It ain’t easy being a libertarian anti-war activist. No one trusts your motives and the scene is rife with assumption: If on the left, the heart bleeds for humanity, while libertarians want to make sure no one drops blood on behalf of the state. One is selfless, while the other is selfish. Or so the metaphors go.
But for 20 years, while some anti-war movements on the left have waned and evaporated with the changing of the guard in the White House, the libertarians and self-described paleoconservatives at Antiwar.com have endured and outlasted the suspicion and derision of the mainstream, not to mention the slings and arrows of the War Party.
They’ve outlived at least one war (Bosnia), are growing old with others (Afghanistan, Iraq), and meet each new one (Libya, Syria) with the same hard gaze and piercing reporting and commentary.
Antiwar.com has even outlasted the vitriol of its critics. David Frum—the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase “axis of evil”—once called Antiwar.com co-founder Justin Raimondo an unpatriotic, self-defeating, sympathizer of terror when he refused to goosestep with other conservatives behind the invasion of Iraq. Where is Frum today? After remaking himself as an establishment pundit, the Canadian-born recovering neoconservative is now furiously distancing himself from the inmates he helped take over the asylum, and chafing against any allusions to his former persona.
Meanwhile, while not rich in coin or feted among the media elite, Raimondo and co-founder Eric Garris, who conceived of the website and have been running it every day for 20 years, take satisfaction in knowing that—unlike Frum—they were right about the disastrous trajectory of the wars they opposed, and can sleep at night with a clear conscience.
“We were hard core about it and we didn’t give an inch and we were proved right,” says Raimondo, now 60-something, and though he confesses to being more “tired,” he has kept up the pace of three columns a week for over a decade. “We stood strong.”
Garris, a Los Angeles baby-boomer who cut his teeth on a civil rights march at age eight, laughs to think today how Raimondo first rebuffed his idea to take their protest of the 1995 NATO bombing in Bosnia online, calling the advent of news websites “a passing phase.” Juiced on libertarian thinkers like Randolph Bourne, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, and fully entrenched in libertarian grassroots politics, both soon realized the Internet provided the best space to explore and report on war from a libertarian-right perspective. They believed—and still do—that foreign policy was the “central issue of our time.”
They had already thrown their support behind then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who had opposed the first Gulf War and had later co-founded TAC. They were ready to reach out to others on the right tired with the interventionist orthodoxy. “We wanted to educate why foreign policy isn’t an afterthought,” Raimondo recalled.
“In the Clinton years, it was a lonely battle because the people who you would think would be the first to respond to a website called Antiwar.com would be on the left,” he added. “Back then I was writing a column every single day including Sunday. Partly it was frustrating that we were not getting the support I thought we were going to get.” The left, particularly under a Democratic administration (recall that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, and First Lady Hillary Clinton were the early vanguard of modern humanitarian interventionism), were knee-jerk in their suspicions of the anti-war right.
Libertarian anti-war critics faced the double duty of defending themselves against traditional hawks, too. Though it was slightly easier in a time when Republicans were opposing the NATO operations and late 1990s airstrikes in Iraq, many of course out of purely political motives. Then, as today, libertarians are considered suspect, no matter how strongly their positions on war and domestic security line up with the left or right.
Raimondo in particular has a bare-knuckled writing style that both endears and repels readers, depending on what they want to hear. An openly gay man who long eschewed the support system of the liberal San Francisco activist community he lives alongside, he’s sarcastic and doesn’t shrink from public conflicts with other writers and readers, nor is he averse to making them personal. He burns bridges, and has bad blood with people going back years. But he’s the first to admit it, and the same passion he is criticized for unleashing like a literary Smaug is what makes his columns so sharp, funny and cathartic.
“Justin Raimondo is a cross between H. L. Mencken and Gore Vidal,” offers Angela Keaton, who is the longtime director of operations at Antiwar.com and currently among its staff of seven. “His chronicling of a decaying empire is both depressing and exhilarating.”
Raimondo isn’t the only writer that has bolstered the website over two decades. Antiwar.com boasts a revolving stable of trenchant writers hailing from different spheres: journalists, academics, columnists, retired military and intelligence agents. Particularly after 9/11 put the country on a firm and forever war footing, the website drew not only a new audience and burgeoning fame in the online news media universe, but writers who wanted a say yet were rebuffed by corporate platforms uneasy with critiquing the status quo.
“We were there in terms of providing alternative ways for thinking about 9/11,” recalled Garris.
“It was interesting, we didn’t become a major site until the day after 9/11,” added Raimondo, noting the website logged some 80,000 visitors the day after the terror attacks alone (up from an average of maybe 5,000). “We started getting death threats and also media attention.” PBS NewsHour did a segment on the website; the Drudge Report included a link in his covered media roll, where it remains today.
