“As the space shuttle Discovery flew three times around Washington, a final salute before landing at Dulles airport for retirement in a museum, thousands on the ground gazed upward with marvel and pride. Yet what they were witnessing, for all its elegance, was a funeral march.”
That’s how American political commentator Charles Krauthammer later recalled the morning of April the 17th. On that day, we watched together from a window of his office as the space shuttle was carried airborne by its pallbearer – a NASA-modified Boeing 747.
While we were talking, my host moved from one window to another, hoping to catch a glimpse of Discovery before it reached its final resting place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Balconies were crowded with people. And then I spotted it – over the buildings. “You have found it! You are not even from here,” Krauthammer exclaimed. “I think you must mention that in your article, that this is the day when we bid farewell to Discovery.” His enthusiasm made me feel that something more important was taking place than it had seemed to me at first.
The Financial Times of Britain has named Charles Krauthammer as the most influential commentator in America. The American magazine, National Review, calls him “Obama’s critic-in-chief.” Overall, everyone agrees that he is a pillar of America’s conservative intellectuals.
Among political philosophers, Krauthammer prefers John Stuart Mill. Among writers, his favorite is Jorge Luis Borges. The source of his inspiration, though, is Sir Isaiah Berlin’s collection of papers entitled “Four Essays on Liberty.” Under the influence of that British political theorist, Krauthammer says he was easily immunized against the leftist radicalism that dominated the political landscape of the 1960s and 1970s.
Today, Krauthammer sees himself as a neoconservative, although he started out as a Democrat. His explanation of the difference between “neocons” and conservatives is illuminating: “Neoconservatives generally are people who started out as liberals, and… they evolved in time into conservatism… If you ask a neoconservative – ‘How did you vote in 1964?’ – he’d say, ‘Lyndon Johnson.’ If you ask a conservative, he would say, ‘Lyndon Johnson.’ And a conservative would say, ‘[Barry] Goldwater.’”
Charles Krauthammer was born in New York City into a family of Jewish emigrants. His parents met in Cuba after the Second World War. His mother was from Belgium and his father, of Ukrainian origin, was from France. When he was five-years old, his family moved to Canada. As Krauthammer once recalled in a C-SPAN interview (http://www.q-and-a.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1021), his father was fluent in nine languages and, until his death, spoke all those languages at once.
A psychiatrist by education, Charles Krauthammer graduated from Harvard Medical School. He earlier studied political science as an undergraduate at McGill University. He also spent some time as a scholar in politics at Oxford, but his time in England was not seriously spent: “You go there to have a good time…. The country is wonderful; it’s all new and you tend to go and have a good time.” Only later on did he return to politics.
Contrary to popular belief, Krauthammer says his training as a psychiatrist does not give him an edge as a political theorist.
Psychiatry, however, proved helpful in coping with what for almost anyone else would have been a life-debilitating accident: As a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, he dove into a swimming pool at the university dormitory and hit his head on the bottom. As he himself quips: “It caused no injury except a breaking of the spinal cord.” As a result, the then-twenty-year-old student found himself permanently confined to a wheelchair. “Well, being a medical student and that week studying neurology – which was rather ironic, the book I had with me when I was hurt was ‘Neuroanatomy’ – I knew exactly what happened the second it happened,” Krauthammer recalls forty years later. “And I knew exactly what the consequences were, and I knew what the future was. And I think that was a help to me, because I never had any illusions.”
He realized then that he had two choices: He could either give up on life or he could live as if the accident hadn’t happened: “I resolved I would try never to let it change my life, or change the direction of my life. The irony is that I’d intended to a psychiatrist, which is about the one thing – that and radiology – the only thing I could do. And that’s what I wanted to do. So I went ahead and did it.” Without any hindrance, he received his medical degree from Harvard and completed three years of residency at Massachusetts General Hospital.
He admits that he misses playing sports, which had occupied eighty percent of his time before the accident. Yet, he is philosophical about the loss: “Everybody has a cross. Mine is a particularly obvious one, a difficult one. But, you know, I never asked the question, ‘Why me?’ I mean, ‘Why not me?’ Everybody else – you know, we all have our tragedies. I got in mine early.”
He replaced active sports with serious chess and, to this day, keeps a chessboard set up in his office.
Krauthammer does not consider himself a religious person, even though he was raised with Jewish traditions. Of all the possible theologies, he believes that atheism is the least plausible: “You’ve got to explain the existence of the universe, and to assume it invented itself or created itself is rather odd.”
He wants to live as long as possible – just to see how things turn out: “That’s the real downside of dying; you just don’t find out, you know, what’s going to happen in the Middle East, what’s going to happen with all the things you care about in the world.”
In 1978, he abandoned psychiatry for politics when he accepted a position in President Jimmy Carter’s Administration, as a speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale. Two years later, Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan and Krauthammer was out of a job. When he received an offer to become a contributing editor for The New Republic, he signed on with the weekly magazine.
That was the beginning of Krauthammer’s journalistic career. He soon received and accepted offers to write essays for Time magazine and a weekly column for The Washington Post. Today, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author publishes a syndicated weekly column in some two hundred and seventy-five editions worldwide and appears nightly as a political analyst and commentator on FOX News.
