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A Disproportionate Response

By (February 1, 2014) One Comment

andrew-sullivan-i-was-wrong-cover2I Was Wrong
By Andrew Sullivan, eds. Patrick Appel & Chris Bodenner
Dish Publishing LLC, 2013

Kudos to Andrew Sullivan for embarrassing himself. His new e-book, a compilation of blog posts charting his evolution on the war in Iraq, is called I Was Wrong, and he certainly was. After September 11 Sullivan was a loud voice for invading Iraq, a cause he embraced with blinding fervor and defended, for several years, with almost undiscriminating zeal. The hollowness of America’s victory and the Bush Administration’s institutionalization of abduction and torture pushed him, slowly at first but with accumulating force, to question and finally after much reflection to repent his abettor’s role in the carnage. I Was Wrong is an illuminating, sometimes monotonous, and often painful record of that change – painful for reader and writer alike.

Like practically every American commentator with an audience, Sullivan’s early posts after 9/11 were angry and hyperbolic. The attack represented something “more dangerous than Pearl Harbor” and demanded a response “disproportionate to the crime,” because “the forces of resentment and evil can no longer be appeased.” There’s nothing unique in his first words, published at 3:47 that day, though looking back now, his first sentence – “The forces of barbarism have clearly struck an extraordinary blow against freedom this morning” – carries a tragic irony. But subsequent posts reveal a startling change. Six hours later, he writes:

It feels – finally – as if a new era has begun. The strange interlude of 1989 – 2001, with its decadent post-Cold War extravaganzas from Lewinsky to Condit to the e-boom, is now suddenly washed away. We are reminded that history obviously hasn’t ended; that freedom is never secure; that previous generations aren’t the only ones to be called to defend the rare way of life that this country and a handful of others have achieved for a small fraction of world history. The boom is done with. Peace is over. The new war against the frenzied forces of what Nietzsche called ressentiment is just beginning.

There’s a nasty odor here, not unlike the scent of relief that wafted off of Christopher Hitchens as the World Trade Center smoldered. At last, Sullivan appears to be saying, we have clarity: an enemy to fight, and a destiny to claim. Like a jaded Weimar diarist, he celebrates the end of dissipated age, relieved that something is finally happening.

Rationalization armored this feeling quickly, and by 2001, as he later admits, Sullivan had spent a decade steeping in the narrow confines of Washington’s foreign policy world. Even the liberals of the time wondered if America knew what to do with itself now that the Cold War was over. Hawks and neoconservatives (there is an important difference: members of the former, like Donald Rumsfeld, don’t pretend to care about democracy and human rights) believed that the United States was wallowing in post-Vietnam trepidation (Desert Storm, after all, had been a breeze), abrogating its responsibility to confront rogue nations and mold the world into a harmonious place. During the prosperous Clinton years they lacked a narrative to make this view compelling, but after 9/11 they got it. I Was Wrong is not just an account of Sullivan’s post-9/11 journey; in its early sections, it offers an acute psychological profile of the far right, and a representative example of their methods.

These include, but are not limited to: airy generalizations about the disposition of the American people, glib accusations of unpatriotic behavior, a reliance on apocalyptic language, a penchant for incongruous historical analogies, a numbingly virtuous opinion of American history, a tendency to jump to conclusions with no evidence, a childish propensity for name-calling, and a very selective weighing of public facts. “The notion,” Sullivan writes on August 1, 2002, “that Americans need to be apprised of Saddam’s threat, have not thought about the pros and cons of war, and need a thorough, from-scratch debate about this is self-evidently silly.” On September 3, he explains that global hostility to war “comes from America-envy and the usual appeaseniks and terrorist-lovers,” while on October 7 he claims that there is an “intense and relentless campaign by the elites at the [New York] Times and elsewhere” to kill public support for the war. (In reality, the mainstream media wasn’t far off Sullivan’s apt description of the Democrats, who during the build-up were “pathetic weather-vanes,” spinning in a new direction with every shift in the political winds.) On January 28, 2003 Sullivan praises Bush for being “Self-confident, convinced, as he should be, of the benign nature of America’s role in the world.” Objections to the morality or ease of war he dismisses as “a welter of arguments, articles, op-eds and books” in which “intellectuals are eagerly laying out the case that the murderers of 9/11 died for an explicable and justifiable cause…that war can be avoided, that there is nothing but shades of gray in this complicated world.” Barely a month after 9/11, he is arguing that “at this point, it seems to me that a refusal to extend the war to Iraq is not even an option. We have to extend it to Iraq, which is by far the most likely source of this anthrax,” which appeared in envelopes mailed to Washington, D.C. offices in the weeks after the planes hit. He cited no evidence.

