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The American Prospect vs. Party of Defeat By: Frontpagemag.com
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, October 08, 2008

[Editors' note: Below is an exchange between American Prospect  writer Robert Farley and the authors of Party of Defeat]

The Conspiracy of the Anti-War Leftists?
By Robert Farley

What if American foreign policy had been, for the last forty years, dominated by a tiny sliver of “anti-war leftists” who managed, in spite of their small numbers, to dominate nearly ever national security decision? Conspiracy theories are hardly uncommon in American political culture, or for that matter any political culture. David Horowitz and Ben Johnson’s Party of Defeat is, at its core, a theory about a conspiracy of anti-war, anti-American leftists to substantially control US foreign policy. Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson’s argument regarding this conspiracy boils down to two central points. First, the leftist anti-war clique has taken control of the Democratic Party. Second, this clique has used improper methods to seize control of the national debate and undermine support for the Iraq War.

The political system of the United States, containing multiple veto points, usually requires broad consensus in order to make significant policy changes. As such, it would be remarkable if a small minority group could transform the character of American foreign policy. The mechanism through which the minority enacted such change would undoubtedly deserve considerable study. Unfortunately, Horowitz and Johnson provide no compelling mechanism for the success of the anti-war leftist faction. They assert that the group is small and unpopular, but don’t explain how such a small and unpopular group managed to seize control of one of the two major American political parties in 1972 (strangely, Horowitz and Johnson ignore the anti-war faction of the Democratic Party in 1968, as if Robert Kennedy never existed), and how it managed to essentially retain control of that party for the next thirty-six years.

Through their control of the Democratic Party, these fringe leftists were purportedly able to stymie the hawkish policies of the Republican Party; for example. Horowitz and Johnson suggest that anti-war leftists were able to prevent the Reagan administration from intervening directly against the Soviet Union during the latter’s war in Afghanistan. I am almost tempted to wonder whether these fringe leftists have some sort of special power that allows them to force their will on unsuspecting Americans, either in the style of the vampires of True Blood, the “Mule” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, or the aliens in both versions of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Of course such suggestions are absurd, but in the absence of some kind of plausible mechanism, it’s difficult for me to understand how a small group with unpopular beliefs achieved such policy.

Perhaps more impressive is the success that the anti-war clique has in controlling the will of millions of people. Although Horowitz and Johnson suggest that certain institutions of the federal government have been either co-opted or corrupted by the anti-war leftist clique (the CIA, for example, was gutted by noted anti-war leftist Admiral Stansfield Turner), the clique seems to have convinced -- presumably through perfidy --vast swaths of the American people that the Vietnam War and the Second Iraq War were poorly conceived and executed, to such an extent that an anti-American, pro-defeat political party can win electoral victories.

I am almost forced to conclude that Horowitz and Johnson believe that roughly half of the American population is constituted by a mélange of defeatists and people easily fooled by defeatists. The closest they come to identifying any kind of mechanism is their treatment of the Joseph Wilson story, in which they claim that Democrats were able to use Wilson as part of a campaign of disinformation in order to deceive Democratic constituencies into voting for defeat. An alternative story might go like this; around half the American public (sometimes less, sometimes more) has serious reservations about the use of force to solve political problems, and this portion of the public rewards elected officials skeptical of the use of force with its votes. This is a less exciting story than the one Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson tell about the radical anti-war leftist clique, but it has the virtue of making much more sense.

Nevertheless, Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson would have us believe that, somehow, a small, unpopular anti-war leftist clique has seized the levers of power, and is bent on leading America to defeat. This leads to the second major claim of the book, which is that this anti-war leftist clique has engaged in inappropriate political criticism of President George W. Bush. The exact parameters of permissible critique are unclear (John McCain calling for a surge is apparently ok, while Howard Dean’s 2004 call for additional troops is beyond the pale), but it is notable that Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson consider economic criticism of a wartime president improper. The alternative to this position would run something like this; democracies make better policy than autocracies because of transparency, rather than in spite of it. If a war is being conducted unwisely, or if further fighting in a lost cause would be pointless, democracies have mechanisms that allow change or disengagement. It is fair to say that Horowitz and Johnson do not hold to this position, instead leaving only minimal space for the operation of democratic institutions during a conflict.

Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson are relatively careful about tossing around accusations of treason (they use terms such as “enabling” to describe the behavior of anti-war factions), but I think it would be fair to say that much of the Democratic Party behavior they describe would fall into a category of “quasi-sedition”. Such quasi-sedition involves not only harsh critique of the President of the United States during wartime, but also the (successful) litigation on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In an era when following and enforcing the laws of the United States can result in accusations of anti-American behavior, it can be hard to tell whether or not one has engaged in quasi-sedition. I can proudly say that I have engaged in such behavior, as I wholeheartedly oppose the summary field execution of Afghan civilians, a position which, Horowitz and Johnson suggest, led directly to the deaths of nineteen US soldiers in Afghanistan.

If Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson confined their critique to the behavior of the anti-war leftist clique after the war began they would win points for coherence, if not for soundness. Unfortunately, they do not; in an assault against the pre-war behavior of the anti-war leftist clique, they include such radical luminaries as Jimmy Carter and Al Gore. This point is particularly crucial because I, in fact, agree with Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson that critiques of the Iraq War as a “war of choice” are non-sensical; virtually ever war that this nation has engaged in has been a war of choice, from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War. Pointing out that any particular war is a war of choice, rather than a war of necessity, says nothing very relevant about whether the war is a good choice or a bad choice. But of course, in a democracy the question of whether any particular war is a good or bad choice must be the result of unfettered democratic debate. Unsurprisingly, while acknowledging that opposition to the Iraq War does not necessarily imply treason, Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson suggest that just about any conceivable manifestation of that opposition falls outside the legitimate bounds of American political debate. Needless to say, this position (and, really, their entire narrative of how the duplicitous, vicious anti-war left has poisoned US security policy since 1972) rather substantially undercuts Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson’s complaints about the behavior of Democrats during wartime; it is clear that Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson do not approve of any expression of anti-war belief, regardless of when such expression is made.

While it is commonly argued that conspiracy theories thrive on a paucity of evidence (absence of evidence is evidence of successful conspiracy) this isn’t quite correct; conspiracy theory depends on tendentious interpretation of particular points of evidence and judicious exclusion of other points. Perhaps the kindest thing to say about the historical record presented in Horowitz and Johnson’s account is that it would be difficult to reconcile with that of reputable historians of the period. Of course, I’m certain that the authors would claim that those reputable histories have been substantially produced by biased anti-war leftists, and as such should be granted no weight. In this dispute I find myself leaning rather strongly towards the historians, but then perhaps I am also a biased anti-war leftist. In terms of particular sins of commission or omission, I feel I would be doing injustice to the argument by pointing out specific discrepancies; to make a list of, say, the five most egregious problems would produce the wrong impression in the reader of this review. But to give some notion of the difficulty I’m getting at, Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson have developed a narrative about how a small group of Americans has lent direct aid and comfort to Islamist radicals in general and to the Islamic Republic of Iran in particular, and yet, as far as I can tell, do not mention the phrase “Iran-Contra” even once. Also, some historians might also dispute the description of the Shah of Iran as a careful reformer (very careful indeed, I would imagine), or the contention that previous American wars had enjoyed the nearly unanimous support of the political class (I’m guessing that James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Bill Clinton would express some surprise at this claim).

In conclusion, I found it impossible to engage with this work as serious scholarship, and impossible to take it seriously as polemic. The book is unlikely to convince anyone who has not already been convinced of the perfidy of the Democratic Party. Indeed, in tone and approach Party of Defeat would be more appropriate as documentary film or perhaps podcast; both formats encourage dramatic flow over reflection. The most significant problem is thus; the American people, by and large, do not appear to agree that Islamic terrorism is as grave a threat as Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson believe. It is this fact, rather than the ongoing treachery of the Democratic Party, that substantially explains the decline in support for the Bush administration and the Iraq War. Still, at one-hundred-eighty generously spaced and typeset pages, Party of Defeat reads at a pretty good clip.

Robert Farley is a foreign policy writer for The American Prospect. He contributes to the blogs Lawyers, Guns, and Money and TAPPED.


