Leon Wieseltier created a stir this week when he floated the idea that Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan’s harsh attacks on Israel may be motivated by anti-Semitism.
For good reason, many argue that Sullivan should not be taken seriously and deserves to be ignored. Yet he still drives political debate on the Internet, and is widely read — even by President Obama.
And so, in an otherwise slow political news week as Washington was crippled by snow, Wieseltier’s verbose essay for the New Republic sparked a round of debate among Sullivan defenders and critics.
The anti-Semitism charge isn’t one to be thrown around lightly and so I’ll set it aside, because all one has to do to make a case against Sullivan is simply to evaluate him on the basis by which he evaluates others.
For instance, in one of his more controversial posts, Sullivan lamented last month that he was “sick” of Israelis and Palestinians. And then he offered this solution: “My own view is moving toward supporting a direct American military imposition of a two-state solution, with NATO troops on the borders of the new states of Palestine and Israel.”
This is clearly an unworkable idea, a fact that should be obvious to anybody with a shred of understanding of the conflict, regardless of ideological inclinations. But if anybody should recognize this, it should be Sullivan himself, who consistently bashes neoconservatives for arrogantly and naively believing that America can use its military might to impose its vision on the world.
Here is Sullivan, in 2008, explaining why he was wrong to support the Iraq War:
I heard and read about ancient Sunni and Shiite divisions, knew of the awful time the British had in running Iraq but had never properly absorbed the lesson. I bought the argument by many neoconservatives that Iraq was one of the more secular and modern of Arab societies, that these divisions were not so deep, that all those pictures of men in suits and mustaches and women in Western clothing were the deeper truth about this rare, modern Arab society; and believed that it could, if we worked at it, be a model for the rest of the Arab Muslim world. I should add I don’t believe that these ancient divides were necessarily as deep as they subsequently became in the chaos that the invasion unleashed. But I greatly under-estimated them — and as someone who liked to think of myself as a conservative, I pathetically failed to appreciate how those divides never truly go away and certainly cannot be abolished by a Western magic wand.
It’s very difficult to square this epiphany — which he claims as a central aspect of his break with modern conservatism — with his rather draconian proposal to have U.S. troops invade Israel in order to impose a two-state solution that neither side has agreed to. He might recall, for instance, that the British had a pretty “awful time” occupying Palestine before the establishment of a Jewish state, and it’s fair to say that the divisions between Israelis and Palestinians are quite deep. And this doesn’t even take into account that the Palestinians themselves are divided between Hamas and Fatah.
Another frequent argument that Sullivan gives for his break with conservatism is President Bush’s reckless spending. Here’s what he wrote in a 2005 column for the Times of London:
President Bush has added $1 trillion (£520 billion) to the national debt in only four years and is proposing to add at least another $2 trillion with his social security reform. With his Medicare prescription drug benefit, about whose massive expense he deceived Congress, he has enacted the biggest new entitlement since Lyndon Johnson. Bush has increased spending on medical care for the poor by 46%. He has doubled education spending in four years; federal housing spending has gone up 86%.
At the time Sullivan wrote that, the largest annual deficit run up by the Bush administration was $412.7 billion in 2004, according to the Congressional Budget Office. By contrast, the lowest deficit Obama expects to run were he to serve two terms is $706 billion, according to the White House’s own budget projections. When the Times column was published, Bush-era spending had never gone above 19.6 percent of gross domestic product, and yet, if Obama were to serve two full terms, outlays would never fall below 22.8 percent of GDP.
While Sullivan may still try to blame Bush for all deficits Obama may incur through 2017, the same logic could be used to absolve any president from any responsibility for anything. Bush, for instance, came into office in the wake of the bursting of the tech bubble, eventually corporate scandals exposing malfeasance originating during the Clinton-era rocked Wall Street, and Bush “inherited” the problem of terrorism that necessitated a defense buildup. But in the real world Bush does deserve blame because instead of responding to the new realities by curtailing his domestic agenda, he continued as if nothing had changed, and put us on a fiscally reckless path that Obama is exacerbating.
Though he once decried the creation of new entitlements, Sullivan has become a tireless advocate for Obamacare, which adds 15 million people to Medicaid programs that are bankrupting the states, while providing subsidies for millions more. Ironically, as the prospects for Obamacare dimmed, the same Sullivan who once criticized Bush for “increased spending on medical care for the poor,” last month condemned the “glee with which the GOP is greeting the end of any access too [sic] health insurance for millions of the working poor…”
Sullivan has also echoed the Obama administration’s line that it’s necessary to pass the health care bill to control costs. In one post he argued that it would be a “huge mistake” to abandon the health care bill, which he called “a necessary start on a critical reform without which we hurtle toward bankruptcy even more quickly.” To give up, he wrote, would be “surrendering to forces that are as proto-fascist as any we have seen in recent times.” He explained: “This is about more than health reform and we have to see it in that context. This is about a cynical nihilist attempt to break this presidency before it has had a chance to do what we elected it to do by a landslide vote.”
Yet the skepticism of Obamacare opponents is rooted in mounting empirical evidence that passing health care legislation as proposed would not actually control costs or help our nation avert bankruptcy. Democrats have relied on a raft of accounting gimmicks that obscure the true costs of the legislation. The Congressional Budget Office noted in December that even if the proposed cuts to Medicare go into effect, they cannot be double counted, meaning that either they can be used to pay for the health care bill, or to extend the solvency of the program, but not both. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — the agency that tracks national health care expenditures — has analyzed both the House and Senate health care bills. The chief actuary found that not only would the bills not contain the growth of health care spending, but each of them would actually raise national expenditures to a higher level than under the currently unsustainable pace. But engaging these empirical arguments would require more thought and study than Sullivan’s prolific writing schedule allows, so instead he lazily heaves ad hominem attacks at his opponents in an effort to delegitimize them. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the kind of rational analysis on which Sullivan supposedly prides himself.
While Sullivan has blasted Rovian tactics meant to divide people against each other, he regularly engages in character assassination against those who disagree with him. If you reach a different conclusion from him, you aren’t just wrong, you’re a “nihilist” or “proto-fascist” or part of the “Goldfarb-Krauthammer wing” of Judaism. Though he regularly attacks the “birther” movement of those who don’t believe Obama is a U.S. citizen, Sullivan himself is a birther — only in his sense the term applies to raising doubts about the maternity of Trig Palin. Like the nutty Obama birthers and all conspiracy theorists, Sullivan still insists he’s merely asking questions that nobody else will.
What’s ironic is that Sullivan portrays himself as an island of sanity in a sea of madness. He’s a writer who claims he wants to have an adult debate over the important issues of the day while regularly resorting to juvenile name calling (Sarah Palin, for instance, was recently called “Coughlin with boobs“).
So, while one can only speculate as to what motivates Sullivan’s views on Israel, even giving him the benefit of the doubt and judging him strictly by his own standards, his daily ratings are philosophically incoherent, intellectually lazy, and increasingly insane.