The Things That Actually Matter

Writings of the “most influential” conservative commentator show how oblivious and morally shallow the right is…

Conservative writer Charles Krauthammer died in June, and I would not ordinarily spend time dissecting the writings of a departed pundit. But his publisher has sent us an unsolicited review copy of his posthumous collection The Point of It All, and from the blurbs I find that David Brooks called him “the most influential conservative commentator in America,” and George W. Bush concluded Krauthammer’s “ideas and values will always be a part of our country.” I didn’t realize this, but apparently Charles Krauthammer was extremely highly regarded in conservative circles for his intellect, to the point where Joe Scarborough called him “without a doubt the most powerful force in American conservatism” and the Financial Times concluded that he had “influenced U.S. foreign policy for more than two decades.” Henry Kissinger said he had a “remarkable intellect,” Bill Clinton called him “brilliant,” and John McCain called him “one of the greatest public intellects of his generation.”

I’ll confess, I’d never really thought about this guy before, and if you’re on the political left I doubt you have given much consideration to him either. That shows the information bubbles that people can live in—a thinker on the right can be having a vast influence over policy-makers without me knowing anything about him beyond his name. But given the high praise and level of apparent influence, I decided to better acquaint myself with Krauthammer’s work, and picked up his bestselling 2013 collection Things That Matter to supplement The Point of It All. I wanted to understand what reading “the most powerful force in American conservatism” could tell me about the right. And, of course, since I am always open-minded and willing to update my beliefs in response to new information, I wondered if exposure to this most profound of conservative thinkers could convert me to conservative political beliefs. (It didn’t.)

Conservative Thought often strikes me as having a peculiar set of priorities. It’s useful to have a book from Krauthammer called Things That Matter, because it confirms to me that the things that matter to right-wing newspaper columnists are not at all the things that matter to me. Things That Matter spans 30 years, and covers everything from foreign policy to baseball to dogs to chess. But there are strange gaps in places where I would expect to find a number of critical “things that matter.”

Let’s take Krauthammer’s writings on Iraq. The book contains a few of his post-9/11 columns, leading up to the invasion and occupation. On September 12th, 2001, he writes that “this is war,” criticizing those who want to “bring those responsible to justice.” Justice, he say, is for fools. “Franklin Roosevelt did not respond to Pearl Harbor by pledging to bring the commander of Japanese naval aviation to justice. He pledged to bring Japan to its knees. You bring criminals to justice—you rain destruction on combatants.” Upon whom were we to “rain destruction”? “Radical Islam,” of course, an enemy that “has many branches… including the governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya.” The day after the Twin Towers fell, then, Krauthammer was already exhorting George W. Bush to rain destruction down upon four nations that had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual attack. The leaders of Iraq, Syria, and Libya weren’t even especially committed to their Islamic faith, and it’s well-known that Saddam’s use of Islam was mostly opportunistic rather than fanatical.

Krauthammer believed that even if none of these governments had actually attacked the United States, or even appeared to be plotting to, “preemptive warfare” was a moral necessity: “When we know that we can be attacked out of the blue, where we have democratized the knowledge of how to make weapons of mass destruction, we cannot afford to wait to be attacked again… therefore we must necessarily have a policy of preemption.” Conservatives, he said, know that “liberals are stupid,” because they “believe that human nature is fundamentally good,” and therefore “suffer incurably from the naivete, the stupidity of the good heart.” Hard-headed realists like Krauthammer, on the other hand, knew that “in a world of terrorists, terrorist states, and weapons of mass destruction, the option of preemption is especially necessary.”

I said that Krauthammer and I differ on the meaning of “things that matter.” For me, a thing that matters is the answer to the question “What are the consequences of a doctrine that justifies unilaterally overthrowing any other country’s government based on a vague perceived future risk?” For Krauthammer, this was evidently not a “thing that mattered,” because it’s not a question he asked. What about the fact that the Nuremberg Tribunal described wars of aggression as “the supreme international crime”? Krauthammer waved away international law completely: “International law is useful in regulating fishery rights off Newfoundland but they have nothing to say about matters of war and peace, particularly between civilized states and terrorist states.”

