Podhoretz critiques (or fails to critique) the “Superhawks”

In the September 2004 Commentary, Norman Podhoretz burdened the reading public with his 30,000 word opus, “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win.” As if that wasn’t enough, Pope Norman has now bestowed upon us a 13,500 word sequel in the February Commentary, “The War Against World War IV”—the warrior Pope is so bellicose he not only christens his own wars, he has wars against wars. I didn’t read the first article and wasn’t planning to read the second, but then a friend told me that the sequel, in replying to all manner of criticisms of the war, also replied to the so-called superhawks associated with the Claremont Institute, Mark Helprin, Angelo Codevilla, and Charles Kesler. I have often positively mentioned Helprin’s articles here as offering elements of a positive strategy that could lead us out of the morass into which George W. Boilerplate, the messiah from West Texas, has led us. But, consistent with the absence of real political debate in this country, I hadn’t seen Helprin’s or the others’ ideas discussed or criticized anywhere, except at this website. So I eagerly read what Podhoretz had to say about Codevilla, Helprin, and Kesler. And it’s astonishingly thin. Podhoretz’s argument comes down to saying that their proposals are utopian. He offers no analysis. He just dismisses them.

I don’t know if I’ll get around to reading the rest of Podhoretz’s article, but if his section on the superhawks is any indication, it would seem that there is an inverse relation between the length of his recent articles and the cogency of his arguments.

Here is his entire section on the Claremont group:


With no mass audience to lose, no such worry bothers the exponents of another line of attack on the Bush Doctrine that has emanated from a neighborhood on the Right where utter ruthlessness is considered the only way to wage war, and where the idea of exporting democracy is thought to conflict with conservative political wisdom. On the Right though it obviously is, this neighborhood of superhawks is as distant from the precincts of paleoconservatism as it is from the redoubts of the anti-American Left.

The most prolific member of the group is Angelo M. Codevilla who, in a series of essays in the Claremont Review of Books, has accused the Bush administration of “eschewing victory” by shying away from “energetic policies that might actually produce” it, and who makes no bones about his belief that we are losing the war as a result. In the same vein, and in the same magazine, Mark Helprin writes that we have failed adequately to prepare for war, to declare war, rigorously to define the enemy, to decide upon disciplines and intelligent war aims, to subjugate the economy to the common defense, or even to endorse the most elemental responsibilities of government.

In then piling a commensurate heap of scorn on the idea of transforming “the entire Islamic world into a group of peaceful democratic states” (Helprin), these two eloquent and fiery polemicists are joined by the more temperate Charles R. Kesler, the editor of the Claremont Review. If democratization is to succeed in the regimes of the Islamic world, a necessary precondition is to beat these regimes into “complete submission” and then occupy them “for decades—not just for months or years, but for decades” (Kesler). Even then, our troops may have to “stay and die … indefinitely on behalf of a mission … concerning the accomplishment of which there is little knowledge and less agreement” (Codevilla).

Of all the attacks on the Bush Doctrine, this set of arguments is the only one that resonates with me, at least on the issue of how to wage war. I have no objection in principle to the ruthlessness the superhawks advocate, and I agree that it would likely be very effective. The trouble is that the more closely I look at their position, the more clearly does it emerge as fatally infected by the disease of utopianism—the very disease that usually fills critics of this stripe with revulsion and fear.

When these critics prescribe all-out war—total mobilization at home, total ruthlessness on the battlefield—they posit a world that does not exist, at least not in America or in any other democratic country. To the extent that they bother taking account of the America that actually does exist, it is only its imperfections and deficiencies they notice; and these, along with the constraints imposed by the character of the nation on its elected leaders, they wave off with derisive language, as when Codevilla refers sarcastically to “the lowest common denominator among domestic American political forces.”

Yet while Codevilla, writing in his study, is free to advise ruthless suppression of these limiting conditions, no one sitting in the Oval Office can possibly do so. And even so, the wonder is not, contrary to Mark Helprin, how “irresolute” and “inept” Bush has been but how far he has managed to go and how much he has already accomplished while working within those constraints and around those imperfections.

As for democratization, Kesler is of course right: it is a hard thing to do, and it cannot be done overnight. But recognizing this truth is a very far cry from suggesting that it cannot be done at all unless the most stringent conditions are met. The conservative skepticism Kesler preaches on texts from Montesquieu and John Adams is all very well in the abstract; in practice, decades need not be required to get a process under way—to clear the ground and sow the seeds and help to water them as they flower and grow.

Unlike all other opponents of the Bush Doctrine, the superhawks are not driven by the fear that they will be discredited if the Bush Doctrine should succeed, if only because none of them imagines that a strategy based on so many false premises, and so much timidity and weakness, ever can or ever will succeed. Therefore they can be depended upon to go on excoriating those policies no matter what.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 13, 2005 01:44 AM | Send

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