by Jim Lobe
During the Christmas Bombing of Vietnam in December 1972, I somehow came across a saying attributed to Bion of Borysthenes, a third-century BC Greek philosopher. I taped a copy of the quote to my teleprinter in the 1980s, when I was covering U.S. policy in Central America, and to all the video monitors that later took its place. It read:
Boys throw stones at frogs in fun, but the frogs do not die in fun, but in earnest.
The meaning is pretty clear (and its application to U.S. policy in Central America both then and now particularly pertinent), and I recalled it with special force a couple of weeks ago when I read this sentence in the eulogy by New York Times columnist David Brooks to the staff and contributors of the about-to-be-deceased Weekly Standard, for which he was a senior editor.
It was and remains a warm, fun and convivial group.
I witnessed a tiny fragment of that “fun” back around 2005 at an afternoon Council on Foreign Relations event, where frequent Standard contributor Max Boot had offered his latest wisdom on the challenges faced by the U.S. in Iraq and elsewhere. During the reception that followed, I was standing at the side of the room when a chuckling Bill Kristol half-ran by me with his iconic shit-eating grin chased by a laughing-out-loud Brooks—to what end, I had no idea. They were clearly having a good time, albeit in a way that reminded me quite a lot of playing tag during recess in third grade. This “horsing around” was taking place at a moment when the occupation in Iraq, which all three men eagerly promoted, had devolved into a full-scale insurgency, and U.S. troops and Iraqis were dying in growing numbers.
I have no doubt the Standard’s associates were a “fun” bunch, if not of the elementary grade-school kind, then more like the highly privileged Ivy-League frat-boy type sitting around for late-night liquor-fueled bull sessions about whatever comes to mind—from Victorian mores, to what constitutes real manliness (read any number of articles by Kristol’s Harvard mentor, Harvey Mansfield), to “political correctness” and popular culture, to past sexual escapades and fond reminiscences of summer camp in the Berkshires or Poconos. As noted approvingly by Brooks, these “boys” loved esoterica (especially if embedded in western civilization) but also “delight[ed] in the latest good movies and TV shows, the best new cocktails and the casual pleasures of life.”
Just the kind who, given their privilege, wit, literary talent, and family connections, would graduate into a pseudo-intellectual elite whose views about all the above subjects and more could and would eventually bring about real-world consequences for millions of people, let alone frogs. The kind, to use another metaphor from the animal kingdom, who richly deserve the moniker, “chickenhawk.”
The Standard’s staff and authors reached the zenith of their influence during George W. Bush’s first term, when the advice offered on the magazine’s pages and website—especially regarding the desirability of invading Iraq, not to mention throwing Washington’s military weight around the Middle East and beyond more generally—far too often translated into official U.S. policy.
“We have a funny relationship with the top tier of the administration,” explained Kristol on the eve of the invasion in a New York Times article entitled, “White House Listens When Weekly Speaks.” They very much keep us at arm’s length, but Dick Cheney does send over someone to pick up 30 copies of the magazine every Monday.” Or, as Slate’s David Plotz, added: “The Weekly Standard is hugely influential in policy making, much more so than any other magazine. What they are doing seems to sway what is going on in the administration. This has become a good and important war, in part because of what they have written.”
There was really no surprise in this. Just a few floors up from The Standard’s offices were those of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a veritable hive of pro-war activity and part-time Pentagon “consultants.” AEI was, more specifically, the home of Richard Perle, a favorite of Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who, as chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, played a critical role in getting Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith placed into their posts as Deputy Secretary of Defense and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, respectively, and of positioning Iraqi expatriate con man par excellence Ahmad Chalabi at the center of the administration’s policy- and decision-making. And with Gary Schmitt–co-founder (with Kristol and Robert Kagan) and executive director of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC)—holding court within a spitball’s distance of The Standard staff in Kristol’s warren of offices on the fifth floor, the line between the top echelons of the war party within the administration, AEI, and The Standard was about as straight and true as one could ever find between an administration, a think tank (actually, more of a “letterhead organization”), and a publication.
