DATE July 29, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Peter Scoblic talks about his new book
"U.S. vs. Them: How Half a Century of Conservatism Has Undermined
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
"Republicanism was once distinct from conservatism, but they've become
increasingly synonymous," writes my guest, Peter Scoblic in his new book "U.S.
vs. Them." The book connects the Bush administration's foreign policy with
conservatives like William Buckley and Barry Goldwater and a worldview that
grew out of the Cold War refusing to coexist with evil regimes emphasizing
military solutions to problems and shunning diplomacy as appeasement. Scoblic
tells the story of post-World War II conservatism by focusing largely on
nuclear policy. He's the executive editor of The New Republic and former
editor of Arms Control Today. He wrote "U.S. vs. Them" while a visiting
scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting
researcher at Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies.
Peter Scoblic, welcome to FRESH AIR. You describe your book as a mystery
story. What's the mystery you're trying to solve?
Mr. PETER SCOBLIC: The mystery I was trying to solve is why the Bush
administration behaved the way it did after 9/11. I assumed that after 9/11
the Bush administration would prioritize not only the war against terrorism
but the war against nuclear terrorism specifically, which was a far more
serious version of the horror that we faced on September 11th. And yet,
instead of pursuing that threat the administration invaded Iraq first, in part
because it thought it had a nuclear program. But interestingly, or
confusingly, at the same time we knew that both Iran and North Korea, the
other members of the so-called axis of evil, had far more advanced nuclear
programs. And so I wondered why the administration prioritized Iraq. And
then I wondered why did it deal with the way it dealt with North Korea and
Iran after it invaded Iraq--essentially, not supporting military action
against those states, but not really supporting diplomatic engagement with
them as well.
GROSS: Why did that send you back to the 1950s and the emerging new
conservatism in that Cold War era?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Because while there had been many, many critiques of the Bush
administration's foreign policy, I thought that most of them had been
descriptive, not explanatory. People criticize the administration as being
unilateralist or militarist or imperialist. But that didn't tell me why were
they unilateralist? Why were they militarist? Why were they imperialist?
And so I really wanted to get to the ideological roots of the administration's
foreign policy. And when I looked back at the '50s and the way that the new
conservative movement approached the Cold War, and in particular nuclear
policy during the Cold War, I started noticing a shocking number of
similarities between what had happened 50 years ago and what had happened
GROSS: You look at William Buckley, the founder of National Review and one of
the fathers of conservatism as we know it today. What points of view, what
groups did he bring together under his type of conservatism and through his
podium of National Review?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, conservatism was really in disarray after World War II.
And what William F. Buckley did was unite three emerging strands of thought.
The first was an economic libertarianism, which thought that contra The New
Deal the government should have as little role in the economy as possible.
The second strand were traditionalists, sort of social and religious
traditionalists, who felt that the post-war America was veering toward a pop
culture mentality, a moral relativism and a lack of respect for religion that
was leading us down the road to perdition. But most importantly, you had a
very strong strain of anti-communism that was the priority for the new
conservatism and also helped link libertarians and traditionalists who didn't
necessarily see eye to eye on a lot of things. And this...
GROSS: And what was the link? How did anti-communism link the
traditionalists and the libertarians?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, if you think about it, communism was really the ultimate
nightmare scenario for both, libertarianism holding that, you know, there
should minimal government intervention in the economy, and communism
representing the diametric opposite, complete government control of the
economy; religious traditionalism believing that religion should play a very
strong role in American society and communism, again, at the opposite end of
the spectrum, really, you know, not only discouraging but banning religion
and, you know, holding according to traditionalists, atheism at its core. And
the anti-communism of the right, you know, united those two strands of the new
And they also, you know, provided a rationale in and of itself in the sense
that the United States faced a national security threat from the Soviet Union
and from its communist proxies and allies and needed to be fought. And, of
course, that was a common refrain in US foreign policy at the beginning of the
Cold War. There were very few people who did not consider the Soviet Union a
threat. But what conservatives did differently was to see the Cold War not
simply as a struggle between two nation states, the United States and the
Soviet Union, or even between two ideologies in terms of, you know, Democratic
capitalism vs. communism. They saw it in moral, almost religious terms.
