Fear: charges and counter-charges (the only thing we have to fear is...)
I've been a bit puzzled as to why neocons have been accused so often of being motivated by fear in taking the policy positions they do (see this, for example).
When I've written here about the evolution of my own opinions, I don't see fear as predominating, or even as taking an especially active role. In addition, I would wonder about the emotional makeup of any ordinary citizen who didn't have at least a tiny bit of fear after watching the events of 9/11 unfold, or on observing the spectacle of suicide bombers who seem to relish and seek out the murder of women and children.
But now, reading this post at All Things Beautiful, about the lawsuit brought recently by the NY Times against the US Defense Department, in which the newspaper seeks to gain access to documents about the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, I had one of those sudden Eureka moments. Here's the money quote from Alexandra:
As I have always said, the left hates the President far more than it fears al-Qaeda, therefore any arguments of this nature [that the release of the documents threatens national security] will simply be filed as some sort of phobia, with different words attached to it....that is until the next attack.
Concerns about the dangers posed by terrorists, hesitations about the wisdom of press leakage of possibly sensitive security material, all of these must be labeled as unwarranted fears--as Alexandra explains, "as some sort of phobia"--so that they can safely be ignored to pursue a different agenda. And what is that agenda?
It seems to have two interrelated parts. The first is to have a role in bringing down a detested President--and in this, there is precedent. Apparently, the Times is aching to relive its dragon-slayer days (Richard Nixon being the original dragon): the publication of the Pentagon Papers, when the Supreme Court upheld the Time's right to do so despite government claims of national security threats. The aftermath of this lawsuit helped to bring Nixon down--with his own guilty cooperation, of course, since the Watergate burglary was motivated partly by a desire to get the goods on Pentagon Papers leaker Ellsberg (see this).
In 1997, Adam Clymer of the Times wrote, in a review of a new book--The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, by David Rundestine:
The Supreme Court's 6-to-3 decision in the Pentagon Papers case was a monumental victory for The New York Times and The Washington Post and a huge defeat for the Nixon Administration. In practical terms, it meant that the United States Government bears an awesome -- perhaps impossible -- burden before it can censor the press. But the opinion written by Justice William J. Brennan did not tell courts how to weigh that burden, though it made clear that a just claim of injury to the national security is not enough.
So, "a just claim of injury to the national security is not enough." Think about it: what would be enough? How bad an injury to the national security is sufficient to muffle a story, and how certain does this injury have to be?
The Pentagon Papers case marks the point at which the Court set the bar very high in favor of the press and against the government's ability to claim national security as a reason to stifle information. In his Times article, Clymer goes on to dismiss the book's contentions that the Pentagon Papers' publication represented an actual threat to national security. I'd have to do a lot more research on that subject to venture an opinion as to how large a threat was posed; I simply don't know. But the book's author, David Rudenstine, certainly thinks the danger was a bona fide one:
[Author] Mr. Rudenstine, an associate dean at Cardozo Law School of Yeshiva University, has spent years getting access to secret transcripts and briefs. He uses them to make it clear that Government witnesses like Lieut. Gen. Melvin Zais honestly believed that the country could be harmed by further publication... But Mr. Rudenstine's most striking conclusion -- that there were real threats to the nation in the papers -- is debatable....
So Rudenstine came to the "striking" conclusion that the attempt to stifle the Papers' publication was not just a grudge match by Nixon against the press, but motivated (at least in part) by an honest belief that publication would be dangerous--and that this contention has legs.
And who is Rundenstine? Some Republican party hack, a hawkish Nixon-loving neocon? Apparently not, if you study his bio, here (scroll down a little bit and you'll find it). He seems to have typical liberal bona fides, with a background in the ACLU, legal services, and the Peace Corps. And here's another similar bio of Rudenstine, which includes the fact that he is ex-Harvard President Neil Rudenstine's brother.
I would have imagined that if someone such as David Rudenstine had contended that there was a bona fide case to be made by the Nixon White House of an actual possible threat to national security when the Times published the Pentagon Papers, that Clymer would have paid quite a bit more attention to it than he did. As it is, his dismissal of Rundenstine's claim seems perfunctory, at best. It's hard to escape the notion that Clymer's review is a poorly-disguised a case of butt-covering, by the Times, for the Times, and of the Times.
(As a little aside, while researching Adam Clymer for this post, I was reminded that Clymer himself had a subsequent moment in the sun; apparently, he was the Times reporter whom Bush called a "major-league asshole" during the 2000 campaign, to which Cheney responded "big-time.")
So, going back to Alexandra's quoted accusation about leftists--it seems that the NY Times, as well, could be considered to have a history of hating (or fearing?) certain Republican Presidents more than it fears the consequences of its own national security disclosures.
But I mentioned that the "neocons are motivated by fear" accusation has a second (although absolutely related) agenda, and that is fear of the consequences of overreaching by the executive branch of the government. Many conservatives have this fear, too (and libertarians are extraordinarily sensitive to it). But it's a question of at what point each group draws the line between acceptable intrusions and unacceptable ones, and what they might consider justification for those intrusions. National security is far more likely to be considered a justification by conservatives than by liberals or leftists, who have a history of seeming to actively downplay such concerns.
The legacy of Vietnam is that the left has a lingering mindset that considers national security concerns to almost always be mere excuses for government spying. This is the sort of approach that led to the famous CIA/FBI firewall (I discuss the firewall's development here)). The left, and many liberals, seem to feel that the raising of security issues in these situations is almost always bogus--a sort of screen, used by a proto-totalitarian government to cover its own misuse of power, with the goal of getting away with domestic spying on its enemies, and the further consolidation of its own power.
