Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ben Wattenberg on The Daily Show

[Transcript and embedded video below the fold.] Jon Stewart's guest on The Daily Show 2008-07-30 was Ben Wattenberg, host of PBS' Think Tank program and author of Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism. Wattenberg defends the invasion of Iraq as part of the essential war on terror, and, whether intentionally or not, juxtaposes Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in a way suggesting a much stronger connection between them than has ever been shown to exist. It was a pretty combative interview, but I think Jon Stewart did a pretty good job of laying bare the flaws of the neocon approach to fighting terrorism.

Video from


Jon Stewart: Tonight, he is the moderator of PBS' Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, his new book is called Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism; please welcome Ben Wattenberg. Sir! How are you, my friend? Nice to see you. Come, enjoy, have a seat! Nice to see you.

Ben Wattenberg: Nice to see you.

Stewart: I'm glad to see you brought your Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg cap.

Wattenberg: Well, it's a little trick. You know, most people give you mugs... [turns on LED flashlight embedded in the brim of the cap]

Stewart: A laser!

Wattenberg: That's pretty good.

Stewart: That's nice, because now when I look at you, I just see two giant orbs. I can see nothing. You have blinded me, sir!

Wattenberg: Jon, if you're real nice, you get one, and it'll say Jon in the back.

Stewart: Oh, that's very exciting. Thank you. Or I could take Ben's.

Wattenberg: You could, if you were lookin' for a fight.

Stewart: Settle down! Let's talk about your — Fighting Words: How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism.

Wattenberg: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism. It's the first book I've written that's a narrative. It's a story, it's a yarn. People said it's like beach reading. It is not — all my other books have been "here are six points..."

Stewart: So this is fiction? You made this up?

Wattenberg: No-o-o. No, no, it's a story, a yarn, about how a nice, moderately Jewish boy from the Bronx —

Stewart: Right.

Wattenberg: — the Bronx, that's singular, not plural — came to be called a conservative anything.

Stewart: Right.

Wattenberg: And what I think has happened is, the word has gotten a bum rap. If you called it chocolate instead of neo-conservatism, the way I read the polls, 65 to 70% of the American people would generally sign on to chocolate; about 1% sign on to neo-conservatism.

Stewart: Well, chocolate was never the basis for the invasion of Iraq — from what I understand. Now, I'm not saying that in the future, we won't, in a search for delicious chocolate, invade — I've heard Switzerland has enormous chocolate reserves.

Wattenberg: That's right.

Stewart: And if we invade them in the name of chocolate, I think you will see chocolate's favorability ratings plummet.

Wattenberg: Now, hold on a minute.

Stewart: All right.

Wattenberg: You recall 9/11, and the President, and everybody in America, said, "We gotta have a war on terror."

Stewart: That's correct. I don't think they said we gotta have a war on terror; I think what they said is, "We have to defeat this bin Laden character; I've heard he's in Afghanistan. Let's go get him." [☟1]

Wattenberg: No, no, excuse me, it was terror generically, because —

Stewart: Oh, I didn't know we signed on to the generic terror.

Wattenberg: Well, what difference does it make —

Stewart: Isn't that just a tactic?

Wattenberg: No. Now, just listen to me. What difference does it make if you're killed by Osama bin Laden, or by Saddam Hussein, or — look, look —

Stewart: What difference does it make if you're killed by a rock falling from a mountain? I mean, you're still dead.

Wattenberg: Come on, now. Let's try to be serious.

Stewart: [laughs] You're the one who came out with the laser hat!

Wattenberg: Now, look: partly through President Bush, but also a lot of the other leaders of the free world —

Stewart: Right.

Wattenberg: — we have not had a replication of a major terror attack in the United States. Now, so bin Laden and his people are into terror. Saddam Hussein is into — now, now, I'm not saying there's a relationship; that's very complicated — let's just say there's not

Stewart: You just happened to use their names right next to each other in a sentence.

Wattenberg: Please, please, I'll stipulate that there's no relationship, but you have to stipulate that Saddam Hussein is in the terror business. He sends $25,000 to every widow of a Palestinian guerrilla, he's exported terror around the world — [☟2]

Stewart: Is Pakistan in the terror business?

Wattenberg: I think they —

Stewart: Is Saudi Arabia?

Wattenberg: I don't know about Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Look, they're —

Stewart: Is Iran? North Korea? Sudan?

Wattenberg: North Korea? Yeah! [note: it's not clear whether the "yeah" was in response to North Korea or Sudan]

Stewart: So we have a lot of countries to invade.

Wattenberg: No-o-o, I didn't say to invade, I said —

Stewart: I'm just saying —

Wattenberg: Now, now, be serious.

Stewart: I'm being serious. I believe I'm being serious.

Wattenberg: I'll flash this [cap light] at you again.

Stewart: I know, I understand.

