In the Trump era, some on the anti-interventionist left have developed a tolerance for, even a grudging appreciation of, Tucker Carlson. The reason: He’s a caustic critic of hawkish foreign policy. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, the historian Stephen F. Cohen, and the author Max Blumenthal—all of whom agree with Carlson that the Trump-Russia scandal is fueling a new cold war—regularly appear on his show. After Carlson last month savaged William Kristol and Max Boot as “professional war peddlers,” Democratic Representative Ro Khanna—one of the most creative and influential doves in Congress—praised Carlson on Twitter for offering “a devastating critique [of] interventionism” that shows “there is an emerging, left right coalition of common sense for a foreign policy of restraint.”
To be sure, the progressives who appreciate Carlson’s anti-interventionism do not appreciate his racism—his endless demonization of black and brown immigrants, who he claims are making America “dirtier,” or his recycling of white-nationalist conspiracy theories about the oppression of white farmers in South Africa. Lefties such as Greenwald distinguish between Carlson’s foreign-policy views, which they consider a useful antidote to the hawkishness prevalent in both parties, and his racial views, which they abhor.
But what if they are inextricably intertwined? That’s the message of the decade-old, previously unheard recordings of Carlson that Media Matters released on Monday. They expose the core reason that he evolved from hawk to dove: He decided Iraqis and Afghans were too barbaric to be worth conquering.
The timing of the recordings is significant. They span from 2006 to 2009, as Carlson was reconsidering the interventionism he had imbibed at The Weekly Standard. That hawkishness had led him to back the Iraq War, which in 2004 Carlson said he was “ashamed” to have endorsed.
Carlson’s remorse was hardly unique. As the war turned sour, many commentators came to feel regret, and even shame, for having supported it. I’m one of them. What’s striking is the lessons Carlson drew from the war’s failure. In the recordings, he never suggests that the Bush administration should have listened to the United Nations, which refused to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He never acknowledges a problem with “preventive war” against regimes that don’t pose an imminent threat. He expresses no concern for the Iraqis America killed. In fact, he doesn’t question America’s right to conquer and occupy other countries at all. What he concludes is that the war was a mistake because Iraq is too uncivilized to subjugate.
In one 2006 recording, Carlson says that although “I hate the war … I just have zero sympathy for them [Iraqis] or their culture. A culture where people just don’t use toilet paper or forks.” When his interlocutor says it’s understandable that Iraqis want Americans “off their soil,” Carlson responds, “They can just shut the fuck up and obey, is my view. And, you know, the second we leave, they’re going to be calling for us to return, because they can’t govern themselves.”
Carlson’s point is clear: As barbarians, Iraqis have no individual or national rights. Ideally, America could conquer their country, and they would simply obey. But, unfortunately, they won’t accept the tutelage of their Western superiors.
Asked in March 2008, “How you could you salvage Iraq at this point?” Carlson replies, “If, somehow, the Iraqis decided to behave like human beings.” But he doesn’t see that as possible. “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys,” he declares in August 2008. “That’s why it wasn’t worth invading.” In 2009, he extends the logic to Afghanistan, which is “never going to be a civilized country, because the people aren’t civilized.”
Carlson’s views of Iraqis and Afghans are classically imperialist. They’re straight out of Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.” He just thinks that America’s “new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child” aren’t worth the bother.
This brand of anti-interventionism has a long pedigree. It often rises in the wake of disillusioning wars. In 1919, Walter Lippmann, who had championed America’s entrance into World War I, said the United States should disengage politically and militarily from Europe, which had proved itself “morbidly sick with conflict and trouble.” Senator Albert Beveridge said the Adriatic city of Fiume, claimed by both Italy and Yugoslavia at the Paris Peace Conference, was not “worth the life of a single American boy or a dollar of the American people’s money.”
Convinced that the United States could not civilize Europe, America’s leaders set out to ensure that Europe did not infect America. Both Warren Harding, who in 1920 ran on the slogan “America first,” and his successor, Calvin Coolidge—who declared, “America must be kept American”—slashed immigration from eastern and southern Europe. The Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly in the 1920s under the slogan “One hundred percent Americanism.”
Something similar has happened in recent years, as Americans have grown disillusioned with the “War on Terror.” The percentage of Americans in general—and Republicans in particular—who say Islam promotes violence was relatively low right after 9/11. It rose substantially from 2002 to 2006, as Americans lost faith in their ability to control and remake the Middle East. In the years since, nativism and Islamophobia have grown more and more dominant on the American right. And for pundits such as Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson, keeping America out of the Muslim world, and keeping Muslims—and all nonwhite immigrants—out of America, have become different expressions of the same racialized contempt.
All of which underscores the ideological gulf between Carlson and anti-interventionist leftists such as Greenwald, Cohen, and Blumenthal. For them, the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is that America has no right to impose its will on other nations. For him, it’s that other nations have no right to be civilized by the United States. Carlson never challenges the moral legitimacy of America’s wars, only their wisdom, given the inferiority of the people America is trying to save. The problem isn’t us; it’s them.
The difference isn’t merely theoretical. It bears on how reliable an ally Carlson will be to progressive anti-interventionists in the years to come. One exchange offers a clue. On Fox News in 2012, Carlson declared that “Iran deserves to be annihilated.” The United States, he explained, should do it because “we are the only country with the moral authority … the only country that doesn’t seek hegemony in the world.” When critics objected, Carlson sent an email to Greenwald claiming he had been misunderstood. “Of course the Iranian government is awful and deserves to be crushed,” he explained. “But I’m not persuaded we or Israel could do it in a way that doesn’t cause even greater problems. That’s the main lesson of Iraq.”
But if the lesson of Iraq is that America has the “moral authority” to “crush” or “annihilate” regimes it doesn’t like but should not do so because it “could cause even greater problems,” then Carlson’s anti-interventionism is highly provisional. If the problem with invading Iraq and Afghanistan is just logistical—if they are too far away and too culturally complex—then what about countries that are closer and more familiar, such as Venezuela? The United States pulled off wars of regime change in Grenada and Panama in the 1980s without getting entrapped in costly insurgencies, after all.
Imagine if the United States were hit by another major terrorist attack. In considering America’s response, dovish progressives would worry about civilian casualties and international law. Carlson, by contrast, would start from the premise that America has the right to “crush” and “annihilate” whomever it blames. He’d simply try to do so in a way that didn’t ensnare the United States in an extended interaction with the locals.
None of this means liberals and conservatives can’t usefully collaborate to oppose the military interventions that have sapped American power and destabilized the Middle East. In the Senate late last year, for instance, the Democrats Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy teamed up with Republican Mike Lee to introduce legislation to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s horrifying war in Yemen. But coalitions with people whose values are fundamentally alien to your own are inherently unstable. It would be nice if Carlson’s conversion from hawk to dove had engendered any empathy for the people whose countries America invades, or any self-reflection about America’s moral failings. It hasn’t. His prejudice is as embedded in his views on foreign policy as in his views on immigration.
Earlier in his career, he supported invading and subjugating the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Now he’d rather keep them from entering the United States. The strategy changes, but the perspective stays the same: Nonwhite non-Christians aren’t equal.