Category Archives: William Kristol

Nattering nabob

The death of conservative icon William F. Buckley led someone, I don't remember who, to eulogize that "he loved his own ideas more than he hated theirs."  He wasn't, in other words, one of those "liberals are fascists" or "party of death" types that dominate conservative thought these days.  I can't really say for certain whether that's true.  My suspicion, however, is that it isn't.  Helping me along with this suspicion is William Kristol.  Writing in today's New York Times, he says:

In my high school yearbook (Collegiate School, class of 1970), there’s a photo of me wearing a political button. (Everyone did in those days. I wasn’t that much dorkier than everyone else.) The button said, “Don’t let THEM immanentize the Eschaton.”

There you see an example of the influence of Bill Buckley, who died last week at age 82. For it was Buckley who had promulgated this slogan, as an amusing distillation of the thinking of the very difficult historian of political philosophy Eric Voegelin. I’d of course not read Voegelin then (there’s a lot of him I still haven’t read, to tell the truth). But the basic thought was: Don’t let ideologues try to create heaven on earth, because they’ll deprive us of freedom and make things a lot worse.

To read Buckley growing up in the 1960s was bracing. Buckley and his colleagues — some merrily, some mordantly —  mercilessly eviscerated the idiocies of the New Left. They also exposed the flaccidity of the older liberalism. If, like me, you already had a sense from listening to most of your peers and some of your elders that a lot of what they believed was silly (or worse), you couldn’t help but be attracted to Buckley.

That doesn't paint a rosy picture.  Aside from the obsession with the worst caricature of the opposition (with the ever present but equally silly idea that their idiocy guarantees the legitimacy of your view–it doesn't), Buckley's slogan has a kind of ironic ring to it.  Conservatives have now embraced those people who literally want to bring about the Eschaton.  Just ask John Hagee.

*minor edit for sense above–"loved his ideas more than he hated THEIRS"–apologies–I posted too damn early in the morning. 

**minor edit in "minor edit"–thanks Jem. 


It's hard to see what William Kristol brings to the discussion on anything.  Today he analogizes the Republican and Democratic parties to the ruling and opposition parties in Britain, via, get this, a George Orwell essay on Kipling.  Kristol writes:

“In a gifted writer,” Orwell remarks, “this seems to us strange and even disgusting, but it did have the advantage of giving Kipling a certain grip on reality.” Kipling “at least tried to imagine what action and responsibility are like.” For, Orwell explains, “The ruling power is always faced with the question, ‘In such and such circumstances, what would you do?’, whereas the opposition is not obliged to take responsibility or make any real decisions.” Furthermore, “where it is a permanent and pensioned opposition, as in England, the quality of its thought deteriorates accordingly.”

If I may vulgarize the implications of Orwell’s argument a bit: substitute Republicans for Kipling and Democrats for the opposition, and you have a good synopsis of the current state of American politics.

The "vulgarization" overlooks the entirely unavoidable fact that the US government is designed with three branches.  If a party controls one of them–say, Congress–then that party isn't an opposition party.  Alright, so the premise of this piece is strained.  But what about the main point, someone may wonder.

Having controlled the executive branch for 28 of the last 40 years, Republicans tend to think of themselves as the governing party — with some of the arrogance and narrowness that implies, but also with a sense of real-world responsibility. Many Democrats, on the other hand, no long even try to imagine what action and responsibility are like. They do, however, enjoy the support of many refined people who snigger at the sometimes inept and ungraceful ways of the Republicans. (And, if I may say so, the quality of thought of the Democrats’ academic and media supporters — a permanent and, as it were, pensioned opposition — seems to me to have deteriorated as Orwell would have predicted.)

So this stuff Orwell–I can't believe he actually used Orwell–said about the opposition party was merely a means of saying the "quality of thought" of the "opposition" and its "academic and media supporters" has "deteriorated."  One would be curious to know how, in particular–or jeez even in general–the "quality of thought" of the academic and media supporters has "deteriorated."  Could Kristol at least give an example of this particular claim?