Wattenberg: Now, look: if you're going to try to fight terror, you may have to fight it in Iran, you may have to fight it in Iraq, you may have to fight — and all the governments of the world, the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, the Brits, the French, every serious stable government is in the terror-fighting business. Now, let me tell you what I think neo-conservatism is about, because I think it's gotten a bum rap. First of all, it didn't start with foreign policy. It started with domestic issues, particularly crime.

Stewart: Yes! It was about "law and order."

Wattenberg: You got it.

Stewart: So, neo-conservatives basically were saying, "It's OK to bring order to domestic life, in our domestic policy."

Wattenberg: You said it.

Stewart: So, let me ask you a question.

Wattenberg: No, let me — can I tell you —

Stewart: Why are they so cavalier about bringing chaos to foreign lands when —

Wattenberg: Stopping terrorism is not bringing chaos

Stewart: I mean, if you were to ask the Iraqi people whether they felt like their lives were upended by our terror fight, they might say, "Oh, you guys are the law and order guys? Oh."

Wattenberg: Really? I'm being serious.

Stewart: We talk a lot, this certain agenda that you talk about, about bringing order to a society. We went into an Iraqi society — not for the high-minded goals of spreading democracy; that wasn't the speech that was made. The speech that was made was Colin Powell at the UN holding anthrax in a vial; he wasn't holding "freedom powder" and saying we gotta spread this over there. So, we went over there with the idea of protecting ourselves, and brought a certain amount of chaos — you have to admit — to their society, and called it "birth pangs of a [new] Middle East." We didn't use —

Wattenberg: Excuse me: they have an elected polity and they wanted us in. They hated — Saddam Hussein killed, out of a population —

Stewart: Who are you to say they wanted us in? They didn't send out the Bat Signal; we bombed them. That is an arrogant, very arrogant statement.

Wattenberg: Well, we'll see who's being arrogant. I'll get ya again [holds up cap]. Hold it, they elected a government, okay? They have a free press, a constitution, a prime minister, and courts, and they are saying, "We want you in here to help us." Because it was chaos. Saddam Hussein — look, first of all, he used weapons of mass destruction. The UN — [☟3]

Stewart: I remember the argument.

Wattenberg: How well?

Stewart: Really fucking well. But my point is —

Wattenberg: Me, too.

Stewart: My point is that it's very easy to stand here and say, "Look at the great thing we've done for these people — we, who believe in these high-minded ideals of law and order," when we really didn't give them a choice in that. They didn't vote for us to come in there — the purple finger thing happened afterwards — and that's just one event. You can't just export democracy and say, "They had elections; [pantomimes washing his hands and kissing the matter closed]." You know —

Wattenberg: This book is trying to explain something in a readable popular story —

Stewart: I understand.

Wattenberg: — that tells —

Stewart: It's a yarn.

Wattenberg: It's a yarn, and it's a pretty good read.

Stewart: No, I know. I enjoyed it. I actually did enjoy it.

Wattenberg: Well, thank you very much. Would you put a blurb on it?

Stewart: Oh, I'd put a blurb on it! We gotta get going; we went way too long, but this is a fascinating discussion, and it's surprising to me, you know.... Fighting Words is on the bookshelves. (Settle down!) Ben Wattenberg!


☝1. I have to side entirely with Jon Stewart on this point. The American people were solidly behind going after Al Qaeda; it was the neocons who manipulated public sentiment into a nebulous, all-encompassing "war on terror." The Rand Corporation — hardly a bastion of hippie liberal thinking — just released a report, concluding that we need to abandon the military approach to combatting terrorism, putting intelligence and law enforcement forefront, and that we should abandon the term "war on terror." In short, the American people were all for kickin' some Al Qaeda and Taliban ass, but we were duped into the war in Iraq.

☝2. Analogously, if we were attacked by Firestone, we would declare a global war on tires and invade Wal-Mart, because Wal-Mart is in the tire business. Al Qaeda is exclusively in the international terror biz, but for Saddam it was a minor sideline.

☝3. It is unspeakably arrogant to presume that the Iraqi people wanted the US [oh, and we mustn't forget our "coalition partners"] to invade, simply because Saddam was evil. It is equally arrogant to claim that the average Iraqi citizen is better off because of the invasion; it depends crucially on how you weigh the value of democracy against the value of the very "law and order" that we demolished. As to the issue of liberty, the Iraqi people no longer have a single despot keeping them under his thumb, but instead they have ethnic strife, an insurgency, suicide bombs, and a host of other impediments to their freedom. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died are certainly not better off than they were under Saddam, and it's pretty tough to argue that the millions of refugees are better off, whether their exile is within Iraq or in a nearby country. About 1 in 6 Iraqis has been killed or displaced. Would we say that America was better off out from under the thumb of a brutal dictator if it meant that 50 million of our citizens were killed or driven from their homes?

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