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Bill Kristol Can’t Teach Us Anything

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On January 27, the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP) announced its six new fellows for the Spring 2021 semester. Over the course of the semester, these fellows host study groups, mentor students, serve as frequent guest lecturers for faculty, lead co-curricular programming, and “immerse themselves in the Harvard community,” while aiming to “to inspire students’ passion for public service.”

While there will always be debate over whose record warrants the honor of an IOP fellowship, one name on this list should be patently rejected: neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol.

Kristol’s unapologetic role as a driving force behind the catastrophic Iraq War, as an advocate of violence throughout the broader Middle East, and as a promoter of hateful discrimination against marginalized communities make him unfit to teach in our community and serve as an IOP Fellow.

Kristol’s War in Iraq

Kristol has held many titles over the years, as a Republican operative, vice presidential chief of staff, neoconservative writer and analyst, and political pundit. Kristol, however, is perhaps most famous for his role as one of the most vocal and influential public advocates for the Iraq War.

As journalist Jon Schwarz put it, “No one outside of the inner circle of the George W. Bush administration bears greater responsibility for the war than Kristol. He co-founded a think tank whose purpose was to make the case for war, wrote a book and dozens of articles calling for an invasion, and appeared constantly on TV explaining why it had to happen.”

For years, Kristol aggressively pushed for the United States to invade Iraq and topple the government of Saddam Hussein. These efforts began long before George W. Bush became president and the so-called “War on Terror” began. As early as 1998, through his neoconservative think tank, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), and newspaper bylines, Kristol advocated for regime change in Iraq and called for then-President Clinton to remove Hussein from power by force.

In September 2000, a PNAC report lamented that the bellicose foreign policy Kristol desired would require a long, slow process in order to come to fruition, without “some catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor.” A year later, with the events of September 11, 2001, PNAC and Kristol had their catalyzing event and ramped up their calls for war.

Kristol was not merely a supporter of the war but worked tirelessly to ensure it happened. Two days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, the Washington Post reported the myriad avenues (including a position at Harvard) through which Kristol pushed the war: “Kristol’s magazine, the Weekly Standard, has been loudly beating the war drums. He has launched a hawkish think tank that churns out petitions backed by big-name scholars and former officials. He presses his case privately with the likes of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and publicly on Fox News Channel. He teaches at Harvard, speaks to such groups as the World Affairs Council in San Francisco. And he’s co-authored a new book called “The War Over Iraq.”

The Bush administration could not have pulled off such a massive persuasive effort—falsely tying Hussein’s Iraq to the 9/11 attacks in the minds of Americans—without dedicated mouthpieces like Kristol spreading the government line. In the months preceding the war, the Bush administration, Kristol, and their allies repeatedly lied to the American people to justify their plans to invade Iraq.

Kristol actively pushed the lie that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” (WMDs) and planned to use them, or give them to an extremist group to use, against the United States. He argued that removing Saddam Hussein from power would “start a chain reaction in the Arab world that would be very healthy.” Additionally, Kristol insisted that “very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one,” and that the war would be a bargain. He even argued that the war would cause the United States to become respected in Arab countries and throughout the world.

Of course, none of these things were true.

The Iraq War is one of the greatest atrocities of the 21st century thus far. The loss of human life is practically unfathomable. The U.S. invasion, occupation, and resulting crises have left upwards of 500,000 people dead, multiple generations traumatized, and countless communities and livelihoods destroyed to this day.

Estimates of the Iraqi civilian death toll vary. As Schwarz puts it, “The death toll of the Iraq War is incalculable, both because the U.S. doesn’t care enough to count Iraqi deaths and because the dying isn’t over… What we can say is that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed.” In a 2013 study, researchers from the United States, Iraq, and Canada found that approximately 405,000 deaths were “probably attributable to the conflict from 2003 to 2011, about 240,000 of them a result of violence and 160,000 from war-related causes.” As the Washington Post wrote in 2018, “It seems likely that the death toll in the past 15 years easily exceeded half a million Iraqis, but how much higher is hard to determine.” On the U.S. side, nearly 4,500 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq.

As these numbers illustrate, the human costs of the Iraq War extend long beyond the official “end” of the war in 2011. Iraq is still recovering from the United States’ destruction and occupation of the country. The rise of ISIS and its genocide against Yazidis are a direct result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The war was also a deeply destabilizing event in the region, contributing to the worsening Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The war, and the jingoistic propaganda Kristol peddled to support it, have also contributed to the rise in Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Muslim violence within the United States and globally. Although Kristol now opposes Donald Trump, the former president’s Muslim ban and frequent incitement of violence against Muslims are the product of the war drums Kristol played for years.

Not only did Kristol lead the public campaign calling for this horrific war, but to-this-day, he shows no remorse. After all this death and destruction, Kristol still balks at the idea of admitting any regret over his support for the war. In 2019, when Senator Bernie Sanders asked Kristol if he had apologized for his advocacy for the Iraq War, Kristol responded, “Nope. I dislike quasi-Stalinist demands for apologies.”