They saw it as a battle between good and evil. And while a lot of people
would agree both then and now that the United States was and is a force for
good and that the Soviet Union was a force for evil, seeing the Cold War in
those terms and actually using that Manichean approach as a guide to US
foreign policy was not productive. In fact, it was very counterproductive.
GROSS: Well, do you hear echoes of that language in the Bush administration
and the war in Iraq?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Right. I mean, you can't, you know, think back to late 2001
after the 9/11 attacks or 2002 and 2003 and not recall President Bush speaking
very clearly in terms of evil. You know, the terrorists were evil doers.
Osama Bin Laden was the evil one. You hear less of that language now. But it
was a clue to me that there might be some link between the way that
conservatism approached the Cold War, the Soviet Union and nuclear strategy
during that time and how the Bush administration might be approaching foreign
GROSS: Now, you know, conservative thinkers were anti-interventionist on the
whole before World War II and right after World War II. You trace it to
Buckley, really, and the Cold War thinking in the 1950s. That had a much
stronger interventionist strain. You know, confront the Soviets, don't just
like negotiate with them. Don't back down.
Mr. SCOBLIC: Right. You know, in some ways there was a really sharp pivot
between the isolationism that many conservatives held before World War II and
the active interventionism that they propounded after World War II. And, you
know, to some extent that pivot occurred simply because communism presented
itself as a threat not only to the United States, as I said, but also to the
very values that Conservatives really held dear. And they just, you know,
they didn't think they could sit this one out.
At the same time there were a lot more similarities between the isolationism
of the pre-World War II era and the subsequent interventionism that I think we
realized. The isolationism was, in many ways, an heir to the American
exceptionalism that has characterized US foreign policy, you know, since the
founding of the country, where the United States has very much wanted to do
its own thing, very much afraid of becoming a plaything of the great powers in
Europe during, let's say, the 18th and 19th centuries. And the isolationism
that characterized a lot of US foreign policy during those centuries was
really a way of preventing the United States from being put in a subordinate
role. And that is what conservatives were espousing before World War II.
Now, after World War II they decided the United States should be involved on
the world stage. At the same time, the United States had become so powerful
in the wake of World War II that even becoming involved on the world stage did
not necessitate subordinating our interest to the interests of others. We
became involved in an entangling alliance known as NATO. But the fact of the
matter is that the United States being so powerful was really the one that ran
NATO. And so the isolationism of the pre-war period sort of morphed
relatively cleanly into what was really a unilateralism in the post-war
GROSS: You write also a lot about Senator Barry Goldwater and his
contributions to this new Cold War conservatism. And you describe him as an
absolutist. He wanted us to win at the 1964 Republican National Convention.
He was famous for saying extremism in the defense of liberty is not vice.
Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. What do you see as
Goldwater adding to this new conservatism?
Mr. SCOBLIC: I don't know that Goldwater added so much as he represented the
new conservatism on the national political stage. Because conservatism had
essentially been--in its old form had been done in by World War II and the
Great Depression, conservatives after the war just didn't have a real strong
voice in national politics. And when Barry Goldwater became more prominent,
he was really the mouthpiece for this new conservatism. And he was very much
tied to the conservatism that was being espoused by, you know, journals like
National Review. Brent Bozell, who worked with William F. Buckley Jr. on
National Review, was actually the ghost writer of Goldwater's "Conscience of a
Conservative," his famous manifesto. And so, you know, Goldwater was
essential in bringing these new ideas to a broader public.
