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Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Deliver Me From Hannity

As I wrote last week, I took out a copy of Sean Hannity's #1 New York Times bestseller Deliver Us From Evil at the library in order to educate myself in the right-wing's way of thinking these days. I knew the reading would be unpleasant for someone of my political persuasion, but I still found myself somewhat stunned at the dishonesty and the mean-spiritedness of Hannity's partisan screed, in which he does nothing short of call Democrats appeasers who are on the side of America's enemies. I thought Bush and his backers wanted to "change the tone" of political discourse--they just keep changing it for the worse.

I thought of simply mocking Hannity's book--and I'll get to some of that--though in light of its frightening popularity, I have decided to do a bit of substantive refutation of the vile demagoguery Hannity presents on its pages. (This approach also leaves behind a longer post for visitors to chew on while I am away for the next four days.) As it turns out, I was simultaneously reading Richard Holbrooke's To End a War this past week, which discusses the cessation of hostilities in Bosnia, and that book provided a useful counterpoint to Hannity's arguments, since Hannity ignores the Balkans, the perfect case study that disproves much of what he would have us believe about US foreign policy. Furthermore, Holbrooke is a potential secretary of state in a Kerry administration, so he gives a much more accurate picture of the worldview such an administration would apply to policy making, rather than the twisted caricature that Hannity presents of Democrats.

To begin, though, let's jump to the crux of Hannity's case. "Deliver us from evil" is taken from the Lord's Prayer, of course, and Hannity is a big fan of George W. Bush because he applies his Christianity in how he sees the world (bashing religion, which I could do here, is another essay). Bush, writes Hannity, recognizes that there is evil in the world, and he wants to use the powers of the US to give everyone their God-given freedom. The Democrats, by contrast, are a bunch of irreligious moral relativists who don't understand evil, instead trying to make excuses for tyrants and terrorists, appeasing them and standing in the way of taking action against them. Hannity has a cute take on the November election too:

And regardless of which candidate stands for the Democratic Party in November, America must realize that the candidate who opposes George Bush will be the candidate of appeasement. He will be standing for the party of Jimmy Carter, of Bill Clinton--for the party of moral relativism, of toleration and hesitation in the face of threats at home and abroad. Our nation cannot afford another Carter, another Clinton. (24)

Many people blogged that the recent unpleasantness in Spain, in which Spanish voters were accused by right-wingers of appeasing the terrorists in voting out the PP, was just a dry run for the US in November. This disturbing passage shows that they were right on the money.

This Hannity worldview is all laid out in chapter one, "Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism." This follows the quick preface, "In the Spider Hole," in which Hannity gloats over the capture of Saddam Hussein and Democrats' reactions (the Dean quote about the US not being safer, etc.--the book seems to have been written before Dean imploded in Iowa). Chapter two, "Evil on the Record: The Holocaust," catalogues the atrocities of the Nazi regime, as if some people didn't understand that the Nazis were really bad already. Chapter three, "Fighting Communism: The Reagan Way," serves up the usual conservative version of Cold War history with Ronald Reagan as victor ("Ronald Reagan, the twentieth century's greatest president..." (21) is one of the more vomit-inducing lines). Chapter four, "Iraq I: War and Appeasement," blames Jimmy Carter's mishandling of Iran for all that has subsequently happened in Iraq, which seems a bit of a stretch.

In the second half of the book, Hannity moves on to the latest campaign against Iraq, and then he spends chapters trashing the Clintons ("Hillary and Bill Clinton," as if they were co-presidents--the wingers' obsession with Hillary lives on), Senate Democrats and the Democratic candidates for president.

The obvious criticism of Hannity is that he oversimplifies things a great deal, as is illustrated by a telling passage from the opening of chapter five:

The more I experience being a parent, the more I understand why little children like traditional fairy tales. Even as an adult, I love them. They may be "stories," but they deal with the basic truths of life--things like courage and fear, hope and despair, loyalty and betrayal. We adults aren't always so in touch with these truths; we're more likely to rationalize them away. We can turn a lie into an "opinion," or cowardice into "reasonable caution," or betrayal into "the only sensible thing to do given the circumstances." Our vision seems to have been blurred by the pervasive cloudiness of morality in our culture. But sometimes it's important that we step back, stop overcomplicating things, and see clearly the truth in the experiences we share. As hard as it is for liberals to grasp, there are black-and-white issues in this world, not just shades of gray. (111-112)

Yes, he compares his foreign policy vision to the world of fairy tales, making it almost too easy for critics to assail him. No one denies that there are evil people in the world, but at the same time, the world is complex. That's why the Bush administration is allied with regimes like those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to take a couple of prominent present-day examples.

