Saturday, February 21, 2009

No Enemy in the Terror War? | 2/20/2009

[Editors' note: Below is an exchange between Jeremy Cameron Young, editor of the Progressive Historians group blog, and the authors of Party of Defeat].

Much Ado About Nothing
by Jeremy Cameron Young

Liberals who dismiss David Horowitz as unworthy of refutation fail to grasp three essential facts about the man: first, that he is a provocateur; second, that he is a very good one; and third, that the fact of his being a provocateur does not, in itself, negate the validity of his arguments. The failure of liberal critics of Horowitz (of whom I am one) to understand these three points leads them to argue against him in exactly the wrong way – by trying to disprove his evidence in minute detail. Show that an intellectual is misrepresenting a few facts, and you've thoroughly discredited him; make the same attack on a provocateur, and you've missed the point entirely. Like any good provocateur – a profession, by the way, with a long and distinguished pedigree – Horowitz's appeal rests not on his ability to out-argue his opponents, but on his skill in making them look foolish. Horowitz possesses a special talent for baffling and frustrating his critics into attacking his methods while avoiding the main thrust of his argument; he can then argue with a straight face that, since they failed to assail his main points, those points must therefore be unassailable. The whole thing makes for excellent political theater, so much so that Horowitz has now produced a standing offer of $500 to any left-wing author who can compose a meaningful critique of the main thesis of his latest book, Party of Defeat, co-authored with Ben Johnson.

In taking up Horowitz's challenge, I am motivated as much by his mass appeal as by monetary concerns. Whether we on the left like it or not, Horowitz speaks for a large segment of the American populace. Party of Defeat sports endorsements by generals, popular television personalities such as Sean Hannity, and eighteen current and former members of Congress. Just because we left-wingers disagree with Horowitz's arguments or question his research methods doesn't give us a right to ignore him, particularly when millions of Americans agree with what he says. In fact, doing so makes us look like the snooty and elitist ivory-tower shut-ins Horowitz claims we are. Instead, Horowitz's readers deserve a serious and substantive response to their views – a standard I hope to meet in the paragraphs that follow.

The central argument of Party of Defeat is fairly straightforward. According to Horowitz and Johnson, a vast network of Islamic groups and Middle Eastern states, including Al-Qaeda and the governments of Iran and Syria, are currently engaged in a fight to the death against the United States and our allies. Beginning with the ascent to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, these jihadists have steadily gained in power and influence throughout the Middle East, all the while perpetrating increasingly deadly attacks on American soldiers and civilians. Meanwhile, Presidents Carter and Clinton either ignored these attacks or mounted ineffectual responses, viewing each outrage as an isolated criminal incident rather than as part of a region-wide holy war on the United States.

Inspired by this delusional view, continue Horowitz and Johnson, Democrats impeded the prosecution of a war on jihadists before 9/11. But the Democrats' greatest perfidy came after the World Trade Center attacks, when they worked actively to defeat a war they themselves had authorized, the war in Iraq. Motivated by political expediency and sporting a radical philosophical outlook that painted America as an imperialist aggressor and the terrorists as freedom fighters, the senior leadership of the Democratic Party mounted a systematic campaign to discredit Bush and the war – or so Horowitz and Johnson charge. Democrats lied about Bush's motivations for going to war, attacked him using faulty and biased evidence, expressed interest in impeaching him, and destroyed critical intelligence programs through illegal media leaks, among other abuses. Their cynical and unjust attacks on a wartime President made it materially more difficult for America to triumph in its ongoing War on Terror.

Much of this is poppycock, in my view, but for the sake of argument I'm willing to grant every bit of it, every last questionable source and hyperbolic claim. Because here's what previous critics of Party of Defeat have missed: even if every single one of Horowitz and Johnson's charges is true – even if every Arab attack on Americans was part of a coordinated campaign to destroy the United States, and even if the Democrats committed every shameful act the book charges them with, and with malice aforethought – the authors' argument is still wrong. Or, more precisely, it doesn't matter.

Why? Because, first of all, the behavior Horowitz and Johnson accuse Democrats of exhibiting is downright tame compared to the acts of American opposition parties in previous wars. It is simply not true that, as the authors claim, "In every previous international conflict, American soldiers went to war backed by a unified political leadership" (p. 94). In fact, history shows that it is more common for American opposition parties to engage in open treason during wartime than to support the government's efforts. The most egregious example occurred during the War of 1812, five

months after a marauding British army had burned down the capital city of Washington, DC. Apparently viewing this outrage as a good thing, the Federalist governments of five New England states sent delegates to the Hartford Convention to advocate support of Great Britain and secession from the Union. Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong even dispatched secret envoys to London to negotiate a separate peace with the British government. Nor is this the only instance of an American opposition party engaging in treason during wartime. During the Civil War, the Democratic Party nominated former Congressman Clement Vallandigham, a Confederate sympathizer who was evading imprisonment on a military conviction for uttering disloyal statements, as the Presidential ticket's candidate for Secretary of War. And during World War I, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, who had received over six percent of the vote in the Presidential election of 1912, was sentenced to ten years in prison for encouraging supporters to resist the military draft.

