Right Hook

National Review pundits do battle over Bush's Iraq speech; Podhoretz says soldiers like Sivits and England deserve their own torture. Plus: Hitchens tags Michael Moore the ultimate ugly American.

By Mark Follman

Published May 26, 2004 11:16PM (EDT)

After two months of turmoil in Iraq, conservatives' assessment of the Bush White House appears to be in a state of decided disarray. Many on the right have turned sharply critical of the president, while others have toed Bush's do-no-wrong hawkish line without blinking an eye. The infighting seems to mirror the administration's Iraq policy itself, which has often been murky and shot through with contradiction -- from the flip-flopping over de-Baathification in Fallujah, to the bafflingly post hoc decision to raze Saddam's notorious Abu Ghraib prison after its use as a clearinghouse for hardcore U.S. interrogation of Iraqi detainees.

The response from the right to Bush's anticipated Monday night speech on Iraq continued the trend. Blogging on National Review Online's "Corner" forum, various pundits at the right-wing flagship couldn't agree on even a basic theme among themselves.

"Always a help to speak in front of a military audience. Guaranteed cheers," declared NRO editor Kathryn Lopez as the speech got underway at the Army War College at 8pm Eastern. But the upbeat Lopez appeared to have jumped the gun. Several applause-baiting pauses engineered into Bush's speech met with thick silence. By the end, Lopez was a bit less sanguine, even acknowledging the dissent among the not-so-faithful ranks.

"I think he gave a great big-picture outline  But as far as chilling the panic: I don't know. From my informal scan of panicked conservatives today, some of them promised me they weren't going to watch. If they watched, I can't imagine they were too satisfied by the end."

NRO contributor Clifford May was a bit less charitable about the speech from the get-go. "It's a start," he managed, "but only a start. Too often in the past, this administration hasn't understood the importance of repeating a message, elaborating on a message, working a message until it burns its way into the public's mind and imagination."

He probably wasn't thinking of the administration's linking 9/11 to Saddam, a central yet still questionable Bush talking point repeated again prominently on Monday night. But May did find comfort in what he saw as a sort of thorough five-point plan for Iraq.

"Yes, it was reassuring to see the President appearing confident, articulating a plan, going into detail about who, what, when and where. But now he -- and those who claim they work for him -- need to drive the ideas he only sketched out tonight."

But that's not how NRO contributor Jed Babbin saw things. He found troubling contradictions in Bush's speech.

"The president's 'five point' plan to turn Iraq over to free Iraqis is riddled with holes. The first is that the president insisted that the 'turnover' of Iraqi sovereignty would be complete. But how can that be when, as he said, 138,000 American troops will remain there as long as necessary, under American command? If they are not subjected to the law and authority of the new Iraq provisional government, how can they be anything other than an occupation force? Though the 'Coalition Provisional Authority' will cease to exist on June 30, changing the sign over the door but leaving American troops there under American command (the only way they could possibly stay) continues the occupation."

But later, speculating that CPA leader Paul Bremer may soon get booted by the White House, Babbin seemed to contradict his own skepticism about a continued U.S. presence in Iraq.

"By defaulting to U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi months ago, Bush admitted that Bremer wasn't up to the task ... An administration source told me that plans for removing Bremer before the June 30 sovereignty handover are finally in the works. If that happens, the way will be cleared for our newly appointed ambassador, John Negroponte, to play a lesser yet more important role. With Bremer gone, the appointment of the new Iraqi provisional government by Brahimi will actually be more susceptible of American influence. It is vital to maintain that influence to prevent the surrogates of Iran and Syria from pushing Iraq toward the kind of totalitarian theocracy they'd like to see."

Will the libertarian vote sink Bush?
Jacob Levy, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and contributor to the Volokh Conspiracy blog, argues that the Bush campaign is in "bafflingly deep denial" about the threat posed by libertarian swing voters this November. He quotes an unnamed senior campaign advisor as saying Bush is "as strong as Ronald Reagan was in 1984." But Levy sees no favorable comparison -- noting sharp dissent even among Bush's conservative base.

"The 2004 election is going to be much, much closer than the 1984 election was, in all likelihood. That means that even a tiny Libertarian vote total in the low two-hundreds of thousands (which is what Libertarian David Bergland got in 1984, if memory serves) could easily tilt the balance. That is, even if Bush's base were every bit as content as Reagan's was in 1984, Bush isn't as immune to a third-party threat.

"But Bush's base is not as content, and wasn't even before Iraq started going south. Fiscal conservatives in particular are not amused by the fact that spending has risen so much faster under Bush than it did under Clinton. I don't know whether fiscal conservatives will vote Libertarian, stay home, or what. But in an age when a few thousand votes in New Mexico, New Hampshire, and Florida can decide the Presidency, and given the number of ways that different parts of the base are annoyed right now, if the Bush campaign really doesn't think it has to worry about bleeding a few tens of thousands of votes it's nuts. 'As strong as Ronald Reagan was in 1984' describes approximately no aspects of Bush's current position."

