Berman and Buruma Face Off in The New York Review of Books (UPDATE)

The November 8th issue of The New York Review of Books is online, and among other things, it features a sharply worded exchange between Paul Berman and Ian Buruma. The back-and-forth is only the latest installment in an ongiong feud between the two thinkers, which The Observer reported on earlier this month.

Mr. Berman, a self-described liberal who believes the intellectual left has abandoned its core principles, kicked off this round by submitting a letter to NYRB editor Bob Silvers in response to a review Mr. Buruma wrote in September of Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV.

That review came out a few months after Mr. Berman published a 28,000-word essay in The New Republic criticizing Mr. Buruma’s New York Times Magazine profile of Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan. In the piece Mr. Buruma called Mr. Berman a "[tub-thumper] for Bush’s war," and suggested that his politics were more closely aligned with neo-conservatism than with true liberalism.

To this end, Mr. Buruma compared Mr. Berman to the neo-conservative Mr. Podhoretz, noting that both men have written with great admiration about Abraham Lincoln and his faith in the notion of global democracy. Mr. Buruma called this faith "revolutionary idealism," and argued that Mr. Podhoretz and Mr. Berman—both of whom, Mr. Buruma wrote, enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq—were wrong to think it meant one should "use force to impose his vision abroad."

In his response to Mr. Buruma’s recent NYRB review, Mr. Berman says Mr. Buruma took his ideas about Lincoln out of context, and that he radically misrepresented his stance toward the war.

To prove his point, Mr. Berman cites an article he wrote in The New Republic back in March 2003—before the invasion of Iraq–called "Resolved: What Lincoln Knew About War." "Any of Buruma’s readers who take the trouble to follow the trail of footnotes back to this original source," Mr. Berman writes, "will discover that, far from having invoked Lincoln in order to support Bush, I did the opposite."

He continues:

I approved on principle the overthrow of Saddam, I never did approve of Bush’s way of going about it. In the run-up to the war, I became, on practical grounds, ever more fearful that, in his blindness to liberal principles, Bush was leading us over a cliff.

In case anyone missed the point, The New Republic illustrated my article with a cartoon of a sad-looking Lincoln over the caption "The U.S. is armed to the teeth, but has disarmed itself of moral leadership." But Buruma missed the point.

Mr. Buruma, in his own letter, responds by saying that he never suggested that Mr. Berman "likes or admires" George W. Bush: "My point," he writes, "was that on the question whether it was right to go to war in Iraq to fight ‘Islamofacism,’ in the name of Abraham Lincoln, I see no difference between the neocons and the neo-left."

Mr. Buruma goes on to quote several remarks Mr. Berman has made over the years that seem to indicate that he did, in fact, support the invasion of Iraq, despite any misgivings he may have expressed in the Lincoln piece about Bush leading the country off a cliff.

UPDATE: In an e-mail to the Observer, Mr. Berman responded to Mr. Buruma’s letter:

In Buruma’s continuing effort to attach the neocon label to liberal positions like mine, he quotes two lines from a Q&A with me that he has dug up from late March 2003, in the first days after the war got underway. In the lines that he quotes, I appear to applaud the neocons. I must say that, until he quoted those lines, I had forgotten completely about that Q&A. I read those lines in the New York Review just now, thinking: really? Did I say that?

So I have looked up the Q&A, and I see that Buruma has quoted the two lines without citing the rest of the passage, with results that are rather misleading….The passage that Buruma has omitted, which is much longer than the portion that he does quote, offers an extensive and rather harsh criticism of the neocons, in a spirit of foreboding about the war. Does the world still contain readers who are interested in the debates of 2003? If so, I hope those readers will look up the entire passage for themselves. It can be found easily on Google, under the title "On Liberal Grounds," with my name. The passage draws on my experience as a Central America reporter in the 1980s, and, instead of offering support for the neocons, the passage criticizes them. The criticism happens to be one that I have made repeatedly.