It was PNAC that first publicly laid out the administration’s agenda for fighting what became the “global war on terror” just nine days after the 9/11 attacks, insisting that “…even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.” The Standard, whose messaging was often loudly amplified by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, was PNAC’s public voice. Barely a week would go by that it didn’t publish at least a couple of ultra-hawkish articles by PNAC staff or fellows from 1999 until 2006 by which time—despite the Ahab-like, five-year quest by The Standard’s current chief editor, Stephen Hayes, to prove that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda were partners-in-terror for years—the fact that the public rationales for invading Iraq were based on faulty, manipulated and/or even fabricated allegations that The Standard itself consistently and repeatedly promoted was pretty clear to all but the most fanatical of the war party’s “dead-enders,” including The Standard. (Hayes’ toils were not in vain: they earned him a fawning authorized biography of Cheney and set the stage for a similar effort, in which The Standard again led the pack, to tie Iran to al-Qaeda.)
Before moving to the Times in late 2003, Brooks himself, while still having so much “fun” and conviviality over cocktails with his Standard colleagues, was a keen promoter of the war, make no mistake. Six months before the bombs began exploding over Baghdad, he warned (quite ironically in retrospect) against the reservations voiced by Bush 41 alumni, who had opposed marching to Baghdad after ejecting Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991:
And the idea that we should pay attention to the people who took the last invasion of Iraq and turned that military triumph into a stunning political defeat, is simply mind-boggling. But the veterans of Bush I—who should live in ignominy for letting Saddam think the United States doesn’t have the guts to take him out, who should hide in disgrace for the way they abandoned the Kurds to their slaughter—instead ride high. It is an amazing example of the establishment’s ability to protect their most incompetent members.
Six weeks after the invasion, Brooks, no doubt sharing in the magazine’s excitement, declared the “war in Iraq is over” and predicted that the average U.S. citizen would now see “a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill [and] a federal government that can perform its primary task – protecting the American people – magnificently.” (For more on Brooks’s later predictions and understandings of war and the Middle East as a Times columnist, see “David Brooks is Constantly Wrong,” published in 2013 in Salon.)
But enough about Brooks and the Iraq War and The Standard’s relentless and seemingly never-ending promotion of that war and continued military intervention there. With the advice of such brilliant strategic thinkers and proven experts in all things Islamic, Arabic, and/or Orientalist like Michael Rubin, Tom Donnelly, Danielle Pletka, the Kagans—Robert, Frederick and Kimberly, Max Boot, Michael Makovsky, Tod Lindberg, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, James Woolsey, David Gelernter, Schmitt, Michael Goldfarb, Hillel Fradkin, Lee Smith, Thomas Joscelyn, Joshua Muravchik, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Jamie Fly, Jeffrey Bell, Jeffrey Gedmin, Eli Lake, Elliott Abrams, Charles Krauthammer, Dan Senor, Meyrav Wurmser, Peter Wehner, and the Ron Burgundy of the neocon think tank world, Reuel Marc Gerecht—as well as Brooks and Kristol—what could’ve gone wrong? [For those who want to review the collected wisdom contributed to The Standard by each of these formidable analysts, type “www.weeklystandard.com/author/” and then type their names, with a hyphen between their first and last names, and press enter, as in “www.weeklystandard.com/william-kristol/”.]
Nor did these geopolitical geniuses confine their wisdom to Iraq. Their promotion of military intervention and war (killing frogs, if you will) extended far more widely—to Serbia/Kosovo, Afghanistan, Syria (multiple times), Iran (multiple times), Libya, Somalia, and the Sahel, to name just some of the more prominent. Not to mention their repeated appeals for robust and provocative demonstrations of U.S. military power from the South China Sea to the Baltic and virtually everywhere in between. And The Standard could always be counted on to express serious disappointment whenever Israel, devotion to which was a core principle of the magazine from its first issue forward, suspended or halted any of its grossly disproportionate military campaigns against Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza or against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or failed to undertake strong military action against Syria when the occasion offered itself.