The Left in Denial About Themselves
by David Horowitz and Ben Johnson

In responding to the argument we made in Party of Defeat – namely, that Democrats’ behavior during the war in Iraq has been one of sabotage not dissent – Robert Farley accuses us of hatching a conspiracy theory about who controls the Democratic Party: “David Horowitz and Ben Johnson’s Party of Defeat is, at its core, a theory about a conspiracy of anti-war, anti-American leftists to substantially control US foreign policy.” In point of fact, our book is not a theory of who controls American foreign policy. Farley’s attack is a gross misrepresentation of our text, as well as a cynical one since we explained in our introduction exactly what we intended to write about and followed this plan to the letter in the text:


This book is about unprecedented attacks on an American president and an American war in progress. It is about the impact of a divided national leadership on the prosecution of the war; and it is an attempt to understand the defection of leaders from a war they supported and from a national purpose they presumably share.


Only after laying out these main points in our argument do we get to themes that even begin to touch on Mr. Farley’s concerns:


It is also an effort to understand the influence on the Democratic Party of a radical Left, which has defected from that purpose and no longer regards itself as part of the nation. 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.


Party of Defeat focuses on the behavior of Democratic Party leaders, including the support President Jimmy Carter provided for the Islamic revolution in Iran and the weak-kneed response of President Bill Clinton to a series of al-Qaeda attacks in the 1990s. It includes the reckless and irresponsible attacks by Ted Kennedy and Al Gore on their own country and its commander-in-chief, whom they accused of lying to the American people to lure them into a war against a regime that was no threat, breaking international law, and being in effect an international war criminal. By misrepresenting our book as a conspiracy theory rather than a critique of Democratic policy, Farley creates a straw man and avoids confronting the serious issues we raise.


The first five paragraphs of Farley’s response to our book are thus a fantasy that Farley himself has concocted and that are irrelevant to any argument we have made. We do not believe “an anti-war leftist clique has seized control of the levers of power” in the Democratic Party, nor do we believe that such a hypothesis is necessary to explain the worst betrayal in time of war by a major political party in the nation’s history. Much of the Democrats’ irresponsible, reckless and yes, anti-American behavior can be ascribed to political opportunism run amok: Democrats as a party benefited if a foreign policy disaster could be attributed to Republicans. The difference between the Democrats and Farley’s leftist clique is this: Democrats want to win elections even if it means losing a war; leftists want America to lose its wars whoever wins the election.


Farley writes that “Horowitz and Johnson provide no compelling mechanism for the success of the anti-war leftist faction,” which is why he regards us as conspiracy theorists. But in fact we do point to a compelling mechanism in regard to the Iraq War; it’s called a presidential primary.  The Democrats’ about face, turning against the war only three months into the fight, was not the result of revelations about the war or the policy that led to it. Nothing had occurred on the ground in Iraq to cause such a reversal. What caused Kerry and Edwards to change from war supporters to anti-war leaders was the fact that Howard Dean, an obscure anti-war leftist, was about to win the Democratic Party nomination and thwart their personal ambitions. So close was Dean to victory that Jimmy Carter and Al Gore had descended on Iowa to anoint him. That was why Kerry turned on his president and his country’s war: a political poll that went against him. Farley may not like this characterization, but he needs to deal with it rather than ignoring what we actually said about the Democrats and the wretched role leftists have played in this war.


It is only in his sixth paragraph that Farley finally gets around to an argument that is partially advanced by us. “The second major claim of the book…is that this anti-war leftist clique has engaged in inappropriate political criticism of President George W. Bush.” We do argue that it is inappropriate to accuse one’s country of being an international aggressor in a war that was launched to enforce international law against a tyrant who had violated more than a dozen UN Security Council resolutions and that was authorized by democratically elected majorities in both political parties, and implemented by another UN Security Council Resolution.


But we do not attribute this inappropriate criticism to the conspiratorial plotting of an “anti-war leftist clique.” We don’t regard it as the policy of a clique at all, unless that phrase is used tautologically to include the entire leadership of the Democratic Party, which has condemned their own country as an international war criminal and – as a party – supported the leaking of classified national security secrets and the destruction of major national security programs as expressions of political “dissent.”


