The Intellectual Dishonesty of William Kristol
No American with a basic understanding of this country’s military history could not have been anything but taken aback by William Kristol’s intellectually dishonest criticism of this statement in President Obama’s second inaugural speech: “But we are also heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war, who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends, and we must carry those lessons into this time as well.” Kristol, the public face of the Neoconservatives, who like most of his likeminded peers, is lacking in military experience, regularly advocates a muscular use of American military power abroad. Thus few would be surprised that he might construct his own historically inaccurate critique of the president’s remarks: “Two points: First, our forebears were only able to “win the peace” because they first crushed our enemies in war. But under President Obama we’re not committed to winning our wars. We’re committed to ending them. Does Obama really think we’re going to win the peace after not winning the war? Second, think about the formulation-“and not just.” Surely President Obama should have said this: “we are also heirs to those who won the peace as well as the war…” But he didn’t say that. The formulation Obama chose-“and not just the war”-suggests that Obama believes that it’s no big deal to win a war, and the greater achievement is winning the peace. With respect to World War II, this view is ludicrous. With respect to today’s world, this view is dangerous.”
First and foremost the very notion that our forbearers regularly “crushed our enemies in war” doesn’t correspond too closely with accepted history. The truth is that the majority of wars fought by America were settled with negotiated peace treaties that left our defeated enemies more or less intact as nation states. In the American Revolution, where victory was anything but certain, it was the introduction of French forces, especially naval, combined with significant material aid from Britain’s European adversaries that turned the tide in favor of the American cause and which led to the British surrender at Yorktown. Moreover, it was a vote taken in the House of Commons in April 1782 that provided the impetus to finally end the politically unpopular war in the colonies rather than any crushing defeat of British military forces in North America. Even in defeat, Britain with the rest of its empire intact could hardly be seen as having been crushed. Following the American Revolution two wars with the piratical Barbary States in North Africa were ultimately settled through negotiation. The final military measures which lead to the long term demise of pirate activity in North Africa was a function of British, not American, naval action. The Quasi-Naval War with France from 1798 to 1800 ended in a negotiated settlement which left Napoleon Bonaparte anything but “crushed.” The War of 1812 devolved into a stalemate where Washington D.C. was burned, American invasions of Canada failed and the new American Navy won impressive victories at sea and on the Great Lakes. The negotiated settlement that ended the War of 1812 happened to fall between two important military victories for the British. In 1805 Horatio Nelson defeated the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar thereby assuring British naval supremacy and in 1815 Wellington would defeat Napoleon at Waterloo thereby eliminating Britain’s chief land rival in Europe. Again with Britain militarily ascendant and its empire intact, no one but a fool would claim that the Americans had “crushed” the British.
The War with Mexico comes closer to Kristol’s idea of America crushing an enemy but even then we forgave or alleviated the defeated Mexican government’s $30 Million dollars in owed reparations. In the American Civil War Union forces definitely crushed the small government states’ rights advocates of the Confederacy and in all of the Indian Wars that preceded it and took place thereafter the American Army certainly crushed the Native Americans in ways that many of us would find questionable today. In the Spanish-American War we defeated obsolete Spanish naval squadrons in the Caribbean and in the Pacific but our ultimate victories in Cuba and the Philippines were greatly aided by long running and deep seated indigenous insurgencies in both theaters and which saw Filipino’s not Americans doing almost all of the fighting ashore. While Spain lost its feeble grip on its overseas possessions Spain itself was never invaded nor was its more modern home fleet ever challenged at sea. Again, based on history, it’s hard to see the negotiated outcome of the Spanish-American Wars as one in which the enemy was crushed.
In World War I the entrance of the United States into the conflict finally tipped the balance in the favor of the Allies but Germany’s war machine had run up against so many failures to break through the stalemate on the Western Front that continuing was no longer tenable. Beset by internal dissent at home and a breakdown in trust between the Army and the ruling autocrats an armistice was sought. Germany itself was never invaded and German arms had put Czarist Russia out of the war, thrown back the Italians on their southern flank, defeated the Romanians and with the Turks, stymied the British and French in Asia Minor. With the British and French forces doing most of the fighting and dying it is again, hard to conceive of the Germans having been essentially “crushed” by America alone. Kristol’s image of America crushing its enemies certainly obtains a high degree of historical accuracy when analyzing World War II in the Pacific, particularly if you downplay British Commonwealth operations in Burma and the war in China. America along with Britain and Russia certainly crushed Nazi Germany and beat the Italians into submission in Europe. But while British and American bombers pulverized Germany from the air and their navies chased the Germans from the sea, one can’t ignore the fact that 80% of all of the German soldiers who perished in WWII were killed by a Russian. That said it would be intellectually as well as historically dishonest to claim that America alone or even largely crushed the European Fascists. In the immediate postwar period, the Korean War ended in a stalemate, settled in negotiated armistice. Despite the fact that every major city, village and town in North Korea was heavily bombed, one could hardly say the Communist regime in North Korea had been crushed, certainly not when they’re toying with nuclear weapons today as I write this post. The only parties crushed in the Vietnam War were our allies the South Vietnamese and the Cambodians. George H. W. Bush showed definite restraint in refraining from invading Iraq after dislodging Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait even though we decisively won the First Gulf War. While we seriously degraded Saddam Hussein’s forces in 1991 we didn’t crush his Baathist regime until the Second Gulf War. In Afghanistan we routed the Taliban out of the country and into Pakistan ten years ago on George W. Bush’s watch but based on the continued threat posed by them one could not contend that they’ve been crushed. Retiring theater commander General John Allen has recently said that the Pakistan based Taliban remains the single most significant operational threat facing American forces and the long term stability of Afghanistan.
