Useful Idiots, THE NEW BOOK BY conservative pundit Mona Charen that criticizes the left for 75 years of misjudgments about communism, takes its title from a phrase supposedly used by Joseph Stalin to characterize Soviet sympathizers in the West. The first big question that presents itself about this book is: Why now? The book contains little that's new; after all, it's not like the right has thought the left has been correct about communism all these years, nor is it the case that communism is about to rear its ugly head. Perhaps Charen merely looked at the titles in Regnery Publishing's expansive "Blame the Liberals" series of best-sellers, and realized that now would be an opportune time to snatch this niche. Charen tries to explain the timing by connecting liberals' errors about the late communist systems with their brand-new-but-familiar errors about Islamism. This happens to be the least convincing part of her argument. However, much of the rest--mysterious timing aside--is for a squishy liberal uncomfortably strong. "One of the most celebrated heroes of American history, Charles Lindbergh, saw his reputation shredded due to his failures to perceive the monumental evil of Nazism," she writes. "Yet American liberals who committed the identical sin vis-a-vis the Communists ... have paid no price in credibility for their appalling judgment."
That's a very good point. It's one most liberals have never come to grips with, one that's wrapped up with their problems formulating policies on defense and military force, which hobbles their ability to offer credible national leadership. Why did liberals so often find themselves giving the benefit of the doubt to a bunch of thugs? Why did we apologize for so much? Why did we excuse so much? Why did we ever think people like Khrushchev or Brezhnev had any credibility at all? In a book that is by Regnery standards pretty gloat-lite, Charen dredges up many examples of liberals who bent over backward to say good things--often transparently stupid good things--about communist regimes. She predictably dredges up quotes from all the lefties who hang like millstones around the necks of progressives, but she adds plenty of Kumbaya-sounding rhetoric from more level-headed types. And frankly, it's embarrassing to read George McGovern's romantic portraits of Castro, I.F. Stone's gooey, vaguely erotic sketch of Che Guevera, Harrison Salisbury's starry-eyed opinions of Yuri Andropov, Chris Dodd's carefully parsed assessments of the Sandanista leadership, and Al Gore's ardent defenses of a nuclear freeze. She has Robert Scheer saying nice things about North Korea, for pete's sake! It makes everybody seem skin-crawlingly naive.
But what Charen has really done is the rhetorical equivalent of showing the world these liberals' driver's license photographs--she's chosen the worst quotes in the worst context and ignored the rest. Obviously people had opinions that turned out to be wrong, and some were wrong a lot. But there are worse things in life than being wrong; a refusal to consider options and alternative approaches is just as serious an error. More to the point, there was substantial bipartisan agreement about American foreign policy since the Second World War. There was vociferous disagreement about policies and approaches, but in the main, both wings of both parties acted on the assumption that the Soviet Union was America's adversary and posed a threat to our security, that communism was antithetical to our system, and that we needed to fund a large defense establishment and deploy forces around the world in order to support those positions. Charen acts as though there was a large liberal faction that wanted us to pull out of NATO or ground the Air Force. That's just not so.
It's also true that Charen makes her case knowing full well how the story turns out. From that exalted position, she is happy to argue that Reagan's hard-line policy toward the Soviet Union and communist expansion was the necessary one to defeat it. Certainly, Reagan's combination of rhetoric and military appropriations helped to undermine the regime. But for all the considerable credit due Reagan, the weakness of the Soviet regime was a factor, as was the policy and personality of Gorbachev. If Charen wants to argue that harder-line policies should have been applied throughout the Cold War, then it seems just as fair to ask whether a Brezhnev--a far bigger thug than Gorbachev--would have reacted to Reagan in the same way. Here's where Charen's argument falters. It's one thing to demand some accountability from liberals, quite another to argue, as Charen does, that liberal positions throughout the Cold War constituted policies of appeasement. Throughout the Cold War, there were a mix of policies that liberals supported: containment, detente, non-proliferation, and arms control. Oddly, a lot of conservatives supported that mix as well. For Charen's arguments to work, Richard "Detente" Nixon would have to be considered a liberal. Thanks, but he's not on our team.
Charen wonders why liberals were so weak on communism when they had been so strong against Nazism. She argues that Nazis were "the perfect enemy for America," bemuse their beliefs were so antithetical to our ideals. "But Communism paid lip service to liberty, and pretended to achieve equality. Communists in America participated in the civil rights movement and seemed on the right side of the conflict in South Africa" She should think a little harder about her observation. Yes, communists were liberals' friends; but more importantly, anti-communists were the liberals' enemies. Most anti-communists were also anti-labor. Most were anti-integration. Most supported a lot of repressive regimes in the name of anti-communism. There are a lot of issues on which anti-communists undermined their own moral authority. Liberals need to come to terms with their mistakes about communism, but conservatives have a lot of laundry to wash as well. I doubt we'll see a Regnery book on that subject, though.
Charen is weakest when she tries to argue that in the same way liberals were wrong about communism, they are wrong about Islamism. She cites a number of things liberals like Michael Moore said after 9/11 that seem to her to be patently stupid. They seem stupid to me, too, but so do things that Jerry Falwell and Ann Coulter said. Among the comments Charen finds objectionable is this one by Norman Mailer: "Americans should reflect on and try to understand why so many people feel a revulsion toward the U.S." Mailer may be a member in good standing of the Blame America First crowd that gives a life purpose to folks like Charen, but it doesn't seem to me that figuring out how American policies contributed to the tangle of problems we're facing puts one in the al Qaeda Booster Club.
Liberals are not apt to read Useful Idiots, and that's too bad; if they were honest, they would use k to critique their own assumptions and proclivities. Of course, if Mona Charen were honest, she would similarly critique her own.
JAMIE MALANOWSKI is a New York writer.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2003|
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