In the lion's den

America's highest-powered conservatives invited me to their posh weekend retreat, expecting me to bash the left. I'm afraid I wasn't a very good guest.

Published November 19, 2003 12:34AM (EST)

The roomful of Republican activists booed when I said that George Bush was the most dishonest president in living memory, but otherwise my conservative hosts at Restoration Weekend were quite cordial. David Horowitz, the radical leftist turned radical rightist, invited me to his ritzy confab, held at Palm Beach's posh Breakers resort, to speak on a Sunday morning panel about the antiwar movement. I agreed to go in order to eavesdrop on the conservative elite and see what they were thinking as their dream of a new Middle East withers in Iraq's growing violence. For two days, I skulked around a crowd that included House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, ultra-right strategist Grover Norquist, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris of Florida, and neocon ideologue Daniel Pipes.

Here is what I learned: The self-regarding humanitarianism that the right wrapped itself in before the war with Iraq is beginning to fray and chafe. At Restoration Weekend there was anxiety about the postwar situation, and anger. Senators and congressional representatives avowed their faith that Bush's fabled steadfastness made victory assured in Iraq, a stance they struggled to reconcile with the White House's recently announced decision to expedite the transfer of power to Iraqis and scale back the occupation by election season. Meanwhile, the right's intellectuals and activists had largely scrapped talk of democracy. Some suggested that the Iraqis themselves are our enemy, that we owe them nothing. Pipes referenced "The Mouse That Roared," the 1959 film in which a poor country declares war on America, hoping to lose and be rebuilt like Germany and Japan. The implication seemed to be that Iraq is both lucky and greedy.

Meanwhile, those troubled by Bush's decision to cut and run blamed it on Democrats and the liberal media, who through their unfair scrutiny of irrelevancies like Bush's uranium claim and the Valerie Plame affair were sapping the national will. Horowitz accused Salon itself of compromising the country's security by sniping at the commander in chief, repeating the phrase "ideas have consequences," over and over. It wasn't quite clear which ideas he was talking about -- that Bush's case for war was mendacious? That it would be preferable to have a different president? Yet the consequences, he was clear, would be catastrophic.

So why had Horowitz invited someone from such a traitorous publication to his festivities?

The answer likely lies in the right's love of native informants. Horowitz has made a career denouncing his old comrades to his new ones in books including "The Politics of Bad Faith: The Radical Assault on America's Future" and "Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes." His new book, "Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey," is an obsessive catalog of the political sins of liberals including John Judis, Todd Gitlin and Hendrik Hertzberg, but it turns admiring whenever one of his subjects turns on his own side. He devotes an entire essay to a piece democratic socialist Michael Walzer published in Dissent called, "Can There Be a Decent Left?" Walzer's piece bemoaned the left's alienation from the rest of America. Horowitz's piece lauds Walzer's alienation from the left, seeing it as emblematic of Walzer's own essential decency.

Restoration Weekend swarms with influential Republicans, but the star this year was a Democrat, U.S. Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. The reason was clear -- Sen. Miller has, much to the right's delight, decided that the gravest issue facing the country is the perfidy of his own party.

Miller just published a book, "A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat," in which he excoriates fellow Democrats for being out of touch with "America," the right's synonym for "the deep South." He spoke Friday evening, at a black-tie dinner of crab cakes and filet mignon topped with foie gras, after a pianist played a surprisingly lovely composition said to be inspired by a column Peggy Noonan wrote about 9/11. To cheers from an audience including DeLay, former Attorney General Edwin Meese and former CIA chief James Woolsey, Miller praised President Bush and slammed "soft-bellied peaceniks who believe war is pointless and that foreign policy is just some kind of fuzzy social work." Coming from a Democrat, such comments have a special savor, confirming conservative suspicions about their opponents' degeneracy.

So it may have been Horowitz's obsession with Democratic defectors and self-critical leftists that led him to invite me to this year's Restoration Weekend, all expenses paid. After all, I've been consistently critical of the politics and rhetoric of some of the major antiwar groups, especially ANSWER, a Stalinist cult no more concerned with human rights than Dick Cheney is.

I've also disagreed with the call issued by some corners of the left to end the occupation. Reporting on the situation in Iraq, both from here and from Baghdad, has convinced me that if America suddenly pulls out of the country, the Iraqi people are liable to suffer even more than they already have. Thus I've been frustrated to hear the left demand that Bush bring the troops home. It's a demand that, ironically, the administration is about to meet, having just announced a plan to end the official occupation in June and reduce troop strength by about 25,000.

