October 31, 2005
Schizophrenia at The New Republic

By James Piereson

Last week's issue (October 31) of The New Republic has on its cover a cartoon drawing of an exhausted George Bush struggling to shore as the the nose of the "SS GOP" sinks beneath the waves in the background. "Beached Party" is the theme of the issue, and it appears (from the cover anyway) that the editors are none too displeased at the sight of the President at odds with fellow conservatives over the war in Iraq and a bizarre Supreme Court nomination.

This is, in fact, the gist of Franklin Foer's column which is highlighted on the cover. Mr. Foer writes that the Harriet Miers nomination has demonstrated to conservatives that the President is not one of them: "Five years into the Bush administration," he writes, "(conservatives) are stuck with an uncomfortable fact: they have fervently supported a president who has not only failed to deliver many lasting victories to their movement, but who has also saddled the reputation of the American right with what will in all likelihood be regarded as a losing war." He notes further that conservatives reacted so negatively to the Miers nomination because "they needed a pretext to begin divorce proceedings against Bush and, more important, his war." The column continues in this vein, citing (or quoting) various conservatives who were either against the war from the beginning or dissatisfied with the way it has been conducted, and who are now eager to express their differences with the administration.

The author, for his part, appears to be encouraged by these developments, since from his point of view such reactions to the President and his policies are long overdue. Thus, the President will be weakened by these attacks from conservative quarters; and since nearly all liberals and Democrats gave up on the war long ago, these criticisms by conservatives represent but the final step in the process of discrediting the intervention altogether.

Yet if the reader simply turns to the next page of the October 31 issue, he encounters an unsigned editorial titled "A Constitution," which develops an entirely different portrait of the ongoing struggle in Iraq. The editors, much to their credit, do not view the situation in Iraq in the context of domestic politics but rather in terms of the struggle for democracy in that part of the world. From this standpoint, they are encouraged by recent developments, and especially by the ratification two weeks ago of a new constitution for Iraq. There is no talk here of the President or of conservatives being saddled with a "losing war."

The editorial begins with a quotation from an article by Fouad Ajami which appeared in The Wall Street Journal: "The remarkable thing about the terror in Iraq," Ajami wrote, "is the silence with which it is greeted in other Arab lands." True enough. The editorial then continues: "There is a second, even more remarkable thing about the terror in Iraq: the silence with which it is greeted in Western countries, including the United States." This is all too true as well, and inexcusably so. Indeed, the editors might begin to redress this problem by walking across the hall and showing their editorial to their colleague, Mr. Foer -- assuming, that is, that he did not have a hand in writing it.

The editors take note of the fact that the terrorism in Iraq is largely the work of a "sullen caste of Sunni Arabs who cruelly ruled their Kurdish and Shia countrymen." The Sunnis, as they point out, are just 20 percent of the population but nevertheless wish to dominate the country without opposition as they did during the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein. The terror is, as they say, "the new expression of an old hostility to freedom."

The editors cite these difficulties and challenges in order to place events in Iraq in the proper context. The ratification of a constitution is a long step forward precisely because of the challenges of terror and ethnic conflict. "Given all this," the editors rightly say, "the ratification of the Iraqi constitution is a momentous step in the struggle for moderation, democracy, and order." They go further to note that, despite flaws in the process of drafting and ratifying the constitution, "nothing like these extended negotiations by elected representatives over a written compact for an ethnically plural population has ever taken place in the Arab world, not even in Lebanon." Nor, they might have added, has anything like it happened in many other places in the world. It is, by any standard, an impressive accomplishment, though one that apparently cuts little ice some writers at the magazine.

The editorial ends by noting that soon the trial of Saddam Hussein will begin, at which time the world will be reminded of the criminal character of his 30-year reign over the people of Iraq. Yet, as the editors remind us, "the monster himself will experience one of the benefits of the American intervention: he will have a fair trial."

This is an impressive editorial, one that makes a persuasive case for the real progress that is being made in Iraq. Though placed adjacent in the magazine to Foer's column, the editorial is light years away from it in terms of substance and tone. Foer could not be clearer in his disdain for the war (and for the President); the editors could not be clearer in their admiration for its aim of bringing democracy to the people of Iraq.

Disagreements among writers in a magazine like The New Republic are not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact can be healthy to the extent that they expose readers to a range of thoughtful opinion. Yet the juxtaposition of these two pieces appears as more of an editorial mind split apart than a healthy elaboration of different views. Neither article takes note of the other, or responds to arguments set forth on the adjacent page. There is no debate here, nor even an acknowledgement that one is called for. Foer writes as if the stupidity of the war is self-evident; but the editors make a better case for it than anyone in the Bush administration has yet done. It is one thing for editors to publish conflicting views; it is another thing to pretend that such conflicts do not exist.

Foer's argument, moroever -- that conservatives used the Miers appointment as a pretext for opposing the administration on the war or that the debate over Miers is a proxy for debate over the war-- is not even close to being true. Conservatives have been debating the war in Iraq since the prospect of an invastion was first raised in the weeks following the terrorist attacks in 2001. That debate did not change an iota with the Miers nomination, nor will it change again with the withdrawal of that nomination. Yet the editors featured Foer's article on their cover rather than their own far more persuasive and articulate editorial.

It is no doubt true that the great majority of TNR's readers are opposed to the war in Iraq and find few redeeming qualities in the President. Perhaps for this reason they had to highlight such anti-Bush views on their cover, while burying their admiration for achievements in Iraq (but without any praise for Bush) in an unsigned editorial inside. They wish, in other words, to be anti-Bush but for the war, a position that makes little sense, for (as Foer argued and everyone knows) Bush has based his presidency on the war on terrror and, to a great extent, on the intervention in Iraq. Much of the hatred for the President in liberal circles, moreover, is rooted in his decision to intervene in Iraq. This effort to square the circle is what makes the juxtaposition of these two articles so confusing.

The editors of The New Republic have often criticized politicians, writers, and editorialists for taking contradictory, illogical, or ill-defined positions. They might do their readers a service by straightening out their own confused and confusing views on this important subject.

Armavirumque, the Weblog of The New Criterion

James Piereson

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