Sullivan's travels

Openly gay pundit Andrew Sullivan maps his transformation from Bush disciple to harsh critic of the administration.

Published October 16, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

Once a fervent supporter of George W. Bush and the "war on terror," Andrew Sullivan, over the past several years, has been one of the president's most passionate detractors. Sullivan, an openly gay Republican, focuses his ire on the debacle in Iraq and the Bush administration's hostility to gay rights, what he sees as a wholesale betrayal of conservatism.

Formerly a New Republic editor, and Salon columnist, Sullivan now writes a popular blog for Time magazine. In his new book, "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It, How to Get It Back," Sullivan writes, "If conservatism had begun as a political philosophy designed to check power, to ensure individual liberty, to protect individuals from lawless government authority, it ended in a dark room, with a defenseless detainee strapped to a board, terrified beyond most of our imagining."

Sullivan recently spoke with Salon about the Mark Foley sex scandal, the betrayal of conservatives, and his checkered past of backing Bush and the Iraq war.

You write that "even to recognize the existence of gay citizens was too much for the fundamentalists." Now that the Foley scandal has forced them to recognize openly not just that gay citizens exist, but that they're at high levels of the Republican Party, how does that affect the Republicans?

Well, there have always been gays at high levels in the party. Many of them started before the Republican Party got quite this bad, and I find the temptation to demonize all of them a little much of a broad brush, because I know -- like anybody knows in Washington -- that some of them are very good people, and they've done their best. But I think the time now is fully over when the closet can operate in Republican politics. And second, I think the time is coming when the possibility of openly gay people serving in the Republican Party is becoming impossible.

But again, we see these separate signs. We now have Mark Dyble being sworn in by Condi Rice as the new global AIDS coordinator, with his partner right there, with the families of both men there, and Condi Rice referring to Dyble's partner's mother as his "mother-in-law," and Laura Bush standing between them. Now, at what point can a party that does that also send out fliers in the Bible Belt saying that gay people are trying to ban the Bible and force heterosexuals into gay marriage? There's such a discrepancy between the closeted tolerance of the elite and the naked bigotry of the base that this Foley affair has sort of indirectly outed, that I really think it's becoming an untenable situation for a lot of people in the party.

There are some people who already quit, like Jeff Trandahl a year ago, and other openly gay Republicans I know have quit the administration. As you know, the Log Cabin Republicans did not endorse Bush. It's a horrible end, really, to this attempt to make it work -- and maybe the future will lead to better things -- but right now I don't know how you can be an openly gay person and work for this administration and look at yourself in the mirror every morning.

A fair amount of your book is about Iraq. You continue to blame the Bush administration, and Bush's ideology, for the failures there. Do you believe if we had a different administration in power that the war would have been the right thing to do?

You're asking me a question that obviously can't have an answer, because we can't rerun history and look at it the other way. But I know this: This question that you put your finger on is going to be the critical historical debate. Was this adventure so conceptually flawed that there was no way it could win, or was it so fantastically screwed up in its execution that it was a good idea just wrecked?

I don't want to be wishy-washy about this. I certainly think that the way Rumsfeld and Cheney ran it made it impossible for it to succeed, because they refuse to provide the manpower and resources for what needed to be serious nation-building. I think they essentially sabotaged the war out of their own arrogance, because they'd rather lose a war than concede a point. That's the pettiness of these people.

I don't know why, by the way, the angriest people in this country are not those who opposed the war but those of us who supported it. I mean, we were completely deceived. It never occurred to me that they would not send enough troops to keep the peace or establish order, or, when presented with the evidence that they needed to do so, would simply refuse to entertain the argument. It's still incredible to me. So I'm afraid my answer to you is that I can't know. I think that it's something I'm still struggling with in that sense. I do believe that the case many of us made for the Iraq war -- those of us who didn't have access to inside intelligence -- was made in good faith, based on what we were told. Obviously, I feel differently now. And I feel a deep sense of responsibility for not being more skeptical about the Bush people and what they were telling us before the war. I think I was way too gullible. I wanted, in a time of war, to give the president every benefit of the doubt. I was dumb to do so. And I certainly also feel, as a supporter of the war, extreme anguish about the lives that are currently being lost in that country by innocent people, as well as the horrible betrayal of American values.

All I can do -- part of what this book is about -- it was really prompted partly by my own frustration at the Republican Party, but it was also directed at a criticism of my own certainty before the war. It really shook me, that I had bought hook, line and sinker this entire certain ideology. I realized if I had stuck to my principles I would have been more skeptical, and I regret that. I think, and the only way I can explain that, and it's not excusing it, is the shock of 9/11 and the fear of the unknown. If you look back, it's easy to say that we shouldn't have been afraid of a possible attack with WMDs, but that distorted my judgment. This book is an attempt to atone for that and to ask the deeper questions about why I made the wrong judgment.

There are some critics of you and others who take a similar position to yours that what you're doing now is sort of a cop-out -- that you're only saying, "Well, we would have been right, except for how badly Bush screwed this up." What do you think of that criticism?

I don't think it's a cop-out. I genuinely do believe, for example, that in the war we're in -- and we're in a very serious war, with very serious enemies -- that the critical component is how moderate Muslims, specifically in the Middle East, face down the thugs and extremists who are intimidating them. And that's very difficult to do in closed or authoritarian societies. Therefore I actually still believe that the only way forward, the only real solution to this, is allowing the Muslim silent majority in many of these countries a voice.

