So a while back, my blogging colleague Rob Farley reviewed David Horowitz’ latest masterwork, Party of Defeat: How Democrats and Radicals Undermined America’s War on Terror Before and After 9-11 (though, not, we surmise, on 9-11). For this, he earned $1000 — a deal that D’Ho had been offering to antiwar blogger/journalists for a few months — and subsequently provided the rest of us with an hilarious account of the review-writing process itself. By the time the review appeared on the FrontPage website, Horowitz had reduced the offer to $500. Rob insisted that because $500 would only have purchased 100 whiskey sours, the new and reduced offer would not have been worth his time; I, on the other hand, have a long history of doing weird things for money, and my dog’s latest knee surgery isn’t paying for itself.

Besides, I have something of a sick enthusiasm for right-wing accounts of the Iraq War, and none more so than those published by right wing vanity presses like Spence, Encounter, AEI or Sentinel. I’ve read Kristol and Kaplan’s War Over Iraq, Frum and Perle’s An End to Evil, and any number of others like them without demanding any compensation from the universe. Hell, I even reviewed Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s Patriot’s History of the United States, a 900-page cloud of flatulence whose reading earned me nothing more than a lonely line on my CV.

In my world, therefore, the opportunity to take $500 from David Horowitz was simply too good to pass up. I even thought that if I did a decent enough job on the review, I might crack the Top 500 on The List.  So I e-mailed the proper authorities, and the book arrived in my mailbox a week or so later.

Long story short, I finished the review — all 3000 words of it — in mid-November and eagerly awaited my debut in the mid-tier wingnut press.  Last week, however, I received a brief note from one of the FP staff that the editors had decided not to publish it because I failed (or so they claim) to contend with their central thesis.  Somewhat surprisingly, though, they still paid me.  Which is great, of course, because canine knee surgery is fucking expensive

But still — my work got rejected by FrontPage. How humiliating is that?

Since I trust Eric, Ari and everyone else here not to reject me as well, I’ve buried the full review beneath the fold, where it runs no risk of making David Horowitz cry and poop his pants.


David Horowitz and Ben Johnson, Party of Defeat (Spence, 2008)

In a little less than two months, George W. Bush will leave office as one of the most despised presidents in American history.  Taking mild comfort, perhaps, in the fact that he will end his term according to the customary schedule, Bush would nevertheless have much to envy in the presidency of Richard Nixon, who resigned — amazingly — with lower disapproval ratings than George Bush currently enjoys and could, for all his administration’s flagrant criminality, at least take credit for bringing a pair of Giant Pandas to the National Zoo.  Bush, by contrast, may well be remembered as simply the least capable two-term president in the history of the republic.  In accounting for this failure, there are almost too many factors to consider, but the administration’s showcase project — the war in Iraq — will weigh heavily on Bush’s historical legacy.  On its own merits, the war was a profound disaster for a full four years.  The much-vaunted “surge” may have contributed to an improvement in certain conditions, but the likelihood that the United States will ever be able to offer a plausible claim of “victory” in Iraq is slim.  No less a figure than Gen. David Petraeus recently conceded as much.

The authors of Party of Defeat are to be congratulated, then, for struggling valiantly (if unpersuasively) upstream in their quest to vindicate this administration’s baleful legacy.  They do so, however, by taking a primarily negative tack.  That is, they defend Bush’s war in Iraq not so much by hailing its achievements but rather by impugning the motives of its most vocal critics, whom they argue have somehow forced the president to deviate from the path to victory.  It is, in the end, a strange argument on which to hang a book.  So far as I can recollect, no credible works of history or political science have ever been written based on the thesis that a minority party in a democracy — one that in fact witnessed its minority status intensified over two election cycles — somehow bears responsibility for taking the country to the brink of ruin.  But Party of Defeat is not a credible work of history or political science.

As for their case, Horowitz and Johnson pose a simple and dramatic account of the present danger.  They argue that the United States faces enemies who are

religious barbarians, armed with the technologies of modern warfare but guided by morals that are medieval and grotesque.  Their stated goal is the obliteration of America and the conquest of the West.  They have assembled a coalition that includes sovereign states such as Iran and Syria, Muslim armies such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and terrorist cells that are globally dispersed and beyond counting (3).

