By Thane Peterson I recently had the flu and was feeling feverish, a condition that wasn't helped by my decision to read Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism (ReganBooks, $26.95), the new best-seller by Sean Hannity, the conservative Fox TV and radio commentator. As I read, the daily news from Iraq gave the lie to Hannity's sunny assessment that "President Bush's vision for a more peaceful, stable and democratic world is beginning to come true."
Oh, really? The news was all about the armed revolt by Iraqi Sunnis and Shi-ites, the death of five dozen American soldiers in a single week, and the kidnapping and threatened execution of Japanese and other foreign civilians if their governments don't withdraw troops from Iraq. "Chaos Rules in Iraq," summed up the main headline on Saturday in The Scranton Times, the local paper in my politically conservative and patriotic corner of Pennsylvania.
CRUEL RULE. Now come the calls for more American troops to be brought in and martial law imposed in a nation that's supposedly being liberated. Any American who expresses doubts about the war effort will be denounced as unpatriotic. Alternatively, if President Bush really does hand over power to Iraqis on June 30, as he keeps saying he will, warlords could take control, as they have in Afghanistan.
Then Iraqis will be back to the same sort of cruel rule they faced under Saddam Hussein. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand Americans will have died in vain, and American taxpayers will be out $100 billion with very little gain.
How did the U.S. get into this mess? In my opinion, conservative tub-thumpers like Hannity bear a portion of the blame for helping inflame the passions of the American Right. However, democracies end up with the policies and quality of public debate their people deserve. And the fact that millions of Americans are lapping up copies of this and similarly simple-minded and intemperate books isn't a good sign.
US VS. THEM. Deliver Us from Evil is full of name-calling trumped up as intellectual debate, one-sided history lessons designed to deceive the ill-informed, and good old-fashioned war-mongering. Why do so many people read this stuff? My guess is that it's mainly to confirm themselves in their prejudices.
To his credit, Hannity's biases and rhetorical style are revealed from the outset. In his book's title, when he equates liberals with terrorists and despots and calls them (actually, us -- I'm one of those liberals) "evil." The advantage of such black-and-white thinking is that it relieves him of any obligation to listen to his political opponents -- or provide reasoning that is more sound and substantive. (They're evil, so why bother?) The disadvantage of this approach is that it wipes all nuance and doubt out of his arguments, making them worthless as policy prescriptions.
In Hannity's view, things really started to go bad in the world about the time Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1976. The author repeats two basic themes over and over again in the book's 300-plus pages. First, liberals and other "moral relativists" are Neville Chamberlain-style "appeasers" who refuse to acknowledge the existence of "evil" in the world. Second, Presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are courageous leaders unafraid to look evil dictators in the eye and face them down.
By contrast, Democrats like Carter and Bill Clinton "are like weak-willed prosecutors, happy to bargain every capital offense down to a misdemeanor."
UNPLATABLE POLICY. Sustaining these themes requires some fancy footwork. Let's be honest here: Democrats and Republicans alike have done their fair share of appeasing tyrants over the last 30 years. For instance, how does Hannity explain away the fact that both Reagan and President George H. Bush for years supported Saddam, supplying him with money and arms throughout the 1980s? Hard-nosed realpolitiko counter the Soviet Union's incursions in Afghanistan? Nope. Jimmy Carter's appeasing of the Soviet Union during his four years in office locked the U.S. into an unpalatable policy it couldn't shake for a decade, Hannity argues.
He chides Carter for pressuring the Shah of Iran before he was toppled in the 1970s to free political prisoners and observe human-rights conventions. "Carter," Hannity gripes, "also strongly urged the Shah to permit 'free assembly' -- though under circumstances that meant open season for potential insurgents to meet and plot insurrection." Hmm. Now how does that differ from what President Bush has been doing in Iraq?
Oh, by the way, just disregard that damning old photo of Defense SecretaryDonald Rumsfeld (then Reagan's special envoy) shaking hands with Saddam back in 1983 in Baghdad. That wasn't appeasement.
PRAISE FOR REAGAN. On to the first Gulf War: Inconveniently, it was the first President Bush, a Republican, who led the nation into its initial war against Saddam -- and then, inexplicably, let him stay in power. Why didn't Bush get rid of Saddam back in 1991, when he had the dictator on the run? And why did Bush call on Iraqi Kurds to revolt -- and then abandon them to be gassed by the tyrant?
No explanations from Mr. Hannity. He's right when he says Clinton should have done more to destroy al Qaeda in the 1990s, but he ignores the complication that neither congressional Republicans nor the electorate likely would have supported sustained military action.
Hannity similarly ignores the qualitative differences between his two heroes, Reagan and George W. Bush. One of the few points on which I agree with Hannity is that Reagan deserves considerable credit for wearing down the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The difference is that Reagan used peaceful means -- a huge military buildup and the bluff of threatening to build a "Star Wars" type defense system, which would have made the Soviets' offensive missiles obsolete.
OOPS, NEVER MIND. Reagan's few actual military strikes were against the likes of tiny Grenada and toothless Libya, and I suspect he would have been shrewd enough to avoid the potential quagmire of invading Iraq. Arguably, George W.'s campaign in Afghanistan (which I supported) has been Reaganesque, while his invasion of Iraq is pure Lyndon Johnson.
Ultimately, Hannity's book is persuasive only if you don't know the broader context of the events he's writing about. For instance, he lays out the "alarming findings" last year of David Kay, the Bush Administration's weapons inspector, of all the weapons Saddam once tried to develop. But Kay later concluded the weapons had been destroyed and urged President Bush to admit that many of his justifications for going to war were mistaken.
If no weapons of mass destruction have been found, Hannity argues, Saddam must have moved them to another country. Where, I wonder, and what ally could Saddam have trusted with such lethal weapons?
SERVICE FOR ALL. I could go on, but I prefer to try to find some common ground with Hannity. We're both patriots, so let me suggest that he join me in supporting a liberal policy idea (also supported by lefties like Congressman Charles Rangel and Senator Ted Kennedy): From now on, let's never go to war unless we also have a universal military draft. No exemptions -- rich kids, poor kids, the children of Presidents and pundits all would have an equal chance of serving.
It's only fair that everyone share the burden equally. My guess is that liberal "appeasement" (read prudence) would look a lot better to our leaders and pundits if their own families had to carry out their policies. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online