The other day my eyes were opened when I read that David Brooks, the influential New York Times columnist who fiercely supported the Iraq war, has been to Israel 12 times because, he says, he was raised with "gooey-eyed" feelings about the Jewish state. Brooks is ordinarily discreet about his religious feelings. But I wondered how this religious investment affected his view of the occupation, which he never mentions, and of the horrifying invasion of Gaza in 08-09.
Today my friend Larry Zuckerman wrote to me:
On January 29, the NPR show "Speaking of Faith" recorded a discussion at Georgetown University between David Brooks and EJ Dionne about the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and his contemporary relevance. The show, which was aired on Feb. 12, is called "Obama's Theologian" because Obama has often cited Niebuhr as inspiration.
I don't know much about Niebuhr but apparently he used the term "morally hazardous action" to describe the things a country like America needs to do to defend freedom (fighting the Nazis) while always keeping in mind that it can get carried away (Vietnam). (Brooks said he used the term without crediting Niebuhr in an early column favoring the invastion of Iraq.)
In the following excerpt, Brooks used the term to justify Israel's incursion into Gaza. Dionne's riposte is also worth noting. The full transcript is here. Excerpt:
Mr. [Michael] Kessler [of Georgetown's Berkley Center]: The next question is about the international arena. "Much of Niebuhr's writings were a reflection on Communism. How do you think he might revise his worldview in the face of the threat of radical Islam?"
Mr. Dionne: I don't agree with that, by the way, with the premise of the question. I mean, Communism was clearly very important to him at a certain stage in the Cold War, but his original Christian realism came out of a fight with the social gospel movement, an argument with the social gospel movement. So while Communism was important in a very important public period in his life, I don't think it was the animating passion. He just was agin it.
Mr. Brooks: I believe in The Irony of American History, he uses a phrase 'akin to Satanic' to describe Communism. Something like that, if I'm not mistaken.
Mr. Dionne: Well, no, he was anti-Communist.
Mr. Brooks: Yeah, he was.
Mr. Dionne: I just don't see it as the dominant …
Mr. Brooks: Well, he's not sort of hedging his bets on that.
Mr. Dionne: No.
Mr. Brooks: And so the question is would he see Islamic extremism as the same thing and, again, I don't know, but I think it's completely consistent. And, in fact, as we were talking about taking morally hazardous action, as E.J. was talking, I was thinking about the Israeli incursion into Gaza, which I think is one of those actions, while horrible in its effect, is one of those morally hazardous but justified actions — justified by the complete evilness of the Hamas leadership. And that's the sort of issue that he takes you into.
Ms. Tippett: How does he take you into that?
Mr. Brooks: Well, you're saying, 'Look, they're bombing schools.' And do you say, 'I will not bomb schools, but I will therefore tolerate Hamas and what Hamas is doing'? Or do you say, 'I need to take action against Hamas. Taking action against Hamas will involve bombing schools'?
Now, I think there is no firm universal rule to apply how you apply that, but this is the vocabulary he supplies you as you're wrestling with that question.
Mr. Dionne: I could imagine his saying that, but couldn't you also imagine his asking questions such as 'Does this intervention have the effect in the long run of strengthening Hamas, of making the two-state solution even more difficult, of weakening Fatah?' I mean, I could imagine his kind of analysis being complicated in that way and raising questions about the intervention. Again, I have no clue as to …
Mr. Brooks: Right. But I mentioned that satanic about the Soviet Union because he does introduce the idea there are some foes, which are uniquely and totally hostile to you in moral value.
Mr. Dionne: But he was against the Vietnam War.
Mr. Brooks: Right. Right.
Mr. Dionne: And so, again, he was anti-Communist, but believed that that war was wrong and counter-productive.
Mr. Brooks: Right.
Mr. Brooks: So that's kind of Niebuhr …
Ms. Tippett: He looks closely at the particular circumstances of each crisis.
Mr. Brooks: Yeah.
To me, it is a fascinating question because if you are not a pacifist, which Niebuhr was until World War II
(and I am not), you have to decide when violence is justified and how
much. But even in the face of pure evil, all violence is not justified.
Stalin was evil. Should we have nuked the Soviet Union? I think not. Yet I think the first nuke on Japan
was probably justified. (It saved a lot of lives on both sides,
including probably my Dad's.) I am not sure the Nagasaki bomb was
Brooks, whom I admire in many ways, is way off here. The means
used by the Israelis in no way justified the ends, which is why there
has been such an outcry. To me it comes down to the fundamental issue
with die-hard supporters of Israel.
They see Israel as under existential threat at this very moment. Yet
the reality is that Israel is probably at the apex of its power and its
present course is a threat to its continued existence.
But Brooks also believes in "American exceptionalism," which I think has caused our country and the world grievous harm.
The lesson of Iraq coalition government is that terrorism of the
non-al-Qaeda variety (and maybe that one too) is overcome through political solutions. Brooks's belief in the satanic character of Hamas elides many
Many of the people of Gaza are there because of '48. Ashkelon had
an Arab name once. It is no wonder there's been a cycle of violence there. Gaza is blockaded on all sides; when Egypt blockaded Israel at one port, Israel launched the '67 war.
Continued justification by American opinion-makers of the bombing of Arabs' schools will only enmesh my
country, the U.S., in further toxic violence.
I believe there's a religious character to Brooks's delusion here. His "gooey-eyed" narrative is the one that most American Jews accept. There appears to be no effort to interrogate that narrative, even after he's justified a tragic war. (Maybe that's why.)