure to respond to these attacks.

The Carter and Clinton presidencies show that even centrist Democrats must appease the vocal minority of the party’s left wing, since it provides a large number of party activists and delegates, particularly during primaries. Hence just months after the start of the Iraq War—and from the outset of the 2004 presidential primary campaigns—national Democrats turned against a war that they had voted for, and that President Clinton had laid the foundation for in 1998 with the Iraq Liberation Act. Perhaps the most conspicuous example of this shift was the enthusiastic presence of Democratic leaders like Al Gore, Barbara Boxer, Tom Harkin, and Tom Daschle at the premier of Michael Moore’s anti-American fantasy Fahrenheit 9-11 in 2004. Moore’s film exemplified the phenomenon that came to be called “Bush derangement syndrome,” but mainstream Democrats also played a role in distorting the historical record concerning the Iraq War.

Party of Defeat includes a compelling reprise of the reasons why America went to war against Saddam Hussein. UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which declared Hussein in “material breach” of 16 previous UN resolutions enforcing the truce that ended the Gulf War, effectively legitimized military action against Iraq once Hussein ignored the 30-day deadline for complying with the resolution. Moreover, President Bush’s case for removing Hussein focused on WMD programs, not stockpiles. Though no WMD stockpiles turned up, the report of the Iraq Survey Group, made public in October 2003, indeed established the existence of WMD-related programs and equipment, laboratories and safe houses concealing equipment from UN monitoring, research on biological weapons, documents and equipment related to uranium enrichment, plans for long-range missiles, and evidence of attempts to acquire long-range missile technologies from North Korea. “It was Saddam’s refusal to observe the arms-control agreements designed to allow UN inspections and prevent him from building weapons of mass destruction that made the war necessary,” Horowitz and Johnson explain.

Yet these facts have been obscured by partisan attacks on the president’s decision to invade. Never mind that the invasion was ratified by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq that Congress passed in October 2002, and which listed several casus belli besides WMDs. Even before then, prominent Democrats like Al Gore and Jimmy Carter were attacking the Bush Doctrine mandating preemptive action against terrorist threats. The first critical distortion that gave traction to the war’s opponents was the uproar over minor diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had been sent to Niger to investigate a British intelligence report finding that Hussein was attempting to purchase yellowcake uranium. In the summer of 2003, Wilson alleged in the New York Times and The New Republic that he had told the administration that there was no truth to the report before Bush repeated its findings in his 2003 State of the Union speech. As Horowitz and Johnson note, “The charge that Bush had lied about the Niger uranium deal provided a way for those who had previously supported the war to find common ground with the party’s radicals who had opposed it.”

That Wilson was a Democratic political activist and foreign-affairs adviser to John Kerry’s presidential campaign raised no red flags with a media that took his assertions on faith and relentlessly publicized them. By the time the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had investigated Wilson’s claims and debunked them a year later—indeed, Wilson’s actual report “lent more credibility,” as the Senate committee put it, to the existence of an Iraqi uranium deal—it was too late. The “Bush lied” mantra had won media validation and provided the antiwar activists with a potent weapon. Just how potent became clear with the meteoric rise of Vermont governor Howard Dean, whose early front-runner status in the 2004 presidential primaries forced Democratic contenders like Senators John Kerry and John Edwards—both of whom had voted in favor of removing Saddam—to tack left. Meanwhile, an increasingly overwrought Al Gore, while sitting out the presidential race, contradicted his long public record of advocating regime change in Iraq.

The press played a significant role in facilitating the cycle of sensational charges based on distorted evidence. Later investigations repudiated many of these allegations, but could not undo the damage done to public perceptions. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal is a case in point. “What would normally be counted as a minor incident in any war,” Horowitz and Johnson maintain, “was elevated to a national and then a global scandal by editors determined to exploit it without regard for its potential impact on the national interest or the security of American troops in Iraq.” The New York Times, which often sets the agenda for the rest of the mainstream media, ran 60 days of stories about Abu Ghraib, filled with ridiculous comparisons with the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war and with Saddam’s horrific crimes: “It was exactly the kind of psychological-warfare campaign that would normally have been conducted by an enemy propaganda machine,” Horowitz and Johnson observe. So, too, with the lurid charges of abuse of the prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, many of which were read on the Senate floor by Dick Durbin, who compared American officials there with Nazis and the genocidal Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. By the time 12 official investigations had debunked such claims, the media-stoked perception that Guantanamo was some sort of gulag of torture and abuse had achieved the status of fact, thus providing another propaganda weapon for our enemies.

On issue after issue—the alleged number of Iraqi children killed by sanctions, the inflated number of civilian casualties in the war, the looted Iraqi artifacts, the celebrity of Cindy Sheehan, the media exposure of clandestine intelligence-gathering programs, the attacks on General David Petraeus—Horowitz and Johnson document how the truth, and America’s security, were sacrificed to the ideology of radical activists, the partisan needs of the Democratic Party, and the liberal shibboleths of the mainstream media. Worse yet, America’s enemies took up these charges and incorporated them into their own propaganda (a frequent Al Qaeda tactic, as documented in Raymond Ibrahim’s The Al Qaeda Reader). For example, Osama bin Laden in a fatwa quoted epidemiologist and wannabe Democratic Congressman Les Roberts’s ridiculous toll of 650,000 civilian dead in Iraq—a figure that is twelve times the actual total by 2005. And the Iranian ambassador to the United States answered charges that his country was aiding terrorists in Iraq by alleging that “America had invaded Iraq on false pretenses” and was now making Iran the scapegoat.

Horowitz and Johnson draw a sobering conclusion: “The decision to attack the morality of America’s war effort has dealt a severe blow to the American cause. It has undermined American unity in the face of the enemy, profoundly damaged the clarity with which the war is understood, and diminished Americans’ ability to defend themselves.” In this important presidential election year, Party of Defeat is essential reading.

[Editors' note: To read Michael Isikoff's recent exchange with the authors of Party of Defeat, click here. To read Nick Cohen's critique, click here.]


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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