GROSS: Goldwater objected to negotiations with the Soviets even during the
Cuban missile crisis, a crisis in which nuclear war was averted because of
negotiations. What were his objections to negotiating with the Soviets?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Goldwater was, you know, typifying conservatism in the sense
that he saw the Soviet Union as evil and therefore, by definition, any
negotiation with evil was, you know, making a deal with the devil. It was
just morally anathema. And if you begin from that principle, you find
yourself making some rather strange, counterproductive and even dangerous
stands like opposing negotiation with the Soviet Union during the Cuban
And, I mean, I see Goldwater's position. There is, as, you know, what I call
in the book a crucial case test. If Conservatives weren't willing to
negotiate with the Soviets at this moment of extreme peril where really the
only answer to the problem was to talk and try to ratchet down tensions, then
they were unlikely to embrace negotiations at any point. And, in fact, if you
then follow this ideology through the rest of the Cold War--and, I would
argue, in the Bush administration--you see a lot of rejection of negotiation
over and over again, even when it seems to be clearly in the US interest.
GROSS: Give us one or two Bush examples where you hear that?
Mr. SCOBLIC: I mean, I think the Bush administration has clearly echoed that
in its approach to both North Korea and Iran, where it has, for a long time,
refused to negotiate with North Korea, for a long time refused to negotiate
with Iran. And although that stance has changed somewhat over the past few
years with North Korea and just in the last few weeks with Iran, what you've
seen by its failure to negotiate is that not engaging these countries allowed
them to pursue their nuclear programs unfettered for years. North Korea was
able to re-process more plutonium for its nuclear weapons program, and Iran's
uranium enrichment program continues apace.
GROSS: And you say that the Bush administration's biggest success on the
nuclear front was getting the Libyans to abandon their nuclear program through
Mr. SCOBLIC: Right. I mean, Libya is sort of the exception that proves the
rule with the Bush administration. There were a lot of people in the
administration, namely John Bolton, who didn't want to engage Libya. But the
US and the British had been negotiating with the Libyans for some time, and
ultimately the administration agreed that if Libya gave up its WMD programs,
particularly its nuclear programs, the United States would not seek regime
change there. And, you know, lo and behold, we have a successful instance of
denuclearizing what had really been a rogue regime.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Scoblic. He's the
executive editor of The New Republic and author of the new book "U.S. vs.
Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Scoblic. He's the author
of the new book "U.S. vs. Them." And the book traces certain positions and
policies of the Bush administration to the new conservatism of the Cold War
that began in the 1950s with William Buckley and Barry Goldwater. Scoblic is
the executive editor of The New Republic and the former editor of Arms Control
As the arms negotiation era starts, you see this big split in American policy
between the people who thought that the Soviets were purely ideologically
motivated and were pure evil and those who thought that the Soviet regime was
more power oriented, what they wanted was power. So how did that split
between whether the Soviets were more about ideology or power create a split
in opinions about how to approach them on nuclear weapons?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, if the Soviet Union was evil, if you see the Soviet Union
as evil, and as I've said you don't really have anything to talk with them
about because you're not going to agree to become more evil just to sate the
Soviets and it's not going to advance your interest. But if you see the Cold
War as more of a traditional power struggle in which the Soviet Union has
interests and the United States has interests, and those interests may not
always be the same but they may overlap in places, then you can use
negotiation to identify those places and advance the interests of both
And for sort of realists or pragmatists and liberals, the area of overlap, or
the most important area of overlap there was avoiding nuclear war. And they
believed that it was important to negotiate a sort of nuclear coexistence with
the Soviets so that nuclear war did not come about, you know, either
accidentally or intentionally because both sides thought they might have
something to gain from that. And that is, you know, the idea that arms
control grew out of. Conservatives disagreed with that. They believed that
the Soviet Union was essentially on an unstoppable quest to take over the
world. Their nuclear arsenal was one element of that and, you know, they
thought that the United States, by negotiating, really was engaged in what
they called unilateral disarmament. In reality, what arms control was trying
to do was to stabilize the arms race, stabilize deterrents so that nuclear war
did not erupt.
GROSS: Did you see both of those conflicting points of view represented
within the Reagan administration?