Compared with such obviously traitorous acts, the alleged behavior for which Horowitz and Johnson castigate today's Democrats is mild stuff. Openly advocating secession, nominating convicted traitors for national office – these are acts of disloyalty worth getting upset about. Whining about the President "cooking the books" on intelligence? Accusing him of lying about the war? Mere child's play.

If Horowitz and Johnson overreact to the Democrats' alleged criticisms of the War on Terror, they also vastly overestimate the threat posed by Islamic jihadists. This part's going to be controversial, but it shouldn't be; again, I'm willing to accept for the sake of argument that every Sunni, Shiite, and secular Arab who's attacked the United States in the past thirty years is part of some vast, coordinated Muslim assault on the United States. Even if that's the case, however, the terrorists aren't nearly as scary as Horowitz and Johnson think they are. "Taking one's enemy seriously," the authors write, "is the first step towards survival in war" (p. 156). Actually, that's not exactly true. One's enemy should be taken only as seriously as his military capability warrants. Of course, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda have made their desire to overthrow the American state clear on a number of occasions, just as Horowitz and Johnson claim they have. But there are hundreds of people wandering the halls of our mental wards and maximum-security prisons who have expressed the same desires, and we don't go to war against them. For instance, "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski wanted to overthrow the American government and even carried out bombings against American technocrats. Should we have plunged America trillions of dollars into debt and mobilized the entire army to hunt him down and arrest him? Of course not – such a response would not have been commensurate to the threat posed.

Granted, Al-Qaeda, which is a network of thousands backed by at least one Middle Eastern government, is a more serious threat than was the Unabomber. But by the same token, it does not pose the kind of threat that would warrant the sort of existential war President Bush launched in the Middle East. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to which 9/11 has frequently and erroneously been compared, was followed in short order by an effort by the Japanese Navy to sail to, attack, and occupy California. Such a conquest, had it not been turned back successfully at the Battle of Midway, could have toppled the American government easily. On the other hand, no terrorist attack has ever brought down a government in the history of the world. 9/11 was a serious act of terrorism that demanded a serious response, and Bush reacted appropriately when he invaded Afghanistan, a country whose government was actively aiding and harboring Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden himself. But it is important to remember that 9/11 represented the high-water mark of Al-Qaeda's ability to inflict damage on American soil, despite their apparently having had thirty years in which to prepare for it. Here Horowitz and Johnson shoot themselves in the foot with their own arguments. They insist that Presidents Carter and Clinton did virtually nothing to thwart the growth of the jihadist movement. But if this is so, then why did Bin Laden not manage to kill half a million Americans, acquire a nuclear or biological weapon, or recruit millions of followers?

The obvious answer is that he could not, because his organization – and, by extension, the entire jihadist movement – constitutes a weak and ineffectual enemy, one capable, from a strategic perspective, of inflicting only minor damage on the United States. This is not to say that the 9/11 attacks, which killed thousands of Americans, were not a terrible tragedy; on the contrary, they were unquestionably so. In the face of this horrific act and the upsetting discovery that Al-Qaeda hated America enough to kill thousands of its civilians, it was natural for ordinary Americans to become deeply fearful of the jihadist threat. But it was the job of the President to look at the broader strategic picture and to calm such irrational fears – to convey to the American people that, while he was doing everything possible to capture the terrorists responsible for 9/11, they should understand that the terrorist attacks did not pose a serious threat to their everyday lives. Instead of fanning the flames of American fear, he should have explained that Americans post-9/11 were in much more danger of being run over by a drunken driver than of dying at the hands of Islamic terrorists. The Democrats' "disloyalty" during wartime was not unusual in American history, and the terrorist enemy was not a significant threat to American security. But Horowitz and Johnson's central claim still stands: did the Democrats' actions materially hinder the conduct of the war? The question in my view is irrelevant, because the definition of "winning" a war has changed so much over the past half-century that "hindering" a war's conduct no longer has the same meaning.

Since Japan's surrender in World War II, the United States has not faced an enemy with both the capability and the desire to seriously threaten America's existence. However, during the Cold War, we did face an opponent, the Soviet Union, with the power to threaten our survival – though the Soviets' desire to use that power was never a matter of certainty. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, no military opponent of the United States has possessed the military strength to defeat the United States, no matter how much they might want to. Put another way, there has never been any question that America could "defeat" Iraq, Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, or any combination of the three. If we chose, we could do so at a stroke by simply blanketing the entire Middle East in nuclear bombs. However, no reasonable person would argue for this alternative, because the political and human costs would be higher than anyone could bear.

