By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

McCarthyism and

Conservative supporters of the war in Iraq are spreading a bizarre meme — that’s New York Times ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus as “General Betray Us” is the moral equivalent of McCarthyism. A few examples:

  • “We may be about to witness a McCarthy-Army-Welch moment in the debate over Iraq. This time, the role of McCarthy is played by, a liberal political group that launched its own attack on a respected US Army figure.” — Peter Feaver, former National Security Council staff member, writing in the Boston Globe.
  • has thrown down an unprecedented attack on an American general’s character and honesty. It is a disgusting overreach, one that brings to mind Joe McCarthy’s attacks on the Army half a century ago.” — Hugh Hewitt, radio talk-show host and blogger, in the Los Angeles Times.
  • Blogger Dean Barnett posts of a photo on of Sen. Joseph McCarthy being confronted by lawyer Joseph Welch at the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, at which Welch memorably spoke up on behalf of an officer who’d been targeted by McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
  • Sen. John McCain called the MoveOn ad “a McCarthyite attack,” according to this report in the Boston Globe by Lisa Wangsness.

OK, enough. You do see what the problem is, don’t you? McCarthy was smearing government officials by accusing them of being communists. MoveOn is smearing Petraeus by accusing him of being a known associate of (gasp!) George W. Bush.

And though it may have been wrongheaded for MoveOn to suggest that Petraeus would shade the truth on Bush’s behalf, it would be a stretch to call that offensive, let alone “McCarthyite.” Shading the truth about the war — its causes and its prosecution — is, after all, the modus operandi of the Bush White House. Pete Hegseth, writing in the Weekly Standard, accuses MoveOn of calling Petraeus a “traitor.” Hegseth needs to think through the implications of what he’s saying.

I have no love for MoveOn, and I fail to see how blowing its members’ money on a full-page ad in the Times advances its cause. There are not too many Times readers, I suspect, who continue to support (or who ever supported) the war.

I also think that Petraeus stands as one of the few honorable leaders in this terrible folly. His analysis — that U.S. and Iraqi troops are making progress on the ground — seems eminently reasonable. Too bad Iraq’s leadership continues to rip the country apart. (And yes, I understand that Petraeus wrote an overly optimistic op-ed piece for the Washington Post just before the last presidential election, an act that could be seen as political.)

This past Sunday’s “Meet the Press” was valuable, both for the downbeat assessment offered by retired Marine Gen. James Jones and former Washington police commissioner Charles Ramsey, members of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces of Iraq, and for Sen. Joseph Biden’s take on the MoveOn ad: “I don’t buy into that. This is an honorable guy. He’s telling the truth.”

Petraeus‘ truth, unfortunately, is just a small part of the picture. But unless President Bush is suddenly the new Nikita Krushchev, then MoveOn’s ad can’t possibly be compared the tactics of the late, unlamented Joseph McCarthy.

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  1. Sean Roche

    Not so honorable. Or incredibly stupid.At the most charitable, Petraeus has let himself become a cog in the Bush administration PR machine. In an almost note-by-note repeat of Greg Minkow’s corruption, he has become the poster child of a strategy that his previous serious writing identified as nonsensical.Minkow debunked supply-side economics in his textbooks, but became a supply-side cheerleader as an administration official. Petraeus wrote a highly acclaimed counter-insurgency manual then became the public face on a counter-insurgency strategy that is totally inconsistent.One assumes that Petraeus is aware this “his” report is a White House political document, that his testimony was timed (a day before 9/11) to minimize analytical press coverage.Bush is like some sort of Auror out of Harry Potter, sucking the integrity out of anyone who comes near him.Yet, even critical analysts like you continue to give the benefit of the doubt to people like Petraeus. He has allowed himself to be identified as the principal architect of a strategy that was, from the beginning, obviously not going to work. He has undermined the very measures by which we were to evaluate progress. And, he treats a return to pre-surge deployment levels as some sort of withdrawal. What exactly makes him one of the few honorable leaders in this folly? Is it because the president says he’s honorable?