The freakish, yes freakish, thing about this article is that Kristol goes on to use this Orwellian premise to complain about the Democrats' obstruction of legislation aimed at protecting private companies from the legal consequences of their participation in   warrantless–and therefore illegal–surveillance:

But the Democratic House leadership balked — particularly at the notion of protecting from lawsuits companies that had cooperated with the government in surveillance efforts after Sept. 11. Director McConnell repeatedly explained that such private-sector cooperation is critical to antiterror efforts, in surveillance and other areas, and that it requires the assurance of immunity. “Your country is at risk if we can’t get the private sector to help us, and that is atrophying all the time,” he said. But for the House Democrats, sticking it to the phone companies — and to the Bush administration — seemed to outweigh erring on the side of safety in defending the country.

He should have worked Orwell into that paragraph.


It's Bill Kristol's day again.  Not that he has to write on anything in particular, but it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  And Kristol writes about the anti-modern paragon of moral virtue, John McCain.  One might however find Kristol's sense of "modernity" intriguing:

The young Henley had written this following the amputation of his foot because of tubercular infection. He lived until age 53, apparently unbow’d and unafraid, a productive poet, critic and editor. (The one-legged [eds.: shouldn't this be "one-footed"?] Henley also served as an inspiration for his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” character Long John Silver.)

One can see why “Invictus” might have appealed to the young McCain. One can see why snatches of it might have stuck in his mind while a prisoner of war, and after. But his allusion to its coda reminds us of what’s so distinctive about McCain as a contemporary political figure: He’s not thoroughly modern.

In this he differs from his competitors. Mitt Romney is the very model of a modern venture capitalist. Mike Huckabee is the very model of a modern evangelical. Rudy Giuliani is the very model of a modern can-do executive. They are impressive modern men all. But John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian — rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.

Others can point out the strange and ever-shifting principles of the "Straight Talk Express" (a brand name, which, unsurprisingly, has beguiled even the <sarcasm> uber-liberals </sarcasm> of NPR.  I'd just be curious to know how those traits are "Victorian" in anything but a self-refutingly ironic sense.  But I suppose I wonder that because I'm modern.


Lower the bar

No surprise that Bill Kristol thinks the surge is working.  He cites the reduction in violence as well as the passing of a de-Baathification law as evidence.  First, the violence:

The Democrats were wrong in their assessments of the surge. Attacks per week on American troops are now down about 60 percent from June. Civilian deaths are down approximately 75 percent from a year ago. December 2007 saw the second-lowest number of U.S. troops killed in action since March 2003. And according to Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of day-to-day military operations in Iraq, last month’s overall number of deaths, which includes Iraqi security forces and civilian casualties as well as U.S. and coalition losses, may well have been the lowest since the war began.

Before he gets to the other point (the one about politics–the goal of the surge after all), he snidely asks:

Do Obama and Clinton and Reid now acknowledge that they were wrong? Are they willing to say the surge worked?

The second question has a kind of complex question flavor to it: it's not a matter of willingness to say the surge worked, rather, it's a question of whether the surge has worked.  One can hardly be surprised that Kristol takes the slimmest of evidence of success as evidence of glorious success (he thinks the invasion of Iraq ought to serve as a template for the invasion of Iran, so for him the whole experience has been awesome).  But even he ought to realize that the political goals–what were called benchmarks–were the goals of the surge, kinda like the war and violence has a political objective.  Those goals, by any honest measure, have not been met.  The one Kristol mentions:

And now Iraq’s Parliament has passed a de-Baathification law — one of the so-called benchmarks Congress established for political reconciliation.

hardly counts.