Eager appeaseniks, intense and relentless campaigns: there is a dark, animalistic quality to this language, counterpoised by the masculine and martial terms with which Sullivan describes himself and his fellow travelers, who are “manfully” facing reality, willing to go beyond the tepid and “phony stage” of the “War on Terror” that the lightly foot-printed invasion of Afghanistan represents. When doubt cracks his bell jar, Sullivan papers it over with grim fatalism: “Appropriate response will no doubt inflame an already inflamed region,” he writes on October 17, 2001, “as people seek solace through the usual ideological fire. Either way the war will grow and I feel nothing but dread in my heart. But we didn’t seek this conflict. It has sought us… These are bleak choices, but what else do we have?”

Like many on the right, Sullivan often fell back on lazy Nazi and Communist analogies, but the only Cold War parallel I can see is in the wanton disregard for and smearing of those with unacceptable opinions. There was also during the Cold War a fear among hawks that the United States would grow isolationist again, as it supposedly had after the First World War. It is true that there is a strong castling tendency in American thought, but American foreign policy has never been properly isolationist: from the beginning, the question of intervention and expansion, at least among the foreign policy elite – that is, those with the power to decide – has always been about how and where, not if. To the extent that the United States has erred in any direction, it is to excess, and the kind of frothing rhetoric that Andrew Sullivan employed after 9/11 is one reason for that.

photo by Trey Ratcliffe

photo by Trey Ratcliffe

Viewers of The Dish today may find it hard to believe that this is the same person they read every day. (In fact, several have written to say they considered cancelling their subscriptions after they read I Was Wrong.) Today Sullivan is skeptical of intervention abroad, and generally wary of extreme political speech at home. But more than that, he – along with his staff – have fashioned The Dish into an almost bewildering cacophony of voices on the issues of the moment, and reserved its weekends for posts about and links to ruminations on philosophical, social and spiritual issues. It has become what he recently called “a very rare place online that takes some time in the week to gather and air the best ideas, arguments, insights in online writing about literature, love, death, philosophy, faith, art, atheism, and sexuality.” It is the most consistently interesting site on the web, and one of the more fair-minded as well. Iraq is at the heart of this transformation, but there are other reasons which this narrowly-focused e-book understandably leaves out.

You can still glean in I Was Wrong today’s Dish in germinal form. Sullivan’s idealism is both a fault and a virtue, but one thing that set him apart from some of his fellow hawks is that there were certain things he was unwilling to compromise. When the torture at Abu Ghraib came to light, he condemned it swiftly and unequivocally. “I cannot disguise that the moral core of the case for war has been badly damaged,” he wrote on May 8, 2004. Eventually he came to realize that it was never there to begin with. The revelation of a world-spanning system of abduction and torture dovetailed with the increasingly obvious catastrophe on the ground and forced him to revisit assumptions. Bush gives a speech in May 2004 that briefly reassures him (Sullivan put too much stock in public rhetoric, and still does), but by the end of the year he was supporting John Kerry and calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. By 2006, he is near despondency:

