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The Manchurian Columnist Takes Off His Mask

“We have all been raised on stories in which good triumphs over evil… because honesty… and decency pay off in the long run,” wrote our newest foreign-policy realist, David Brooks, on June 8. Only in fairy tales do people “who lie, torture, and kill eventually become entrapped by their own sins,” he cautioned. In Iraq, “savagery seems to be triumphing over decency.”

By the time you read this, Brooks will surely have added that the fortuitous killing of Abu-Masab al Zarqawi hasn’t much improved decency’s odds against savagery. But he’ll tout that successful strike as reason to get tougher. No more fairy tales: “All wars are savage. And guerrilla wars are particularly savage,” he intoned on June 8, as if echoing his frequent source, top Reagan State Department aide Charles Hill, who, asked by The Yale Herald in 2004, “What is the most efficient way to ensure that terrorists will not be in charge?” responded, simply, “Kill them.”

This isn’t the David Brooks who worried in 2002 that “idealism seems in short supply these days” and urged Yale students not to think cynically that “if we try to champion democracy in Iraq we will only screw it up.” This isn’t the Brooks who assured us in 2004 that only a few low-lifes were sponsoring terror and that “we’re going to increase troop levels” to deal with them. This isn’t the Brooks who recently invoked the Exodus to protect our mission. Now, the growing “hunger to leave Iraq” has him and a few others “furious that so many Americans are willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity.”

He frets that, “far from motivating most Americans to fight harder, cruelty on [the terrorists’] scale is unnerving…. The lesson [they teach] is that if you are willing to defy all norms and codes of morality you can undermine your enemy’s willingness to fight.” Thus do terrorists “create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.”

It sounds compelling, but is David Brooks decent? Or is he an armchair general playing his last trump card after exhausting his fairy tales of 2002 and his myriad tricks in 2004 to help re-elect an administration which he knew by then had driven the “decent Iraqi majority” out of a frying pan and into a roaring fire? I can almost hear Saddam Hussein chortling, “I told you that only my iron fist could rule this country. You American ‘liberators’ have only set loose a savagery more nihilist than what Iraq knew under me.”

The problem is not that Saddam was right about his totalitarian terror state. It’s that people who think like Brooks were so wrong about how to undo it. “Sometimes in my dark moments I think [Bush is] ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in,” Brooks told The Nation’s Eyal Press late last year. But Brooks was the Manchurian Columnist, urging war in Iraq before Bush did. Then he smeared John Kerry (“a brain of sculpted marshmallow”) to re-elect an administration headed by two draft-dodgers -- as defined by almost every conservative since 1967. Brooks even begged off condemning the Swift Boat Veterans, telling Jim Lehrer that “that was before I was born.”

Brooks did look back before he was born, though, to commend the brutal but “successful American counterinsurgency in the Philippines.” But history isn’t his strong suit. Ever since the French thought they’d crushed Algerian terrorism in the 1950s or the U.S. insisted it had fought its way to “light at the end of the tunnel” in Vietnam, armies battling guerrilla insurgencies, however noble their intentions, have learned that killing terrorist leaders and upping body counts doesn’t pay off more than do honesty and decency in the long run. That’s been true of occupying armies and of indigenous ones, like the Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam, that depend too long and too heavily on outsiders.

Instead of being a realist about that, our Manchurian Columnist worries that we are too decent to win: “Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game.”

But what “culture” is that? Let’s hope it’s not the one Brooks promoted by helping the Republican Party trash the honorable, republican military culture of Kerry, John McCain and of Georgia Senator Max Cleland, the paraplegic Vietnam hero slimed by Saxby Chambliss. McCain actually swallowed the humiliation administered by the Draft Dodger-in Chief and his minions; he bear-hugged Bush, thereby rewarding Karl Rove’s and Brooks’ labors “to create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent.”

Why is Brooks so sinuously and, in the end, naively indecent this way? I’m inclined to blame a deep-dyed, characterological neoconservatism beneath the Cheshire-cat grins of public charmers like Brooks and his friend William Kristol. Ever since Kristol’s father Irving explained that “a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality,” these idealistic but failed Americans have prided themselves on knowing better than most that this is a hard, cruel world and that beneath their affectations of comity and a civic-republican idiom, they have to be tougher than tough.

But because they’ve so often been morally simplistic and naïvely idealistic about where strength really lies, their targets and strategies have always been more than slightly off. In the 1980s the neoconservatives backed Chile’s Pinochet, the Argentine military junta, and other dictatorial but anti-Communist regimes, believing with Jeanne Kirkpatrick that only nations that fell into the Soviet evil empire would stay trapped in a long night of totalitarianism. When that empire collapsed without an armed insurgency or a foreign army’s intervention, the logic of the neoconservatives’ support for Pinochet and the Argentine junta wore thin.

They’d somehow missed the lessons not only of Eastern Europe’s “Velvet Revolution” but of India’s ejection of the British without an armed insurgency or an invasion, and South Africa’s rejection of an alien apartheid government in much the same way. Almost as if neoconservatives were still recovering from some kind of psychic mugging beyond our purview, they haven’t seemed able to recognize that a culture of republican freedom has to rely ultimately on strengths which armies are vitally necessary but ultimately insufficient to defend, on virtues which money can never buy.

Neoconservatives like Brooks think they understand this. “We are seeking a sweet spot that satisfies both the demands of power and of principle,” he writes. “But it could be that given the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create, that sweet spot no longer exists.” No more “parlor purity.”

But “the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create” didn’t exist in March, 2003 or in November, 2004. Brooks lives for the moment when the rest of us will see this and toughen up. “‘When you have to deal with barbarians, you must behave like a barbarian yourself,’’ he quotes a Greek officer in the Balkan wars of 1912-13 declaring. This man, who has never served in an army, who boasted on The News Hour of having kept his young son up late to watch Saddam Hussein’s statue toppled, wants the American military to fight savagery with savagery.

Let him tell that to John Kerry, John McCain, and Max Cleland, each of whom assumed that burden and got slimed by Brooks’ Republicans. Let him tell it to his young son Joshua, whom he conscripted politically when he told the News Hour audience that John Kerry couldn’t be president because he couldn’t pass “the Joshua test,” meaning that he didn’t impress Joshua – because “anyone who can’t relate to a 10-year-old boy can’t relate to the American electorate.” Brooks should be honor-bound now to encourage his son to attend West Point to help find that “sweet spot” he mentioned and to contribute -- as his father has not -- to a culture of decency that would be truly tough enough to prevail.