May 31 (Bloomberg) — Right now the U.S. is suffering from the Dixie Chicks phenomenon.
Lots of people want to lash out at President George W. Bush. The war in Iraq is as messy and divisive as the Vietnam War. The general rage is so great that even critics who don't talk substance get attention. Sometimes it seems the greater the ignorance of the challenger, and the emptier the criticism, the more the authority he or she is granted on the topic.
Thus Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks felt free to assault the president without explaining why: "I apologized for disrespecting the office of the President. But I don't feel that way anymore. I don't feel he is owed any respect whatsoever." This circular bluster helped earn the country music star the cover of a recent Time magazine.
And it's not just Bush who comes in for trashing, but those who formulated the policies aimed at fighting terrorism or establishing democracy in the Middle East. Few have come in for more trashing than Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense from 2001 until last September. Feith planned policy at the Pentagon, which means he has been blamed for the fact that weapons of mass destruction weren't found in Iraq. But numerous incorrect stories notwithstanding, his office didn't collect the intelligence that suggested the weapons were there.
There have been charges that he is stupid, even by General Tommy Franks. But such personal attack isn't worth dignifying. Feith served his country in the name of democracy for five years, something we all, presumably, still believe in.
Recently he took a position teaching diplomacy at Georgetown University. A break from the trashing?
No Such Luck
No such luck. Within weeks of the announcement of his appointment, some 70 faculty, administrators and students at Georgetown had a petition laden with insults worthy of the Dixie Chicks.
Instead of merely disagreeing with Feith, the petition says he "has sought to diminish the importance of the Geneva Convention." This is inaccurate. Feith is on record as championing it during his service in the Reagan administration. The petition says that Feith has "defended the use of torture," though he never has, as the petition's author acknowledged in a New York Times article.
The petition goes on to say that Feith's hiring shows "reckless disregard for the potential damage to Georgetown's reputation."
This last is especially disconcerting, for Feith is eminently qualified. After studying at Harvard and Georgetown Law, Feith built a record as a foreign-policy practitioner in both the Reagan and Bush administrations. In the 1980s and 1990s, his work on arms control and the Middle East was greatly admired, and not merely by Republicans. (A few of his articles are on the Web site of a conservative think tank, Center for Security Policy).
The best of Feith's work involved pointing out that negotiating with dictatorships wasn't necessarily a good deal for democracies. This proved prescient vis-a-vis North Korea.
So you have to wonder what the petition's lead author, Professor Mark Lance, was actually thinking when he told the Times that he wouldn't shake hands with Feith.
The problem is, again, Dixie Chicks-ism. Lance isn't a celebrity, but he is no expert on terrorism either. His area is philosophy — his Web site shows that much of his work is in the areas of language, epistemology, and "applied anarchism." In other words, hardly the right fellow to lead the challenge on Feith's credentials.
In Feith's Corner
Robert Gallucci, Georgetown's dean of the School of Foreign Service and a former Clinton administration ambassador, has been emphatic about standing by Feith. But that Gallucci even needs to defend Feith is odd. Georgetown is one of the nation's best foreign service schools. Feith would bring knowledge and balance to Georgetown, which is short on conservatives.
The university needs to host former administration officials, especially controversial ones, if it is to give students insight into their chosen profession. President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was welcome here, even though hawks hated her for what they perceived to be pandering to Yasser Arafat. So was Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser.
Back in 1977 Georgetown welcomed Henry Kissinger as a lecturer — with seminars and tea. And Kissinger, secretary of state under Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon, was highly controversial.
So why do the Dixie Chicks of the academy get so much air time these days? Since the 1960s, universities have almost systematically hired more left-leaners than righties to teach.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently found that college presidents are two times more likely to be registered Democrats than Republics, and that two times as many voted in 2004 for John Kerry as Bush.
Universities nowadays are so biased that a reasonable person like Feith can be portrayed as extreme. Yet true extremists on the left are quietly tolerated.
As for Georgetown, you have to hope Gallucci prevails, for the university needs Feith. Future diplomats need a chance to hear from Feith, if only so they can grill him on Abu Ghraib. Or what exactly his Pentagon office did, say, in regard to the question of whether Saddam and Al Qaeda worked together.
The university's interest here is not only ethical but also commercial. If educational institutions head too far left, they do the very sort of damage the anti-Feith petition alleges. Yielding to the trashers on campus makes even a Georgetown look like Dixie Chicks U.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The views expressed are her own.)
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