Our ability to defeat our jihadist enemies virtually at will makes the War on Terror a fundamentally different war from World War II or any other war the United States has fought. The question is no longer whether we can achieve victory; it is how much victory we are willing to pay for, given the financial, political, and human costs of invading and conquering countries. Given this distinction, Democratic critics of the war have not materially undermined America's ability to defeat the terrorists, since the President could still do so tomorrow with a series of well-placed nuclear strikes.

Instead, they have questioned whether the amount of victory President Bush seeks is worth the cost all Americans will have to pay for it. Their conclusion is that it is not, and that therefore the Iraq War and certain other portions of the War on Terror are no longer worth fighting – an entirely reasonable view, and one that I share. I grant that Congressional Democrats' abrupt change of heart on Iraq was somewhat dishonest, but does it reach the level of treason or near-treason? Not even close.

To sum up, Horowitz and Johnson argue that Democrats committed "unprecedented" acts of disloyalty against a wartime President; I counter that their behavior was on the supportive side of normal when viewed in historical context. Horowitz and Johnson declare that Islamic terror is an existential threat to the United States; I show that, from a strategic perspective, it is merely a moderate annoyance wholly unworthy of the tremendous blood and treasure the Bush administration has expended in fighting it. Horowitz and Johnson claim that the Democrats have contributed materially to America's "defeat" in the War on Terror; I reply that "defeat" is an irrelevant concept, and that the only question was whether victory was worth the cost. Horowitz and Johnson view the War on Terror and the Democrats' response to it as a fundamental betrayal of America; I sigh and mutter that the whole affair is much ado about nothing.

Except it is about something, after all, because the abuses perpetrated against this country by its own government in the name of the near-meaningless War on Terror will have far more lasting significance than will the war itself. Most liberal critics of the war have focused on Bush's sins of commission – his violations of the Geneva Convention, his

depredations against American constitutional liberties, and the like. While I agree that these were grievous errors, they pale before the President's great sin of commission – namely, his complete lack of interest in combating the catastrophic perils our country does face. Though no military power seriously threatens American supremacy today, the natural world continues to deploy fearsome weapons against civilization. Global climate change, epidemics of infectious disease, volcanic eruptions of massive force, the sudden impact of a large asteroid – all these ancient terrors have wiped out whole civilizations in the past, and they may well do so again. Yet the Bush administration has failed utterly to fund programs or forge international alliances for eradicating these threats, preferring instead to spend vast amounts of precious budgetary resources and political capital on costly wars against unimportant Middle Eastern opponents. While Bush has exercised a laser-like focus on the War on Terror, the great problems of our age have gone unsolved, perhaps terminally so. If in the next few decades we learn we are too late to stop a global warming trend that literally plunges millions of people into the sea, or if we prove unable, thanks to international distrust, to mount a global nuclear strike against an incoming asteroid, perhaps Horowitz and Johnson will repent of their wild-eyed fear of a comparatively harmless enemy – and perhaps they will have cause to reconsider which party, in the end, truly constitutes the party of defeat.

Jeremy Young is a doctoral student in modern U.S. history at Indiana University. His op-eds have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Seattle Times, and numerous other newspapers in the United States and abroad. He is a writer for the History News Service and for, a site which he founded in 2006.


David Horowitz and Ben Johnson Respond:

Jeremy Young who calls himself a "progressive historian," begins his reply to Party of Defeat in typical left-wing fashion: by insulting both authors -- pretending that Ben Johnson is either a Horowitz invention or a Horowitz puppet, while Horowitz is merely a provocateur and not someone whose arguments deserve answers. In a feeble attempt to support these slanders Young makes up a few facts and misrepresents others, apparently assuming that no one will notice. He claims, for example, that previous critics made the mistake of attempting to refute the arguments in our book, when of course provocation is really our game. As a result, our critics are said to “argue … in exactly the wrong way – by trying to disprove [Horowitz and Johnson’s] evidence in minute detail." But readers of these exchanges will know that we have shown in painstaking detail that our liberal critics have done the exactly opposite – they have failed to respond to the evidence we have presented or to address the central argument we put forward, to wit: the Democratic leadership betrayed a war they authorized while falsely claiming that they were deceived by presidential lies.