The great paradox of Iraq has been there from the start and it still, frankly, confounds me. We were told by the president that the Iraq war was the critical battle in the war on terror, an effort of enormous stakes that we couldn’t possibly lose. And then he went to war with half the troops necessary to win, with no plan for the aftermath, and refused to budge even when this became obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain. He says there is no greater friend or supporter of the troops, yet he sent them to do an impossible task, with insufficient numbers or support or even armor to accomplish the job. He said we face the equivalent of the Third World War and yet he has done nothing to increase the size of the military to meet the task. He said the invasion was to advance the principles of freedom and democracy, and yet he immediately abandoned those principles in our detention policy and has done more damage to the moral standing of the United States than anyone since the Vietnam War. He says he wants to build democracy, and yet he has gutted reconstruction funds, and withdrawn support for building democratic institutions. He said he will keep troops there until the job is done, and yet sustains a policy to draw down the troops as soon as possible.

He still can’t let go of the squandered possibilities – “There has always been a military solution to Iraq” – but in 2008, where I Was Wrong leaves off, he has now repeatedly apologized and repented; Sullivan – after years of reading a blog on which his personality is so definitively stamped, it is difficult to avoid calling him Andrew – is nothing if not Catholic, in religion and politics alike.

The Dish became wildly popular during the Iraq War. Sullivan’s (eventual) willingness to question himself, to think aloud as the best bloggers must, was a great part of that popularity, but I wish I Was Wrong were a little more ambitious. Sullivan was always conspicuous as an ally of the American right: gay, Catholic, wary of fundamentalism, and socially tolerant among a homophobic and largely Protestant party. He believes in gay marriage, the strict separation of church and state, and the end of the “war on drugs,” all popular positions with the generations that came of age after the Reagan era. I think this as much as anything is what drew people to him in such large numbers. (When his blog was hosted by The Atlantic, it accounted over a quarter of the site’s traffic.) The cynically partisan politics of the last three decades – which seem, still, to worsen every year – have nourished an appetite among younger Americans for something more open and flexible, and over the last decade this is what The Dish has evolved to provide.

If you go back to the site’s beginning, you find in his posts on other issues some of the same casually acidic language that marks his early writing on Iraq. And there’s vein of cynicism running through his domestic commentary, born in part, perhaps, of the wounds earned fighting for gay rights during the 90’s. But as the failures of the Republican Party piled on top of each other, Sullivan’s political unorthodoxy grew with them. Iraq was the catalyst, not the foundation, of this widening skepticism. In 2008 he found in Barack Obama a candidate to match his desire for another new era and encourage a latent optimism, and that, not the turn against Iraq, is when he makes his final break, and seems at long last to be truly independent. When the opposition to Obama grew thoughtlessly extreme, he noted it, and when the dogmatism of supply-side economics no longer fit a recessional economy, he admitted it, and he did so quickly. Being so wrong about Iraq, and underestimating the cravenness and perfidy of the Republican Party (and who has not?), has made Sullivan a better blogger and a better thinker – less of a fighter and more of an explorer. In a bewildering, uncertain media age, that is all to the good.

The Dish has gone from independence to Time, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and now it is independent again. It lives solely on reader subscriptions. There are no advertisements, conference tie-ins, or paid editorials. Sullivan has even bigger aspirations for the site, including long-form journalism: “What we’re trying to do – to put it bluntly – is to reinvent the idea of a magazine through a blog… Our idea is to do something relatively simple: connect an already vibrant and subscriber-based blog community (that would be you) to monthly long-form pieces in all the variety that the web can support.” I Was Wrong is a test case for that, a fascinating but rough first draft. If they get enough subscriptions, Sullivan and team hope to publish book reviews and long form journalism, too. Here’s hoping they succeed.

But can I make another suggestion? I Was Wrong ends the day before Obama’s election, maybe fittingly. But as I read (and endured) the relentless accumulation of reprinted posts about Iraq, I kept wanting a more complete picture of its author’s journey. Something like that, if it was built around old Dish posts, would need original commentary from the author, otherwise it would become unfocused. Even better, something completely different: original writing with just a smattering of blog quotes. A true autobiography, like his story deserves. I hope Andrew writes it someday.

Greg Waldmann, a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly, is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.