With access to nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and urged along by the “vast political networks of the international Left,” this enemy poses an existential peril to the United States, the authors contend. Sadly, the authors explain, Americans have not appreciated this fact; or, to be more precise, Americans have allowed their morale to be sapped by Democratic leaders, anti-war activists, and cultural producers who have insulted the president personally, spoken out irresponsibly against his policies, and opposed a war that some of them voted to authorize.  “What nation,” they ask, “can prevail in a war if half its population believes that the war is unnecessary and unjust, that its commander-in-chief is a liar, and that its own government is the aggressor?” (6)

The answer, I suppose is “none,” particularly if many of the beliefs that such a population harbors about the war happen to be true.  But Horowitz and Johnson don’t accept that explanation.  Instead of wondering how the Bush administration failed to bring any enduring legitimacy to its war, they insist that the case for war was transparently presented to the US Congress and to the United Nations; that Saddam Hussein’s regime posed an unambiguous threat that necessitated his removal; and that its prosecution of the broader war against terror  — including the use of the Guantanamo facility or its disregard for FISA — the administration’s legal and moral standing has been unimpeachable.

The authors can only explain the growing unpopularity of the war by proposing that defeatist elements within the political and popular culture have obscured these shimmering truths.  Had Code Pink, Al Gore, MoveOn, the New York Times and Howard Dean merely kept their objections to themselves, Americans would have never given the war a second thought.  The book does serve as a reminder that numerous Democrats — Jim McDermott, Jim Moran, and a few others — said undilutedly stupid things in public during the run-up to the war.  But the book also relies on a depiction of the war critics as a group in which the distinctions between Jimmy Carter and the ANSWER coalition are virtually non-existent and where the public declarations of Cynthia McKinney are no different than the critiques offered by Kerry, whose condemnations of the war allegedly supplied moral nourishment to the enemy.  In Party of Defeat, the night is dark and all cats are gray.

Of course, Horowitz and Johnson would not want to be confused with illiberal zealots, and so they bravely assert that “criticism of every war, including the one in Iraq, is warranted and necessary” (157).   As examples, they offer cursory citations of Eric Shinseki and Brent Scowcroft.  But these examples suggest only that Horowitz and Johnson support the right to criticize war, so long as the criticism is voiced prior to the war’s commencement and so long as the criticism is inconsequential.  By contrast, American discontent with has sprung from the distortions and deranged, hyperventilated bursts of fury from Bush’s most visible political opponents.  Thus, Horowitz and Johnson denounce Bush’s political opponents for “destroy[ing] the credibility of the commander-in-chief while his troops are in battle,” and they insist that the Democratic assault heaves them beyond “the normal criticism of war policies” (7-8).

As an historian, I find these sorts of assertions cringe-worthy. The fact is that all American wars have been internally divisive, and all have included harsh dissent that falls beyond the pale of what Horowitz and Johnson would accept as “normal criticism” of wartime policy.  The authors might, for instance, take a few moments to read up on the Mexican War, which provoked instantaneous howls of outrage from President Polk’s opponents, who correctly perceived that he’d launched the nation into a war that had little to do with defending American lives and securing American interests.  The abolitionist Abby Kelly warned that “this nation is doomed” because it had neither God nor right on its side, sentiments that were echoed by Frederick Douglass among many others.  Nor were the criticism of Polk lobbed from the antebellum left.  John Quincy Adams, the former president and Massachusetts congressman, denounced the war as a “most unrighteous” invasion.  The day before Congress voted to declare war, in fact, Ohio’s Joshua Giddings denounced the president’s policies from the floor of the US House of Representatives:

As sure as out destiny is swayed by a righteous God, our troops will fall by the sword and by pestilence; our country will be impoverished; our widows will mourn; and our orphans, rendered by this unholy war, will be thrown upon our public charity.  Vice will increase, and patriotism will be depreciated.

And that was just for starters.  Polk’s Whig opponents continued to rail against the war throughout the conflict, using terms that would have caused Horowitz and Johnson to swoon and reach for their smelling salts.  The war divided the Democratic party along sectional lines and contributed greatly to their loss in the elections of 1848.  And yet somehow, in spite of it all, Polk’s army prevailed. (The war, it turns out, did eventually cause American troops to “fall by the sword and by pestilence.” As Ulysses S. Grant ruefully observed in his dying years, the Civil War — provoked by political debates over the disposition of Mexican cession — was God’s retribution for an immoral war of conquest.)