How low can you go?
Insta Pundit's Glenn Reynolds agrees with Levy that the Bush camp is in denial about the libertarian threat, adding, "Bush's positions on stem cell research, abortion, etc., are damaging there, and the war's pretty much a wash, with libertarians divided." Reynolds cites his own tepid support for Bush, hinting that if Lieberman or Gephardt had won the Democratic nomination he might even have voted for one of them instead. Either way, he says the swing vote could also be lost to a severe case of election-year ennui.

"This election is looking like a World Series between the Red Sox and the Cubs, as each side's fans worry, with some reason, that their guy will blow it. Republicans are afraid that Bush is in trouble, while [Slate pundit] Mickey Kaus continues his 'Dem Panic Watch' feature. There's bad news for both candidates in the latest polls. Bush keeps falling in overall approval, but the voters seem to think less of Kerry as time goes on. It's a bizarre race to the bottom. I've said for a while that this election will probably be decided by the 5% who haven't paid any attention until the week before the election. Judging by these polls, they may be the only ones who show up to vote ..."

Torture the torturers
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Monday, New York Post columnist John Podhoretz berated his right-wing colleagues who have turned critical of the Bush administration for what they see as a chronic bungling of post-invasion policy in Iraq.

"I find the lack of steadiness on the part of some [war hawks] to be intellectually appalling ... Bush said it was going to be hard, and Americans just don't like things that are hard. Hard doesn't just mean that people are dying, it means that the policy is being challenged. Tough times require that people who adopt a position hold firm when things get tough."

"We have nothing to apologize for in Iraq," added Podhoretz, who has also been among the chorus of hard-liners seeking to minimize the Abu Ghraib torture disaster by blaming it solely on its rank-and-file perpetrators -- regardless of mounting evidence that U.S. policy is at the root of the problem. According to nonprofit watchdog Media Matters.org, in several recent New York Post columns Podhoretz referred to the accused soldiers as "white-trash ghouls" and "sadists and thugs" (May 11); "eight dirtbags" (May 14); and "eight psychos in one cellblock in the Abu Ghraib prison [who] pile[d] naked Iraqis on top of one another" (May 19).

But his vivid assessment of the perpetrators appears to be rather at odds with his recommendation as to how they should be punished by their ostensibly upstanding superiors.

"[Abu Ghraib] is not like My Lai. One hundred and twenty nine people didn't die. It's not a wartime atrocity at that level. These were acts of ritual humiliation, and everyone who did it should be photographed in the same positions they put other people in."

Hitchens: Moore is "fat, vulgar, and stupid"
With Michael Moore's new film "Fahrenheit 9/11" taking top honors at Cannes this month, Christopher Hitchens, the Vanity Fair contributor and liberal pundit who opted for a conservative extreme makeover after 9/11, saw fit to trash the filmmaker last week on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC talk show "Scarborough Country." Moore is certainly no stranger to political hyperbole, but he may have a worthy adversary in Hitchens, who took the time to bad-mouth the liberal political group MoveOn.org as well.

"SCARBOROUGH: Michael Moore is a rock star over in France and he wants Americans to buy his new movie. [To audience:] But we got a secret for you. He thinks you're dumb ... Moore is hoping to create a political firestorm in November with his explosive new movie 'Fahrenheit 911.'

"Christopher Hitchens, I want to read you what Michael Moore posted recently on his Web site. He said this -- quote -- 'I oppose the U.N. or anybody else risking their lives of their citizens to extract us from this debacle. The majority of Americans supported this war once it began and sadly that majority must now sacrifice their children until enough blood has been let that maybe, just maybe, God and the Iraqi people will forgive us in the end.'

"Here's a guy, Michael Moore, who is actually saying, let's not internationalize this force because it may save American lives. We need more Americans dying.

"HITCHENS: He's a completely promiscuous opportunist. He's the sort of perfect symbol of the culture and mentality of MoveOn.org and all the other pseudo-pacifists and cynics. And as you've just demonstrated, under the pretense of humanitarianism, he's an extremely callous person. Nobody with any decency could have penned and put up on a screen the words you just read.

"SCARBOROUGH: It's remarkable ... [And] this is what he told the foreign newspaper when he was selling his book overseas. Of Americans, he said -- quote -- 'They are possibly the dumbest people on the planet. We don't know about anything that's happening outside our country. Our stupidity is embarrassing.'"

Scarborough then asked another guest, film critic Jeffrey Lyons, if Moore wasn't "extraordinarily cynical" and hell-bent on selling tons of product. Lyons demurred, noting that he'd wait to see the movie in order to "make up my own mind."

Apparently that's not a requirement for Hitchens, who said the joke is on all the foolish Europeans who have embraced the quintessentially unattractive American filmmaker:

"HITCHENS: But speaking here in my capacity as a polished, sophisticated European as well, it seems to me the laugh here is on the polished, sophisticated Europeans. They think Americans are fat, vulgar, greedy, stupid, ambitious and ignorant and so on. And they've taken as their own, as their representative American, someone who actually embodies all of those qualities."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Christopher Hitchens Michael Moore National Review