Mr. SCOBLIC: You did. And, in fact, you saw them both represented by
President Reagan himself. Both of these approaches were represented in a
single man. During the first term of the Reagan administration, the president
was very much on the side of what you might call the nuclear war fighters, the
people that believed that deterrence was sort of a sham, that it was, in
essence, a form of nuclear coexistence with the Soviets. And once again, you
know, coexistence with evil was not something conservatives wanted to
tolerate. Why would you tolerate nuclear coexistence? The reason was that
you didn't have a choice. It was just sort of, you know, what they called
mutual assured destruction, was just a fact of life.
But there was a group of conservatives who believed that you could seek
victory over the Soviet Union even in a nuclear sense. And so they advocated
not only an increased nuclear arsenal for the United States, but they also
advocated things like missile defense, most famously through the strategic
defense initiative, or Star Wars, and even civil defense, you know, bomb
shelters so that if a war ever were to occur some percentage of our population
might survive. And Reagan followed these prescriptions and he rejected arms
control negotiations, or serious arms control negotiations for the first half
of his administration, and then later in his administration completely turned
GROSS: What was responsible for that change of heart in Reagan?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, I hesitate to provide a single cause for what changed,
but there is one incident that I think helped illustrate for Reagan the danger
of the course that he was on. And this is a little known episode in late 1983
called the Able Archer exercise, you know, which might be the second most
dangerous episode during the Cold War after the Cuban missile crisis. 1983
was a very bad year for US/Soviet relations. Reagan had given his evil empire
speech, he had called for the deployment of the Star Wars missile defense
system. He had become extremely angry at the Soviets after they shot down a
Korean airliner that killed many civilians, including Americans. The United
States was on the verge of deploying Pershing missiles to Western Europe,
nuclear missiles to Western Europe.
And on the other side the Soviet leader was Yuri Andropov, who was former head
of the KGB, fairly paranoid fellow who believed that the United States might
be contemplating a nuclear first strike. And he had told his intelligence
apparatus to keep an eye out for this, keep an eye out for early warning
signs. And in November of '83 he thought that he saw that sign. NATO
launched a military exercise, which they did at least once a year, and it was
called Able Archer. But this exercise happened to be a little bit more
realistic than exercises in the past. And the Soviets thought that they might
be seeing preparations for a first strike and actually put some of their
nuclear forces on alert. And obviously the episode ended without a nuclear
But when Reagan got the sort of after-action report on this from the CIA a
couple of months later, he was really aghast. He was aghast at the idea that
the Soviets might think that we would actually contemplate something so
horrific as a nuclear first strike. And in 1984 he began putting out
diplomatic feelers to the Soviet Union. And when Mikhail Gorbachev came into
power the next year in 1985, Reagan thought that he had found someone he could
work with. And the administration's approach became far less one of
confrontation, far more one of engagement.
GROSS: Peter Scoblic will be back in the second half of the show. He's the
executive editor of The New Republic and author of the new book "U.S. vs.
Them." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Peter Scoblic, author of
the new book "U.S. vs. Them." It connects the Bush administration's emphasis
on military intervention over diplomacy with the conservative movement that
grew out of the Cold War. Scoblic is the executive editor of The New Republic
and former editor of Arms Control Today. When we left off, Scoblic was
describing how we came very close to nuclear war with the Soviets in 1983 when
the US and its NATO allies started a military exercise that the Soviets
misinterpreted as preparations for a military strike against them. Scoblic
says Reagan was horrified by this nuclear scare and it was one of the reasons
he decided to negotiate with Gorbachev about nuclear weapons.
Now, you write about Reagan that even when he decided he wanted to negotiate
with Gorbachev and get rid of nuclear weapons, or at least get rid of a lot of
nuclear weapons, that he didn't really understand much about how nuclear
weapons or nuclear policy really worked. What were some of the gaps in his
Mr. SCOBLIC: Yeah. It turned out that Reagan was something of a nuclear
abolitionist, meaning he felt deeply about getting rid of all nuclear weapons.