Must say something about William Kristol's new column in the crazy liberal New York Times (that's ironing, by the way).  By all rational accounts, Kristol is a joke.  And indeed in his column he goes about demonstrating that fact:

His campaigning in New Hampshire has been impressive. At a Friday night event at New England College in Henniker, he played bass with a local rock band, Mama Kicks. One secular New Hampshire Republican’s reaction: “Gee, he’s not some kind of crazy Christian. He’s an ordinary American.”

One particularly uninformed person saw the otherwise crazily Christian Huckabee play bass and concluded he was normal.  Kristol thinks that is a good thing. 

Sweet misericordia

According to Bill Kristol, you’re not a criminal if you “seek to do what is right for the country” or “work closely” with the President.

>Will Bush pardon Libby? Apparently not–even if it means a man who worked closely with him and sought tirelessly to do what was right for the country goes to prison. Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, noting that the appeals process was underway, said, “Given that and in keeping with what we have said in the past, the president has not intervened so far in any other criminal matter and he is going to decline to do so now.”

>So much for loyalty, or decency, or courage. For President Bush, loyalty is apparently a one-way street; decency is something he’s for as long as he doesn’t have to take any
risks in its behalf; and courage–well, that’s nowhere to be seen. Many of us used to respect President Bush. Can one respect him still?

And after all that Bush has done and failed to do, this is the reason Bill Kristol loses respect for him.

Now what’s the question?

The op-ed page of today’s *New York Times*
offers its readers, among the usual fare, three proposed questions for each of the participants in tonight’s Presidential debate. Naturally, the proposed questions for Bush come from Kerry supporters, and vice-versa. Among these questions, William Kristol of the *Weekly Standard* proposes the following oft repeated, rhetorically effective, but logically troublesome question for Kerry:

You have said that we cannot cut and run from Iraq and that we could “realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.” But if you now consider the war to have been a mistake, how could you, as president, “ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake”?

That this question is a *rhetorical* trap is obvious. *Jeune* Kerry, dour and uniformed, asked it in his testimony before the Senate in 1971. It wasn’t a real question then, and it’s not real question now. It’s a rhetorical question. In other words, it’s a question with no possible answer.

This “question” of Kristol’s is a brilliant rhetorical strategy, thick as it is with references *Weekly Standard* readers find compelling: Kerry’s protests against the Viet Nam War, his *apparent* modification of positions on Iraq (“you *now* consider. . .”), and his stated aim of extracting the U.S. from Iraq.

Those matters aside, there is no way Kerry can answer this question without falling into the *complex question* trap Kristol has prepared for him. If he explains how he can ask the last man to die for a mistake, then he contradicts the young John Kerry and at the same time affirms that the soldiers are now dying for a mistake. If he says that he won’t ask anyone else to die for a mistake, then he claims that the soldiers who have died have died in vain. So there is no way that Kerry can answer *that* question without looking like a dope.

But there’s more to Kristol’s question than his attempt to force Kerry into a 30 year-old self-contradiction. The preamble to the question is meant to suggest Kerry holds a series of inconsistent positions. It might help to examine the explicit claims in greater detail.

1. We cannot cut and run from Iraq;

2. We can realistically aim to have our troops home in four years;

3. The war was a mistake.

Kristol aims to show that Kerry cannot consistently hold all of these positions at once. One appears inconsistent with two–setting a timetable for disengagement is another phrase for cutting and running. One also seems inconsistent with two and three in the following sense. The war was either a mistake or it wasn’t. If it was a mistake, then we should not be there *now* (let alone four years from now). If we are there now or four years from now, then it’s not a mistake. Something, Kristol believes, has to give. But what has to give is not Kerry’s position, but rather Kristol’s simple minded formulation of it. While challenging the question may not constitute a very smart political ploy–as Kerry is so often accused of offering answers too complicated for the ordinary pundit–it would certainly uncover the logical trap Kristol is setting for him.

Here is how Kerry might respond:

1. To *have invaded* Iraq in March 2003 was a mistake, a grave one. But the fact is that mistake has already been committed.

