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At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Charles Krauthammer, famed Fox News “all-star,” has died at the age of 68.

Understandably enough, his colleagues have been effusive in their eulogizing of the man who has long been regarded as a sage of the conservative movement.  Even while he lived, and long before he would be diagnosed with the disease that would end his life, no one in the Big Conservative media, even when they disagreed with him (over, say, Donald Trump), would argue with Krauthammer without first qualifying their remarks with assurances that they meant no disrespect to the good doctor.

Krauthammer, doubtless, exemplified some true character excellences.  He was intelligent, certainly, and, unlike many, Krauthammer had a calmness of mind that enabled him to be among the most articulate proponents of the ideas that he shared with his fellow partisans.  Nor is there anyone who can fail to be moved by the determination, indeed, the courage, that a man must possess to become as professionally and personally accomplished as Krauthammer became despite the severe physical obstacles with which life burdened him.

Yet these commendable attributes of his aside, as a well-known commentator, even a commentator who enjoyed the distinction of being a “public intellectual,” Krauthammer had a track record—a record extending back decades—that was less than stellar.

In truth, it was abysmal.

Had Krauthammer’s not been among the more prominent faces of today’s “conservative movement,” then we could safely ignore the hagiographical-type commentary that is now being cranked out on him.  Since things are otherwise, however, the truth must be told.

For starters, Krauthammer self-identified as a Great Society Democrat until as recently as the 1980s.  He wrote for the left-leaning The New Republic and, even after he became a Reaganite, Krauthammer became a weekly columnist, and resident “conservative,” for the left-wing Washington Post.  He retained this position until the illness that would claim his life forced him into retirement in August of 2017.

Yet Krauthammer was no conservative.  Hendrik Hertzberg, with whom Krauthammer worked at The New Republic in the 1980s, once wrote in The New Yorker that when he first met Krauthammer in 1978, the latter was “70 percent Mondale liberal, 30 percent ‘Scoop Jackson’ Democrat”—meaning that he took “a hard line on Israel and relations with the Soviet Union.” Throughout the Reagan years, Krauthammer remained socially and culturally liberal-left while becoming “a full-bore foreign-policy neoconservative.”

In 2009, Hertzberg characterized Krauthammer as “90-10 Republican.”  Hertzberg, himself a man of the left, intended to suggest that his one-time colleague underwent a political-ideological transformation of sorts over the decades.  Perhaps it is precisely because of the constraints of his own ideological blinders that Hertzberg failed to see that his terms of choice for Krauthammer were but different grammatical variations for what essentially amounts to one and the same viewpoint: Krauthammer, remarkably, preserved the ideological identity that he had cemented for himself by the mid-1980s.

In other words, while Krauthammer would adopt the characteristically Republican rhetoric of “limited government,” he exerted his significant influence advocating for one policy after the other—domestic as well as foreign—that exponentially expanded and consolidated the powers and scope of the national government.

In 2002, Krauthammer was appointed by George W. Bush to the President’s Council on Bioethics.  This is a particularly revealing episode in Krauthammer’s career, for it isn’t just that he lent his support to an American president’s historically unprecedented decision to federally fund embryonic stem-cell research; he exhibited either stunning naivety or dishonesty in his argument for this position:

“It is a good idea to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research,” Krauthammer wrote in 2005.  Unlike some, Krauthammer does not think “a zygote or blastocyst,” i.e. the embryo, has “the rights of personhood.”  This research is, however, “a bad idea” unless it is framed within legislation that prohibits the using of “embryos created specifically to be used in research and destroyed.”

Bush’s insistence that stem-cells would be extracted only from those embryos that had been destroyed at the time that he delivered his speech on this matter in 2001 now seemed “arbitrary,” Krauthammer said.  So, it is good that the research will be expanded on embryos that would “be destroyed anyway” (emphasis original).   But this research should not be potentially limitless.

“The real threat to our humanity” is not the destruction of “existing human embryos” of which, “God knows, more than a million” are destroyed annually via abortions and “thousands” of which are left “to die in fertility clinics [.]”  The real threat “is the creation of new human life willfully for the sole purpose of making it a means to someone else’s end—dissecting it for its parts the way we would dissect something with no more moral standing than a mollusk or paramecium.”