For The Standard, military power was ultimately the only power that counts, and the fact that the Pentagon budget was greater than those of the next biggest 10 to 25 military powers combined was never enough to satisfy its staff. The notion that Washington should play “globocop,” as Boot urged after the Kosovo War and in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, was never to be doubted.
What appears to have finally done in The Standard isn’t the militarism and neo-imperialism it so consistently promoted over the years, but rather its recent identification with the Never-Trumpers, for whom Boot, Kristol, and Brooks have been leading spokesmen. But the magazine’s failure to acknowledge the degree to which it itself laid the foundations for “Trumpism”—a subject which I addressed two-and-a-half years ago—is particularly disappointing, albeit of a piece with its failure to recognize the catastrophic effects of the Iraq invasion and its part in promoting it. For more than two decades, this “warm, fun, and convivial group” of writers and editors propagated some of the core ideas and cultivated constituencies (particularly Christian Zionists and Jacksonians) that are central to Trumpism.
From the outset, they promoted their own brand of anti-elite populism; indeed, they were somewhat obsessed by it, despite the fact that, as a group, they virtually embodied the northeastern elite with a disproportionate number boasting Ivy League degrees. After all, it was Kristol himself who “discovered” and later promoted Sarah Palin (even after McCain’s defeat), and later other politicians of the far right like Trump enthusiast former Rep. Michele Bachmann—the subject of a laudatory nearly 6,000-word essay by then-opinion editor Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law and author of the 2010 book, The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star. If there is a crisis of trust between the basic institutions of the U.S. government and a substantial portion of the American public that voted for Trump, The Standard certainly did its part in contributing to and exacerbating it.
On the foreign policy side, Trump has echoed a lot of The Standard’s long-held messaging points. The magazine, for example, specialized in attacking the State Department for naiveté—see, for example, this 2006 article by Michael Rubin—and the CIA Directorate of Analysis for being too understanding of the motivations of alleged adversaries, or the Agency’s Operations Directorate for timidity. Like Trump, it was a stalwart defender of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And just as it stood by Cheney through thick and thin, it has been a consistent admirer and promoter of John Bolton, author of two dozen anti-UN, anti-Iran and/or pro-war articles in the magazine, since he first came to public notice. And if Kristol, Brooks, et al now complain about Trump’s unilateralism and contempt for Washington’s traditional allies and alliances, it’s worth remembering how much contempt they poured on multilateralism (Brooks was really big on this in 2002), the UN, and Europe, particularly in the run-up to and immediately after the Iraq invasion, not to mention the Obama administration’s purported preference for “leading from behind.”
As for what is likely the greatest medium-term threat to both national and international security, climate change, The Standard was more than a skeptic. Despite an absence of scientific, let alone climatological, expertise on its staff or among its contributors, global warming was the subject of ridicule and mockery virtually since the publication’s first issue. That Brooks now complains about the “corporate drones” responsible for shutting down The Standard that “[t]his is what happens when people with a populist mindset decide that an uneducated opinion is of the same value as an educated opinion…” seems particularly ironic given the magazine’s history.
Of course, it’s important to note that the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which has itself featured many of The Standard’s staff and contributors over the years, has no doubt inflicted much greater damage on the state of U.S. politics and foreign policy over the years, given the Journal’s vastly greater readership and reach. And there’s no doubt that it has not only been much “Trumpier” than The Standard, but that many of its contributors, columnists and editorial writers are more extreme and nuttier in general.
But that jolly bunch of boys (and a few girls) that Brooks now so fondly recalls and extols has thrown a lot of stones in “fun” over the last 23 years with predictable and really quite disastrous consequences. It’s a shame that their mothers didn’t call them home for dinner earlier.