Yet if my reporting has been critical of the hard left, it wasn't meant as fodder for the right, which is why Horowitz's invitation made me uneasy. One reason I've focused on ANSWER is that I believe they help the right discredit the millions of citizens who oppose Bush because they hate what he's doing to America, not because they hate America itself. I had little desire, then, to stand before a roomful of powerful conservatives and offer them tales of leftist degeneracy.

Yet I went anyway, because I hate to miss a chance to see what the right is up to.

It was a weekend full of bad news about the Middle East -- there was the synagogue bombing in Turkey and the helicopter crash in Mosul. In the face of all the chaos and carnage, many attendees had given up on the idea of democracy in Iraq, even as they sang encomiums to George Bush for his democratic vision. There was, in fact, a strange disconnect. When I suggested that Bush's rhetoric was insincere, the audience hissed. But when asked about the feasibility of his vision, many attendees seemed incredulous that anyone would take the idea of Middle Eastern democracy seriously.

In a column this week, conservative writer and talk-show host Armstrong Williams wrote: "The administration's decision to depose Saddam Hussein represents the first meaningful step in 50 years of attacking the basic problem of hopelessness, tyranny and poverty in that region. This historic step will make democratic reform possible."

Williams chose his words carefully, because while he may believe in democratic reform, he's dismissive of the idea that democracy itself can work in Iraq. Sitting on a panel called "The Media and the War," Williams spoke of Muslims' knack for being wrong about everything. "I can't think of one time when we've had a Muslim on the air, when we asked deep, penetrating questions, where they're on the right side," he said. "You find me a Muslim who, if you ask the right question, they'll come out on the right side of the issue. You can't find them."

After the panel I asked Williams how this Muslim failing bodes for democracy in Iraq. He snorted. "That's a pipe dream," he said, laughing. "Democracy in Iraq?" he repeated, as if he'd never heard anything so preposterous. Noting that the country had never been democratic before, he asked, "What makes you think it's going to work now?"

Many Weekenders shared Williams' doubts. Introducing a panel called "The Iraq Battlefield Now," moderator Kayne Robinson, former chairman of Iowa's Republican Party, indicated that he's stopped believing the administration line. "The premise that people would want passionately to be rescued is of course in question," he said. In fighting the Iraq insurgency, "We're going to kill a lot of Iraqis and restrict their movement. We may well become a guerrilla-manufacturing machine."

"If the war causes the loss of the presidency and of Congress, where are we then?" asked Robinson. "For many of us, the question is a political one that reaches beyond Iraq."

The members of the panel included U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.; U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.; U.S. Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.; and the controversial pro-Israel scholar Daniel Pipes, whom Bush recently appointed to sit on the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Perhaps constrained by politics, Coleman and Pence offered strings of banalities, euphemisms and professions of faith in the president's faith.

"We have a president who fundamentally understands that this is a battleground between the forces of democracy and terror," said Coleman. "Either we win or the world loses. The president has the fundamental historical understanding of saying we have to stay the course."

He went on to assure the audience that "we're doing what has to be done."

Pence has actually defied Bush's Iraq policy by attempting to convert part of Iraq's aid package into loans. Yet his criticism of the president was so subtle it was almost as if he had been speaking in code. First, he quoted a biblical proverb, saying: "A man putting on his armor should not boast like a man taking his armor off." And then he continued: "I really felt for the president the other day when he lamented that he hadn't planned for the Mission Accomplished banner to appear over his right shoulder."

His argument for forcing Iraqis to pay for their own reconstruction was couched in the language of self-empowerment. "We ought to consider partnering with the people of this oil-rich nation in their own reconstruction," he said. "We ought to ennoble them."

Still, like Coleman, Pence spoke of Bush like an acolyte praising his guru. "The dogged determination reflected by the character of this president will see us through," he said.

Next came Wicker, who was sitting next to Pence and dressed like him in a dark apricot shirt and navy blazer. Like the other two congressman, Wicker made his offering of praise to the president, but then he admitted he was troubled by Saturday's reports that Bush wanted to expedite the transfer of power to the Iraqis. If the reports were true, Wicker said, that was "a major shift."

"Allow me among friends to at least worry about that this morning," he said. "If we leave behind a situation in which the Shiite majority feels it is entitled to wreak vengeance on the Sunni minority, I worry about that."

Later, Woolsey said he shared some of Wicker's worries. "I'm nervous about announcing timetables for drawdown," he said. His solution to the problems now facing Iraq is to revive Iraq's constitutional monarchy and install a member of the Hashemite royal family as the country's king. This, of course, is what the British did in Iraq after World War I. Democracy in the Middle East didn't ensue.