Likewise Kristol is historically far afield when he tries to portray Obama as being uniquely “not committed to winning our wars.” Dwight D. Eisenhower, a national war hero, traveled to the Korea just weeks before his inauguration, determined the war unwinnable and then came home to set in motion the military and diplomatic actions that would lead to an armistice. That settlement would leave a badly battered Communist regime in power in the north. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger telegraphed to the diplomatic community at the time that they had no intention of trying to win the war in Vietnam when they said that their goal was to affect “a decent interval” within which military operations could be turned over to the government of South Vietnam. The ultimate political goal, citing Stanley Karnow, author of “Vietnam: A History” was to create enough space for America to disengage from the conflict leaving its ally in Saigon to fend for itself thereby absorbing alone any defeat that might follow. George Veith in a more recent book on the fall of South Vietnam titled “Black April” detailed the many factors that contributed to the fall of the Saigon government. Among those factors was Nixon’s failure to honor the pledge to intervene with massive air and naval support and how the drastic reduction in material aid would result in southern forces losing air mobility due to a shortage of spare parts and fuel. In 1983 Ronald Reagan was quick to pull American Marines out of Lebanon after their barracks were bombed and showed little interest in trying to forge a victory in that country choosing instead to cut his losses and change direction.
Kristol’s notion that it was only by crushing our adversaries that we were able to “win the peace’ is also to be seen to be anything but accurate in historical hindsight. While we had little to worry about from Mexico after 1848 the westward expansion resulting from our victory only served to fuel the slavery / states’ rights controversy that would eventually boil over into the American Civil War. The Federal victory over the Confederacy far from eliminated problems of race and discrimination in the southern states. The crushing of Indian tribes east of the Mississippi did little to convince those to the west to surrender without a fight. Our victory over Spain in the Philippines in 1901 was followed by an insurrection against occupying American forces that didn’t end until 1913. Few would consider the peace won in 1918 to be anything but a setting of the stage for a more horrific war in 1939. One could hardly see the Iraq affair as anything but a misadventure in which no one apparently has won the peace, not unless your idea of peace comes with regular car bombings and domestic terror or one in which the power of our arch enemy in the region, Iran, has been greatly enhanced. With regard to Afghanistan the jury of history is still out but the prospects for a lasting peace there are far from bright.
Nothing in the foregoing is meant to downplay the triumphs of American arms or the sacrifice of American fighting forces from the founding of the country to the present. Nor is it meant to give short shrift to the benefits that many in this world have derived from those sacrifices and triumphs which have done so much to further the cause of democracy and freedom through the ages. Those who know American military history are well aware of those achievements and there is nothing new in the way of knowledge for them to gain in paying serious attention to William Kristol. Kristol is best viewed as a man who is forlornly pushing a much discredited Neoconservative agenda that has been seen to have largely failed. Anyone who is in search of a good overview of American military history has more than enough in the way of good scholarly research from which to choose and suffice it to say the writings of Bill Kristol wouldn’t be listed among them.
What is at issue here is either a deliberate misuse of history for the purpose of furthering a now discredited political agenda or a willingness to engage in intellectual dishonesty in a continuing campaign of perpetrating lies and falsehoods related to the actions and character of the president. This sort of behavior needs to be called out so as to prevent these ill-conceived ideas from gaining any further currency in the nation’s political discourse. It goes without saying that neither of the aforementioned motives does anything to advance the cause of freedom and the esthablishment of democracies. Kristol’s commentary can only be seen for what it ultimately is, the musings of a malcontent whose chief political accomplishment to date was to advocate for a war that is considered, thus far, to be America’s greatest foreign policy disaster. Kristol is a man who continues to be adversely obsessed with the political success of Barack Obama, unable or unwilling to see the president as anything but a political bogeyman. Kristol continues to advocate for a type of foreign policy that is unsustainable in the current fiscal and political environment. The American people, as a whole, are war weary and defense budgets are being cut back around the world with few exceptions. Of late the Neoconservatives can add yet another failure to their track record and that would be their role in the failed presidential campaign of Mitt Romney where they dominated his foreign policy staff. As one would recall, beyond Romney’s ill-advised comments about the 47%, his trips abroad and his positions on foreign policy turned out to be among those most damaging to his prospects for electoral success. That said is it any wonder as to why Bill Kristol and the Neoconservatives continue to fade in importance on the political scene both here and abroad. Is there any reason for the informed among us to pay them any mind? I think the answer to that question is more than obvious at this point in time.
Steven J. Gulitti
February 25, 2013