Steve Sachs Duke


Saturday, December 14, 2002


What's happened to Jude Wanniski? For a long time, I knew of Jude Wanniski only as a famous supporter of supply-side economics, a supporter of unpopular ideas like a gold standard, and as the whipping boy of Paul Krugman (as well as others who actually have higher degrees in economics, unlike Wanniski). A friend in my introductory economics class was a fan of the supply-siders and of Wanniski in particular; as an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, Wanniski had helped popularize ideas that have now become standard Republican dogma. Economics training or no, he seemed to have been taken seriously by powerful figures in government. It was under his tutelage, says CNN, that onetime vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp learned to be a supply-sider, an influence which still continues. President Bush is an adherent of supply-side doctrine, and Wanniski still gets quoted in the Washington Post whenever the subject arises. While at the American Enterprise Institute in the 1970s, Wanniski was the office neighbor of John Snow, now Bush's appointee for treasury secretary. As a result, my impression of Wanniski until recently was as a figure of some influence, if only historical, in American economic policy. A quack, maybe, but a quack with plenty of loyal readers.

That was before I read his views on foreign policy. In searching for information on the Kurds in Iraq, I came across an "open memo" Wanniski wrote to Karl Rove this March. In the memo, Wanniski makes a number of remarkable claims, not least of which is the following:

"President Bush cited last week's New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg, which gives an account of the 1988 gassings based on 14-year-old hearsay. On three different Sunday talk shows, Cheney repeated the charge that Saddam killed as many as 100,000 Iraqi Kurds, in this manner. What I am telling you publicly, Karl, is that this DID NOT HAPPEN.... There is no possibility that Saddam gassed his own people and no evidence that he did. None."

Throughout the memo, Wanniski is emphatic on the subject of Iraq's innocence. Goldberg's article, for instance, "offers no evidence, only quotes from various Kurds who seem to remember gas being used." This is an odd way to describe testimony like the following, from a survivor of the Halabja massacre:

"On the road to Anab, many of the women and children began to die," Nouri told me. "The chemical clouds were on the ground. They were heavy. We could see them." People were dying all around, he said. When a child could not go on, the parents, becoming hysterical with fear, abandoned him. "Many children were left on the ground, by the side of the road. Old people as well. They were running, then they would stop breathing and die."

Or this, from a former resident of the village of Goktapa:

[Ahmed Raza Sharif] saw the shells explode and smelled the sweet-apple odor as poison filled the air. His son, Osman Ahmed, who was sixteen at the time, was near the village mosque when he was felled by the gas. He crawled down a hill and died among the reeds on the banks of the Lesser Zab, the river that flows by the village. His father knew that he was dead, but he couldn't reach the body. As many as a hundred and fifty people died in the attack; the survivors fled before the advancing Iraqi Army, which levelled the village.

Goldberg's article is actually one of the most powerful discussions of the Kurdish experience in Iraq that I've ever read. Of course, for all I know, the piece might be chock full of falsehoods--but then the right way for Wanniski to criticize it would be to cite countervailing evidence in similar detail, which he fails to provide. (Wanniski never even mentions Goktapa in his rebuttal. And according to the New York Times, Tariq Aziz has now officially admitted Iraq's role in the Halabja massacre.) In fact, Wanniski holds Iraq largely innocent of the well-documented Anfal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds, in which chemical weapons were used on a number of occasions. True, he notes, "There were hundreds of villages cleared by Baghdad on the Iraqi border, but the residents were moved to new villages built for them in the interior." It is impossible to read such words without thinking of the trains to the concentration camps, trains which were also ostensibly bound for new villages and "resettlement."

In discussing Iraq's record, Wanniski has a rather eccentric sense of whose story to trust. Although he dismisses the conclusions reached by Human Rights Watch and its fellows--although he sees through every biased news report and is never fooled by State Department propaganda--Wanniski also repeats as literal fact a press release from the Iraqi representatives to the U.N. Who does he think writes these press releases? Maybe in normal times, trusting wholeheartedly a government that imprisons dissenters and that controls information with an iron fist would only be foolish. But when it leads him to deny murder of thousands, such negligence becomes criminal.