Things That Matter had me laughing out loud at one point in the section about the war on terror. On page 293, it features a 2002 column calling certain Democrats “incoherent” for demanding more time before resolving to go to war against Saddam. On page 296 is a 2008 column criticizing Democrats for opposing the surge. Krauthammer’s “best of” quickly skips over a six-year gap—probably because if it reprinted his Iraq columns from 2003-2007, you’d read embarrassing bloomers like this one about “the three week war” from April 2003. There, shortly after the invasion, Krauthammer laughs at the expense of those who thought the Iraq War would be a long quagmire:

The sight of them panicked Cassandras here in the United States who were quick to predict that the evidence of any armed resistance meant that we were in for a long guerrilla war. But the Vietnam analogy was absurd. … Ever since Vietnam, people have been justly skeptical of the claim of “surgical strikes.” There was nothing surgical about the Vietnam War. But the war in Iraq was radically different. … We can speak today of a surgical war not only because technology yields weapons of astonishing precision, but because the coalition war strategy has had one supreme objective: the surgical destruction of a totalitarian regime. This had never been done before. Which is what makes the Three Week War a revolution in world affairs. It is one thing to depose tin-pot dictators. Anyone can do that. It is another thing to destroy a Stalinist demigod and his elaborate apparatus of repression–and leave the country standing.

U.S. political pundits are almost never held accountable for their bad predictions or catastrophic policy proposals, which is why Things That Matter can skip over a large number of things that actually matter a lot in assessing Krauthammer’s legacy as an Important Conservative Thinker. It includes his favorite columns about the naivete of liberals, but excludes such gems as his 2003 column arguing that “whatever your (and history’s) verdict about the war, it is undeniable that it was an act of singular presidential leadership. And more than that, it was an act of political courage.” It does not include his rather disgusting 2006 column in which Krauthammer blamed the Iraqis for being too inept and stupid and culturally backward to maintain the glorious democracy we so selflessly bequeathed them:

We have given the Iraqis a republic, and they do not appear able to keep it…  I think we made several serious mistakes—[e.g.] not shooting looters… . Nonetheless, the root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture. Iraqi national consciousness is as yet too weak and the culture of compromise too undeveloped to produce an effective government enjoying broad allegiance.

Nor does the book include his 2006 prophecy 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.” As we know, precisely the opposite happened, and both Barack Obama and Donald Trump were elected in part by presenting themselves as anti-war.

Now, I think these are things that matter in assessing the record of “the most significant conservative intellectual” in the most powerful country in the world. But there are some other things that I think matter, such as making good arguments and not just saying whatever comes into your head without regard for whether or not it’s true. You can, if you are shameless enough, assert anything you like without evidence. You can say “The stability of the global order depends on the strength of the United States” or “The state of Israel is merely trying to defend itself against hostile external aggression.” But whether anyone should actually believe you depends not on how those sentences sound on their own, or how well-constructed they are, but on how well you support them. Newspaper op-eds, like two-minute cable news “debates” are often a poor medium for actually getting to the truth, because it’s very easy to pass off well-written bullshit as substantive argument if you don’t have to respond to challenges or go deep into the facts.

Charles Krauthammer was a master of newspaper op-eds and cable news punditry, and his reputation as an intellectual rests entirely on his columns and FOX News appearances. He only ever published three books, one of them posthumous, all of them being collections of columns. The columns are often about 600 words each, and there are no footnotes or endnotes. He was a good writer as far as the craft of column-writing goes—they are exactly what newspaper columns are meant to be, little morsels of thinking. But at no point did Krauthammer have to actually elaborate his ideas or defend them from serious criticism.

So instead of, for example, dealing with the voluminous evidence of Israeli crimes that Norman Finkelstein has amassed in Gaza: An Inquest Into Its Martyrdom, Krauthammer would simply dismiss supporters of the Palestinian cause as “useful idiots and terror sympathizers.” And he would say things like: the moral case for preemption is unassailable, reasoning that if we don’t fight them over there we’ll be fighting them over here. But he didn’t have to deal with any of the nuances or complications of that position: How confident do you have to be of a threat? How imminent does it need to be? By what right does one country impose on the sovereignty of another based on its subjective assessment of a threat? If a subjective assessment is wrong, is the act criminal? If North Korea saw us as an existential threat, could it justifiably launch a preemptive strike against us? Nor did he ever deal with the catastrophic human consequences of believing that the United States is allowed to pursue its own perceived interests unilaterally regardless of what the international community has to say about it. 