  2. Philocrites

    The other notable difference is that McCarthy was using government power to tar individual citizens as well as government officials and employees as traitors. MoveOn, however, has no government power. It’s a citizens’ group complaining about government power. It seems to me that McCarthyism is antidemocratic and illiberal because of the way it used state power, not simply because it accused people of betraying their country. Betrayal, after all, is a deeply beloved trope of conservative rhetoric.

  3. magschmooz

    Funny, these same folks didn’t see shades of McCarthyism when Fox et al. dubbed opponents of the war ‘cut and runners’ and ‘defeatocrats’…What’s good for the goose…

  4. o-fish-l

    McCarthyism isn’t nearly a strong enough term for those who would undermine our top General during wartime. General Betray Us? That terminology is both sophomoric and sickening. Although US casualties have been miniscule compared to other wars and some folks might not realize it, we are indeed at war. Wake up. As a Republican, I hope keeps up this anti-American rhetoric. We couldn’t have won the last two Presidential elections (and 5 of the last 7) without wackjobs like influencing the Democrat party. Where do I go to donate?

  5. Scott Allen Miller

    Mmm no. The comparison to McCarthyism is valid. McCarthy publicly accused Americans with controversial beliefs of being traitors without any proof. has done the same thing to Petraeus. Disagree with him. Question the independence of his report. Dispute his reasoning and conclusions. But referring to him as a traitor without proof is across the line. It can’t be ignored that this accusation comes before he is to appear before a hostile Senate panel, another obvious parallel to McCarthy. went way too far — again.And before anyone gets mealy-mouthed about how “betray us” is not an accusation of treason, the words “traitor”, “betray” and “treason” all come from the Latin word “tradere”, which means “to betray”. Let’s not get hung up on parsing.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    Scotto and Fish: Actually, Philocrites makes a great point above — that at the twisted heart of McCarthyism is a grotesque abuse of power by the government against innocent individuals. So by that definition alone, MoveOn can’t possibly be guilty of McCarthyism. And if you remove the headline from the MoveOn ad, the text is reasonable by any definition.

  7. Anonymous

    “Shading the truth about the war — its causes and its prosecution — is, after all, the modus operandi of the Bush White House.” When you get to the level of Petraeus, you are more than a mere mouthpiece for the Executive Branch. The right is no more monolithic than the left, despite how ugly this continues to get. Everyone should step back, take a deep breath and keep our eye on the ball: protecting our country without destroying it. (Destruction need not be achieved from the outside in.) No one has clean hands on this one. Cohesion and The Constitution MUST coexist. Next time you feel like making a cheap political point to impress your friends on the far ________, ask: “What would Sully do?”

  8. Mike from Norwell

    Dan, splitting hairs a bit on labeling’s ad. Is the ad offensive?Other leading Democrats, however, said that had gone too far.US Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said on MSNBC: “I believe that ad was just simply over the top, and I think it’s inappropriate, period.”Still wish that National Lampoon’s brilliant parody,, hadn’t ended up in the digital dumpster two years ago (how much does it cost to hold some bits after all?).

  9. Steve

    The “Betray Us” moniker did not originate with MoveOn. It originated on Free Republic, comparing Petreaus to Senator Chuck Hagel (“Betrayus”).Any complaints from right wing zealots then?How about at any time during the last 6 years when right-wing squawkers have questioned the patriotism of members of the media or Democratic politicians?These guys dish it out continually, but they’re unable to take it.

  10. Bill

    Quibbling over whether or not it’s precisely parallel to McCarthyism doesn’t change the fact that the ad accuses the general of betraying his country.Dan, like you I’m generally a supporter of liberal causes, but I found the ad offensive.You write, “Pete Hegseth, writing in the Weekly Standard, accuses MoveOn of calling Petraeus a “traitor.” Hegseth needs to think through the implications of what he’s saying.”I see no other way to read “betray us” than as an accusation of being a traitor. That was the clear intention — nay, not the subtext, but the text — of the ad.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: Hegseth accuses MoveOn of calling Petraeus a traitor because MoveOn accuses Petraeus of twisting his testimony in service to the Bush White House. If Hegseth really means that, then Petraeus is going to have to take a number behind Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, etc., etc.

  12. mike_b1

    Dan, while MoveOn placing an ad in the NYT may seem like preaching to the choir, it did have the subsequent effect of generating lots and lots of publicity elsewhere.And that was likely the group’s intention all along.

