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His Toughness Problem—and Ours’: An Exchange

In response to:

His Toughness Problem—and Ours from the September 27, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Ian Buruma has pointed to my commentaries on Abraham Lincoln twice in your pages [“His Toughness Problem—and Ours,” NYR, September 27, 2007; “Revolution from Above,” NYR, May 1, 2003], and on both occasions has done so for the polemical purpose of associating me with the policies of George W. Bush. And yet, Buruma has also conveniently appended footnotes to his remarks, for which I am grateful—a footnote in the new article citing his article from 2003; and a footnote in the 2003 article citing an article of my own, called “Resolved: What Lincoln Knew About War.” My article appeared in The New Republic, March 3, 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq, and contains pretty much every substantive point I have ever made about Lincoln. Any of Buruma’s readers who take the trouble to follow the trail of footnotes back to this original source will discover that, far from having invoked Lincoln in order to support Bush, I did the opposite.

I approved on principle the overthrow of Saddam. I never did approve of Bush’s way of going about it. In the run-up to the war, I became, on practical grounds, ever more fearful that, in his blindness to liberal principles, Bush was leading us over a cliff. I said so plainly in The New Republic (and not just there), and I invoked Lincoln to sound a warning. I worried about Bush’s “antipathy toward the ideals of international law,” his “bias” against nation-building, and generally his failure to combat bad ideas with better ideas. The final passage of my article, rising to what I like to picture as a crescendo, said:

Our government has for some reason disarmed itself unilaterally in the realms of persuasion, inspirational example, philosophical clarity, and moral leadership. How did this happen to us? It has happened to us. Tocqueville thought that liberal societies could not wield power, and Lincoln proved him wrong. I am terrified that we are in the process of proving Lincoln wrong—that we are wielding power without liberalism, which will turn out to be no power at all.

In case anyone missed the point, The New Republic illustrated my article with a cartoon of a sad-looking Lincoln over the caption “The U.S. is armed to the teeth, but has disarmed itself of moral leadership.” But Buruma missed the point.

It is true and it is a matter of satisfaction to me that, in the years since then, I have not made a career of saying “I told you so.” What good would that have done, after all (except maybe in regard to fending off the criticisms of Ian Buruma)? Instead I have tried in my writings to do what I think everyone ought to have done, which is to look for ways to compensate for Bush’s blunderings—to salvage whatever successes might be salvageable from the wreckage of Saddam’s overthrow. I have argued at length for European aid to Iraq; I have emphasized the arguments and celebrated the example of Bernard Kouchner, who has lately become the foreign minister of France.

These efforts of mine must surely be what Buruma has most keenly disliked in my political writings. Or so I imagine. He seems unable to describe with any exactitude the points that irk him, though. And so, wishing to say something more articulate than “Bah!,” he says “Bush,” and mutters about neocons, which is what half the world does nowadays. In his recent article Buruma accordingly associates me with Norman Podhoretz. He links me to Podhoretz’s enthusiasm for the “Bush Doctrine.” And yet—if I may refer again to the world of footnotable realities—one of my efforts to do something useful during these past few years has consisted precisely in denouncing the “Bush Doctrine.” I have done so in (among other places) the best of all places for such a purpose, namely, a symposium in Podhoretz’s Commentary (November 2005), where my observations were most likely to catch the attention of the doctrine’s practitioners. My symposium contribution ascribed “gigantic failures of American policy” to the “Bush Doctrine.” I condemned the doctrine’s every aspect, including its nationalist aspect—except for the elements that might better be described as “the Franklin Roosevelt Doctrine of the Four Freedoms.”

But I have no doubt that, in his future polemics, Buruma will brush aside these distinctions, and no matter how loudly I bang the table on behalf of Roosevelt (or Léon Blum, or Bernard Kouchner, the political heroes of my last two books) Buruma will please himself by taxing me, as always, with Bush, or else with his theories about Lincoln and the neocons. In his review of Podhoretz’s book, Buruma, ever persistent, has even managed to launch yet another round of his extraordinary campaign against Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Voltairean dissident, whom he has now deplored, condemned, patronized, sneered at, or otherwise assailed on at least five occasions in print in the last two years—though he has always besprinkled his attacks with enough begrudging compliments and seeming retractions to allow him to pretend that his campaign is loftier than a low vendetta.