A “kind of leader of the opposition,” as POLITICO calls him, Krauthammer not only reviews politics but determines the stream of political discussion. He is consistent, sophisticated and accurate. Krauthammer first gained wide-spread attention in 1985, when he coined the term “the Reagan Doctrine” in his essay for Time magazine. As he described it, the Reagan Doctrine aggressively extended U.S. foreign policy beyond containment of the Soviet Union to encompass the staunch support of anticommunist movements worldwide in order to roll back the influence of what President Reagan called “the Evil Empire.”
Later, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Krauthammer also conceived the term “Bush Doctrine” to describe principles of American foreign policy in the era of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and suicide terrorism. The Bush Doctrine, which evolved over time, regarded even a one-percent WMD risk as a threat that must be excluded. Pre-emptive military action must be taken to neutralize any immediate threat, but that alone is not sufficient. It is also necessary to uproot despair, aggression and radicalism where they grow and, in the process, spread freedom.
To achieve those ends, America must not step back – in Krauthammer’s view, even if, in some cases, it receives no international backing and has to act unilaterally. “Unilateralism does not mean seeking to act alone. One acts in concert with others if possible. Unilateralism simply means that one does not allow oneself to be held hostage to others. No unilateralist would, say, reject [UN] Security Council support for an attack on Iraq…. What do you do if, at the end of the day, the Security Council refuses to back you? Do you allow yourself to be dictated to on issues of vital national – and international – security?” he wrote in The National Interest in 2002.
Krauthammer is an idealist: He wants to democratize the universe, to change it, and reckons that a better world is in America’s interests. He believes that only America is capable of attaining that goal, through the use of force if necessary. He does not have a high opinion of the United Nations or other similar organizations. That is what mainly distinguishes the foreign policy vision of neoconservatives from that of Democrats; the latter want to change the world order on the basis of international law and collective security. As for traditional conservatives, they are skeptical about democratization of the world.
One can say that neocons, as former leftists, combine the attitudes of Democrats and conservatives. Their aims are idealistic, while their means – realistic. That vision was described by Krauthammer in his book “Democratic Realism.” He clearly sees the solution to the problems of a post- 9/11 world in the spreading of democracy in the Middle East.
That is why he supported the invasion of Iraq – not because of weapons of mass destruction, but to change that culture which bred terrorism. Krauthammer believes that George W. Bush used the WMD argument only to secure UN approval and, even more so, because a lot of Americans, to his distress, “worship at the church of the UN.”
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, when most political analysts were talking about the emergence of a multi-polar world to succeed the Cold War-era bipolar world, Krauthammer predicted the hegemony of the United States and introduced the term “unipolar world.”
“It has been assumed that the old bipolar world would beget a multipolar world with power dispersed to new centers in Japan, Germany (and/or ‘Europe’), China and a diminished Soviet Union/Russia. [That assumption is] mistaken. The immediate post-Cold War world is not multipolar. It is unipolar. The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies,” Krauthammer wrote back in 1990 in Foreign Affairs magazine. Some felt Krauthammer was arrogant in expressing his belief that the power of the United States exceeded that of any of those other countries.
The political commentator responded to his critics twelve years later: “Today, American military spending exceeds that of the next twenty countries combined. Its navy, air force and space power are unrivaled. Its technology is irresistible. It is dominant by every measure: military, economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural, even linguistic,” he wrote in The National Interest in 2002.
Charles Krauthammer believes that the Jeffersonian ideal has been realized and that America has become the freedom empire. He trusts in the country’s exceptionalism and contends that the success of U.S. foreign policy rests on the idea of liberty which, ultimately, determines the fate of freedom. He thinks that the leadership of the United States will make the world a better place.
Krauthammer ponders whether the United States is an “accidental hegemon.” Historically, America pursued an isolationist foreign policy and did not crave hegemony. The United States entered the First and Second World Wars not because it wanted to become the world leader, but because it was itself endangered. As a result, it saved the world.
After predicting the hegemony of the United States at the end of the Cold War, Krauthammer expected that period to last thirty to forty years. In 2002, however, he concluded that the duration of hegemony would depend on America itself and could last for as long as America could prevent rogue regimes from getting hold of nuclear weapons. “The challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside but from the inside. The choice is ours,” Krauthammer wrote then, expressing his conviction that it was up to Americans to decide whether they view the mission of advocating for liberty as a burden or a reward.
The issue of a multipolar world is topical today as well. Many speak about the rise of China and a post-American world. Those who hold that opinion believe that the post-Soviet unipolar world is coming to an end and that the United States must put up with several centers of world power. That opinion has its critics though. They assert that such predictions are of a cyclical nature and they refer to the late 1980s, when it was also fashionable to discuss the decline of America.
Charles Krauthammer disagrees with both views. He believes that the decline of America is not the inevitability others think it is, but rather a choice – the choice of the current American leadership, though, not the people. The manifestation of that is, first and foremost, the current President’s attempt to play down the exceptionality of the United States and to secure its place by criticizing his own country.
“Farewell, the New Frontier” is the title of the article Krauthammer wrote for The Washington Post three days after our meeting. Reading that article, it became clear to me why my host was so anxious when bidding farewell to the shuttle Discovery. He perceived the retirement of the space shuttle in the museum as a symbol of America’s decline. “The pity is not Discovery’s retirement… but that it died without a successor,” he writes, lamenting the fact that, by canceling funding in 2010 for Discovery’s successor spacecraft, the United States ceded control of manned spaceflight to Russia and China. China, however, understands very well the value of symbols and plans to plant its own national flag on the moon by 2025.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 101, published 21 May 2012.