And it's very difficult for historians to reconcile that notion with the
things that he did during his first term, including, you know, building up
nuclear weapons and pursuing missile defense and all that. But if you look at
Reagan's statements about nuclear weapons, you realize that he was really very
ignorant about not only the specifics, but really the generalities of nuclear
weapons policy. He, as I note in the book, he once told a group of
congressmen that bombers and submarines did not carry nuclear weapons, which
of course they did. At one point he said that submarine-launched ballistic
missiles could be recalled once in flight, which is absolutely not true. He
told his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, that he didn't realize
the principal threat from the Soviet Union was that it's ICBMs might destroy
ours on the ground in a preemptive strike, even though that was one of the
issues that Reagan had run for the presidency on.
And Gorbachev had a similar reaction when he met Reagan. At first he thought
that he was sort of a bellicose guy who was trying to threaten the Soviets.
He eventually came to realize that Reagan was sincere about nuclear abolition,
and that the statements he made that seemed to contradict that sprang not from
antagonism, but from ignorance.
GROSS: So you write that when Reagan started negotiating with Gorbachev it
really alienated a lot of the Conservatives in the Reagan administration and a
lot of Conservatives outside of the Reagan administration. And yet when those
negotiations with Gorbachev helped lead to the end of the Soviet Union,
conservatives were happy to take credit for it. So can you talk a little bit
about that divide and how you think that Reagan was maybe misinterpreted by
the conservatives, or rather that the conservatives assumed a false credit for
the end of the Soviet Union?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Sure, sure. When Reagan started negotiating with Gorbachev,
when he began seriously negotiating with Gorbachev, and particularly when they
came to agreement on a treaty eliminating intermediate range nuclear missiles,
conservatives really thought that Reagan had been taken for a ride, that he
had been seduced by this charming Mikhail Gorbachev who seemed to have
captured the attention of the world stage. You know, George Will was
characterizing Ronald Reagan as naive on National Review, which had seen
Reagan's election as sort of the epitome of their movement, ran a cover
dubbing the treaty Reagan's suicide pact. And so they were really very upset
about this and thought that he had lost his edge.
And during the 1988 presidential race, during the Republican primaries, the
candidates, the Republican candidates, including George H.W. Bush, who is
thought of as a realist, as a pragmatist, actually tried to run to Reagan's
right on these issues. But as you say, when, you know, the Berlin Wall fell
and ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed, conservatives looked back and they
decided that it must have been Reagan's conservative policies that ended the
Soviet Union. It must have been Reagan's moral clarity, his willingness to
speak in terms of good vs. evil, his willingness to build up the American
military and its nuclear arsenal, his willingness to call for missile defenses
that had really scared the Soviets to the point where they just capitulated.
They couldn't keep up with the United States. And they kind of forgot about
the Reagan that they had criticized during the second term. Instead, they
focused on the peace through strength guy that was the Reagan of the first
And it made for a compelling narrative. It is a narrative that, you know,
we've heard during this presidential cycle during the primaries. It's one
that I think we'll continue to hear as the election goes on. The problem with
it is that it's not really true. There's not a tremendous amount of evidence,
or there's very little evidence to support this interpretation of history.
Ultimately, the Soviet Union collapsed because communism was not a tenable
form of government and had been eroding the Soviet economic base for decades.
And that was true when Gorbachev came into power; it was true five years
earlier when Reagan came into power. And while I think that, you know, you
don't want to downplay the role that Reagan played in peacefully ending the
Cold War, I think that the Reagan of the first term did a lot more to heighten
the risk of nuclear conflict with the Soviets than did the Reagan of the
second term, who realized that Gorbachev was a different kind of Soviet
leader, one that we could work with, one who no longer wanted to wage this
global struggle with the United States.
