To those of you surprised by the recent American interest in attacking Iran: don’t be. The writing’s been on the wall for a decade:
The antiwar conservatives aren’t satisfied merely to question the wisdom of an Iraq war. Questions are perfectly reasonable, indeed valuable. There is more than one way to wage the war on terror, and thoughtful people will naturally disagree about how best to do it, whether to focus on terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah or on states like Iraq and Iran; and if states, then which state first?
This is part of the inconvenience of having been 13 during the buildup to the invasion of Iraq. I remember Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN considerably more than the other events of the persuasion campaign that preceded the invasion. Even after the start of hostilities, live feeds of bombs exploding was much more tantalizing than the continued debate over our mission in Iraq and plans after the cessation of hostilities.
But enough of the childhood memories. This post is inspired by the article quoted above, which was written by David Frum in April of 2003. At bottom, Frum alleged, if you opposed the neoconservative’s poorly defined “War on Terror,” you were actively opposed to your country. This is eerily reminiscent of Andrew Sullivan writing about the potential fifth column in the wake of 9/11. Neoconservatism, perhaps like no other movement in recent history, realized the benefit of labeling critics and questioners of policy “un-American,” “un-patriotic,” etc.
So rather than acknowledging the criticisms of the war in Iraq from fellow members of the right, Frum simply attacked their credibility.
To begin, he attacked the notion that paleoconservatism holds some special claim of purity in the conservative tradition. I’ll leave that aside, although it deserves mention that conservative tradition has opposed the type of large ground incursions so likely to lead to massive expenditures of money and loss of life.
But almost immediately, Frum’s argument loses steam. He cites the Second World War as an example of conservatives supporting combat:
But even Robert Taft and Charles Lindbergh ceased accommodating Axis aggression after Pearl Harbor. Since 9/11, by contrast, the paleoconservatives have collapsed into a mood of despairing surrender unparalleled since the Vichy republic went out of business.
What Frum fails to mention is that Pearl Harbor wasn’t 9/11. In no way do I wish to say that the loss of life in 9/11 was somehow less tragic, or that the dead deserve less respect or whatever else may be tossed my way in response. The fact of the matter is that the circumstances were different. Pearl Harbor was an act of military aggression by a state. 9/11 was not. We could fight back against Japan and its allies via conventional warfare. We could not respond to 9/11 in the same manner because our foe was not of the same variety.
Treating those situations as equal or implying that conservative support in the first situation should entail the same in the second is a bad argument. There’s little more to be said on that note.
Frum moves on to the meat of his essay: attacking the individuals and movement that dared oppose deposing Saddam Hussein. In relatively short order he warns against trusting the words of Samuel Francis, Leopold Tyrmand, Thomas Fleming, Richard Neuhaus, Lew Rockwell, Pat Buchanan, Pat Robertson and others associated with the movement. He warns that such figures are associated with extreme nationalism, anti-Semitism, racial politics, and a slew of other personal faults.
And to a degree, I find Frum’s argument strong in this section. We should be cautious when reading arguments from these figures because there is something toxic in the above listed problems. When I read Buchanan and others like him, I cannot forget that he supports certain policies and goals that I find most repugnant.
It’s just that we must take the bad with the good rather than treating any single offense as disqualifying someone from public commentary. If not, how would we treat flawed yet important figures such as Thomas Jefferson? Can we, as my friend LettersToMyCountry argues, allow that sins can cohabitate with virtue?
At bottom, I’d like to suggest that the extreme fealty required by neoconservatives to the party line is problematic in a few ways.
First, it requires the acceptance of a vision that is profoundly anti-conservative. This idea should require little introduction after the last decade, but here’s a brief synopsis. The United States must be a major power player in international politics and we should feel minor concern for the consequences of our actions because if we just democratize enough nations, all will be well. In this way, neoconservatism ignores the skepticism, caution, and respect for natural limits so integral to conservative thought.
A conservative take to our foreign policy would question the wisdom of pouring trillions of dollars and thousands of lives into wars that have broadly defined objectives that are unlikely if not impossible to ever see reach fruition. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, not everyone is the same. Attempting to pull down societal foundations in pursuit of vaguely worded ideals is the ultimate act of hubris.
Second, it ignores very real critiques that it otherwise might take into account. How, for instance, were we to define success in Iraq? Fealty to American objectives? Free and independent elections? The beginnings of political liberalism? We sought to create a mini-America in a place most unlike our nation and were then shocked when the residents of the region failed to extend their appreciation.
Finally, what is the endgame of this vision? We have instituted a form of democratic structures in Iraq. Is that our goal in Iran as well? What do we say for the feudal governing structures we have failed to eradicate in Afghanistan? How do we combat the corruption needed to conduct business in the region?
Ultimately, the problem with the ideological vision of “you’re either with us, or against us” is that it allows whatever party holds power to pretend opposition is against the country instead of the ruling party. That’s a tactic that is great in single party and/or authoritarian states. Not so much for republics.
We’re already seeing a similar movement forming around the desired attack on Iran. Whether that will include ground forces is still up for debate, but it is most unlikely that a successful attack can be undertaken without them. Don’t be fooled into believing that opposing such a strike means you oppose the United States or her interests. Instead, you might offer my preferred response: The United States, like all nations, has her limits. I’d prefer we never discover exactly where those limits lie. Unless faced with a clear threat to our nation’s security, war should be a last resort rather than campaign promise.
At a certain point, someone needs to do exactly what William F. Buckley declared in National Review’s opening editorial: to “Stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” Frum notes that the history Buckley referred to as that of Marxist thought. He was absolutely correct to make that push. It’s just that, left unchecked, neoconservatism is not without its own traces of Marxist grandiosity.
I’m curious what Frum would say today upon re-reading this most regrettable essay. Labeling political rivals “enemies of America” is a practice that must end.