Wanniski's is joined in his efforts to defend Baghdad by his "friend" and "the most important Muslim in the world," Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan. Wanniski gives a glowing reception to what he presents as a pair of letters from Farrakhan to Presidents Clinton and Hussein. The letters were written in 1998, in the course of Farrakhan's attempt to mediate a crisis between the U.S. and Iraq that ultimately resulted in the expulsion of inspectors and a renewed bombing campaign. (I should note, by the way, that I'm forced to rely on Wanniski's account of these letters rather than a source originating from Farrakhan himself. As far as I'm aware, these letters have not been published elsewhere. But Wanniski seems to hold Farrakhan in very high esteem, often referring to him as a friend and portraying him as America's last best hope for improved relations with the Muslim world. At the very least, Wanniski can be trusted not to portray Farrakhan in a more negative light than the latter deserves.)

Farrakhan's letter to Clinton is generally unremarkable, but the letter to Saddam Hussein is simply breathtaking. Consider these two paragraphs:

But, Your Excellency, we who have grown up in Islam inside of America understand that the West wants to destroy you sir, in order to make an example out of your destruction to all strong Muslim leaders.

You are a visionary, and they want to destroy your vision! If they are able to bring you down, that will serve as a warning to Brother Qadhafi in Libya; to Brothers Hassan Turabi and Omar Bashir in the Sudan; it will mean a setback for the goal of unity of the Muslim ummah.

A visionary? This for the leader of a regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, that has gouged out the eyes of detainees, that tortures women to make their husbands confess?

To be charitable, perhaps Farrakhan was merely being a sycophant rather than an advocate of torture and murder--perhaps he just wanted to get on Hussein's good side, and thought he had a better chance of achieving peace by buttering up the dictator. But this stretches rather thin the notion of an "honest broker" for peace, who at the very least should be expected not to lie to the parties in order to get a better deal. Can you imagine Nelson Mandela, had he chosen to intervene in similar circumstances, calling Hussein a visionary? Can you imagine Jimmy Carter writing to Kim Jong Il, in an attempt to forestall a nuclear crisis, that "the West wants to destroy you sir"? And could he really find no better examples of Muslim leadership than in Libya and the Sudan? By publicly expressing such sentiments, Farrakhan has given up any claim to moral authority that he hadn't already thrown away. And by quoting them approvingly, Wanniski achieves the distinction of a scoundrel as well as a quack.

When one leaves the subject of Iraq, Wanniski's opinions get stranger still. He wrote on March 4, 2002 that there is no slavery in Sudan, a fact which he knows to be true because the New York Times was once forced to retract an article on the subject. This pronouncement will come as a great surprise to Human Rights Watch, as well as to the slaves themselves. It's even stranger in light of a 1999 article in which he wrote that the slaves are more like indentured servants, really--and in any case it's all the fault of the IMF and World Bank, just like the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. (You can't make this stuff up.)

I'm not sure if there's any unifying force in Wanniski's foreign policy views. But if there is, it's not a good one. Consider what he identifies as the real issue behind Jeffrey Goldberg's essay on the Kurds:

My big problem with Goldberg is that he told me three years ago that he had served in the Israeli army, which made him a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. I read his long article and can tell you it is worthless as 'evidence.' Even at the time, Turkey said it could not tell whether Kurds showing up on its side of the border had been gassed or were victims of malnutrition. Not that Goldberg is malicious, only that he had a serious bias going into the assignment and there is no evidence he made any attempt to test his own initial hypothesis. Having a dual citizenship with the U.S. and Israel might be okay in ordinary times, but when push comes to shove, you cannot serve two masters.

