The New York Times’ decision to add Bill Kristol to its stable of weekly columnists seems pretty shocking to me and not only because Kristol, as pointed out by Josh Marshall, has virtually charged the Times with treason. As the main foreign policy muse of David Brooks — call him Kristol-Lite — Kristol was already communicating his views on the Times op-ed page quite effectively, I thought.
More than that, if you look at the list of those Times columnists who specialize in foreign-policy (Tom Friedman, Roger Cohen, Nicholas Kristof), you can see that the addition of Kristol tilts the balance even more sharply — unanimously, in fact — towards interventionism. Like Kristol and Brooks, all three tend to see (a) foreign policy in highly moralistic terms and (b) the U.S. (and Israel) as “exceptional” in that respect. For liberal (or humanitarian) interventionists, such as Friedman, Cohen and Kristof, as for neo-conservatives, Munich and all that followed it loom larger in the way they see the world than Vietnam or, more recently, Iraq. Indeed, while Kristof was quite skeptical of the Iraq War — or at least the administration’s stated reasons for starting it (thanks in part to Joe Wilson) — the others (Cohen at the International Herald Tribune) were pretty darn supportive, if for no other reason than Saddam Hussein was a brutal and tyrannical ruler.
Moreover, all three have no patience for what passes for the “left” or the traditional right in the U.S. and all three have at times, I think, contributed — albeit not necessarily in a consciously deliberate sort of way (certainly not Kristof) — to Islamo- and Arabo-phobia in their writings. (Kristol’s Weekly Standard, of course, excels at the latter.)
Of course, these three have been balanced to some degree by Frank Rich, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert (and Maureen Dowd’s often-dead-on analyses of the psychodynamics behind the war), but the latter group are not foreign-policy specialists in the same way. (The first were all foreign correspondents for most of their careers.) Nor, of course, are Brooks and Kristol who, despite his disdain for the kind of “on-the-ground” experience of actual foreign correspondents, has been prolific on the subject of foreign policy since his and Bob Kagan’s ground-breaking Foreign Affairs article, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” almost 12 years ago, and particularly since 9/11. I think it highly likely that, unlike Brooks, Krugman or Herbert, Kristol, who co-founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) with Kagan the following year, will devote most of his columns over the next year to foreign policy, and specifically to the importance of maintaining high troops levels in Iraq; a hostile posture toward Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas; spending much more on defense; and depicting any candidate (particularly a Democrat) who disagrees as a Chamberlain-like appeaser.
In that respect, Friedman, Cohen, and Kristof — as “liberals” — can be expected, in varying degrees, to take different positions from Kristol, but, because they share the two basic assumptions mentioned above about the nature of the world and Washington’s benevolent role in it, I think the Times’ op-ed page will serve more to limit the foreign-policy debate in this critical election year than expand it. Essentially, why feature yet another interventionist, when, it seems to me, the country could benefit from a more fundamental discussion that seriously challenges those assumptions and the interventionist policies that flow from them? I can think of some very compelling thinkers on both the right and the left — and the “radical center” of the New America Foundation or the “realist” Nixon Center, for that matter — who could at least offer a serious and coherent critique of both neo-conservative and liberal interventionism. I’m not advocating non-interventionism (least of all, “isolationism”, a very slippery term); I simply think that a foreign-policy debate bounded by the Clinton administration on the one hand and the Bush Doctrine on the other will not be particularly edifying.
This leaves aside questions about the peculiar choice of Kristol who, after all, played a leading role in a well-orchestrated campaign beginning immediately after 9/11 to take the country to war on what were clearly false premises. (Asserting a link between Saddam and al Qaeda became a Standard obsession. As a columnist, of course, Kristol will be expected to offer his opinions rather than new facts. But based on his and his magazine’s record, what fact-checking standards or rules of evidence, if any, will the Times seek to apply to his polemics? Giving Kristol a weekly column in the Times must rank as the journalistic equivalent at least of giving the Medal of Freedom to George Tenet, Tommy Franks, or Paul Bremer — something that Rich, Herbert, Dowd, and Krugman all complained about at the time.