Know Your Right Wingers
SOURCE: August Pollak
For more than two decades, Charles Krauthammer, the consummate beltway psychoanalytic pundit, has provoked minds of all partisan stripes with his prolific commentary. For the last six years, Krauthammer has ardently defended the neoconservative foreign policy that guides the Bush administration.
But did you know this neocon “hammer man” was once a psychiatrist? And a progressive one to boot?
Krauthammer went to Harvard and Cambridge with the intent of entering the world of politics. But he jumped ship, opting to pursue medicine instead. Thus Spoke Zarathustra …err…Krauthammer: “Medicine promised not only moral certainty, but intellectual certainty, a hardness to truth, something not to be found in the universe of politics.” While proving quite capable at psychiatry (he discovered something called “secondary mania”), Krauthammer couldn’t cure his own political itch.
Fortunately this modern-day Cincinnatus came back to the political sphere. He entered the Carter White House in 1978 as a science advisor and became a speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale in 1980. Krauthammer also went into journalism, writing for The New Republic. But he returned to aid Mondale in his 1984 Presidential bid.
In Mondale’s victory address to the Democratic Convention in 1984, one detects a probable Krauthammer presence:
“I do not envy the drowsy harmony of the Republican Party. They squelch debate; we welcome it. They deny differences; we bridge them. They are uniform; we are united. They are a portrait of privilege; we are a mirror of America. …
“So, tonight we come to you with a new realism—ready for the future and recapturing the best in our tradition.”
Here we see Krauthammer’s conflicting ideologies: a subtle conservatism, but also an embrace of the diverse cacophony of American politics.
The “new realism” in the speech directly foreshadows Krauthammer’s dark raison d’etre in foreign policy, an idea that would emerge later in full and push him into the neoconservative camp.
With Mondale’s defeat in 1984, Krauthammer returned to opinion journalism full-time. Since then he has made only a brief appearance in the government, joining President George W. Bush’s Commission on Bioethics in 2002.
Krauthammer’s early writings, for which he received a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, are anthologized in Cutting Edges: Making Sense of the 80’s. (The New York Times offers this archived review by John Gross.) This 1985 compilation offers some starkly progressive views. Krauthammer criticizes the religious right’s harmful “rapture” rhetoric, debunks the myth blaming AIDS on homosexuals, demands a new, comprehensive approach to homelessness in America, and, just for kicks, refutes libertarianism.
This is no Gingrich or Falwell Republican, but rather a proponent of the “Militant Middle,” as Gross calls it in the Times. Often he hits both political extremes. In America’s Holy War, Krauthammer opens the middle-ground between the “ignorant armies of secularists and the sectarians,” arguing instead for fidelity to a civic religion in America. He sheds uncomfortable light on the issue of abortion, portraying both left and the right as rhetorically bankrupt. And he argues in favor of reparations for the descendants of slaves.
Krauthammer’s Evolving Foreign Policy
After Mondale’s defeat, Krauthammer’s neoconservative tendencies became more pronounced. He not only represents the ascendancy of neoconservatism, but his career illustrates its present-day disrepute.
Krauthammer’s first splash in foreign policy circles came with his 1985 article titled “The Reagan Doctrine” (yes, he introduced the term), in which he endorses Reagan’s policy of aiding freedom fighters battling against the Soviet Union. Displaying a commitment to “democratic militance,” he writes that the Reagan Doctrine was “a first step toward its restoration.”
Much of Krauthammer’s early writing dwells on questions about the place of liberal democracy in the world: How does a liberal society face controversial issues such as AIDS or abortion without losing its social foundations? But later, his writing becomes dominated by one question: What role should America play in the world order? Krauthammer’s answer: neoconservative warrior.
A virulent critic of President Bill Clinton, Krauthammer bemoaned the “absence” of a substantial U.S. foreign policy throughout the ‘90s. During the 2000 presidential primaries, Krauthammer wrote that foreign policy was the most neglected issue in the 2000 presidential election. He even got ahead of some of his contemporaries and singled out WMD proliferation to Iraq and Iran.
The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only strengthened Krauthammer’s neoconservative world-view. Just nine days after the attacks, Krauthammer signed a letter to President Bush put together by the neocon organ the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), advocating the removal of Saddam Hussein from power, “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack.” Failure of such actions would bring a “decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism,” according to the letter. The letter also emphasized success in Afghanistan. But it devoted just 62 words to Afghanistan, compared to 154 on Iraq. The message was clear: focus on Saddam first and foremost.
Krauthammer had seen the new world of international terrorism, but he placed it within his pre-9/11 framework: that America must fight totalitarian states—the Reagan Doctrine Part Deux.
Krauthammer also dedicated himself to building up neoconservatism’s intellectual underpinnings. Harkening back to Mondale’s 1984 Convention Speech, Krauthammer penned the 2002 article “A New Type of Realism,” in which he endorses Bush’s unilateralism in Iraq. He writes that America can “be the balancer in every region.” Won’t there be a backlash from ignored allies, you might ask? Krauthammer has a strikingly Bush league answer: “Unilateralism is the high road to multilateralism.”
After 20 years of gestation, what did Krauthammer say about his buzz-word world view?
“We will support democracy everywhere,” he said, “but we will commit blood and treasure only in places where it is a strategic necessity—meaning places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom.”
Recovering neocon Francis Fukuyama sharply critiques Krauthammer’s address in his 2004 article “The Neoconservative Moment”: “I believe that his strategy simultaneously defines our interests in such a narrow way as to make the neoconservative position indistinguishable from realism, while at the same time managing to be utterly unrealistic in its overestimation of U.S. power and our ability to control events around the world.”
But looking to Krauthammer’s older writings, one perhaps can more fully understand—even sympathize with—him. In 1983’s Pseudo-Private Lives, Krauthammer observes the rise “of a new category of experience, the pseudo-private: ostensibly private action designed exclusively for public consumption.” Today we see this phenomenon in presidential candidates rushing to Oprah and late-night television. On the one hand, the public gets a feeling of intimacy with their leaders; on the other, politicians can use this intimacy to recast their own histories to meet their political ambitions. Krauthammer alerts us to the inherent danger of this fabricated intimacy: it can allow leaders to misrepresent their past histories or conceal the true implications of their political positions.
But Krauthammer plays his own “pseudo-private” role as a Beltway bloviator. Could he be purposely over-playing his neoconservative hand? Krauthammer clearly believes in neoconservatism, but may defend what he knows to be an inept Bush administration because he perceives no better alternative. But this misplaced pseudo-private devotion underestimates progressive foreign policy alternatives,and has filled his editorials with hollow profundities and confused rationalizations.
We can only hope that Krauthammer, a gifted essayist, and one of the only conservatives with the intellectual honesty to disavow silliness like “intelligent design” (there’s that medical background) will follow Fukuyama back from the lunatic fringe, shed his pseudo-private deceptions, and reignite the militant middle.
Illustration: August J. Pollak