Paul Krugman is an important figure in international economics, especially trade theory. He has no expertise in international politics. Unfortunately his regular New York Times column habitually elides the distinction between those disciplines.
Krugman used to employ imaginative simple models in his journalism in order to popularise complex economic ideas. He now specialises in extravagant denunciations of the Bush administration on any issue at any time. The mark of the effective critic is that he never claims more than the evidence will permit. Krugman is a critic for whom the administration's villainy is a given regardless of the evidence, and he is notably unselective in his choice of source – as in this notorious example in the summer:
As The Associated Press put it: "The implication from Bush on down was that Saddam supported Osama bin Laden's network. Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks frequently were mentioned in the same sentence, even though officials have no good evidence of such a link." Not only was there no good evidence: according to The New York Times, captured leaders of Al Qaeda explicitly told the C.I.A. that they had not been working with Saddam.
Well, that settles it then. Presumably Krugman also believes Osama bin Laden had nothing to do with the destruction of the World Trade Centre: after all, didn't the man explicitly deny responsibility?
This type of thing isn’t political commentary in any recognisable sense, but pathology. It has only one actor. Nobody matters but President Bush, and what goes wrong is – by omission or commission – the President’s fault.
Consider Krugman's column today, in which he discusses the antisemitic remarks made last week by the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. To anyone of civilised sentiments, Mahathir's speech was repugnant demagoguery; to Krugman, the villain was – no, really – President Bush:
Not long ago Washington was talking about Malaysia as an important partner in the war on terror. Now Mr. Mahathir thinks that to cover his domestic flank, he must insert hateful words into a speech mainly about Muslim reform. That tells you, more accurately than any poll, just how strong the rising tide of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism among Muslims in Southeast Asia has become. Thanks to its war in Iraq and its unconditional support for Ariel Sharon, Washington has squandered post-9/11 sympathy and brought relations with the Muslim world to a new low.
There are many things wrong with this passage. Most obvious is the rank colonialist assumption that a Third World political leader can't be considered a responsible moral agent who should be held to account for his own actions and attitudes. But more important still, Krugman is so determined to attack his real – his only – target, President Bush, that he relocates a hoary Jewish conspiracy theory to the realm of mere realpolitik necessitated by obdurate and aggressive American foreign policy. This is a rhetorical sleight as ignorant as it is offensive.
Earlier this week The Daily Times of Pakistan offered this editorial judgement (entitled 'Mahathir's plain-speak') of that speech:
We fail to see why anyone in the West should quibble with what Dr Mohammad has said. Clearly, what has caused the uproar are his remarks about the Jewish ‘control of the world’. And pray, how is he wrong on that count? Is it any secret that there is a very powerful Jewish lobby in the United States that all but controls that country’s political system? Is it a secret that without the unstinting support of the United States, Israel could not have survived and gone from strength to strength? Is it any secret that the Nixon administration resorted to the biggest airlift in Oct 1973 since the crisis over Berlin after the then Israeli premier Golda Meir rushed to Washington in the face of advancing Egyptian armour? Is it any secret that the United States has killed (or compelled members to water down) every single resolution the United Nations Security Council has tried to bring against Israel? Is it any secret that the United States has multiple joint weapons development programmes with Israel? Is it any secret that scores of American politicians have seen their political careers come to an end at the hands of the Jewish lobby and Jewish money? Is it any secret that a sizeable number of Washington’s neo-cons are Jews? Is it also any secret that they pushed the United States into a war with Iraq and the reshaping of the Middle East, an enterprise for which they had prepared a blueprint back in 1995, much before the events of September 11, 2001?I quote this inflammatory nonsense at length because Krugman doesn't. To read Krugman, you'd think such complaints were the equivalent of, say, Tony Blair calling for higher spending on social services – a genuflection to a domestic political constituency, without real significance.
Yet the catechism I've quoted has nothing to do with the issues Krugman cites. Had the Iraq war never taken place, the editors of the Daily Times would have cited some other imagined instance of nefarious Jewish influence on American policy as the most recent manifestation. Had Ariel Sharon never replaced Ehud Barak as Israeli prime minister, the identical complaints of 'Jewish control of the world' would have been made. They always have been; the authors of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion were not inflamed by Anglo-American diplomacy.
Krugman's rationalising away the antisemitism that Mahathir exploits and encourages is in poor taste, but that isn't what makes him unfit to contribute political commentary to a paper of record. He's just a bad political analyst. To invoke the persistence of the oldest hatred only to blame President Bush for stimulating it is a teleology bordering on monomania. It's trivial stuff written by a man who, like Noam Chomsky, is authoritative in one discipline and incorrigibly silly when he ventures outside it.