GROSS: How would you compare the Bush administration's position on arms talks
and missile defense to the Reagan of the first administration and the Reagan
of his second administration?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, there are a lot of parallels. This administration came
into office even before 9/11 not believing that arms control had anything to
offer. They thought that, you know, arms control with Russia to, let's say,
reduce the US and Russian nuclear arsenals was a Cold War relic. They thought
the ABM treaty, which essentially prohibited national missile defenses, was
also a Cold War relic. And so they pulled out of that treaty and began to try
to deploy missile defenses. And, you know, the reason for that was similar to
the reason that the Reaganauts also had wanted to do it, you know, 20 years
earlier, which is that they didn't think that negotiation could provide for US
security. Rather, US security was best achieved through military means. And
so you saw not only a rejection of a negotiation with the Russians, but a
rejection of international treaties, the rejection of engagement with North
Korea and Iran that we've already talked about.
And you even saw them embrace one of the more radical elements of the first
term Reagan, which was an emphasis on usable nuclear weapons. That is, you
know, weapons that are not used simply to deter a nuclear attack by another
state, but weapons that you might use first in a conflict. And so the Bush
administration began pursuing what were called low yield nuclear weapons.
They pursued something called the robust nuclear earth penetrator, which is
designed to destroy deeply buried bunkers or hardened targets. And this is
fairly remarkable, given that it was an extreme policy when we were facing a
nuclear-armed adversary. It's a particularly extreme policy when the Cold War
has ended. The United States is militarily dominant by any measure, and yet
this administration was still turning toward offensive nuclear weapons as a
way to advance the US nuclear interest.
GROSS: Is the Bush administration still trying to pursue offensive nuclear
weapons and missile defense?
Mr. SCOBLIC: You've really seen something of a move back, less because of
changes in the administration than because of pushback by Congress. The
administration is still pursuing missile defenses, although the missile
defenses have yet to be proved effective. But they are not pursuing the
robust nuclear earth penetrator or low yield weapons because Congress refused
to go along with those. There is, however, still a push for something called
the reliable replacement warhead, which is, in theory, not supposed to
increase the abilities of our arsenal, but simply to make it safer and more
sustainable. But of course a lot of critics and a lot of foreign countries
see the development of any new nuclear warhead as antagonistic.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Scoblic. He's the
executive editor of The New Republic and author of the new book "U.S. vs.
Them." And it's kind of a history of the post-World War II Cold War
conservative movement and how you can see the influence of that in the Bush
administration's policies and positions. Let's take a short break here and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Peter Scoblic. He's the executive editor of The New
Republic and author of the new book "U.S. vs. Them." And it looks at the
Bush administration and traces some of its policies and positions to the Cold
War conservatism that emerged in the 1950s with people like William Buckley
and Barry Goldwater.
You know, we talked about how before the Cold War conservatism was very
noninterventionist, didn't even want to get involved in World War II. But
during the Cold War, conservatism becomes much more about a willingness to
confront evil like the Soviet Union as opposed to negotiating with them.
Don't give in, don't back down; strengthen your nuclear defenses as opposed to
negotiating down with the Soviet Union, you know, through nuclear treaties.
We see an interventionist streak in the Bush administration through the idea
of spreading democracy in Iraq and the Middle East. And, you know, one of the
theories behind the Iraq war is that if we invade Iraq, overthrow Saddam
Hussein, help created a democracy there, the democratic impulse would spread
through the Middle East.
Can you connect the dots for us on that the way you see it, how conservative
philosophy that begins as noninterventionist now has the strain of intervene,
practice regime change to spread to democracy?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Yeah, that is actually where I think we can safely bring in the
neoconservatives, as opposed to the conservatives. Conservatives tend to, you
know, as you noted, since the beginning of the Cold War, believe in
intervention abroad if it serves US national interest. And post-9/11, they
certainly propounded that viewpoint as well. But it was more the
neoconservatives who grew out of a group of sort of erstwhile liberals who had
supported Harry Truman, but then became disillusioned with the Democratic
Party in the 1970s as the party became sort of anti-Vietnam War and associated
with George McGovern and things like that. These one-time liberals really
thought that it was important to continue to confront communism strongly and
militarily. And so they left the Democratic Party, really became allied with
the Reaganauts and took on this moniker of neoconservativism.
