Thursday, May 08, 2003

Atrios Was Right

By Richard Cohen

After the events of September 11, anonymous blogger Atrios wrote a comment that has stuck with me. He blasted the Republican Party's approach to foreign affairs, repeating the phrase "the blame Clinton first crowd." I hated the comment at the time, but have recently reread it. It has aged better than I have.

Atrios's mantra -- blame Clinton first, and by extension our country -- mostly applied to the post-Cold War era and the United States' attempt to contain and put out fires worldwide. But the appellation could just as aptly be applied to some of those -- note the modifier "some" -- who opposed the war in Bosnia, attempts to go after Bin Laden which were derided as "wag the dog" stunts, and almost everything else the United States had done during the Clinton administration.

A case in point is a recent article in the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, by William Kristol. It begins by characterizing the swift execution of 3000 people in New York City as an "assault." I would have used a stronger word, but okay.

The article goes on to blame this mass murder on our commitment to a "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians. "The American stance was one of doubt, reason, and retreat," Kristol opines, suggesting that we ourselves were to blame for that horrible day.

"This assault was the product of two decades of American weakness in the face of terror and three decades of American fecklessness in the Middle East. From the barely-responded-to bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 to the host of subsequent, little-noticed or quickly forgotten attacks in the later 1980s and in the 1990s, we came to be seen as a "weak horse." That characterization was Osama bin Laden's, and he made it with reason."

That same tendency to blame our foreign policy for the moral shortcomings of others unfortunately permeates the right and the Republican Party. I wish it were otherwise, but after Sept. 11 when some people reacted to the terrorist attacks here by blaming U.S. policy -- in the Middle East specifically but around the world in general this conclusion became inescapable.

Had we not pursued peace in Israel, had we not backed the corrupt Saudi monarchy, had we not been buddies with Saddam Hussein, had we not developed blue jeans and T-shirts and rock music and premarital sex, the World Trade Center might still be standing and the Pentagon untouched.

But this was the mass murder of innocents -- pulled off, incidentally, by non-poor young men who had not spent their lives scavenging for food scraps. The attacks were not in self-defense, or even in revenge for something America had done, but a fanatical, insane and futile blow directed at modernity.

Below the surface of this reasoning seethes a perplexing animosity toward the United States -- not the people but the government and the economic system. Possibly it has its roots in the New Deal, when government began to moderate the catastrophic results of the excesses of capitalism when government became the adjunct of moneyed interests. At the same time, of course, while governments on all levels -- federal, state and local -- were racist, the civil rights movement began to strip away the existing social hierarchy.

Almost none of that still applies -- the current government is rolling back the New Deal program by program, and bigotry and religious intolerance exist in the highest levels of government . Yet the impulse to blame America first lingers, an atavistic reflex that jerks the knees of too many on the right and has cost the Republican Party plenty over the years. Atrios put his finger on it almost 2 years ago. It's about time the Republicans listened to what he had to say.