2. But to “cut and run” *now* would make matters worse, for it would leave Iraq in a chaos of our making. In other words, the mistake has been accomplished, what remains are the *consequences* of the mistake. Cutting and running would constitute a new mistake.

One and two, then, are clearly not inconsistent. The only way they can be made to be inconsistent if one vaguely determines the temporal boundries of the term “mistake.” For Kerry, the “mistake” of the Iraq war refers to an event in the past. For Kristol, however, Kerry’s claim that it is a mistake means that everything associated with it *now* is a mistake. These are two fundamentally irreconcilable meanings of the term “mistake.”


3. Therefore, a clear and realistic timetable for withdrawl is not inconsistent with either two or three above. And the only way Kristol can make this inconsistent is if he conflates “cutting and running” with “clear and realistic timetable for withdrawl.” But these two hardly mean the same thing.

Once Kerry clarifies these matters, Kristol could then ask him a real question.

Jumping on the flip-floppery bandwagon

As the accusations of flip-floppery reach crescendo in the op-ed pages of our major dailies and weeklies, it is appropriate to consider the underlying logic of this accusation. Virtually all of the prominent conservative pundits have devoted a column or two to demonstrating Kerry’s flip-floppery, but their details are essentially the same. Last week there were two columns that stand out: Krauthammer’s editorial in the Washington Post and the Weekly Standard’s Kagan and Kristol’s (the latter seems to be writing nothing but flip-flop columns) co-authored editorial.

What the pundits are trying to demonstrate is that John Kerry has changed his position on Iraq. Now this by itself would not suggest anything. All politicians presumably should change their positions when circumstances demand it, or when they discover their previous position to have been mistaken. For example, George Bush argued that the military should not be in the business of “nation building” during the 2000 election. After 9/11, of course, he saw that his previous view was mistaken and has chosen to engage in acts of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet none of these pundits see fit to accuse Bush of “flip-floppery.” Surely something more than change is at stake here. And given the course of the war over the last three years (including planning and build-up), one would think it could be a virtue to be able to change one’s assessment in response to the changing “facts on the ground.”

The real accusation that the pundits are striving to make is that Kerry changes his position for the wrong reasons. This is an old accusation trundled out against “liberals” every four years. In essence, it claims that liberals change their positions for matters of mere political expediency and therefore cannot be trusted to do what they think is right. The implicit conclusion is that we cannot trust John Kerry to be President. As such it is an ad hominem argument.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious. Often a person’s character or past is relevant to our inferences concerning that person. It only becomes fallacious if the claim about Kerry’s character is irrelevant to the conclusion about trustworthiness.

For example, although the argument would be ad hominem, the following would not be fallacious:

John Kerry uses political power to enrich his friends and family at the expense of the state. Therefore, John Kerry cannot be trusted with the office of president.

Certainly the premise of the argument attacks Kerry’s character, but because this characteristic is relevant to trustworthiness the argument is not seemingly fallacious.

So we can never conclude simply because an argument is an “attack” on a candidate that it is fallacious. If, as people often say, the public does not like “negative attack ads,” this is not necessarily a sign of their virtue. The relevant difference lies between fallacious and unsound attacks ads and valid and sound attacks.

In general, it seems plausible that flip-floppery, of the kind with which Kerry is accused, is potentially relevant to his trustworthiness.

But this is not the end of the story. First of all we must determine how we can recognize flip-flopping when it occurs. Let’s look at two putative examples.

  1. Source (WkSt. 9/7/04):

    Wiliam Kristol, who has seemingly become a full time flip-flop detector, finds the following “flip-flop” (though he does not call it by this name).

  2. JOHN KERRY said yesterday that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Translation: We would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

    Dean also said, “The difficulties and tragedies we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at the extraordinary cost, so far, of $166 billion.”

    But who challenged Dean immediately? John Kerry. On December 16, at Drake University in Iowa, Kerry asserted that “those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.”

    The first quote contains an obvious “straw man”–a deliberate misconstrual in order to generate the contradiction with the last quote.