This oversimplification criticism is easily fleshed out when we look at Hannity's take on US interventions abroad, especially Hannity's selective citation of the relevant evidence so that it all fits with his pre-determined ideas and his hagiography of Republicans and President Bush. For example, let's turn to page 42, where Hannity is making the case for invading Iraq. He cites two problematic sources on that single page. First, he cites a Jack Kelley article from USA Today on Saddam's prisons, then an article by Stephen F. Hayes from the Weekly Standard about a purported Iraq-Al Qaeda connection. That's this Michael Kelley, the reporter who USA Today canned for fabricating several of his articles, so that puts the colorful description of Saddam's torture chambers into question. The full extent of Kelley's plagiarism did come to light since the book's publication, true, but there were indications a few months ago that Kelley's work was tainted, and neither Hannity nor his editors did anything about the citation to bring this to the reader's attention. The Hayes piece similarly has had its accuracy questioned, for instance by Newsweek. Hannity doesn't bother informing readers that the Weekly Standard article is hardly the air-tight evidence that he presents it as.

Then there's the more basic question of how Sean Hannity came to be such an expert on US foreign policy. As I understand his career, he started out as a radio host in Huntsville, Alabama, before moving on to Atlanta, getting syndicated nationally and becoming a TV star on Fox News. That's all nice, but not a resume that exactly makes him someone with the specialized knowledge that I would trust to be crafting a new world order. His bio on his web site doesn't mention any details about his education or pre-radio professional experience either.

I bring this up because Hannity makes some rather basic errors in discussing geopolitical hotspots. The most glaring is in his discussion of the Rwandan genocide. "This ignited an all-out slaughter of the Tutu minority population by the Hutu majority, which controlled the military," Hannity writes of US policy. (emphasis added, 144) "And while this human catastrophe was occurring, where was the Clinton administration?" (145) The Clinton administration was probably concerned about the massacre of the Tutsis, not the "Tutus," who do not exist. If you can't get the name of the group being massacred correct, you shouldn't be attacking the president for not protecting them. I mean really, anyone who bothers to read anything on Rwanda can get this detail correct, which makes me wonder how much Hannity actually researched on his own and how much he simply regurgitated GOP talking points. Actually, it doesn't, since I think the answer is pretty clear.

This brings me to the amazing coincidence in Hannity's historical "analysis" of US foreign policy that all Republican presidents were wonderful and all Democrats were absolute disasters. One example is chapter four on Iraq, the one that lays all the blame on Jimmy Carter and also goes on and on about Democrats who opposed Gulf War I. While Hannity spends a while discussing the suffering of Kuwaitis under Iraqi occupation, he makes no mention of the Bush I decision to allow the Iraqi people rising up against Saddam to be slaughtered at the end of Gulf War I, or of Bush's decision not to push on to Baghdad to depose Hussein. In chapter two on World War II, Hannity does have kind words for FDR at a few points, but he never mentions that FDR was a Democrat and he gives almost all of the credit for standing up to the Nazis to Churchill anyway.

The worst politicized grandstanding of the whole book has to be chapter eight, "Playing Politics at the Water's Edge," that focuses entirely on a Democratic memo from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The chapter seems to stem entirely from a personal confrontation Hannity has had with Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who, in true Bill O'Reilly style, Hannity claims refuses to come on his shows. On the memo, Hannity writes, "A leak from the SSCI [Senate Select Committee on Intelligence] can literally jeopardize intelligence sources, which in turn can jeopardize lives." (223) Not only is this extrapolating from the memo language to assume there would be leaks--and that they would be so reckless as to endanger intelligence operatives--but also it ignores the obvious parallel to the administration's politically motivated outing of the CIA's Valerie Plame when her husband, Joe Wilson, went public with facts about bogus Iraqi WMD evidence the White House had used.

"On Tuesday, November 4, 2003, I obtained a copy of a memorandum apparently written by a Democratic staff member of the SSCI," Hannity explains, which sounds pretty fishy legally. (219) He tries to contrast this with the legal troubles Republicans have gotten themselves into regarding Judiciary Committee memos. "When Republican staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee were discovered to have stolen a number of confidential Democratic Party files on a computer network... Republicans took the only honorable approach to misdeeds by their own staff members, investigating the case, denouncing the act, and punishing the perpetrators." (234) How is that any different from what Hannity did, stealing a Democratic committee memo and using it for political gain?

This all relates to pre-war intelligence, and on the Iraqi WMDs issue, Hannity is on board with Bush regardless of how things turn out. One astonishing bit of illogic is this passage about the inability to find the weapons Bush claimed Saddam had. "To my mind, the fact that no weapons have yet been found in Iraq only gives me greater cause for concern. Imagine if you were a warden going to check on Hannibal Lecter in his cell, and you found it empty: you wouldn't think 'What a relief! Guess we don't have him to worry about anymore!' would you?" (emphasis in original, 159) This is a convenient "heads-I-win, tails-you-lose" way of seeing things--Bush was right to start the war if we find WMDs, and he was still right if we don't! The Hannibal Lecter analogy is faulty as well, since we did not have that level of certainty about what weaponry Iraq had or where it was.