Notice, Krauthammer simultaneously denies the personhood, the moral standing, the subject-ness of the unborn embryo while lamenting that the practice to which he’s contributed and for which he’s fought is encouraging the objectification of the unborn by treating it as “a mollusk or paramecium.”  At one and the same moment, Krauthammer acts equally surprised that, once engaged in the practice of funding embryonic stem-cell research (or any other practice), the impulse of the federal government would be anything other than to further entrench itself.

In 2005, Krauthammer called for substantially higher taxes on gasoline so as to encourage “conservation,” as he put it.  “Thank God for $3.50 gasoline,” he wrote. “No blessing has ever come more disguised,” for at this point, “$3.00 seems far less outrageous than, say, a year ago.” This being so, Krauthammer urged the government to take advantage of this “unique but fleeting opportunity to permanently depress demand by locking in higher gasoline prices.” Krauthammer’s solution was simple:

“Put a floor at $3.  Every penny that the price goes under $3 should be recaptured in a federal gas tax so that Americans pay $3 at the pump no matter how low the world price goes.”

The man who favored “limited government” also favored price-controls on gasoline.

In his best-selling 2013 memoir, Things That Matter, Krauthammer articulated once more the foreign policy vision that he first advanced more than a quarter-of-a-century earlier, what he calls “Democratic realism” or “Democratic globalism,” a “value-driven foreign policy” that posits as “the engine of history” what Krauthammer calls “the will to freedom”—which he identifies with “the spread of democracy” around the planet. From this standpoint, America “will support democracy everywhere,” Krauthammer assured audiences, but it “will commit blood and treasure only in places where there is a strategic necessity,” i.e. “places central to the larger war against the existential enemy, the enemy that poses a global mortal threat to freedom” (italics original).

In 1986, Krauthammer’s essay, “The Poverty of Realism,” was published in The New Republic.  The author was blunt, stating that “the end of American foreign policy is not just the security of the United States, but what John F. Kennedy called ‘the success of liberty.’”  Krauthammer didn’t hesitate to explain what he meant by the latter expression. It means, first of all, that the American government must go about the business of “defending the community of democratic nations,” for they are “the repository of the liberal idea.”  Yet it must as well encourage “new liberal policies at the frontier, most especially in the Third World.”

The razing of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union further enflamed Krauthammer’s hopes for planetary Democratic hegemony.  In 1989, the title of his Washington Post article read simply, yet triumphantly: “Democracy Has Won.”  Krauthammer was jubilant, perhaps a bit uncharacteristically so:

“It has occurred to me…that it may not be premature to say that political philosophy is over.  Finished. Solved. The perennial question that has preoccupied every political philosopher since Plato—what is the best form of governance?—has been answered.”

And the answer, of course, is Democracy.  “After a few millennia of trying every form of political system, we close this millennium with the sure knowledge that in liberal, pluralist, capitalist democracy we have found what we have been looking for.”

Yet as far as Krauthammer was concerned, it isn’t just we who have discovered the answer to this perennial question.  “This decade has seen the rest of the world register its agreement that to be modern—to be advanced and humane—is to embrace such Western political values as pluralism, democracy and free markets.”

“Political theory,” Krauthammer continued, or “at least the part concerned with defining the good polity, is finished.  The Western idea of governance has prevailed.”

Krauthammer’s position in 1989, particularly when considered retrospectively three decades later, can only strike all but the truest of his fellow believers as at once hubristic and naïve. Yet there is no evidence that Krauthammer ever abandoned it.  He supported most of the military interventions that the United States government launched over the last 30-plus years.  And he was especially supportive of what has accurately been described as perhaps the biggest strategic blunder in the history of American foreign policy: the Iraq War.

In 2002, Krauthammer wrote that “hawks,” like himself, favor war in Iraq “on the grounds that Saddam Hussein is reckless, tyrannical and instinctively aggressive, and that if he comes into possession of nuclear weapons in addition to the weapons of mass destruction he already has, he is likely to use them or share them with terrorists.”  He continued: “The threat of mass death on a scale never before seen residing in the hands of an unstable madman is intolerable—and must be preempted.”

While acknowledging that the “reformation” and “reconstruction of an alien culture” constitutes a “daunting task,” as well as being “risky” and “arrogant,” Krauthammer insisted that there isn’t “a single, remotely plausible, alternative strategy for attacking the monster behind 9/11.” Yet this monster “is not Osama bin Laden; it is the cauldron of political oppression, religious intolerance, and social ruin in the Arabic-Islamic world—oppression transmuted and deflected by regimes with no legitimacy into virulent, murderous anti-Americanism.”