In addition to being a disingenuous reader of our text, Farley is a careless one. Thus he writes that for us, “the exact parameters of permissible critique are unclear (John McCain calling for a surge is apparently ok, while Howard Dean’s 2004 call for additional troops is beyond the pale),…” But in fact we did praise in our text certain critics of the war, such as General Eric Shinseki, who called for additional troop levels as “conspicuous models of responsible dissent” (p. 158). We did not praise Dean because he was one of the one of the few Democratic leaders to oppose the original decision to go to war and, consequently, we found his post-hoc statement about troop levels suspect. We also found similar Democratic proposals in 2004 suspect, because their calls for increased troop levels were not accompanied by legislation to implement their proposals and their calls were not backed by the kind of timetables they included in their plans for withdrawal and surrender. Pardon us for regarding Dean’s words as political grand-standing and nothing more.


Contrary to Farley, Party of Defeat supports criticism of war policy. But it makes distinctions between criticism of policy within a democratic framework and sabotage of policy, often outside that framework, such as leaking national secrets. Party of Defeat focuses on the ways in which the Democrats exceed the bounds of responsible criticism in their attacks on Bush and the war:

If a policy is wrong, there are democratic institutions available for changing it. These do not include taking the law into one’s own hands by disclosing classified American security programs…By the same token, when an opposition party changes its collective mind about a war in progress, the way to affect the policy is to argue its merits and persuade the electorate, not to undermine the support for the troops and the credibility of the commander-in-chief. (pp. 161-2.)


Farley’s response to this view is to falsely imply that we support secret government and the criminalization and suppression of dissent. “The alternative to [Horowitz’s and Johnson’s] position would run something like this; democracies make better policy than autocracies because of transparency, rather than in spite of it.” We agree. But we know of no country in the history of warfare that has provided full disclosure of its national security and intelligence operations to its enemies.


In fact, we offer broad latitude to critics of war policy in our book. But we make distinctions between critics outside of government such as Cindy Sheehan and Michael Moore, and critics such as John Kerry who sat on the Senate Intelligence Committee with access to the same information as the president about Iraq. Knowing what the president knew, Kerry supported the war until Howard Dean’s anti-war candidacy threatened his ambitions. He then turned against the war and accused his own president of lying to the public in order to conduct a needless war of aggression. We recall how in an earlier time John Kerry returned from the Vietnam War, for which he had volunteered, to become an anti-war activist and how in the process he stabbed America’s troops in the back with unproven and unfounded accusations that they were war criminals, while defending the Communist aggressors and abetting their genocidal intentions.


We note that while Professor Farley has not served in the military – at least so far as we can tell – he is ready to advocate military policies that would be harmful to American troops on the field of battle. “I wholeheartedly oppose the summary field execution of Afghan civilians, a position which, Horowitz and Johnson suggest, led directly to the deaths of nineteen US soldiers in Afghanistan.” But Horowitz and Johnson did not “suggest” this. Marc Lutrell, the lone survivor of this al-Qaeada massacre, escaped to this story to his countrymen. Farley has no evidence or authority to declare that the betrayers of Lutrell and his comrades were simply Afghan civilians with no link to the al-Qaeda savages who murdered them. Forgive us for regarding as this sloppy reading as typical of some critics of the war, who care more about scrubbing their moral scruples and constitutional rights than protecting the brave warriors who defend them.


In responding to our book, Farley fails to cite a single concrete statement of ours or to quote a single sentence we have written. This cavalier methodology allows him to make things up in order to dispose of them: “Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Johnson suggest that just about any conceivable manifestation of…opposition [to the war in Iraq] falls outside the legitimate bounds of American political debate.” This is a lie, and anyone who has read our book without a prior intention to hang us, will recognize it. But a jaundiced eye often leads to a careless read and a general blindness to an opponent’s views. Robert Farley is incapable of understanding our argument, let alone answering it.

[Editors' note: We welcome Robert Farley to respond to this answer to his critique. We also offer our pages to anyone from the American Prospect who would like to jump into this exchange. And all anti-war critics take note: we are offering $500 to any of you -- who have written for a reputable publication -- to write a critique of the book and its main thesis. Contact Frontpage Managing Editor Jamie Glazov at jglazov@rogers.com to sign up.]

Party of Defeat Challenges:

To read Michael Isikoff's exchange with the authors, click here. To read Ben Johnson's exchange with William Blum, click here. See also Nick Cohen's, Jeffrey Herf's and Bruce Thornton's critiques of the book.

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