Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

Criticizing American Policy: Picking and Choosing What Is Legitimate

By Bryan Keefer (bryan@spinsanity.org)
October 1, 2001

Since the tragedies of September 11, pundits have mounted numerous attacks on the legitimacy of opinions that conflict with their own. One of the most troubling strands of this rhetorical offensive is the assertion that criticism of American foreign policy - specifically America's economic and political policies abroad - is beyond the pale and that making such arguments amounts to blaming America for the terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, some of these same pundits are quite comfortable criticizing aspects of our military policies. They attack dissent as "blaming America first" from one side of their mouth while denouncing past military policy from the other. This blatant hypocrisy, exemplified by Andrew Sullivan and Charles Krauthammer, is nothing less than an attempt to define the terms under which US policy may be criticized.

Dismissing criticism from the left

In some ways, the attacks of September 11 have become a Rorschach blot onto which pundits from both the right and the left have projected their views. On the left a few critics have attempted to equate the recent attacks with American policy abroad. For example, Derrick Z. Jackson, writing in the Boston Globe on September 21, claimed that

Until that imbalance [between Israeli and Palestinian miltary power] is confronted, America is chasing only symptoms, not solutions. No one no longer doubts how dangerous Islamist terrorism is. We might not have had to experience it so horribly here at home, if we had long ago condemned Israeli terrorism, conducted with weapons made here at home.
Jackson's implicit equation of US policy and terrorist attacks is grossly manipulative and unfair. Yet the vast majority of criticism from liberals has been along the lines of Susan Sontag's in the September 24 New Yorker, who called media coverage and political rhetoric "a campaign to infantalize the public." While certainly inflammatory, this type of criticism is perfectly legitimate - Sontag is entitled to her opinion on media coverage of the attacks just as pundits on the right are entitled to their opinions on military matters.

"Blame America first"

Yet Sontag and others have been brutally criticized by other pundits, who have often unfairly distorted their arguments. Jay Nordlinger claimed in the National Review Online that Sontag has "always hated America and the West and freedom and democratic goodness." Charles Krauthammer went even further, claiming that "What Sontag is implying, but does not quite have the courage to say, is that because of these "alliances and actions," such as the bombing of Iraq, we had it coming." Krauthammer concludes his column, "This is no time for obfuscation. Or for agonized relativism. Or, obscenely, for blaming America first."

Herein lies one damaging aspect of recent rhetoric: labeling opposing arguments as "blaming America first" in order to dismiss criticisms of American policy. This label conflates moral and tactical analyses of the attacks, turning criticism of American policy into some sort of moral justification for the recent acts of terror. Sontag's piece does not "blame America" - it is a comment on how Americans have reacted to the attacks. Yet by distorting her argument, then using it as a bludgeon against all those who criticize American foreign policy, Krauthammer and Nordlinger can condemn and dismiss all such criticism as simply "blaming America first."

The phrase "blame America first" (which has a pedigree pre-dating the events of September 11) has been used extensively to discredit critics of American policy. Sean Hannity berated Sara Flounders of the International Action Center with the phrase repeatedly on the Fox News Channel show "Hannity and Colmes" for pointing out that America supported the Afghan rebels when they were fighting the Soviet Union. Also, on the 23rd, Cal Thomas wrote in the Washington Times that the "'blame America first crowd" is "already marshalling their forces, holding meetings out of the sight of cameras and the reach of microphones to plan their war strategy."

Military policy and Clinton's legacy as legitimate targets

Meanwhile, criticism of other aspects of American policy - namely intelligence-gathering, the size and strength of the military, and Clinton's response to terrorism - has been thriving (and rightly so). While this criticism has occasionally gone too far, such as false assertions that the CIA has been unable to recruit spies because its "hands were tied" by the Church Commission, military policy has been implicitly defined as an area in which it's OK to criticize the US.

Yet some of the most vocal critics of America's military policy have also led the charge against criticism of other aspects of American policy. Krauthammer, writing in the Washington Post on September 21, attacked those who he claimed were "blaming America first." Yet in his previous column on September 12, he attacked former President Clinton's anti-terrorism policies: "One of the reasons there are terrorists out there capable and audacious enough to carry out the deadliest attack on the United States in its history is that, while they have declared war on us, we have in the past responded (with the exception of a few useless cruise missile attacks on empty tents in the desert) by issuing subpoenas."

While Krauthammer's criticisms of Clinton are perfectly legitimate, his obvious hypocrisy on the issue of "blaming America" and American policy is not.

Likewise, Andrew Sullivan has been outspoken in both blaming Clinton-era policies and in attacking those who have criticized other aspects of American policy. In a September 23rd op-ed for the London Times, Sullivan attacked Sontag's piece as an example of how some on the left have a "deranged need to blame the United States for everything." Yet in a post on his web site on the 29th, he claimed that

[T]he Clintonites are rattled. They know they bear the bulk of responsibility for this [intelligence failure] - although, of course, not alone. I'm not absolving any of us from some responsibility - including the two Bush administrations, and pundits who didn't sound the alarm loudly enough. But all signs point to the Clinton administration as the major source of responsibility.

Sullivan and Krauthammer can't have it both ways. Attacking the legitimacy of criticism of certain aspects of American policy while openly criticizing other aspects is deceptive and unfair. They must decide whether criticising American policy constitutes "blaming America first" or not - and not attempt to undermine the legitimacy of criticism they don't like.

The need for rational debate

The range of issues and proposals surrounding the events of September 11 that can and should be debated is huge. Criticism of all aspects of American policy is both legitimate and urgently needed to maintain the strength of our democracy - as long as those arguments are made rationally. There is nothing inherently wrong with being either a hawk or a dove about America's response to the World Trade Center tragedies. The danger lies in attacking the legitimacy of the opposing position and defining certain areas of American policy as off-limits to criticism.

Correction 3/6/02 4:35 PM EST: An earlier version of this column included a mischaracterization of an October 15 National Review article by Ramesh Ponnuru as claiming "that criticizing American foreign policy amounted to suggesting that America '[c]url up and die.'" We regret the error.

[Email this to a friend]     [Subscribe to our email list]

Related links:
-If you're not with Michael Kelly, you're pro-terrorist (Bryan Keefer, 9/27)
-Suppressing Dissent at Home, Fighting for Freedom Abroad? (Brendan Nyhan, 9/24)
-Andrew Sullivan's "fifth column" rhetoric (Brendan Nyhan, 9/20)
-Is Rational Discourse Another Casualty of Tuesday's Attacks? (Ben Fritz, 9/17)
-Andrew Sullivan says deceive the public (Brendan Nyhan, 5/7)

Home | Columns | Posts | Topics | Email list | About | Search

This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to letters@spinsanity.org and private questions or comments to feedback@spinsanity.org.