Only the democratization of the Arab world can defeat Islamic terrorism.  This was Krauthammer’s position.

As for all of the damage that the war visited upon Iraq, Krauthammer remained optimistic: “Once its political and industrial infrastructures are reestablished, Iraq’s potential for rebound, indeed for explosive growth,” would be “unlimited.”

It’s self-evident to all who are remotely aware of the situation today that the reality that’s since unfolded in Iraq is the antithesis of Krauthammer’s forecasts.

Just a few years later, in 2006, Krauthammer sounded surprised to discover that “the modern and democratizing influences” that George W. Bush unleashed on the Arab world via the invasion of Iraq were being met with resistance from “Islamic radicalism.” Although during his speech to the Foreign Policy Research Institute Krauthammer conceded that “the entire enterprise of changing the culture of the Arab world” of which he and his fellow neoconservatives were always the most impassioned supporters was “radical,” “arrogant,” and “risky,” he continued to maintain that “it was also the only idea of any coherence and consistency that anyone has advanced on how to change the underlying conditions that had led to 9/11 and ultimately to prevent the kind of conditions that would lead to a second 9/11.”

Some commentators of an older right persuasion knew in 2002 that invading Iraq for purposes of “regime change” and “Democracy” would end in the disaster that everyone in 2018 recognizes for what it is. Yet these commentators were either ignored, derided, and/or suppressed by Krauthammer and his Big Conservative media fellow travelers.  Krauthammer was indeed correct that the war would be “risky.”

What he never mentioned is that it would be thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (and possibly as many as one million) who paid the costs of this enterprise with their lives.  Of these, at least 175,000 were non-combatant civilians.

Krauthammer never mentioned the 800,000 or so children who were made orphans as the cost for a crusade for the democratization of the Islamic world that still has not ushered in the Promised Land that he envisioned.

Of those who would be forced to shoulder the burdens for his cause Krauthammer did not mention the ancient Iraq Christian communities and communities of other religious minorities who, without the protections afforded them by the secular Hussein, found themselves in the crosshairs of the Islamic jihadists who exploited the vacuum left by the dictator’s forced removal from office.

It hasn’t been until recently, courtesy of the direction of President Donald J. Trump—who, it so happens, Krauthammer opposed—that the Islamic State has suffered defeat in Iraq (although the country itself is far from the utopia of which Krauthammer and his ilk dreamt).

As for Trump, before he actually threw his hat into the political ring, Krauthammer referred to him as “the GOP’s Al Sharpton,” a “provocateur, and clown, unserious.” This was in 2012, when Trump was only toying with the notion of running and when, remarkably, Krauthammer predicted that Haley Barbour would be the most likely GOP candidate to win the primary and general contests that year!

After the first Fox-televised GOP primary debate in 2015, Krauthammer told Megyn Kelly that what audiences witnessed in the billionaire’s stage performance was nothing less than “the collapse of Donald Trump,” whose competitors “left him out in the cold.”

Obviously, Krauthammer couldn’t have been more mistaken.

When Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, although the Illinois senator had authored two books, the first of which had the subtitle, A Story of Race and Inheritance, and although Obama’s associations with radical leftists were by then well-known, Krauthammer, who was among a handful of Beltway Republicans to have dined with Obama, said, shockingly, that it took him five weeks after Obama’s inauguration to realize who Obama was.  Rush Limbaugh was incredulous, claiming on his radio show to have been “shocked” to hear that Krauthammer couldn’t figure out Obama’s ideological and political identity.  Krauthammer defended himself, insisting that Rush had misconstrued his words. “I said that when Obama was elected, it was not clear whether he was a centrist Democrat who would occasionally throw a bone to the left, or if he was a man of the left who would occasionally throw a bone to the center.”

Still, this defense is no defense, for there was enough available on Obama’s background to clarify for all but the willfully blind exactly the man that Obama had always been (and remains).

On April 22, 2003, Krauthammer defended the decision to invade Iraq even though, at this juncture, no weapons of mass destruction had been found.  “Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks.  Come back to me in five months,” Krauthammer said. “If we haven’t found any” by then, he concluded, “we will have a credibility problem.”

With all due respect to the dead, what I’ve been at pains to show here is that much of Krauthammer’s career as a commentator has indeed given rise to a credibility problem.

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