The book is loaded with similarly dubious historical arguments. Take, for example, their observation that the Islamic war on the West began with the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  This claim deliberately avoids consideration of how the British and then the US — often with Saudis as intermediaries — encouraged the growth of Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood in order to offset the strength of Arab nationalists like Nasser or to thwart perceived Soviet influence throughout the Arab Middle East.  The United States did not create political Islam, but there was bipartisan complicity — born of Cold War strategic shortsightedness — that enabled its spread.  But for Horowitz and Johnson refuse to allow historical complexity to deter their comically one-sided indictment of the Democratic party.  And so the authors insist, predictably, that Carter’s “abandonment” of the Shah — following on the heels of the Democratic “abandonment” of South Vietnam — demoted the prestige of the US and practically invited the nation’s enemies to coil against it.  They fail to explain, of course, precisely what the United States could have done to sustain the authority of a man who was detested by his own people and who was, moreover, dying of cancer.  There are plenty of things the Carter administration might have done otherwise — either to prevent the revolution or to mitigate its awful consequences — but the authors are, unfortunately, more preoccupied with repeating historical caricatures than with actually thinking about history.

While the Carter administration receives its predictable forty whacks, Ronald Reagan receives laurels from the authors he does not in fact deserve.  The authors insist — with apparently straight faces — that Reagan “brought a newfound clarity to U.S. foreign policy” (30).  One wonders which moment of “clarity” best exemplifies the Reagan years in the Middle East:  Its decision to tilt back and forth between Iran and Iraq during their catastrophic 8-year war?  Its cynical and counterproductive encouragement of Islamist movements in Central Asia, including Soviet Republics like Uzbekistan?  Would Iran-Contra count?

None of these are even alluded to.  Instead, according to Horowitz and Johnson, the signature act of the Reagan administration — indeed, the only specific event described in the less than two pages devoted to the Reagan years — is the April 1986 bombing run against Libyan airfields and defense installations.  Families of the Pan Am 103 victims will be surprised to learn that Reagan’s bold action deterred Mohammar Qaddafi from “further terrorist acts” against the United States (31).  If there were any question that Party of Defeat is a deeply unserious reflection on the roots of the war on terror, the two pages it commits to the Reagan years would resolve all doubts.  The authors can’t even bring themselves to mention the intervention in Beirut, which even A-list conservatives will cite as evidence of America’s feckless response to Islamic radicals.  As for US support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Horowitz and Johnson defend Reagan by insisting — with straight faces, as near as I can gather — that he had no alternatives, since Congressional Democrats would never have allowed him to send American troops to fight the Soviets in Central Asia.

This may sound like nitpicking, and in their response, I suppose the authors will insist that they weren’t writing an historical treatise.  But they nevertheless hinge their entire thesis on two arguments about the past:  First, that criticism of the Iraq War has lacked precedent in American history; and second, that Democratic weakness has intensified the dangers facing the United States, from the candidacy of George McGovern to the present.  For a book that makes such dramatic claims, The Party of Defeat is remarkably glib about the history it aims to recount.  In 164 pages of prose, the authors cite exactly zero historians and political scientists who enjoy any degree of credibility in the area of US-Middle Eastern history specifically or international relations more broadly.  The authors are clearly not stupid men, but their footnotes reveal a research method for which the term “shoddy” is almost too generous a description.

Perhaps this is why the book at times resembles a giant, error-filled piñata.  There are some real whoppers, such as their insistence that UN Resolution 1441 provided sufficient authority to launch a war against Iraq.  (Horowitz and Johnson may not like the United Nations and may have little appreciation for international law, but they would be unable to find more than a handful of experts on either subject who would endorse such an interpretation of that resolution.)  The authors also continue to peddle the abundantly disproved myth of a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda.  To do this, they cite the work of Stephen Hayes, who has served for many years now as Dick Cheney’s stenographer in the right wing press, and he continues to make claims about pre-war Iraq that sane people long ago stopped taking seriously.  Hayes, for example, is cited directly at the end of this sentence:

In March 2002, CIA director George Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee of Iraqi ‘contacts and linkages to the al-Qaeda organization’ and even raised the concern that Iraq might have sponsored 9-11, though this hypothesis eventually went unconfirmed (86).

That’s not a typo.  The authors are only willing to state that the Iraq/September 11 connection is “unconfirmed.”  (On a somewhat related note, I have heard that the moon landing was possibly faked, though these reports remain similarly unconfirmed.)