Over the years a host of regular contributors (including this writer, far from a libertarian purist) found a welcome perch at Antiwar.com. They hailed from both the left and the right, crossing generational lines and addressing the rise of so many different elements of the growing military-industrial complex and new security state.
“One of the goals of Antiwar was to mainstream the anti-war position as opposed to pigeon-hole it into some kind of leftwing, Democrat endeavor,” said Garris. The result was that on any given day one could find writing from conservatives Patrick J. Buchanan, Jude Wanniski, Ron Paul, and the late Charlie Reese alongside leftist writers like Noam Chomsky, Gareth Porter, Andrew Cockburn, Juan Cole and Norman Solomon. Phil Giraldi and Ray McGovern have lent their long experience in the U.S. intelligence community to the cause. For a long time until his death in 2012, Jeff Huber brought his gold-standard wit and military insight to the page, coining nomenclatures like “Bullfeather Merchants” and “Pavlov Dogs of War” to describe the warmakers he despised. He gave nicknames to his favorite targets like Ray “Desert Ox” Odierno and “Uncle Leo” Leon Panetta and used his own Navy background to skewer the day’s war headlines.
Every day editors like Jason Ditz have made sure there was an updated compendium of news links and fresh stories covering current news on the war, categorized by region, conflict, and domestic security issues. Antiwar has had some of the best in the trenches and behind the scenes, including Jeremy Sapienza, Matt Barganier and John Glaser. The Scott Horton Show—now independent but still found on the site—increased reach and gave the brand a depth that went beyond just a sounding board. It was interactive.
“There is no other show like that,” said Keaton, who helps the site raise money, works conferences and exhibitions, and participates in panel discussions. “Scott opened up Antiwar to a new and younger audience.”
Of course when President Obama took office Antiwar lost some of its progressive writers and readers. But they expect the same if a Republican ever wins the White House again. “There are people who say they are anti-war but they are really only anti-a particular war,” said Garris. “They don’t care about policy, they care about power.”
Good riddance to those people, says Keaton. While it made it difficult for Antiwar’s fundraising after Obama came to wage “the good war” in Afghanistan, it has made their own movement that much stronger, she said.
“Working for Antiwar has meant absolute consistency. We are going to remain the same, respond the same way, along the same editorial lines,” she said. Thanks to the the great leadership of Garris, she said, “it is extremely cohesive. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Of course Antiwar has not been without controversy. Among its readership, the site invariably draws elements of the fringe—quite the minority—but among them are 9/11 truthers and anti-Semites, who show up from time to time in the comment fields and link back to Antiwar from their own websites and blogs. Raimondo’s regular critiques of Israel and neoconservatives, particularly during the run-up to the Iraq War, have also drawn accusations of anti-Semitism. Raimondo denies the label but considers it intimidation and hasn’t let up one inch on Bibi Netanyahu or neocons. He and Garris also drew attention from the FBI; a file, obtained through FOIA, showed federal agents were once looking at Antiwar.com as a “threat to national security,” in part because of Raimondo’s writing about Israel in the wake of 9/11 and its criticisms of the U.S. in general.
Those revelations were a mixed blessing. At first Garris thought publicizing this, particularly in the wake of Edward Snowden’s exposure of the government’s vast domestic surveillance programs, would help, but it ended up turning away prospective donors and making current ones wary. “It has hurt us—we’ve had to make cutbacks, we’ve had to cut staff,” he said. “It wasn’t the effect I was expecting.” Today, Antiwar brings in about $500,000 a year, and that goes all to annual operations, Garris said. Times are lean, but stable, he added. A presidential contest that all but promises the election of a war hawk no matter what party wins won’t hurt.
Given there is war—and more war—on the horizon, plus a national security state that makes whatever the Clinton years did to harm civil liberties look infantile in comparison, what does the team think they’ve achieved in 20 years?
“We’ve played a major part in influencing young people, people who are not necessarily left-wing but anti-war,” he said. The burst of Ron Paul mania in 2008 and 2012 comes to mind. “The Internet, it’s a young person’s game and for a significant time we have been opening people’s minds to [anti-interventionism]. Who knows who the 16-year-old of today is going to grow up to be?”
Raimondo doesn’t sugarcoat things. “I think we were the first to popularize the notion that a cabal of neoconservatives led us down a path to war,” he said. “I think that is our best achievement right there. Making known to people there was a specific group of of people and institutions that were plumbing for war and specifically a war in the Middle East.”
What next? Keeping alive the idea of non-interventionism amid the changing tides of politics, he says. Battling charges of isolationism and worse, it could be a challenge, but never unsurmountable. “We’re a rock, and the sea is rising up against us, but we endure.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.