Young seems to think that rather than this the central argument of Party of Defeat is that there is a real threat from Islamic jihadists. Actually this is an assumption of our book, not its argument. Young evidently regards the existence of jihad as “poppycock,” which goes a long way towards explaining why Progressives like him slip so easily into the role of apologists for the terrorists and unilateral disarmers. But it does nothing to address the case we make in Party of Defeat.

Young writes: “Even if every Arab attack on Americans was part of a coordinated campaign to destroy the United States, and even if the Democrats committed every shameful act the book charges them with, and with malice aforethought – the authors’ argument is still wrong. Or, more precisely, it doesn't matter.” It doesn't matter “because, first of all, the behavior Horowitz and Johnson accuse Democrats of exhibiting is downright tame compared to the acts of American opposition parties in previous wars.” In other words, treason (Young’s term) is normal American opposition politics. “History shows that it is more common for American opposition parties to engage in open treason during wartime than to support the government’s efforts.” Lucky a conservative didn’t write this.

For examples of this preposterous claim, Young has to go back to the War of 1812, another round in the war with the mother country, which was fought when it took three months for an enemy armed with muskets to reach American soil. His second example is the American Civil War in which Americans on one side were bound to be traitors. His third is the case of Eugene Debs a fringe socialist who was jailed for opposing World War I. To be fair to Young, he was able to find an isolated sentence in our book which was carelessly written: “In every previous international conflict, American soldiers went to war backed by a unified political leadership.” (p. 94). Elsewhere in our book, however, we were careful to draw a line of demarcation at the Civil War. We concede that Americans were profoundly divided, first over independence in two wars against Great Britain, then over slavery.

In making his second point against our thesis, Young abandons his previous concessions and goes right to the argument that there is no threat. Or at least not one to worry about. According to Young, the jihadists – who include terrorist organizations and armies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia and Indonesia; whose supporters are conservatively estimated at more than 100 million; and who have the political backing of the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and other rogue states in addition to the Islamic states of Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – are to be compared to isolated individuals like the Unabomber. This is not a serious argument.

Young concedes that the removal of the Taliban was a severe blow to al-Qaeda, but he doesn't understand the implication: removing the Taliban from control of Afghanistan removed a large measure of Osama bin Laden’s state protection. Afghanistan is his base. Iraq was al-Zarqawi's base; Lebanon is Hezbollah's base; Gaza is Hamas’s base. The remaining terrorist states continue to kill innocent people, as bin Laden and al-Zarqawi would have done without our War on Terror. When Islamic jihadists secure a national base, a potential 9/11 is waiting to happen.

Such a possibility bores Young, as does engaging the central argument of our book, when he finally gets around to it. "Horowitz and Johnson's central claim still stands: did the Democrats’ actions materially hinder the conduct of the war?” Actually we answered this question in our book. The leftwing press, backed by the Democrats in congress, destroyed three major national security programs, and conducted a psychological warfare campaign describing the United States and its leaders as war criminals, thus depriving our troops of support and our government of international leverage in dealing with other terrorist states such as Iran, Syria and the Palestinian entities. The Democrats tried to impose multipletimetables for withdrawal, legislate unreachable standards of readiness, deprive our soldiers of necessary resources by voting against appropriations for the war, and support a policy that aptly bore the name "Slow Bleed." Young apparently wants to have his argument both ways: treason is normal democratic opposition, and treason is nothing to worry about.

Not surprisingly, it is our government’s efforts to protect its citizens that really raises Young’s ire. He rails against Bush's "violations of the Geneva Convention," though, of course, there were none. Non-combatants -- a fancy term for the Islamic thugs captured on the field of battle -- are not covered by the Geneva Conventions. Similarly, he fumes about "depredations against American constitutional liberties" without specifying any. Here it is Young who needs historical perspective. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, as Young notes just a few words earlier, Woodrow Wilson jailed Eugene Debs; FDR ruthlessly silenced his critics, including threatening to try Fr. Coughlin for sedition. President Bush's prosecution of the war was remarkably restrained, notwithstanding the slanders of his irresponsible critics.

Young advances the myopic view that destroying the enemies of the United States is not worth doing because the average American is "in much more danger of being run over by a drunken driver than of dying at the hands of Islamic terrorists…. The near-meaningless War on Terror" pales in comparison to such vital threats as "Global climate change, epidemics of infectious disease, volcanic eruptions of massive force, the sudden impact of a large asteroid." This is what Young considers "the great problems of our age." In other words, he advises we replace the War on Terror with the War on Tors. All that his list is missing is concern over "the purity of our precious bodily fluids."

[Editors' note: We welcome Jeremy Young to respond to this answer to his critique. And all anti-war critics take note: we are offering $500 to any of you -- who have written for a reputable publication -- to write a critique of Party of Defeat and its main thesis. Contact Frontpage Managing Editor Jamie Glazov at to sign up.]

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