"Serve two masters"? This is dangerous language, echoing the old canard of Jewish control of the media, only updated to replace "Jews" with "Israelis." But Wanniski is not always so careful to update his prejudices. In another article, Wanniski asks the rhetorical question, "Do Jews control the media?" "You bet they do," he answers, at least as far as reporting on Israel is concerned.

Wanniski argues that such a claim isn't really anti-Semitic: "In my mind, anti-Semitism requires one to want to do harm to Jews in some way--at a low level barring Jews from country club membership, for example, a practice that still exists in some clubs at least 'unofficially.'" But one can harbor prejudices against a group without meeting Wanniski's extraordinarily high standard of wanting to do harm to members of that group. For instance, someone who claimed that Jews were intellectually and morally inferior people might mean no harm to anyone; in fact, he might want to help Jews by enabling them to overcome their innate deficiencies. And one can even harbor prejudices against a group without believing in that group's inherent inferiority: the virulent WWI-era prejudice against Germans, which certainly had its share of wild accusations and conspiracy theories, had no alleged basis in biological differences. In writing that the Jews control the media, Wanniski wasn't merely trying to praise the resourcefulness of a highly accomplished ethnic group by noting its over-representation in positions of influence. "Control" has clear connotations of influence used in a nefarious manner--and in any case, he represents the alleged Jewish control of the media as a very bad thing, which it wouldn't be if he didn't think Jewish influence was being used for undesirable ends.

And although Wanniski says his claims about Jewish media control are limited to the subject of Israel, that's clearly not the case. There's no better evidence of this than his story of Minister Farrakhan meeting with some Chicago-area rabbis:

Min. Farrakhan tells of a dinner meeting with a group of influential rabbis in Chicago a few years back, a dinner arranged by Irv Kupcinet, the columnist. He says the dinner went beautifully and the rabbis suggested they adjourn to another room for coffee, to come down to business. He said one rabbi took out a sheet of paper with a list of demands, telling him that if he complied with them, they would assure him his problems with the news media would go away. One of the demands was that he apologize for everything he had said in the past that distressed them, another that he say nothing in the future that would distress them. Farrakhan told me he said he would apologize for anything he said that was not true, if they would wish to discuss it with him man-to-man, but that he could not grant blanket apologies as if he were a child and thus could not comply. He said he told the rabbis that he could also take a list of demands from his pocket, if they were willing to sit and listen. He said he acknowledged the Jewish community had done more for the black man over the past century than any other ethnic or religious group. It was always in a parent/child relationship, and it was time for equal footing at an adult level. No deal.

Now, a reasonable person might interpret these events a different way. Perhaps the rabbis' case to Farrakhan was that if he signed the statement and apologized for the statements they found objectionable, his problems with the media would disappear as writers and editors, whether Jewish or not, stopped considering him an anti-Semite. You don't have to believe in a vast media conspiracy to think that a frank apology by Farrakhan, taking place at a joint news-conference/lovefest at which the Anti-Defamation League makes him its honorary president, might have positive effects for his image.

But that's not how Wanniski tells it. The rabbis weren't trying to achieve a rapprochement; they were offering to make Farrakhan's media problems "disappear," like Don Corleone taking care of union trouble. The image Wanniski presents is one of every newspaper editor in America placing a call to the Elders of Zion before signing off on another Farrakhan story. And if that's how the system works, how is Jewish control of the media limited to the subject of Israel--and how is such an account of it different from anything that might have been printed in Der Sturmer?

In short, it seems that Wanniski, whose ideas were always in dispute, has finally gone off the deep end. Of course, maybe this occurred a long time ago; maybe he was just as wacky when he was talking about the Laffer curve or the suffering of the American rich. I don't know enough economics to be sure. But it's still a little scary to hear a figure of some influence in American politics denying slavery in the Sudan, defending Iraq's programs of ethnic cleansing, and decrying Jewish influence in the media. Why have so few people picked up on this, and why is Wanniski still treated as a legitimate commentator rather than a dangerous crank?




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