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Krauthammer Syndrome

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Charles Krauthammer, who can be seen most nights on Fox’s Special Report with Bret Bair, qualifies as one of the most significant of the Obama administration’s opponents. Politico’s Ben Smith proclaimed the commentator to be “a coherent, sophisticated and implacable critic of the president” and a “central conservative voice” in the “Age of Obama.” New York Times mainstay David Brooks characterized him as “the most important conservative columnist right now.”

The extraordinary thing about Krauthammer is his commitment to meeting almost every decision and pronouncement of the Obama administration with the same unerring, irked incredulity, night after night. If anything, the stamina required to make pithily negative assessments of virtually everything the President says and does deserves recognition. For many on the left, he is a kind of bête noire. As the novelist Alan Hollinghurst said of a character: ‘There was something so irksome about him that he had a fascination: you longed for him to annoy you again.’

Krauthammer’s approach is not realistic. Firstly, even during the Harding administration there would have been a few weeks, here and there, when even the most dogged critics would have shrugged their shoulders; and more importantly, this sober elder statesman of today’s conservative commentariat has a record of erroneous predictions that stretches back to the turn of the millennium.

When NATO, seeking to prevent another potential Balkan genocide, launched a bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, Krauthammer argued that air strikes would be insufficient to force Milosevic out of Kosovo. Having denounced the move as mere wide-eyed liberal amateurism on the part of President Clinton, Krauthammer added a sarcastic note about Clinton playing golf in the midst of conflict (“The stresses of war, no doubt”). He seems to have changed his mind on the propriety of such stress-relief measures around 2002 or so. Even after the Kosovo campaign proved successful, Krauthammer said that NATO involvement “would sever Kosovo from Serbian control and lead inevitably to an irredentist Kosovar state, unstable and unviable and forced to either join or take over pieces of neighboring countries.” When an ethnic Albanian insurgency arose in Macedonia along its border with UN-administered Kosovo in 2001, he felt himself vindicated, announcing that “the Balkans are on the verge of another explosion,” making several references to Vietnam, and characterizing the continued presence of NATO forces in the region as a “quagmire.” The violence ended within the year, having claimed less than 80 lives. Kosovo has since joined both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; Macedonia is preparing for membership in NATO and the European Union.

Krauthammer was one of the leading boosters of the Iraq war. He argued in his February 1, 2002, Washington Post column that an invasion of Iraq would lead to the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East: “Overthrowing neighbouring radical regimes shows the fragility of dictatorship, challenges the mullahs’ mandate from heaven and thus encourages disaffected Iranians to rise. First, Afghanistan to the east. Next, Iraq to the west”. As the Iraq war got into full swing, Krauthammer ridiculed a New York Times article proposing that coalition forces might have to contend with guerrilla fighters in Iraq. He initially hailed the Iraq conflict as “the Three Week War”; and was sarcastically dismissive when those guerrillas whose existence he had found so improbable actually materialized.When U.S. reconstruction efforts were revealed to be amateurish, Krauthammer concluded a 2003 column with the suggestion that if, “in a year or two we are able to leave behind a stable, friendly government, we will have succeeded. If not, we will have failed. And all the geniuses will be vindicated.”

As the war dragged on, Krauthammer began a process of dissembling about the motivations for the Iraq war: “Our objectives in Iraq were twofold and always simple: Depose Saddam Hussein and replace his murderous regime with a self-sustaining, democratic government,” he said, now leaving the central argument made by the president and by the secretary of state at the U.N. about weapons of mass destruction out of his assessment. A review of Krauthammer’s columns from 2002-2003 shows that he argued consistently that the risk of Saddam acquiring WMD and passing them on to terrorists was the reason for going to war, not the need to create democracy.

4/19/02: “Saddam survived, rearmed, defeated the inspections regime and is now back in the business of building weapons of mass destruction…Time is running short. Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. He is working on nuclear weapons. And he has every incentive to pass them on to terrorists who will use them against us. Given the nature of Hussein’s rule, destroying these weapons requires regime change.”

9/20/02: “The vice president, followed by the administration A Team and echoing the president, argues that we must remove from power an irrational dictator who has a history of aggression and mass murder, is driven by hatred of America and is developing weapons of mass destruction that could kill millions of Americans in a day. The Democrats respond with public skepticism, a raised eyebrow and the charge that the administration has yet to “make the case.” 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.”

In the wake of the invasion, Krauthammer’s tone began to change: 6/13/03: “The inability to find the weapons is indeed troubling, but only because it means that the weapons remain unaccounted for and might be in the wrong hands. The idea that our inability to thus far find the weapons proves that the threat was phony and hyped is simply false.” Later, when the surge was proposed, Krauthammer came out against the idea, explaining in a 2007 column that it “will fail” due to the perfidy and incompetence of the Maliki government. He eventually deemed it a success and criticized those who predicted that it would be a failure. Krauthammer also claimed that President Bush was able to present Barack Obama with a war virtually won and that all Obama had to do was seal the deal.

