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Krauthammer’s Enthusiasms

By Matt Duss on May 21, 2009 at 10:45 am

"Krauthammer’s Enthusiasms"

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krauthammerThis was an interesting passage from yesterday’s Politico profile of Charles Krauthammer:

Krauthammer’s formative departure from liberalism came in response to the anti-nuclear movement of the early Reagan years. In 1981, he wrote a scathing attack on the massive nuclear freeze movement, which he now describes as “hysteria.”[...]

I don’t get caught in enthusiasms,” Krauthammer said of the nuclear freeze movement and of Obama’s mass appeal.

Krauthammer’s view of the nuclear freeze movement is charmingly antique. Histories of the the Cold War have increasingly acknowledged the extent to which the nuclear freeze movement played a part both in President Reagan’s decision to seek reductions on nuclear arms (a policy for which brave warriors like Norman Podhoretz condemned Reagan as a “traitor to anti-Communism”) and in creating and strengthening networks of pro-human rights and democracy activists and dissidents in Eastern Europe.

In her 1995 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article “Who Killed the Cold War?” — which warned that the role of peace movements in shaking the nuclear status quo was being “written out of accounts of the 1980s” — historian Mary Kaldor noted that “Five million people demonstrated in the capitals of Western Europe in 1981 and 1983.” The movement was unprecedented in scale and in its transnational character.”

What made the peace movement of the 1980s different from earlier movements was the explicit link between peace, and democracy and human rights…From the beginning, this new movement sought links with individual dissidents and groups in Eastern Europe.

Dissidents like Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel and Poland’s Adam Michnik, among others, have acknowledged that the cultural, intellectual, and scholarly exchanges which grew out of the anti-nuclear movement were extremely important for the training and morale of their movements, for helping them agitate against their governments, and for preparing them to participate in a peaceful transition of power after the Soviet Union collapsed. The conservative hero myth of the Cold War, in which Reagan scared Communism to death with a threatening wave of his big, shiny missile, essentially writes this aspect out of existence.

As for Krauthammer’s claim that he doesn’t “get caught in enthusiasms,” any casual examination of his work reveals that Krauthammer is in fact enormously enthusiastic about at least a couple of things: American military power, and the necessity of vigorously applying that power against the “existential” threat of radical Islamic extremism.

In his 2004 explication of his neoconservative worldview, which he called “democratic realism“, Krauthammer claimed that the U.S. should be “friends to all, but…come ashore only where it really counts. And where it counts today is that Islamic crescent stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan.”

In October 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, we came to the edge of the abyss. Then, accompanied by our equally shaken adversary, we both deliberately drew back. On September 11, 2001, we saw the face of Armageddon again, but this time with an enemy that does not draw back. This time the enemy knows no reason.

Were that the only difference between now and then, our situation would be hopeless. But there is a second difference between now and then: the uniqueness of our power, unrivaled, not just today but ever. That evens the odds. The rationality of the enemy is something beyond our control. But the use of our power is within our control. And if that power is used wisely, constrained not by illusions and fictions but only by the limits of our mission — which is to bring a modicum of freedom as an antidote to nihilism — we can prevail.

About this, a few things: It’s pretty enthusiastic. It’s pretty hysterical. And it’s pretty clear that anyone who thinks you can apply the term “realism” to the proposition that the United States deploy forces across the entire Middle East and North Africa is either crazy, or is just fooling around. Make up your own mind.

The intervening years have, of course, not been kind to Krauthammer’s vision of an America untroubled by gravity, not that he or any of his fans seem to have noticed. It’s worth pointing out, however, that what Krauthammer’s continuing refusal to grant a Cold War role to the peace movement and his persistent and destructive illusions about the transformative potential of American ordnance have in common — indeed, something which is a defining characteristic of neoconservatism — is that, for all of the wind about freedom and democracy, it’s a view of history that is largely dismissive of the historical role of actual people in taking their freedom and making democracy.

But, on the other hand, he’s really popular with people who hate the president.

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