July 21, 2006


Stabbed in the Back!: The past and future of a right-wing myth (Kevin Baker, 7/14/06, Harper's)

Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

As the United States staggers past the third anniversary of its misadventure in Iraq, the dagger is already poised, the myth is already being perpetuated. To understand just how this strategy is likely to unfold—and why this time it may well fail—we must return to the birth of a legend. [...]

On domestic issues as well as ones of foreign policy, from Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” through George Wallace’s “pointy-headed intellectuals”; from Lee Atwater’s characterization of Democrats as anti-family, anti-life, anti-God, down through the open, deliberate attempts of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to constantly describe opponents in words that made them seem bizarre, deviant, and “out of the mainstream,” the entire vernacular of American politics has been altered since Vietnam. Culture war has become the organizing principle of the right, unalterably convinced as it is that conservatives are an embattled majority, one that must stand ever vigilant against its unnatural enemies—from the “gay agenda,” to the advocates of Darwinism, to the “war against Christmas” last year.

This has become such an ingrained part of the right wing’s belief system that the Bush Administration has now become the first government in our nation’s history to fight a major war without seeking any sort of national solidarity. [...]

Given this state of permanent culture war, it is not surprising that the Bush White House trotted out the stab-in-the-back myth when its Iraq project began to run out of steam early last summer. It was first given a spin, as usual, by the right’s media shock troops, and directed at both Democratic and renegade Republican lawmakers who had dared to criticize either the strategic conduct of the war or our treatment of detainees. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page opined, “Where the terrorists are gaining ground is in Washington, D.C.” and noted that General John Abizaid, of the U.S. Central Command, had said, “When my soldiers say to me and ask me the question whether or not they’ve got support from the American people or not, that worries me. And they’re starting to do that.”

Again, the link was made. Soldiers of the most powerful army in the history of the world would be actively endangered if they even wondered whether the folks at home were questioning their deployment. The right was looking for a target, and it got one when Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), appalled by an FBI report on the prisons for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, compared them to those run by “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings . . . ”

The right’s response was predictably swift and savage. The Power Line blogger Paul Mirengoff commented that the senator “slanders his own country. Normally that kind of slander is uttered only by revolutionaries seeking the violent overthrow of the government.” Rush Limbaugh harrumphed that “Dick Durbin has just identified who the Democrats are in the year 2005, particularly when it comes to American national security and when it comes to the U.S. military. These are the same people that say they support the troops. This is how they do it, huh? They give aid and comfort to the enemy.”

There is far too much nonsense in this essay to debunk all at once, but note that Mr. Baker apparently thinks that the goofier segments of leftist antiwar criticism actually have no impact on the morale of our soldiers and don't get picked up by people who would enjoy doing us harm. Back outside the confines of the Harper's magazine croissant crowd, Saddam Hussein is sounding remarkably like Air America:

Saddam pins war on Bush, pro-Israel lobby (Bassem Mroue, 7/21/06, AP)

Saddam Hussein said in a letter released Friday that President Bush and pro-Israel groups lied to Americans to justify the Iraq war, and he added that Iran "and its agents" helped facilitate the aggression.

Saddam also urged Americans to "save your country and leave Iraq" in a letter written in prison to the American people and released by his lawyers in Jordan.

"I see that officials of your administration are still lying to you and they still do not give you a true explanation for the reasons that motivated them to rush on the road of aggression against Iraq," Saddam wrote.

Saddam said seven years of U.N. inspections failed to find evidence that Iraq was still trying to build weapons of mass destruction.

"They also exploited the so-called war on terrorism which prevailed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks" to claim a link between Iraq and al-Qaida, Saddam said. [...]

He said the loss of prestige was due to the "reckless behavior of your government, pushed by Zionism and influential centers of power which led to the commission of these crimes and scandals in order to attain certain interests which do not include the interest of the American people."

Saddam said most Americans could not question U.S. strategy before the war began because "the Zionist people within the (pro-Israel) lobby that was pushing for war" was "deceiving you so you were confused and lost the ability to see the truth as it was."

Now, Saddam said the American people must decide whether to "allow the killing machine to continue grinding the flesh of both the Iraqis and the Americans" or to act "decisively to stop it."

Replace "Zionism" with the typical autopilot ranting about neocons, and you're all set.

Posted by Matt Murphy at July 21, 2006 7:28 PM

Harper's is still extant?

Posted by: erp at July 22, 2006 7:57 AM

Howard Dean could have boiled down Baker's lengthy screed against Bush, Republicans and the right in general to a simple "YAARRGGGH!" and saved Harper's a lot of space for more profitable advertising.

Posted by: John at July 22, 2006 9:48 AM

I read the whole thing, closely, to see how the writer was going to handle the real stab in the back--Vietnam. We all know that the war had been won, largely through air power, and the victory handed to the Communists by our November Criminals after Watergate.

It is more than a legend.

It turns out that when it comes to the real stab in the back, Baker says almost nothing. The piece goes on an on about Yalta and about who lost China, and gives only a few short lines about Vietnam. This tacit admission betrays the writer's recognition of the Vietnam Dolchstoss which in turn tells us that the article was written to deflect the judgement of history on another betrayal.

The parallels to Iraq are numerous and strong. South Vietnam had any number of "combat-ready batallions," but not the combined arms force it needed when North Vietnam invaded with more tanks than Hitler used to invade France.

Were we to "withdraw" or "pull out" or "exit" from Iraq, the embassy roof scene would be duplicated and a new set of November Criminals will have thrust the dagger again.

Not this time. Israel is not Cambodia, there is no draft to put cowardice in service of treason, and behold, all things are made new.

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 22, 2006 12:47 PM

I was going to post a comment about this article yesterday but, as many of you may have noticed, comments seem to have temporarily gone down due to a server change here at Brothers Judd.

I should note that although Mr. Baker's article was published online on July 14, 2006, the article includes a note explaining that it was apparently first published in the June 2006 issue of Harper's.

Also, sorry about all the question marks in place of quotation marks. I hope that was because of the server change and not anything else.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 22, 2006 3:57 PM

By the way, the article itself (as opposed to the excerpt posted here) actually has quotation marks instead of question marks. Click the link and read the actual article if the question marks irritate you.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 22, 2006 4:00 PM