If this is the conception, then national security concerns must be downplayed in almost all cases, and the role of fear as motivation for those concerns exaggerated instead. The fear of many leftists/liberals is a different one: the evil Cheney is going to tap their phones and look up their library history, to be used for his own nefarious purposes. (That's not even too much of an exaggeration: I've had friends express as much to me, and it sure didn't sound as though they were joking.)
There's an interesting cyclical process going on here: the publication of the Pentagon Papers was one of Nixon's motivations for Watergate, which in fact did represent an abuse of power by the executive branch, which led to further checks (such as the firewall) on that power, which in turn hampered the government's capability to conduct surveillance of terrorists, which then was part of the reason 9/11 wasn't prevented, which later led to Bush's decision to implement the so-called "domestic spying program" in question, which has taken us to the present-day lawsuit by the Times to compel the release of the NSA documents.
So, how does this all tie into the accusation that neocons and Bush-supporters are motivated by fear? The accusers cannot afford to concede that there are bona fide national security concerns involved, or their argument would begin to collapse. That collapse might even end up reaching back in time to events such as the Pentagon Papers lawsuit--which could end up at least partially exonerating the evil arch-enemy Nixon (for his attempt to stop their publication, not for Watergate). Thus we have the need for Clymer's airy dismissal of Rudenstine's research about the Pentagon Papers lawsuit. The collapse might also reach back to the famous firewall, and implicate those who erected it in at least partial responsibility for the failure to prevent 9/11.
Another recent post, "Don't Worry, Be Happy...About Iran," by Gerard Van der Leun, touches on some of the same themes, although it concerns a different issue and a different NY Times article. In it, Van der Leun locks formidable horns with Barry R. Posen, the MIT political science professor whose
Dismissing that particular "fear" is quite a stretch, even for the Times. But Posen seems up to the task. And, on reading Posen's article with my newfound insight about the left's need to deflect such fears and label them as unfounded, it's interesting to see how well Posen's article follows the familiar framework.
Van der Leun writes:
On the one hand, the message of [Posen's] essay is "Don't worry. Be happy," while on the other it is the parallel message of "What? Me worry?"
It's true; the "stretch" in this case seems to take Posen close to Alfred E. Newman territory.
And note how often Posen explicitly and implicitly mentions fear in the first paragraphs of the article (emphasis mine):
The intense concern about Iran's nuclear energy program reflects the judgment that, should it turn to the production of weapons, an Iran with nuclear arms would gravely endanger the United States and the world. An Iranian nuclear arsenal, policymakers fear, could touch off a regional arms race while emboldening Tehran to undertake aggressive, even reckless, actions.
But these outcomes are not inevitable, nor are they beyond the capacity of the United States and its allies to defuse. Indeed, while it's seldom a positive thing when a new nuclear power emerges, there is reason to believe that we could readily manage a nuclear Iran.
A Middle Eastern arms race is a frightening thought, but it is improbable...
As Van der Leun points out, the arguments Posen musters for that improbability are not exactly convincing. But Posen, by offering them--and the Times, by printing his article--is following in the time-honored tradition of trying to reassure by downplaying national security concerns. I'm not sure what motivates Posen--perhaps he actually and sincerely believes that he's speaking the truth--but it seems that the risks of believing him and of him being wrong are rather high, unacceptably high. And that's not just fear talking; it's common sense.
If you really want to hear fear talking, you can hear it in the voice of appeasement. This appeasement can be seen most clearly in Western Europe today, although it is not confined to it. It bows down--in the name of "tolerance"--to forces that would weaken freedom of speech and a host of other Enlightenment values so dearly won and highly cherished.
As David Warren points out in his recent column, quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the brave woman born in Somalia but residing in the Netherlands, who's not afraid to speak out and to risk her life in the process (emphasis mine):
Publication of the cartoons confirmed that there is widespread fear among authors, filmmakers, cartoonists, and journalists who wish to describe, analyze or criticize intolerant aspects of Islam all over Europe. It has also revealed the presence of a considerable minority in Europe who do not understand or will not accept the workings of liberal democracy. These people -- many of whom hold European citizenship -- have campaigned for censorship, for boycotts, for violence, and for new laws to ban 'Islamophobia'. … The issue is not about race, colour, or heritage. It is a conflict of ideas, which transcend borders and races.
In this conflict of ideas, we cannot win if we are afraid to defend our own values against those who would seek to destroy them.
Warren adds (my emphasis, once again):
Even after the experience of the Great War, and the Depression, people on the eve of the Hitler war could not appreciate what was coming. It is only in retrospect that we understand what happened as the 1930s progressed -- when a spineless political class, eager at any price to preserve a peace that was no longer available, performed endless demeaning acts of appeasement to the Nazis; while the Nazis created additional grievances to extract more.
This is precisely what is happening now, as we are confronted by the Islamist fanatics, whose views and demands are already being parroted by fearful “mainstream” Muslim politicians. We will do anything to preserve a peace that ceased to exist on 9/11.
Of course, it's not only fear operating--some of the motivation for appeasement is hope (naive and often misplaced, I'm afraid): the conviction that talk, trust, and kindness will prevail, that all people are reasonable and good and don't really have in mind what they say they have.
And then there's another hope, the one Churchill labeled as "feeding the alligator in hopes it will eat you last." At least that hope is a bit more realistic: it recognizes that sometimes you're dealing with an alligator.
Perhaps the whole disagreement between right and left boils down to this one: who are the alligators, and how hungry are they?