Wicker was followed by the lanky, bearded Pipes, the most impolitic speaker of all. Dressed in a black oxford shirt, with dour eyes and a frown, Pipes dismissed much of what the White House has said about rationale for the war and the occupation. "However popular the uprooting of Saddam Hussein, they do not want us there," said Pipes.

Before the war, Pipes was a proponent of the democracy domino theory. In February, he published a column titled "Why Stop in Iraq: Here's a Chance to Reform the Entire Arab World." In it, he argued with those who suggested that democracy wouldn't work in Iraq, saying, "Japan had about as much affinity for democracy in 1945 as the Arabs do today, yet democracy took hold there ... A US victory in Iraq and the successful rehabilitation of that country will bring liberals out of the woodwork and generally move the region towards democracy."

Now, though, he's contemptuous of the idealistic case for war, the case that wooed some liberals to Bush's side in the first place. "We have no, no moral responsibility to the Iraqi people," he said. "Our moral responsibility is to ourselves. I very much disagree with the name 'Operation Iraqi Freedom.' It should have been 'Operation American Security.'" This met with applause.

"Our goal is not a free Iraq," Pipes continued. "Our goal is an Iraq that does not endanger us." What we need, he says, is a "democratic-minded strongman."

This is exactly the kind of betrayal the war's opponents expected all along. And that's what I spoke about when, on Sunday morning, after a delicious breakfast of fresh raspberries and cranberry bread, I took the stage.

With me on the panel was pugilistic Democratic pollster and strategist Pat Caddell, the only other liberal at Restoration Weekend. Caddell, who'd spent most of the conference sick in his room, has played the native-informant role against Bill Clinton, whom he loathed as intensely as Christopher Hitchens did. Now, though, he had his sights on Bush, and he banged his fist on the table shouting that the war in Iraq had been a "bait-and-switch operation."

Also there was Greg Yardley, an affable young man who has veered from the campus cult of the hard left to the Horowitz cult of the ex-communist right. Like a recovering alcoholic at an AA meeting, he offered his time on the dark side as a cautionary tale before telling the audience about the unsavory communist groups behind the antiwar organizations ANSWER and Not In Our Name. The audience, which appeared to number about 50, included Woolsey and Katherine Harris. Several people took notes as Yardley gave a precise, accurate account of the communist groups' veneration for tyrannies in North Korea and China, their attempts to whitewash the genocides of Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein, and their canny domination of the peace movement.

I was glad Yardley laid out the problems with ANSWER and Not In Our Name so well, because it meant I didn't have to. Instead, I devoted my 10 minutes at the podium to an effort to help some in the audience see the real reasons why millions took to the streets to protest the war.

I'm quoting now from the speech I wrote, which may not actually be the speech I gave, since I improvised as I spoke. There's something strangely exhilarating about standing before your opponents and, after two days of keeping your mouth shut, telling them what you think, though perhaps I could have been more eloquent if I had been less angry.

"Few liberals doubted the righteousness of ridding the world of Saddam," I said. "They doubted the competence of the Bush administration not to make a mess of things. Can you really look at what's happening in Iraq and say they were wrong?"

This, of course, was an obvious mistake, since much of the crowd shouted, "Yes!"

A little thrown, I continued, saying that many liberals would have supported a multilateral war waged on humanitarian grounds. They protested, though, because they "believed that the administration's case for war was dishonest and its plan for occupation dangerous, and I suspect some of you know in your hearts that they were right."

"Groups like ANSWER let you dismiss Bush's opponents as loony nihilists," I said, "but I met many people at antiwar demonstrations who have as much claim to American-ness as anyone at this conference, and they're afraid of where you want to lead this country."

I ended by saying that, because Bush ignored the country's uneasiness about the war, there was now diminishing support for the deteriorating occupation, creating the danger that America will simply give up on Iraq. "If the American people, feeling betrayed, force their country to betray the Iraqis, this war will have won us nothing at all," I said, a line that, surprisingly, was applauded by some of the audience, people who perhaps really believed that this was a war for democracy.

There were questions afterward, and Pat Caddell and I spent the next 45 minutes in an increasingly heated debate with the entire room. As people left, though, I was somewhat stunned to be approached by Katherine Harris, who was gracious in complimenting me and saying she agreed that we must not betray the Iraqis again.

What, then, did she think of the news that Bush planned to end the official occupation next spring? She said it all happened while she was gone and no one had told her. She seemed to want to distance herself from it.

Perhaps she was one of the few who'd actually believed in the glorious promise of democratizing Iraq. Perhaps, Caddell suggested later over lunch, Bush had even believed it himself.

If so, the Iraqis aren't the only people betrayed by those who planned this war.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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George W. Bush Iraq War Tom Delay