The need for a greater democratic change in the Middle East strikes me as real; I haven't in any way changed my fundamental view. It's still absolutely critical to preventing this from getting worse and worse, and I see Iraq -- and saw Iraq -- as the one place where we might have a chance to do that and at the same time get rid of a disgusting dictator. I was concerned that we were very vulnerable, and I think we still are. I don't think it's a cop-out; we made an honest case, in good faith. The case still holds, but the execution of it was so disastrously incompetent.

Still, even then, even if there's incompetence in a war, you hope the leaders will correct it. They will recognize their error and amend it, and I obviously thought that people like Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney were sane people. They were realists, they were pragmatists, they would not sit there and pursue a failed policy, continuously, for three years. I was wrong. Now all I can say is that I endorsed Kerry in 2004, I recognized my error a long time before some other people did, and I've done my best to be honest about it. And on some issues, like, for example, the torture and detainee issues, I think I've done as much as I can to try and expose it, try and correct it.

The book is really an attempt to present a conservatism that wouldn't make the kind of mistakes I made. It's really saying I wish I'd been more consistent with my real beliefs and hadn't been scared into trusting people I wish I hadn't trusted.

Was there a particular moment of realization for you?

Yes -- the first picture I saw from Abu Ghraib. That was the epiphany. If you look at my blog, from the beginning, when they got to Iraq, I was worrying about the troop levels and what was going on with the looting. I was still trying to find justifications and excuses for it, but you can see my unease growing.

As soon as I saw [the Abu Ghraib image], I knew that any person should know this was not a freak thing. This was clearly -- what they were doing, they were doing with the knowledge of higher-ups. To see America becoming that was so enraging.

You can forgive people for making strategic or tactical errors -- we all make them -- but what you can't forgive is 1) the refusal to correct those errors, and 2) the commitment of evil and the endorsement of torture that has totally undermined our moral standing in the world and, I don't think, provided us with any more security.

In the opening chapters of your book, you seem to be comparing Christian conservatism to Islamic fundamentalism. Are you concerned at all about the reaction to that?

Well, I would be if I didn't have three pages in the book specifically explaining that there is a huge difference between people whose fundamentalist faith makes them want to vote a certain way, and those whose fundamentalist faith makes them want to murder people. That's a very important distinction, which I make at great length in the book.

However, it's also true that the fundamentalist mind-set -- which is that they know best not only for themselves but for you, based on a divine certainty -- is shared, not only between Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists, but also with Jewish fundamentalists -- the people who have occupied the West Bank as a biblical mandate, the people who murdered Yitzhak Rabin on biblical terms, the Jewish fundamentalists who have a strange and creepy alliance with people like Pat Robertson. So in talking about fundamentalism as a [mind-set], I think it would be dishonest to say that only Islam produces it.

Hundreds of years ago, Christianity was much more violent than Islam is today -- and not to recognize that upfront and to see Christianity, to see ourselves, as subject to the same temptations as everyone else on this earth, would be dishonest. I'm not going to be intimidated into not saying that.

Who would you want to see emerge, or who do you think will emerge, from the Republican Party that you'd support in 2008?

Unfortunately, I don't see many leading, viable presidential candidates [with the right] vision. The closest, I think, to understanding the importance of constitutional norms and who actually understands fiscal responsibility is John McCain. Oddly enough -- and I know this will sound scandalous -- I don't think Hillary Clinton is that far off from a sensible, fiscally conservative center. One has to remember, she was a Goldwater girl. I'm not a Libertarian in the sense that I'm still pretty hawkish, and I'd like us to fight an intelligent and a moral and effective war. I'm very nervous about leaving Iraq precipitously, and would like to find a way to adjust and improve and maybe rescue it. So Hillary's also not outside the park in terms of possible individuals there.

I regard the religious right as the great danger to conservatism, as well as to the country, right now. But as you know from everything I've written, I have no sympathy either for the Michael Moore left, and I think that could lose the Democrats a lot of potential allies and supporters.

It's interesting that you mention McCain, because torture has been such a big issue for you, and you were distraught over his capitulation on legislation dealing with the torture issue. How do you reconcile his caving in on that with thinking that he might be the one for you in 2008?

Well, obviously it was a huge blow when he caved. I remember the phone call, because a lot of us involved in this battle were constantly in touch with each other, and we all knew that he was our final bowler. I just remember being at dinner and getting the call and this colleague of mine who'd been involved in the struggle, he said just one word: "Capitulation." And I couldn't believe it. But I'm also not a utopian; I understand you have to deal with the cards you've been dealt. The best gloss I can put on it is that McCain decided that these torture techniques that he'd left at the president's discretion, at least they weren't formally put into law, at least the Geneva Conventions weren't formally breached. Maybe if he gets to be president he could maybe revoke and repeal some of this disgusting power given to the executive.

Look, I can't tell you I'm encouraged. But would you rather have Romney or Brownback or Allen? I think rescuing the Republicans from the fundamentalists and the fiscal big spenders is in the interest of the country as a whole, not just the Republicans. And I think, frankly, McCain is going to be very well set up if the Democrats win the House or the Senate. I think basically the deal was, "You back us on torture, we won't kill your nomination." That's my cynical reading of the situation, anyway.

I think a true conservative will vote Democrat every now and again, because the country needs changes. Power corrupts people. And if a Democrat comes along who seems to be fiscally conservative and socially moderate, like Bill Clinton in '92, I'd be happy to support him.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Iraq Middle East Roy Ashburn