To Kristol, the mere idea of accountability for over half-a-million deaths—in its mildest form, a verbal apology—is “quasi-Stalinist.”

This unwillingness to be challenged on his role in one of the most destructive events of the 21st century is unacceptable behavior for an IOP fellow. If Kristol is unwilling to learn from his mistakes, then what are Harvard students supposed to learn from him?

Beyond Iraq, one would be hard-pressed to find a war in the Middle East that Kristol has not wanted to start or expand. He actively supported Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon and called for it to be “America’s war.” He pushed for increased military intervention in Libya and advocated for war in Syria long before its civil war. He consistently pushed for additional troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a prominent supporter of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, its occupation and settlement of Palestinian land, and its bombardments and siege of Gaza.

Like many of his neoconservative peers, Kristol has been especially vocal in advocating for U.S. military action against Iran for decades. Kristol has been calling for a U.S. military intervention in Iran since at least May 2003, only two months after the Iraq War began. In 2006, he again advocated for war against Iran. During the Obama administration, Kristol’s right-wing political group, the Emergency Committee for Israel, ran ads, once again, calling for war with Iran. These ads also indulged in Birtherism and Islamophobia, as reported by the New Yorker at the time, by heavily implying that Obama was secretly a Muslim and intrinsically biased against Israel.

Despite his frequent calls to bomb the country, Kristol had the audacity to portray himself as an ally of the Iranian people on a 2018 MSNBC panel about anti-government protests in Iran. The then-president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi rightfully addressed Kristol’s hypocrisy: “Bill, you’ve been arguing to bomb Iran for so long that I don’t know if you’re really respecting the Iranian people… You’ve been advocating killing Iranians.”

Today, it is abundantly clear that Kristol has still not learned his lesson. Only a few weeks ago, Kristol was publicly fantasizing about a preemptive U.S. attack on Iran to “respond” to completely theoretical Iranian military actions—actions that, much like Kristol’s previous casus belli, Iraq’s WMDs, never materialized.

Kristol’s appetite for military conflict against Muslim-majority countries is so relentless that even bloodthirsty Islamophobes like Donald Trump realize that “All he wants to do is go to war and kill people.”

What message does it send to Iraqi, Arab, Iranian, and Muslim students that, despite his role in promoting mass atrocities and continuing to advocate for further violence, the IOP views Kristol as a worthy choice for this fellowship and as someone fit to educate the next generation of policymakers?

Kristol’s “Perfectly Reasonable” Discrimination

In addition to his complete lack of accountability or remorse for his role in one of the most destructive events of the 21st century, Kristol has a long history of hateful and dehumanizing rhetoric towards LGBTQ+ people. Much like his record of cheerleading for war crimes, Kristol has made no efforts to apologize or make amends for his ongoing history of homophobia and transphobia.

Over the years, Kristol has repeatedly called homosexuality a “choice” and a “disease.” In a 1993 debate with gay rights activist Tom Stoddard on Larry King Live, Kristol said that anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination was “perfectly reasonable.” In this same debate, Kristol blamed the gay rights movement and the LGBTQ+ community for AIDS, arguing that “the really irresponsible behavior, unfortunately, of so many people in that community,” led to “a human tragedy for our country.” During the year of Kristol’s comments alone, the AIDS epidemic killed over 45,000 Americans, disproportionately affecting LGBTQ+ and Black Americans and other communities of color. It has since killed a total of approximately 32.7 million people globally.

In 1997, the New York Times Magazine reported that Kristol “gave the concluding address at a Washington conservative conference dedicated, as its brochure put it, to exposing homosexuality as ‘the disease that it is.’” At this event, Kristol “shared the podium with a variety of clergy members and therapists who advocated a spiritual and psychoanalytic ‘cure’ for homosexuals.”

In 1999, Kristol wrote the introduction for the book Homosexuality and American Public Life, an edited volume of essays, in which an “array of scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and lawyers make the definitive case that homosexuality is both a moral and psychological disorder,” and a matter of “urgent public concern.” In his introduction to the book, Kristol insists on the need to “resist the gay rights movement” and celebrates the book’s essays as a “foundation” for this effort.

Kristol’s homophobic bigotry is not merely confined to the 1990s. In 2012, his magazine, the Weekly Standard, sent out a rabidly homophobic advertisement claiming that there were “Radical Homosexuals infiltrating the United States Congress” seeking to “indoctrinate a whole generation of American children with pro-homosexual propaganda.” The letter went on to call LGBTQ+ people “deviants.” Despite calls from the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups to apologize, Kristol chose not to condemn the ad or apologize.

Even more recently, in 2015, after Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley expressed support for the rights of transgender Americans, Kristol took his ugly transphobia to Twitter. On May 30, 2015, Kristol tweeted, “Since gender is a matter of choice, why doesn’t O’Malley decide he’s female and run to be the first woman president?” As of February 2021, Kristol has not deleted this tweet, nor has he apologized.