  13. Anonymous

    Dan,Interesting comment at 1:33 p.m., but — if I may — I think you’re missing an important point.To accuse someone of being a traitor who is holding elective or appointed office — like your example of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, etc. — is a world removed from accusing a member of the military a traitor. Calling Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice (or, for that matter, Reid, Pelosi, etc.) , a traitor or something similar is what, alas, passes for political commentary these days.But to call a member of the military — especially one who has served honorably under both political parties — a traitor is beyond the pale.BD from NH

  14. Dan Kennedy

    BD: So it’s OK to call our elected officials “traitors,” but not our uniformed protectors? Sorry, but the military deserves scrutiny that’s just as close as that given to civilian leaders. This is still a republic.

  15. Anonymous

    Well, so much for “I support the troops but…” Would we expect Petraeus to disobey orders from a President Hillary Clinton? Or a President Obama? Career officers take the constitution and following orders VERY seriously. If you want to start down that slippery slope, don’t be surprised when military people start flinging the mud back at its source. You can’t possibly want THAT. In the military, traitors can be executed. I’d be a little more careful about calling these people the moral equivalent of politicians. They are a bit more than hired help. Unlike you, they have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution. BD is right. If this is the level of respect one gets for getting shot at, God help us all.

  16. Peter Porcupine

    “Nobody’s right when everybody’s wrong…”MoveOn is not McCarthy-like. They are rabid and neo-fascist in their overall mentality and enforcement mechanism towrds Quisling Democrats, but McCarthy had subpoena power – not checkbook power.MoveOn’s errors are too numerous to list.

  17. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 5:18: Given that I’m not defending MoveOn’s silly ad, it’s kind of odd that I’ve got sucked into this. But please. You are correct — I have not taken an oath to defend the Constitution. But the president and the vice president have — members of Congress, too, I suppose, though I haven’t researched it. If we’re not supposed to criticize people who’ve taken such an oath, well, welcome to China.Moreover, if you look up the word “traitor” you will find that “one who commits treason” is just one definition. There’s a more colloquial definition as well, and in using the word “betray” (not “traitor,” not “treason”) I would argue that MoveOn clearly meant something less formal than a crime for which Gen. Petraeus could be summarily executed.

  18. Anonymous

    Dan,Appreciate your reply of 4:48 p.m., and if I can make an additional point….To call an elected official a traitor is an insult that ranks with other insults elected officials receive on a regular basis, in my opinion, such as hack, corrupt, ward heeler, so forth… with no expectation of any real consequence forthcoming…But to call someone in the military a traitor, again, in my opinion, is to charge them with an offense that within their service, has as a penalty, death.Not a tell-all memoir. Or snarky comments from Maureen Dowd, or sharp commentary from Bill O’Reilly.No. Death. You are basically charging a member of the military with an offense so terrible that the ultimate penalty is death…And I think that’s the difference, again, and why MoveOn’s ad was so low, and so beyond the paleBD from NH.

  19. Anonymous

    Dan,It’s not about taking the oath.(Many of us federal employees have done that). It’s about volunteering to get shot at so the Kennedy Family can sleep soundly. 9-11 just seemed like a lousy time for MoveOn (or ANYONE)to come off as an ingrate. The job descriptions of constitutional officers don’t include incoming gunfire. I guess I feel a greater debt to those taking that fire. (To be fair, our congressional delegation IS at a high risk for gout…)5:18

  20. Bill Baar

    I prefer a comparsion to Sen’s McGovern or Gene McCarthy.An off-the-record Dem Senator said Dems would rely on third parties to attack Gen. Petreaus.The Democratic Senator were unwilling to do it themselves.So we’re presented with a Senate, which overwhelmingly voted to confirm the Gen, and knowing his mission; and then lacking the will to openly confront him.That’s cowardice of the highest sort.Something the old anti-war Senators would never have done.A Dem elected Prez is going to be in a bind as commander-in-Chief with this moral cowardice rotting in the Party.Imagine a Dem Prez taking Petreaus salute after this. Dems will self-loath for sure and… oddly, the Generals will call the shots.

