Spare Us the “Dreams and Glory”

It’s a bully pulpit, this weblog, here at my disposal on those occasions when I want to react publicly to something I’ve read on the Net. By the nature of things, though, that inevitably means a bias against excellent articles that I might otherwise want to recommend to you, if they’re not European and in a foreign language – it’s not worth going “off-Eurosavant-topic,” you see – and towards pointing you to terrible articles that I just have to argue against. And so it would be with regret that I would let you know of the column Dreams and Glory by David Brooks, were it not for the audience of millions that its posting yesterday on the New York Time’s Op-Ed pages inevitably assured it. (However, in a couple of days it disappears behind the Times’ “paid content” wall, so I’ll try to include many representative quotes for those who are reading this late.)


Brooks was only added to the stable of regular NYT Op-Ed writers last September, from the Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard, clearly in a move to counteract that newspaper’s traditional “liberal media” image. The first thing that is clear about him is that presumed Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean will never get any more peace until after November 2, 2004, if then. Brooks starts off his column with the same sort of sarcastic sniping at Dean that he has already demonstrated recently in his assigned NYT space, now that the Vermont governor with the help of Al Gore’s endorsement has surged to the front of the Democratic pack. “[T]he only guy who goes to the Beverly Hills area for a gravitas implant,” “Dr. Angry turned into the Rev. Dull and Worthy,” a “classic Deanism” meaning not even venturing near graciousness, etc.

Language like that at the beginning of such a column inadvertently broadcasts the message “only Dean-haters, interested in feasting on a nasty public skewering, need read further.” But then Brooks realizes that that’s not what he wants, and changes his tone so abruptly it makes your head spin: “Still, the speech was respectable and serious.” See, he needs to construct a straw man out of Dean’s views in order to be able to contrast them with those of his hero, George W. Bush – “it [Dean’s speech] affords us the opportunity to compare the two men’s approaches to the war on terror” – and realizes that it won’t work unless he can suppress for a time his natural impulse to treat Dean like a fool.


What is the difference between Dean’s view and Bush’s? “George Bush fundamentally sees the war on terror as a moral and ideological confrontation between the forces of democracy and the forces of tyranny. Howard Dean fundamentally sees the war on terror as a law and order issue.”

Enlarging on Bush’s view, he quotes him as follows: “freedom is the almighty God’s gift to every person – every man and woman who lives in this world,” and goes on to remark that “Bush believes that God has endowed all human beings with certain inalienable rights, the most important of which is liberty.” Oh yes – Bush is a regular latter-day Thomas Jefferson! Is this the same George W. Bush whose administration is responsible for the Patriot Act, or the Patriot Act II, for Camp X-Ray on Guantanamo Bay – where’s the “liberty” or even basic defendants’ or POWs’ rights there, Mr. Brooks? Responsible for arresting and holding Americans in prison for indefinite periods without legal charges being brought (i.e. a violation of habeus corpus)? For secret courts, subject to no public review, trying alleged terrorism suspects? Is this the president who walks around in his own uninformed bubble, relying on what his trusted aids choose to tell him, because his Secret Service goons have instructions during public appearances to shove protesters off into “free speech zones” where they need be neither seen nor heard?

And Howard Dean: “Judging by his speech yesterday, Dean does not believe the U.S. has an exceptional role to play in world history. Dean did not argue that the U.S. should aggressively promote democracy in the Middle East and around the world. Instead, he emphasized that the U.S. should strive to strengthen global institutions.” Fine: and what’s wrong with that? Or, even better, later on: “The world Dean described is largely devoid of grand conflicts or moral, cultural and ideological divides. It is a world without passionate nationalism, a world in which Europe and the United States are not riven by any serious cultural differences . . .”

Europe and the United States “riven” by “serious cultural differences”: what world is David Brooks living in? His NYT biography page alleges that he was once posted in Brussels by the Wall Street Journal, to cover among other things “European affairs.” American culture is an historical offshoot of European culture – both are Judeo-Christian – which, although having evolved in a somewhat different direction, has hardly reached the point of “serious differences.” No, what this man wants is for America to go off on a crusade, and he’s simply sore because Europe, sensibly, refuses to come along.


There are people out there – the “terrorists,” although that term is becoming such debased linguistic currency that it needs a fresh substitute, quick – who hate America and what it stands for, and so want to perform violent acts against the country and its allies. The only solution to this predicament, to Brooks and those of his ilk, is to go out there and declare war on our enemies, declare war on the poverty, religious extremism, and similar dysfunctions which eventually create anti-American “terrorists.”

Let me refer you to my earlier treatment of such issues, which I keep on my site under the “My Articles” section: Sept. 11: Crime, not War. There have been “terrorists” since at least the 19th century (which – does anyone recall? – was plagued with assassins of tsars, kings, and even presidents, namely William McKinley), and unfortunately there are terrorists now, with the enhance capabilities that the march of technology since that 19th century can give them. But dealing with them is properly a police matter, not a matter of going off on crusade – and especially not a matter of scrapping American civil liberties wholesale: of destroying liberty, to adapt a famous phrase from out of the Vietnam War, in order to “save” it. And at the international level, dealing with terrorists does indeed mean working together with other countries in the “global institutions” (which Brooks accuses Howard Dean of wanting to strengthen) that help make the effect of participating countries’ efforts against terrorism greater than the sum of the efforts of the individual countries in them.

By the way, we now know that the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq had nothing to do with fighting terrorism – that there was little or no Iraq-al-Qaida link and definitely no Iraqi link with the events of September 11. Rather, it was mainly a geopolitical affair, justifiable as the follow-up to the 1991 Gulf War, finishing the job and removing a violent, unstable dictator placed unfortunately in a very wrong part of the world – i.e. rather too near the oil reserves upon which Western economies still depend. (It was also certainly justified as bringing relief to the Iraqi people who had suffered far too long under Saddam’s reign of terror, but that alone is never enough to justify toppling such a government – the Syrians, for example, have suffered over the past few decades just as much or more at the hands of their government. Or the North Koreans . . .) In contrast, North Korea, although also ruled by an unstable dictator, has generally not been in quite as “wrong” a place – although it is in the neighborhood of the world’s second-biggest economy, Japan, and with the increased reach it is acquiring in the form of missiles, and with the nuclear warheads it is certainly developing to put on them, it is likely that it is also edging into the “something has to be done” category.


Towards the end of his column Brooks sums up with “Bush at least recognizes the existence of intellectual and cultural conflict. He acknowledges that different value systems are incompatible.” “Incompatible” – so that means that it’s either you or them, then, so that you go out and destroy those espousing other value systems than yours, right? Laughably, it’s Brooks who describes Howard Dean as “idealistic and naïve.” Maybe the vast majority of us have better things to do with our tax money, with our civil liberties – with our lives – than to go off on some crusade driven by the terrorist-induced paranoia that clearly plagues David Brooks and – if what he praises about George W. Bush is correct – our current president. “Dean tried,” Brooks writes, “. . . to show how sober and serious he could be.” In contrast to what this sort of Bush partisan is trying to sign us up for – does he even realize what he is writing? – Howard Dean is truly sober and serious.

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