He mentions in his review Christopher Hitchens and Pascal Bruckner, and he links their names to mine, as if in further expression of his all-purpose loathing for Bush. Yet he might have shed a clarifying light on his own article by acknowledging that, among the many writers in the United States and especially in Europe who have uttered a few indignant words in Hirsi Ali’s defense, Hitchens and Bruckner have made themselves especially prominent. Pascal Bruckner’s name appears in The New York Review for one reason only, which is to punish him for having become the single most scathing and influential of Buruma’s European detractors.

Allow me to add that, regardless of his journalism, which I have not been reluctant to criticize, I continue to admire the book that Buruma wrote with Avishai Margalit, Occidentalism, the first sketch of which appeared in The New York Review [“Seeds of Revolution,” March 11, 2004]. Buruma and Margalit’s Occidentalism is a classic of the antitotalitarian left—an outstanding study of totalitarian and fascist ideas of the past and their enduring influence today.

Paul Berman

Brooklyn, New York

Ian Buruma replies:

If Paul Berman were less keen to “imagine” what I “must surely” have thought, or might yet think in “future polemics,” he might have tried to address what I actually wrote. The liberal scattering of words such as “punish” and “loathing” and “condemn” seems to tell us more about Berman’s state of mind than about mine.

What I wrote was not that Berman likes or admires George W. Bush. My point was that on the question whether it was right to go to war in Iraq to fight “Islamofacism,” in the name of Abraham Lincoln, I see no difference between the neocons and the neo-left. Indeed, Berman appears to agree with this, at least partly. He said in an on-line interview in March 2003:

I admire the neocons in one regard: their political ideas are very ambitious. I think the neocons are correct in supposing that something fundamental has gone wrong in the political culture of the Middle East, and that radical measures are required to set the wrong aright.1

The question is what radical measures he had in mind. Here, too, there is no mystery. Arguing in Dissent magazine with an imaginary leftist opponent of the Iraq war, he wrote: “If only people like you would wake up, you would see that war against the radical Islamist and Baathist movements, in Afghanistan exactly as in Iraq, is war against fascism.”2

There was, of course, in the case of Iraq, the matter of international law, something liberals, unlike neocons, have always taken seriously. But Berman wrote in the same article:

We have had to choose between supporting the war, or opposing it—supporting the war in the name of antifascism, or opposing it in the name of some kind of concept of international law. Antifascism without international law; or international law without antifascism. A miserable choice—but one does have to choose, unfortunately.3

Yes, one does, unfortunately. And Berman’s choice was precisely the choice of President Bush and his neocon supporters. “On principle” it is easy to agree with Berman. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein is a fine thing. But how responsible is it to promote a war that is waged by a president who is as hopeless as Berman says he is? Berman proudly relates that he resisted telling the world “I told you so.” Told us what exactly? That this reckless war should never have been attempted?

Not a bit of it. Bush may be “leading us over a cliff,” but “mature people ought to be able to overcome their personal dislikes and to analyze the situation coldly. And a cold analysis, I believe, ought to lead liberals and people on the left to support the effort to overthrow Saddam….”4 This kind of cold analysis has already caused a bloodbath, not felt in a Brooklyn study, of course, but in a faraway country.

But then Berman’s problems with Bush seem to be largely a matter of personality. If only Bush had been more like Tony Blair, who, in Berman’s view, was “the Lincoln of our moment.” Alas, however,

Bush’s inarticulateness, his brutish demeanor, his lack of education, his uncultured air, his obvious inexperience in world affairs, his lack of ability to hear or understand the arguments of his critics, his air of intolerance—all of this has proved to be a calamity. Virtually any other American president would have succeeded in securing a much higher degree of support for the present war.5

So that’s it: Bush just didn’t get the message across, because of his bad English and his crassness.

On Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I wrote that I admire her, and agree with much of what she says, but not with everything. The problem with neocons and neoleftists is that any disagreement with their idol is taken to be a hostile attack, not just on Hirsi Ali, but on everything she stands for: secularism, free speech, and so on. Berman describes this observation as a “campaign” that is really no loftier than a “low vendetta.” I think he has made my point very nicely.

  1. 1

    On Liberal Grounds,” an interview with Paul Berman, March 2003, available at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/blair/liberal/berman.html.

  2. 2

    Paul Berman, “A Friendly Drink in a Time of War,” Dissent, Winter 2004.

  3. 3

    Berman, “A Friendly Drink in a Time of War.”

  4. 4

    Berman, “On Liberal Grounds.”

  5. 5

    Berman, “On Liberal Grounds.”

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