  21. Steve

    Glenn Greenwald weighs in on the double standard for calling “traitor” (it’s OK if you’re a Republican), here.

  22. Neil

    Bill that’s quite the chain of logic! Associating the MoveOn ad to Democratic Senators on the basis of an off-the-record remark which somehow you were privy to, then accusing all Dem. Senators of cowardice as a result, doesn’t even rise to the level of lazy. Name that Senator! And of course even if a Senator said that, deviousness doesn’t therefore accrue to all Dem. Senators.I am frustrated with the cowardice of the Democrats too, but not because of such zany reasoning.

  23. Bill Baar

    “No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV,” noted one Democratic senator, who spoke on the condition on anonymity. “The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us.”It’s from Politico.I’m sure veryone in Wash DC knows who the Senator is. I’m pretty certain I know. Petreaus and the Army certainly knows.It’s really an affront to the anti-war movement if you think about it.One Democratic Senator at least feels so strongly against the war, feels so strongley it’s wrong, and feels so strongly Petreaus is not being forthright; yet this Senator has to hide behind McGovern, Gene McCarthy… can you imagine them hiding like this?It’s akin to Dick Durbin telling us he was lied to before the war about WMD, but couldn’t saying anything because of his security clearance.From the Wash Times April 27, 2007…Dick Durbin has no shame just like the Democratic Senator quoted by Politico.The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat says he knew that the American public was being misled into the Iraq war but remained silent because he was sworn to secrecy as a member of the intelligence committee.”The information we had in the intelligence committee was not the same information being given to the American people. I couldn’t believe it,” Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said Wednesday when talking on the Senate floor about the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002.”I was angry about it. [But] frankly, I couldn’t do much about it because, in the intelligence committee, we are sworn to secrecy. We can’t walk outside the door and say the statement made yesterday by the White House is in direct contradiction to classified information that is being given to this Congress.”

  24. Bill Baar

    Forgive me, but another quote from another Illinois Sen who shows how slick people avoided tough questions to Petreaus, letting slide the knife instead.The Chicago Sun Time’s Lynn Sweet (and she’s an Obama supporter or used to be!) on our other Illinois Senator and the General,Each member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had seven minutes to question Petraeus and Crocker about the Iraq War. Obama used about six minutes of his time to lecture Petraeus and Crocker that the surge is of modest success given the cost and the Iraq central government is ineffectual — points he has been making in speeches and debates. As Obama was wrapping up, he said, “That, of course, now leaves me very little time to ask questions, and that’s unfortunate.” “That’s true, Senator,” piped up Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the committee chairman and a rival for the Democratic nomination. Petraeus never got to answer Obama’s 266-word question. Rushed at the end, Obama asked about benchmarks not met. Crocker said, “Senator, I described for Senator Sununu a little bit ago some of the things that I think are going to be very important as we move ahead.” Obama tossed a softball: “Can you repeat those? A country at War deserves better from Senators than just letting smear a guy who will return to combat, and then dodge asking Petreaus tough questions.

  25. Neil

    Bill I join you in your disapproval of Senator Anonymous! As for Durbin, shame on him. But you cannot win the partisan argument with these meager shots. The buck didn’t stop at Durbin. It’s Bush the Decider’s war.…Senators than just letting smear a guy who…Darn free speech!I had the radio on at 9:30 yesterday morning. Joe Biden was talking. And talking, and talking. Turned it back on at 9:50, he was still talking. What a gasbag. I don’t think though that it’s because they’re “avoiding” tough questions. Rather, figuring that Petraeus would offer no particular surprises, they took the opportunity to emit gas rather than get nowhere with pointless questions. To wit, the more time we have, the more military progress we make, allowing for political breathing room which it is up to the Iraqis to exploit. Rinse and repeat, till Jan. 09 when the whole steaming pile of self-delusion can be dumped into the lap of whichever poor schmuck wins the election. With luck it’ll be a Democrat and the inevitable disaster of extrication can be neatly blamed on him or her, allowing the Republicans to regain in ’12.