Regarding Afghanistan, he would initially declare it “an astonishing success” and Karzai a “deeply respected democrat.” As the Afghanistan war dragged on into President Obama’s administration, Krauthammer was asked if the president would end up giving General McChrystal the troops he wanted, or would change the war strategy, Krauthammer replied, “I think he doesn’t and McChrystal resigns.” In reality, Obama did, and McChrystal didn’t.

Thus it is that this most respected of conservative commentators may be the only pundit in the country to have been wrong about every major U.S. foreign policy question of the last decade and a half. When it came to early predictions about the 2008 race, Krauthammer suggested that should Obama run, “he will not win.” In the meantime, he said, the White House would probably go to a Republican, “say, 9/11 veteran Rudy Giuliani.” Krauthammer also warned that the “reflexive anti-war sentiments” of the left “will prove disastrous for the Democrats in the long run – the long run beginning as early as November ‘08.” In the long run, of course, Democrats won.

During Obama’s first term as president, Krauthammer, On the PBS show Inside Washington, predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn the individual mandate provision of the Affordable Care Act: “I think the way it works is in the short run it will be a devastating defeat for the president, because his singular achievement will be shown by the Court to be unconstitutional”. Krauthammer took a phone call from Donald Trump in April of 2011 and somehow came away with the impression that Trump was going to make a genuine run for the White House. Krauthammer’s reasoning was this: “But as a person, I thought more highly of him … because of the gracious way and the calm and courteous way he discussed the issues.”

In the lead up to the 2012 election, Krauthammer speculated, “The fact is I think Romney does win in November, and the reason is it’s a pretty static race now, but it’s not going to be static forever, and the dynamic is the economy is weakening…” On the eve of the election he predicted: “Romney, very close. But he’ll win the popular by I think about half a point, Electoral College probably a very narrow margin.” And for good measure he said: “I have every confidence he’s going to win in Florida, in North Carolina and Virginia”.

After Obama handily won the election, Krauthammer complained darkly about the President asserting himself in the new term. “This is entirely about politics. It’s phase two of the 2012 campaign. The election returned him to office. The fiscal cliff negotiations are designed to break the Republican opposition and grant him political supremacy, something he thinks he earned with his landslide 2.8-point victory margin on Election Day.” Krauthammer’s sneering reference to Obama’s “landslide” overlooks the fact it was a more substantial win than either of George W. Bush’s, and Krauthammer never insisted that Bush practice restraint because of his narrow wins. Instead, he remarked of George W. Bush’s re-election: “The endorsement was resounding. First, his Electoral College victory was solid. He won comfortably. Second, there was the popular vote…If you have already won the electoral vote, it is okay to talk about the popular vote as a kind of adjunct legitimizer. And a 3.5 million vote margin is a serious majority. Knowing he will never again run for office, he is going to attempt several large things, most notably reforming Social Security…” Obama’s near-5-million-vote margin was cause for sneering, and a reason why he shouldn’t push for the things he said he wanted to do during the campaign. Whereas George W. Bush’s 3.5-million-vote margin was “a serious majority”, giving him license to do things he never mentioned during the campaign, like try to privatize Social Security.

When the I.R.S issue surfaced, Krauthammer weighed in with his familiar pattern of melodramatic portent dressed in pithy prognostication: “The fact is you have a committee headed by a Democrat and a Democratic senate who is leading all this who yesterday submitted over 40 questions about the IRS scandal, and said, ‘I have a suspicion there is a lot here we don’t know’. This thing is going to go on and it could be fatal.”

When The Affordable Care Act was struggling early on, it was Krauthammer’s view that the prospect of Obamacare self-destructing and setting American Liberalism back at least a decade, “is more than likely.” Five months later, enrollments surpassed all expectations.

Most recently, Krauthammer castigated the President over the Ukraine situation: ‘The E.U dithers while Obama slumbers’. Krauthammer advocated ‘a serious loan/aid package, say, replacing Moscow’s $15 billion’, and urgent delivery of weapons in case the Russians advanced into Ukraine ‘as far as Kiev’. After this Krauthammerian reprise of hot-headed hawkishness in the guise of sober realpolitik, the Ukrainians had an election, voted in a strong new leader who inked a secure and expansive trade deal with Europe, and is now promising to crack down on the separatist elements in the East, without the U.S having to take any of the aforementioned ‘urgent’ actions.

Charles Krauthammer is an intelligent, Pulitzer Prize winning contributor to civic discourse, but in cleaving too closely to the ideological bent of the network he works for, in the inherently sensationalist, demagogic cable-news sphere, he has squandered his potential to be genuinely above the fray in public affairs. Nevertheless, many on the right perceive him to be preternaturally authoritative, and give a lot of credence to his insights. As Nate Silver has said: “The thing that people associate with expertise, authoritativeness, kind of with a capital ‘A,’ don’t correlate very well with who’s actually good at making predictions.”

Nicholas Sheppard edits the Sheppard Post, where this essay originally appeared.

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