Then after the Cold War ended, as everybody on the left, right and center was
sort of trying to figure out what the purpose was of US foreign policy was,
the neoconservatives stepped up and said, you know, `Why don't we try to serve
US interests by going abroad in search of monsters to destroy? You know,
there's a lot of evil in the world. The United States should crush these
regimes and roll them back.' And they were speaking, you know, not only of
places like North Korea, Iraq and Iran, but, you know, even China was very
much a focus of the neoconservatives.
And so in Iraq what you saw was an alliance between the conservatives and
neoconservatives. Neoconservatives thought--or, let me start with
conservatives, who thought that Iraq presented a national security threat.
And post-9/11 we couldn't allow threats like that to fester. So they
supported the war. Neoconservatives believed in that as well, but they had a
broader vision that underlied their support for the war. They thought that if
we brought democracy to Iraq we might plant a seed that resulted in the
liberalization of the entire region. And so there were two different schools
of thought supporting the Iraq war on the right, but they came to common cause
even if they didn't necessarily agree about what was most important about the
Just to give one quick example, if you ask John Bolton, who's often called a
neoconservative but is not, is really just a straight Goldwater conservative,
about democratizing Iraq, he'll just sort of laugh at you. And he said to me
jokingly, you know, `If it had been up to me we would have invaded Iraq,
handed the Iraqis a copy of the federalist papers and left.' He didn't really
have any interest in democratizing or nation building there.
GROSS: In looking at the Bush administration and its policies and positions
as being historically connected to the conservatism that emerged during the
Cold War, you basically come to this conclusion, that "It's a problem to cast
our national interests in ideological or moral terms, much more productive to
cast our national interests in empirical terms." I want you to explain what
you mean by that.
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, let me take as an example nuclear proliferation, which,
you know, the book is an intellectual history of conservatism in some ways
that just uses nuclear issues as kind of a case study showing how conservatism
has impacted foreign policy.
Nuclear proliferation is a complicated issue, but it's one whose success or
failure can be quantified. That is to say, if a country develops more nuclear
weapons or more nuclear material, you can say that that's been a failure for
US security. If it goes in the other direction, then it's a success. And I
think that in looking at, let's say, North Korea, if we approach North Korea
simply from the standpoint of saying, what policy gives us the greatest
return, what policy locks up or destroys the greatest amount of fissile
material, we will come to the policy that best serves the interest of the
United States. If we muddy that in talking about how evil the North Koreans
are, how they might cheat, how sort of nasty the regime is, then we get
sidetracked. All of those things may be true, and we certainly do need to be
careful of the North Koreans cheating. But at the end of the day the most
important thing is preventing a nuclear weapon from going off in a US city.
And if we concentrate on locking up weapons, locking up material, destroying
material, then we're going to be safer at the end of the day. And you don't
need quote, unquote, "moral clarity" to reach that conclusion. You need an
empirical approach, an experience-based approach, a pragmatic approach to
GROSS: Just wondering where you see the Bush administration policy on Iran
heading. Do you think we're heading toward a military strike against Iran, or
do you think that Israel is?
Mr. SCOBLIC: Well, it's a fascinating question, certainly one that everyone
is focused on right now. Many people have worried that certainly Israel is
preparing a nuclear strike against Iran. I think it's unlikely that the Bush
administration would strike Iran directly in the final months of its
presidency. But then we've had this, you know, new piece of information
emerge just in the last couple of weeks here which is that the United States
sent a high ranking diplomat to sit at the table with the EU nations--France,
Germany, Britain and also Russia and China--to talk to Iran and try to get
them to either scale back or eliminate entirely their uranium enrichment
program. And that's a really significant shift. It's one that is not
explained by the ideological framework that I discuss in this book. It's a
shift away from that. And what I think is that it represents, in essence, an
admission of failure by the Bush administration, a recognition that
conservatism applied, you know, as it was by a number of people during the
Cold War, or espoused, you know, by Barry Goldwater during the Cold War and
fulfilled during the first term of the Bush administration, really hasn't
advanced US interests. It's allowed Iran to continue its nuclear program.