  26. Bill Baar

    But you cannot win the partisan argument with these meager shots.What else we arguing about? We agree Sen Anon is a gasbag. Maybe I just suspect there are more of them among Dems then you do.You call a man, who is on his way back to battle, a liar (and this Gen leads from the front..he’s at risk), and then aspire to have your party’s candidate his C in C next year, you might find yourself in a bind when you have to come face-to-face again with the Gen (or the other Gens…there a band of brothers).That’s the real, and I think non-partisan point, I want to make. The Prez at 32% approval, Congress at 18%, and the Military in the 70’s… Those are stats an old leftist like myself finds a little spooky.But I watch this crowd of Dems plunge into a hole and tell myself I’ll stick with Petreaus. He’s some of the best America has to offer.

  27. Neil

    Bill,“You call a man, who is on his way back to battle, a liar…and then aspire to have your party’s candidate his C in C next year, you might find yourself in a bind when you have to come face-to-face again with the Gen (or the other Gens…there a band of brothers)”You’re moving the “you” around too much. I replaced the moving yous with distinct labels, to follow your logic here:Person X calls the General a liar. Person X, along with millions of other people, supports Candidate Y. Later, Person X might find himself in a bind when he or she comes face-to-face with…No, that doesn’t make any sense. How would random Person X come in contact with a General and even if he did, so what. Maybe you mean this (by shifting the “you”):Person X calls the General a liar. Person X, along with millions of other people, supports Candidate Y. Later, as President, Candidate Y might find him- or herself in a bind when coming face-to-face with…I think that’s what you’re trying for, but it makes no sense to hold a candidate responsible for every utterance made by anyone who voted for them. So, that can’t be what you meant unless you’re going for the laziest possible guilt by association. And you wouldn’t stoop to that I think.I note you’ll “stick with” Gen. Petraeus over the Democrats. But that’s not the choice. Compare apples with apples. Our Dear Leader is your man, and it his policy that the Gen. is trying to justify.

  28. Anonymous

    Dan, your original point was excellent. The knee-jerk apologists for Bush and the war ring increasingly shrill and out of touch. In their minds, whatever bad outcomes may emerge will be strictly due to Democratic failures, not Republican. It would be novel if one of them actually volunteered to go to Iraq to fight the war they love so much.

  29. Bill Baar

    …but it makes no sense to hold a candidate responsible for every utterance made by anyone who voted for them.Note voted, donated millions… when Democrats take’s coin, and Moveon turns around and call Petraues a traitor, a Democratic CinC is going to have a tough time facing Petraues after the election.McCain and Warner asked harder more probing questions. McCain was a bitter critic of Rumsfeld and the strategy in Iraq. Both these Senators had a better sense of how Civilians should control and conduct oversight of the Military.A friend once told me lose-your-temper and you cede control to your opponent. Moveon did just that in the NYT and if Democrats can’t breakaway from their donors –even if they win the election– they’ve acted childishly, are tainted with looking aside as their financers slander. They will cede control to the military in a way the GOP never would because Democrats couldn’t discipline Moveon in their argument with Bush, they lost their temper, and slandered an honorable man only doing his duty.For a more tradional liberal like myself, that’s a very odd thing to see.

  30. Neil

    Before this blog entry scrolls off the bottom, a note that George Packer has an article in the current New Yorker (available online), “Planning for Defeat”, about the paucity of longer-term thinking about Iraq. That is, instead of thinking in Friedman (ie, six-month) units, how we might be thinking about the next several years. A couple of quotes:“The Petraeus-Crocker testimony is the kind of short-lived event on which the Administration has relied to shore up support for the war: the “Mission Accomplished” declaration, the deaths of Uday and Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s capture, the transfer of sovereignty, the three rounds of voting, the Plan for Victory, the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Every new milestone, however illusory, allows the Administration to avoid thinking ahead, to the years when the mistakes of Iraq will continue to haunt the U.S.”And, the reason many in Congress used the opportunity of P-C’s appearance to puff wind rather than ask the tough questions:“Administration officials, military officers, and members of Congress described their expectations of it in strikingly similar terms, and a few said that they could write it in advance: military progress, a political stalemate among Iraqis, more time needed.”A pro forma exercise. I don’t have the eyesight to read that much online, but it’s worth checking out next time you’re at the library or even, at the “news stand” (if they still exist). Of course, I subscribe to the New Yorker, but only for the cartoons.

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