The authors subsequently refer to US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s 1998 indictment against al-Qaeda for the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombings.  The original indictment claimed that Iraq and al-Qaeda had reached an “understanding” that would involve cooperation on weapons production.  A superceding indictment, however, removed the sentences pertaining to Iraq.  Why?  Because the evidence for such a link did not in fact exist.  It would take an ordinary mortal about two minutes of research to discover this, but Horowitz and Johnson stick with the original — and incorrect — wording of the indictment, either because they haven’t done their research or because they know the full story but don’t care.

There are also plenty of smaller errors that underscore the book’s profoundly sloppy construction.  The authors point out several times, for example, that the Iraq Liberation Act “specifically called for regime change by force” (10), when in fact it said nothing of the kind and was, moreover, such a low priority for the Clinton administration that they released only token amounts of money to opposition groups.  The book repeats the discredited myth that the WTC bombs in 1993 actually contained cyanide.  It likewise gives voice to the erroneous charge that Kojo Annan, son of the former UN Secretary General, had participated in the “misappropriation” of $21 billion from the UN Oil for Food Program — which is precisely the sort of claim that recently earned Annan a sizable legal settlement from a British libel suit.  If the footnotes are to be believed, however, the authors appear not to have read anything on the Oil for Food “scandal” outside a 2004 article on the Fox News website.  The absence of factual basis for the assertion, therefore, is not surprising.

Beyond these gross historical errors and omissions, the authors aren’t even capable of supporting basic claims about recent political history.  The most breathtaking claim the authors make is that the relentless criticism of the Bush administration was somehow responsible for its erroneous prosecution of the war.  As Horowitz and Johnson argue,

[a] president under relentless attack from the domestic opposition has less political space for flexible response.  The more severe the attacks, the more limited his room for political maneuver.  If the Bush administration has been slow to admit error in the present war, or to take corrective measures on the field of battle, the unrestrained attacks on his integrity and motives have undoubtedly been a significant factor (11).

Such assertions are simply beyond belief.  To accept any of this as true, one would have to overlook one obvious fact:  George W. Bush not only failed to see his “room for political maneuver” shrink, but in the elections of 2002 and 2004, Bush expanded his “room for political maneuver” by providing his Republican colleagues in the US Congress with an argument (something along the lines of “vote for us or you’ll die”) that successfully, if only temporarily, increased their control over both houses.   Moreover, Bush’s election in 2004 is hardly irrelevant here.  Engorged by a win that he insisted had provided him with a “mandate,” Bush chose not to revisit his Iraq strategy, but opted rather to pursue an ill-fated dream of privatizing social security, while his Republican supporters in Congress set about the task of rescuing Terri Schiavo.

In a broader sense, the book asks the wrong question.  With respect to the war in Iraq, the relevant problem has little to do with the slow decline in American support for the war.  Instead, Horowitz and Johnson should be concerned with why and how the United States squandered whatever legitimacy it may have been able to earn from the Iraqi people themselves.  Democrats who voted against the AUMF, or who bemoaned the Bush administration’s diplomatic errors, were not responsible for the Bush administration’s decision to abandon the State Department’s plans for post-war Iraq; activists from Code Pink did not employ the famously incompetent Paul Bremmer as the American proconsul and watch passively as he disbanded the Iraqi army and ordered the mass purge of Ba’ath Party members; and the people who leaked information about classified government programs didn’t fail in their obligations to provide basic security and economic reconstruction for the people whose country they’d occupied.  Bush’s objective failures in Iraq have nothing to do with domestic American opposition to the war; if the book is seriously trying to argue otherwise, they’ve failed to provide the slightest bit of evidence in favor of their argument.

In the end, this is a book written from a place of deep dismay and disbelief that so many Americans could have lost faith in a war whose infinite righteousness the authors suppose to be self evident. Horowitz and Johnson are thus unable to bring themselves to evaluate the promotion, planning and execution of the war itself.  Indeed, the only sentence in the book that begins with the phrase “President Bush failed” appears in a paragraph that complains about the absence of treason charges the authors believe should have been levied against those who leaked and reported on classified information. Instead, the authors base their entire argument on the moral perfidy of liberals. The world of right wing commentary is filled with these sorts of laments, and these are the folks who would appreciate a book like Party of Defeat.  For anyone else, the book isn’t likely to be persuasive.