There is no reason to expect that Kristol will apologize to the LGBTQ+ members of the Harvard community during his time as an IOP Fellow. It would apparently be “quasi-Stalinist” to ask. In the meantime, LGBTQ+ students will be expected to attend lectures, join study groups, and share a community with someone who rejects their identity, thinks they are diseased and believes it is “perfectly reasonable” to discriminate against them.

Again, it is crucial to ask what message it sends that the IOP views Kristol as a worthy choice for this fellowship and as someone fit to educate the next generation of policymakers?

What is There to Learn from Bill Kristol?

Given these substantial concerns about morality, discrimination, and complicity in war crimes, there remains a simple question for the IOP: what is there to learn from Bill Kristol?

His record of “public service” is incredibly short, serving as chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle during his single term from 1989-1993. In 2003, the Washington Post reported that “Kristol had little influence over administration policy,” during those four years. The rest of Kristol’s career has been spent bouncing around a number of conservative think tanks and publications, the most prominent of which were PNAC, which disbanded in 2006 after achieving its principal goal of war with Iraq, and the Rupert Murdoch-funded magazine the Weekly Standard—also now defunct.

Kristol has maintained a career as a political pundit, making frequent TV appearances, previously as a Fox News contributor and more recently on MSNBC. However, even in the asinine world of political punditry, Kristol has, for decades, maintained a widespread reputation as someone who is notoriously always wrong. Even HKS faculty have argued that American media and politics could use a whole lot less of Bill Kristol and that we would all be better informed as a result.

The IOP press release announcing Kristol’s fellowship describes him as a “thought leader” and advertises upcoming discussions on the future of the Republican Party. Yet, what can students learn about the future of the Republican Party from someone who has famously made routinely incorrect predictions about the party’s future?

As a self-avowed “Never Trump” Republican, Kristol represents a minuscule constituency with little influence on Republican politics—one primarily clustered at elite institutions like Harvard and the opinion columns of major newspapers. Even after Trump’s popularity hit all-time lows following his incitement of an assault on the U.S. Capitol, 81 percent of Republican voters polled between January 23 and 25 still hold positive views of the former president, including 54 percent who do so strongly, according to Morning Consult’s tracking. There are also signs that Trump’s popularity among Republicans is recovering from its post-insurrection dip over recent weeks and that he will continue to play a major role in the party in the years to come.

It is, of course, critical to study and understand the future of the conservative movement in America; however, any honest assessment reveals that Kristol neither represents nor understands the direction of that movement, despite helping to lay its foundations. This again begs the question: what can students learn from Kristol?

The IOP press release announcing Kristol’s fellowship also highlights that students will be able to engage with these fellows about today’s critical challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic. However, other than leading the United States into invading Iraq, Kristol’s most noteworthy accomplishment in public life was leading the push to defeat the Clinton administration’s proposed universal health care bill.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has killed over 430,000 Americans alone, partially as a result of our dysfunctional private health insurance system, what lessons can Harvard students learn from one of the architects of that dysfunction?

The Need for Accountability

Given all of these concerns, it is unclear who Kristol’s IOP fellowship benefits other than Kristol himself. As writer Anand Giridharadas told the Harvard Crimson after his event at the IOP in 2019, “Harvard has allowed itself to become the world’s most prestigious drive-through reputational laundromat,” a place where individuals whose actions have put them at very high risk of public anger and resentment can be granted legitimacy and scrub their reputation through donations or high profile fellowships and professorships.

Through this fellowship, the IOP is telling the world that Kristol’s role in a war that killed over half-a-million people and his long history of homophobia and transphobia are not important enough to prevent him from being a prestigious “thought leader” worthy of mentoring the next generation of policymakers and public servants.

The IOP’s selection of Bill Kristol as a fellow is a disgrace, and the IOP should do better. The Harvard community would be better off if he resigned or his invitation was rescinded.

Of course, this call for accountability will inevitably result in claims of “cancel culture” or insistence on civil discourse and debate with Kristol instead. These accusations should be familiar to everyone at the IOP after it took the positive step to hold one of its own accountable a few weeks ago.

On January 12, Dean Douglas Elmendorf of the Harvard Kennedy School decided to remove Congresswoman Elise Stefanik from the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee, arguing that “[Stefanik] has made public assertions about voter fraud in November’s presidential election that have no basis in evidence, and she has made public statements about court actions related to the election that are incorrect.”

The Dean’s decision was the right one: the IOP should hold its people accountable for unapologetically promoting lies and misinformation and for undermining fundamental human rights and democratic processes. This should be true whether they lied about voter fraud that led to a violent mob that killed five people or lied about weapons of mass destruction that led to a war that killed 500,000 people.

Bill Kristol should be held to the same standard.