Krauthammer buried inconvenient facts when it suited him. As part of his effort to demonstrate that liberals are stupid, he mocked Barbra Streisand for sending a memo in 2002 “warning that the president was dragging us toward war to satisfy, among the usual corporate malefactors who ‘clearly have much to gain if we go to war against Iraq,’ the logging industry—timber being a major industry in a country that is two-thirds desert.” Well, I looked up Streisand’s memo. Here’s what it actually says:

While the Republicans are shouting about the Democrats’ special interests, why are the Democrats not saying the same about the Republicans? How can we ignore the obvious influence on the Bush Administration of such special interests as the oil industry, the chemical companies, the logging industry, the defense contractors, the mining industry, and the automobile industry, just to name a few? Many of these industries, run by big Republican donors and insiders, clearly have much to gain if we go to war against Iraq.

Krauthammer wanted to laugh at dumb Barbra Streisand for thinking logging interests were pushing for the Iraq War. Is that what she said? No. It is not. She said that the Bush Administration was influenced by special interests, many of which stood to benefit from the war. Was this an idiotic statement? No. But instead of dealing with Streisand’s criticism Krauthammer simply mocked her as a Hollywood ditz.

There is a tendency in conservative writing to subtly bury horrible things in order to make people on the left look deranged and hysterical. So, for example, when Kevin D. Williamson was fired from the Atlantic for remarks he had made and refused to apologize for, conservatives said that the Twitter mob had gotten him fired “for his speech,” but they declined to quote what he actually said, namely that women who receive abortions ought to be “hanged” for the sake of moral consistency. You’ll often see arguments like “X is being branded a racist,” without any reckoning with the gigantic body of evidence that X is a racist. I’ve been fascinated lately by the flurry of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal insisting that climate change is “affordable,” and insisting that it will only knock a few points off the GDP, without actually talking about what the lives of climate refugees will be like. This type of writing always feels distant from reality to those of us aware of what the words actually mean—when Krauthammer used a phrase like “surgical strike,” he declines to mention that this phrase implicitly contains “turning a number of Iraqi children into corpses.” Vague language is used to avoid taking ownership of what one is actually discussing. I’ve pointed out before how this occurs in arguments defending the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings’ defenders say that while of course the bombings were “horrible,” they were necessary, without actually talking about what that word “horrible” actually fully entails.

You see that throughout Krauthammer’s writings. He grumbles that Winston Churchill “is now disparaged for not sharing our multicultural late 20th-century sensibilities,” but this is not actually why Churchill is disparaged, and if you’re really going to defend Churchill, you need to acknowledge head-on what he actually said, e.g., “I hate Indians… [they are a] beastly people.” He briefly acknowledges that Columbus participated in some “great cruelty” before arguing that the eventual establishment of the United States made it all worth it:

The real question is, what eventually grew on this bloodied soil? The answer is, The great modern civilization of the Americas… Is it Eurocentric to believe the life of liberty is superior to the life of the beehive [under the Inca]?… The Columbian legacy has created a civilization that we ought not, in all humble piety and cultural relativism, declare to be no better or worse than that of the Incas. It turned out better. And mankind is the better for it. Infinitely better. Reason enough to honor Columbus and 1492.

Now, the actual allegations against Columbus are that he engaged in routinized torture including the cutting out of tongues, and was so sadistic a ruler over the conquered people that he had to be relieved of his duties. But if you say that, it becomes far harder to say with a straight face that he’s still worth celebrating because we did, after all, ultimately build chain restaurants and golf courses on this bloodied soil. This is a constant in conservative writing: the understatement of serious atrocities. You could see this in George H.W. Bush’s obituaries, which pointed to his being a flawed person who did a bad thing here and there, without emphasizing that the “bad thing” was presiding over multiple mass murders and the imprisoning and deportation by the thousand of desperate Haitian refugees.

Charles Krauthammer’s perspective on “things that matter” and “the point of it all,” then, was in my view morally warped. To me, human suffering is the thing that matters, and the point is to end it. As I go back and read his musings on baseball, chess, puppies, and war, I am sickened. How can a man so casually advocate acts of violence that he doesn’t even seem to take seriously? How can he be so removed from the reality of what he is talking about? This great Intellectual, praised by Clinton and Bush alike, was the most superficial of thinkers, who didn’t care to listen to his critics and didn’t care to take seriously the moral stakes of his advocacy. 

Charles Krauthammer is gone now. I won’t speak of him again. There is no need. I am sure he was a decent father, and his son pays loving tribute to him in The Point of It All. But if Krauthammer’s columns did have the kind of influence they were reported to have, it was toward making the United States a more thoughtless, imperious, warlike, and irrational nation. If this is the best that conservative intellectualism has to offer, may there be no more conservative intellectuals.

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