    “The wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” would be contradicted by claim such as that it is the “right war” or the “wrong war in the right place” or the “wrong war in the wrong place at the right time.” But, Kristol wants a flip-flop at any cost. So he “translates Kerry’s words into the claim that “we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.”

    The claim might be translated into the claim that “it was not worth the cost to the U.S. to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” But unfortunately if Kerry intended this, he would be perfectly consistent with his earlier claim. The Dean quote makes it quite clear that Kerry probably means this.

    But, Kristol does not let problems like journalistic accuracy thwart him in his pursuit of a flip-flop. In the last quote, Kerry only claims that those who think that capturing or removing Saddam from power does not make us safer are unfit for the presidency.

    To put the relationship between these various quotes clearly. The last quote speaks about an end, the former two question the means to that end. There is no inconsistency and thus no “flip-flop.”

  3. Source (WaPo 09/17/04):
  4. alls Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, of course, he voted to authorize the war. And shortly after the fall of Baghdad he emphatically repeated his approval of the war: “It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him.”

    Of course, the center piece of all the accusations of flip-flopping on Iraq is the perceived contradiction between Kerry’s “vote for the war in 2002 and his recent criticisms of the war. Once again the contradiction between the two takes a little editing work to generate, and rests ultimately on the obfuscation of the relevant aspects of our system of government. With a simple conception of decision making in Washington abetted by a media that is unwilling to instuct its viewers on the nature of our government, it seems to many that Kerry has changed his mind on the Iraq war. The very terms in which the media portrays the vote to authorize the President to use force as a “vote for the war” obscures the basic facts of our government.

    Here is John Kerry in 1991 speaking about the vote to authorize the first George Bush’s first Gulf war.

    75 percent or more of those who will vote for the use of force do not want it to be used, and a significant number will vote for it only becuase they want to prevent the president from being reversed.” (quote from Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury

    Before both wars, in fact, the Presidents Bush and Bush asked for the authority to use force in order to be able to avoid using force. Here’s George Bush the younger on the vote:

    Q Mr. President, how important is it that that resolution give you an authorization of the use of force?

    BUSH: That will be part of the resolution, the authorization to use force. If you want to keep the peace, you’ve got to have the authorization to use force. But it’s — this will be — this is a chance for Congress to indicate support. It’s a chance for Congress to say, we support the administration’s ability to keep the peace. That’s what this is all about. Source (Al Franken’s Blog)

    So, according to Bush in 2002 Kerry’s vote for authorization of the president to use force, was not a “vote for the war” as the pundits claim, it was a vote in support of the “administration’s ability to keep the peace.”

    But once again, if John Kerry was not endorsing an invasion of Iraq, never mind an invasion that lacked any clear strategy for the occupation, then there is no necessary contradiction between his later claim that “it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” These statements are seemingly consistent.

    And as apparently Kerry said at the time (once again from Franken’s blog):

    Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.

Identifying “flip-flops” takes logic: At the root of the question is the identification of contradictory and contrary claims. The real challenge faced by the pundits, however, is obscuring the lack of a contradiction and generating a seeming contradiction, by either deliberately misconstruing the meaning (Kristol and Krauthammer above) or by taking comments out of their context. These pundits know that they must obscure context and intention, never mind nuance, if they are to make the charge of “flip-floppery” stick. We can see that in the first example from William Kristol. There he goes so far as to replace without explanation or justification Kerry’s own words with a straw man translation that allows Kristol to claim “flip-floppery.”

This is not to say that Kerry hasn’t “flip-flopped,” or perhaps better that he hasn’t changed his mind on the issues. There are other examples in Krauthammer’s, and Kristol’s and Kagan’s editorials. Whether these are plausible accusations of “flip-floppery,” or accusations contrived in the author’s enthusiasm to jump on the “flip-flop” bandwagon and at the expense of the rules of logic, I will leave for the reader to consider.