The Arrogance that Slays

by Peter Jenkins

An article in the Style Section of the February 18 edition of The Washington Post—on the inaccurate predictions of conservative pundit Bill Kristol—put me in mind of a Rudyard Kipling poem. Written in 1917, the poem commemorates the Indian and British troops who died in an ill-conceived and poorly administered campaign to wrest control of Mesopotamia from Ottoman Turkey.


They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?

They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?

Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?

Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?

Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?

Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?

Kristol’s Ball

Bill Kristol is the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. The author of the piece, Paul Farhi, portrays Kristol as an example of a political type: the politician who thrives despite making judgment calls that have catastrophic consequences.

In Kristol’s case the most catastrophic of many poor calls were those relating to the US/UK campaign, in 2003, to wrest control of Mesopotamia from Saddam Hussein. Farhi writes:

As an advocate of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, he said, among other things, that the war “could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East”; that Saddam Hussein was “past that finish line” in developing nuclear weapons; that “if we free the people of Iraq we will be respected in the Arab world.” He also said, “Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.” He predicted on C-SPAN that it would be a “two-month war, not an eight-year war.”

Of course, Kristol was merely a cheerleader for the 2003 invasion, albeit an important one. It would be unfair to reproach him for poor judgment that year without recalling the more culpable blunders of those who occupied senior positions in President George W Bush’s national security apparatus, and those in the Senate who voted for the war. Many of these have paid a political price for their poor judgment. Hillary Clinton and John McCain are among those who have thrived.

Ideology a Factor

Farhi goes on to suggest that Kristol’s ideological commitment to neoconservatism in part explains the poverty of Kristol’s judgement. Farhi quotes Alex Pareene, editor of Gawker, to make his point: “He [Kristol] is sort of ideologically motivated to make certain ridiculous claims—Iraq will be a huge success, Romney will win…”

.It is tempting to take that idea and apply it to US foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, US foreign policy has had a more aggressive, bellicose stamp than might have been predicted in 1990.

That year the disappearance of an existential threat to the United States gave US foreign policy-makers the opportunity to position their nation as the world’s pre-eminent peacemaker and defender of the international rule of law. Instead the United States has become one of the leading belligerents of the post-1990 era.

That seems due, at least in part, to the influence of the neoconservative movement on decision-making. Each exercise in bellicosity (covert as well as declared) has been sui generis. But causes that are dear to neoconservatives have played an important part in the motivational mix: imposing democracy, championing Israeli interests (as defined by Benjamin Netanyahu, other Likudniks, and increasingly the settler movement), and antagonizing Russia.

Such have been the consequences of this belligerence that the decline of neoconservatism—or at least of its influence on US foreign policy—would be cause for celebration in most parts of the world. Will 2016 be the year in which American voters turn their backs on “the arrogance that slays” and avert the “sidling back to power” of those who have shown themselves ill-suited to having the lives of others at the mercy of their decision-making?

Photo of Bill Kristol by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. Well said ,Peter. All decisions that are made rely on the culture that we live in and the contribution of the media to that culture is enormously powerful.
    The commentators in the media use the license that we allow to make statements that are either lies or just wrong without censure. The results for our civilisation are balanced between life and extinction,surely we need to find a better way to find our way forward than to allow this corruption of truth to continue.

  2. The epic stupidity of GW Bush, in invading Iraq in 2003, was made possible by foolish policy recommendations from, Bill Kristol and his pals. Trillions of dollars squandered, and the lives of millions of people ruined.

  3. Another bull’s-eye by Ambassador Jenkins. Unfortunately, there are too many like Kristol embedded in (and overpaid by) think tanks and the media- they are like a cancer on a dying body politic that we have learned to tolerate, even as we suffer from the disease they disseminate- but that hopefully the next generation, if not ours, will ignore, if not be cured of entirely.

  4. Unfortunately, no matter who becomes the next U.S. president, the neocon mindset and worldview will continue to prevail and inflict death and destruction. All Republican candidates, Hillary Clinton, and most Democrats and Republicans in Congress support neocon policies. Bernie Sanders may support only some of those policies, such as with respect to Israel and ISIS, but he will make no headway to change U.S. foreign policy, even if he wanted to, with a neocon Congress. Most corporate media, especially the NY Times and Washington Post and major TV networks, as tied as they all are to war-profiteering corporations, both directly and indirectly (via ads and commercials), will continue to propagandize the neocon worldview as they have since 1990. So we in the U.S. will have to search for alternative viewpoints outside of U.S. culture. And we should certainly not expect the failed neocon policies to be abandoned anytime in the next decade.

  5. It’s hard to see how Kristal and his tribe don’t win a few important rounds if Hillary wins the White House. She may not be an official neocon, but her enduring love affair with Israel, her eagerness to recover her baby, the Pacific Pivot, from the reluctant hands of Obama, and her general hawkishness are bound to appeal to the neocons: “We can help you with that, Hillary.”

    If, on the other hand, Rubio emerges as predicted (by the neocons), the neocons might just as well move right into those empty bedrooms in the White House because they will be regularly called upon to shape Baby Marco’s foreign policy for him.

    Or if it turns out to be a Sanders vs Trump contest, who knows? I doubt that even the neocons, who seem unconcerned that they’re always wrong, would hazard a guess.

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