Hannity does send Hallmark cards to a pair of Democrats, but they're the Dems that real liberals love to hate: Zell Miller and Joe Lieberman. Miller earns a complimentary mention for something he said denouncing his own party, and he's cited as an example that at least some Democrats haven't lost their minds. (176) Lieberman comes up in the "Candidates" chapter in which Hannity dismisses the Democrats running for president one at a time (the timing on the book's release wasn't so intelligent, since they should've realized the primaries would be over by the time it was out). "Personally, I like Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. I do believe he has a strong moral compass, and strong convictions," Hannity begins. "But I don't think he is the right man for the presidency." Why, you ask? Because Lieberman believes in the silly concept of multilateralism! Who needs allies anyway? Verbatim Hannity on why Lieberman shouldn't be president: "Because, like most of the other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Lieberman believes that only the 'internationalization' of our foreign policies can make those policies legitimate." (263)

"We're witnessing an almost unprecedented phenomenon in American history: An entire political party has become unhinged," Hannity writes, again raising the level of civility in our discourse between political parties. (237) He cites Charles Krauthammer on "Bush Derangement Syndrome" and accuses Democrats of "hysteria." (237-38) Screw working with others who disagree with us anyway!

And finally, Hannity ends with a little comedy. "I am no blind supporter of President George W. Bush." (273) I laughed out loud at that one, coming as it did on the last page of a complete book in which Hannity devoted not a single word to criticism of Bush or any other Republican. Trust me, I'm not partisan, he seems to be saying, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Hannity ends as he begins, by equating non-support of Bush to support of America's enemies.

When we go to the polls this November, we are weighing in the balance the course of America in these early years of the twenty-first century: whether it will be guided and protected by a strong and courageous leadership, or become mired in policies of appeasement. (273)

Or will it? Richard Holbrooke is touted as a front-runner for the secretary of state role in a potential John Kerry presidential administration. Will a foreign policy led by a man like Holbrooke involve bowing down to those that threaten our country? Perhaps we can answer this question by taking a brief look at the conclusion to Holbrooke's book, "To End a War."

The circumstances that led to the collapse of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia were so extraordinary that it is difficult to conceive of their recurrence. Yet if history teaches us one thing, it is that history is unpredictable. There will be other Bosnias in our lives, different in every detail but similar in one overriding manner: they will originate in distant and ill-understood places, explode with little warning, and present the rest of the world with difficult choices--choices between risky involvement and potentially costly neglect. But if during the Cold War Washington sometimes seemed too ready to intervene, today America and its allies often seem too willing to ignore problems outside their heartland.

There will be other Bosnias in our lives--areas where early involvement can be decisive, and American leadership will be required. The world's richest nation, one that presumes to great moral authority, cannot simply make worthy appeals to conscience and call on others to carry the burden. The world will look to Washington for more than rhetoric the next time we face a challenge to peace. (emphasis in original, 368-69)

That hardly sounds like a reluctance to confront evil in the world. In fact, Holbrooke tries to explain what happened in the Balkans, writing, "How could adults do such things to their neighbors and former classmates? After a while, the search for explanations failed. One simply had to recognize that there was true evil in the world." (emphasis added, 367) Evil! There's Sean Hannity's favorite word, and it sure as heck looks like Holbrooke recognizes its existence and its relevance to the making of foreign policy.

Hannity also should read Holbrooke because it's a review of the Bosnian strife, the major foreign policy challenge of the Clinton presidency, one that Hannity somehow overlooks in the entirety of his book. Keep in mind, Holbrooke was appointed by Clinton as his point man on this central foreign policy challenge--so much for Clinton being an "appeaser" who was reluctant to tackle such challenges. Holbrooke's account also pokes some holes in the Republicans-can-do-no-wrong argument. For instance, Holbrooke persuasively argues that the Bush I administration let the Balkans problem fester (they were preoccupied with the first Gulf War and the end of the Cold War), and he includes a telling passage from the memoir of the final US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman:

The refusal of the Bush administration to commit American power early was our greatest mistake of the entire Yugoslav crisis. It made an unjust outcome inevitable and wasted the opportunity to save over a hundred thousand lives. (27)

James Baker also revealingly told Bush I of the Yugoslav dissolution "We don't have a dog in this fight." So much for confronting evil when it rears its head abroad. (27)

Hannity's objections to Democrats' questioning of the Iraq War also seem hypocritical in light of Congressional Republicans' antics regarding the deployment of US soldiers in Bosnia. On October 30, 1995, the House of Representatives voted for a non-binding resolution against deploying US troops to Bosnia, and Holbrooke recalls, "Newt Gingrich called the vote 'a referendum on this administration's incapability of convincing anyone to trust them.'" (225) How dare a leader from the opposite party of the president question the administration's use of military power abroad! The pot is most definitely calling the kettle black here.

I wish I had a zinger to end on, but I've already written an obscene amount here (3,000+ words). I realize I'm no genius when it comes to foreign policy; all I've really done is read these books and connect the dots (there are more outrages, too many to discuss them all). Let me just reiterate my dismay at the wide audience Hannity's irrational and insulting views are getting. People on the left need to be ready to face more charges that they are appeasers who want to help America's enemies, so I suggest we all arm ourselves with a grounding in reality, such as the Holbrooke material, to combat this rising tide of foreign policy demagoguery from the right.

UPDATE: This Saletan piece from Slate last year, "Sunshine Patriot: Tom DeLay and the Party of Appeasement" also is relevant. Via Oliver Willis.