Johann initially acknowledged those criticisms, along with comments made by others - some of them not sensible - concerning his review-article in Dissent. I suspect that, quite reasonably, his undertaking to respond to my criticisms has now been superseded, as Nick has published his own critique of the article, and Johann has responded to that. Meanwhile, a discussion of the controversy on the Harry's Place blog has been pulled, apparently after Johann threatened legal action for alleged defamation. With me so far?
My position on the dispute is this. Nick Cohen's What's Left? is a fine book, elegantly written and with an analysis that I am almost entirely in accord with. My extended review of the book is here. Having read Johann's far more critical review of the same book, I make two observations. First, Johann misrepresents the book. Secondly, he renders, to use his own phrase, a shallow and ahistorical reading of recent US foreign policy, particularly with regard to the variegated phenomenon known as neoconservatism.
Take the second point. I made a deliberately restricted claim about neconservatism, to minimise the risk of our getting bogged down in conflicting interpretations. Johann wrote in his review: "The notion that neoconservatism is a vehicle for a global democratic revolution is a 1990s rhetorical creation. On the contrary, for most of its short intellectual life neoconservatism has defended autocracy." Even if you count global democratic revolution as a rhetorical creation rather than anything substantive, this is clearly wrong. It ignores a clear break in the stance - in rhetoric at very least, but in my judgement more important than that - symbolised by a change in personnel at the State Department at high levels, and by a change in voting patterns at the UN. At the outset of the Reagan administration, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick assured the military leaders in Argentina and Chile that the human rights diplomacy of the Carter administration was dead and would not be repeated. The tenor - I use a deliberately understated term - of the Reagan administration at the end of the first term, and through the second term, was different. If you refuse to recognise this, then you do violence to a record that contemporary memoirs and much scholarship confirm.
In truth, the split in what neoconservatism stood for was substantive, and diverged further with the end of the Cold War. Neoconservatives were divided on the issue of intervention in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo. One of the most prominent neoconservative voices on foreign policy, Charles Krauthammer, opposed intervention on the grounds that in the Balkans no strategic interest was at stake. He has long argued a position that he terms democratic realism, in contrast to the democratic globalism that he has identified more recently in Tony Blair. Building on that theme, two writers associated with neoconservatism, Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson published a book in 1992 called The Imperial Temptation in which they outlined principles by which the US "refrained from intervention in the affairs of other states" but sought to spread democracy by example rather than force. Ironically, Jeane Kirkpatrick did support intervention against the aggression of Slobodan Milosevic, as did Richard Perle, Norman Podhoretz and one of the most zealous neconservative advocates of democratic globalism, Joshua Muravchik. The intellectual debates are well set out, and - bearing in mind the later disputes over Iraq - in quite a prescient way in the last two chapters of John Ehrman's 1995 book The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-94.
At the same time, there was an increasing split over attitudes to Israel. Neoconservatism has traditionally stressed America's moral and strategic interests in supporting Israel. But a division developed between those, particularly associated with Commentary magazine, who identified the Oslo accord as a snare and a delusion, and those who believed that an Israeli "vital center" needed to coalesce and plan for a negotiated two-state settlement. The volume I mentioned in my earlier post, Present Dangers, eds. Kagan and Kristol, 2000, is outdated and has much material that is strident; but you also find, in this influential collection of neoconservative thoughts at the end of the Clinton years, an intimation of some of these tensions. Paul Wolfowitz has, as it happens, a particularly thoughtful essay in the book, and has been in my view on the right side of both of the splits I've identified. Part of my argument on foreign policy is that the Left should recognise those splits and aim to widen them, for there is a type of neoconservatism that accords with our traditional ideals.
To ignore these developments and fissures altogether and treat them as a homogeneous "rhetorical creation", even allowing for Johann's haziness over dates, is an extreme claim that Johann makes no effort to substantiate. He gives no impression of familiarity with this literature, and I don't think he knows much about it. If you are writing about debates in US foreign policy, uninterest in ideas is a serious handicap.
Unfortunately, that uninterest extends also to Nick Cohen's ideas. Here is Johann's response to me, from his website:
I'll write a proper response soon, but let me give just one example of why he's wrong. He accuses me of deliberately distorting Nick's book, and cites as a prime example my claim that Nick says the West was right to back Saddam in the 1980s. Well, here's what Nick writes in his book 'Pretty Straight Guys' on page 127: "The world had little choice but to support Saddam's unprovoked war on Iran. A victory for the Ayatollahs would have left the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi oilfields at Iran's mercy." Every claim of "distortion" he makes is easily refuted with a quote like this.
The attentive reader, and probably even some somnolent ones given the blatancy of the manoeuvre, will note that Johann responds to my charge of misrepresenting Nick's book by citing a different book. But only if you have the book to hand will you be able to see that Johann additionally advances his case by excising from its context a quotation from this second book, Nick's earlier volume Pretty Straight Guys. The context is a long passage in which Nick berates the application of Kissingerian realpolitik in US foreign policy in the 1970s, and identifies the lowest point of that policy in the betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds. Here are the two sentences Johann cites (emphasis added), in their proper context:
Even by the standards of the Cold War - even by the standards of Henry Kissinger - the betrayal of an ally stood out. The Congressional select committee on intelligence said: "The president, Dr Kissinger and the Shah hoped that [the Kurds] would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of [Iraq]. The policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue to fight. Even in the context of covert operations, ours was a cynical exercise."
American backing for the Shah of Iran couldn't save him from the Islamic revolution of 1979. The world had little choice but to support Saddam's unprovoked war on Iran. A victory for the Ayatollahs would have left the Iraqi, Kuwaiti and Saudi oilfields at Iran's mercy. The left poured contempt on the West as Saddam took the opportunity offered by international support to pour poison gas on soldiers and civilians alike. George Galloway and his left wing colleague Jeremy Corbyn led the slating. Corbyn castigated the 'fascist' Saddam and the western governments which supported him.
No one to my knowledge has ever accused Nick Cohen of writing impenetrable prose. His argument here is characteristically clear. He condemns the US for encouraging and then abandoning the Kurds. He contrasts the attitude of Western governments (which, again obviously, is what he means by "the world") with that of left-wing opposition to Saddam's crimes, specifically the use of chemical weapons. He implies that that left-wing opposition was honourable, in contrast to the stance of Western governments. In the rest of the chapter he rues the fact that the Left (he cites Corbyn in particular) resiled from that stance once Saddam annexed Kuwait in 1990 and the US-led coalition went to war.
Johann, in short, doesn't refute my accusation of distortion: he confirms it by perpetrating a new distortion of a different book.
I shall have something to say in a separate post about the issue of alleged defamation and Johann's apparent threat of legal action against Harry's Place. I'm unusual among bloggers in possessing unsolicited but wholly satisfactory experience of a purported legal claim for defamation, and it is relevant to the Hari-Cohen dispute in one particular.