And, you know, fortunately, but unfortunately very belatedly, the Bush
administration seems to have come to that conclusion.
GROSS: Peter Scoblic, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SCOBLIC: It was my pleasure.
GROSS: Peter Scoblic is the author of the new book "U.S. vs. Them" and is
the executive editor of The New Republic.
You can download podcasts of our interviews on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new book about the AACM, the
Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a jazz musicians
cooperative founded in 1965, dedicated to what they described as great black
music. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Kevin Whitehead on "A Power Stronger Than Itself: The
AACM and The American Experimental Music" by George E. Lewis
TERRY GROSS, host:
In 1965 a group of Chicago composers and improvisers organized themselves as
the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The AACM is still
active. The many leading musicians who've come out of it include the Art
Ensemble of Chicago; pianist Muhal Richard Abrams; saxophonists Henry
Threadgill, Anthony Braxton and Edward Wilkerson; and flutist Nicole Mitchell;
also trombonist George Lewis, who's the author of a big new book on the AACM.
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's really, really good.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: New York avant-garde jazz of the 1960s, a bit heavy.
Compar it to the new music emerging in Chicago in the same period.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: That's the 1966 Roscoe Mitchell Sextet that evolved into the
Art Ensemble of Chicago, spare and somber with a hint of slapstick. That
first loud music we heard was New York's Jazz Composers Orchestra, an offshoot
of the Jazz Composer's Guild, an "all for one and one for all" musicians' coop
that lasted about a year.
By contrast, the coop founded in Chicago, the Association for the Advancement
of Creative Musicians, is 43 years old with chapters in Chicago and New York.
It's a subject of a big new book by AACM trombonist, composer and writer of
interactive software and the head of Columbia's Center for Jazz studies,
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: George Lewis's book is called "A Power Stronger Than Itself:
The AACM and American Experimental Music." It's rich and dense and
gratifyingly readable. Lewis tells how a bunch of working-class
African-American musicians banded together to clear a space for themselves to
compose original music that moved freely among jazz, classical, marches,
spirituals and any other genres they studied or fancied.
These composers were postmodern before that became a buzzword, and they've
stayed true to their ideals. Here's a sliver of a piece by Muhal Richard
Abrams, one of the AACM's founders and one of George Lewis' heroes.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: For blurring musical genres, AACM composers sometimes found
themselves accused of being not jazzy enough for jazz and too jazzy for
In his book, George Lewis shows how black composers are conceptually boxed in
and underfunded compared to white colleagues. Where, say, his friend John
Zorn is praised for how wide-ranging interest as a composer, black composers
like saxophonist Anthony Braxton take flak for straying too far from jazz
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: George Lewis affirms the right of African-American composers
to be as mobile and unfettered in musical culture as everywhere else. He's
great at pointing out double standards and faulty logic in the arts discourse
that marginalize black artists. And he does it with a dispassionate
understatement more devastating that righteous fury.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Lester Bowie.
George Lewis describes his AACM book as the autobiography of a collective. He
interviewed dozens of the coop's members and tells their stories from
childhood in compact narratives. But the book is less about individual
artists than the collective itself, its growing pains and generational
frictions included. In celebrating composers who roam across different
musical languages, George Lewis accomplishes a parallel feat on the page,
creating a narrative with broad appeal that never feels dumbed down. He makes
a scholarly portrait of a complex community into a ripping good and inspiring
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas and is a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed the new book "A
Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music" by
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with a recording by Johnny Griffin, the tenor saxophonist from
Chicago who died Friday at the age of 80. He moved to Europe in the early
'60s where he felt his playing was more appreciated than it was in the States.
He lived there for the remainder of his life, but he eventually made regular
visits to America to tour and record. This is "Autumn Leaves" from his 1978
album "Return of the Griffin," recorded during his first American tour after
moving to Europe.
(Soundbite of "Autumn Leaves")
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