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Cowering in the Amen Corner

The charge of antisemitism is the last refuge of the truly unpatriotic “conservatives” who act against the interests of America and her people.

Patrick J. Jr. Buchanan
Credit: Steve Liss/ gettyimages

If Patrick Buchanan was ever wrong, it has not made its way into the historical record. 

Sure, there are minor indiscretions, even minor errors. This publication’s founding editor and advisor to three presidents was a bit too bullish on the libertarian-infused conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan; he was a tad too willing to excuse the ideological impulses of the latter in particular, who did much to replace the old Republic with a drive toward permanent, universal revolution; he was a touch too trusting of Russell Kirk’s placement of the foreigner Edmund Burke atop the pantheon of American conservatism.

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On balance, though, Buchanan was perhaps the definitive champion of the American tradition in the latter part of the twentieth century. From the early ‘60s at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat; through the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations; through half a century in media and three presidential campaigns; to the dawn of the new millennium, the disastrous war on terror, and the founding of The American Conservative, Pat Buchanan has been a voice of reason in an age of compounding insanity. 

It was Buchanan who counseled President Nixon to “​​re-capture the anti-Establishment tradition or theme in American politics,” to “speak to the poor,” to become “the Republican FDR…[and] use the mandate to impose upon the nation his own political and social philosophy.” It was Buchanan who envisioned the politics of the Silent Majority that would succeed the cross-party liberalism of the postwar era. It was Buchanan who ensured American interest remained a live issue in Republican debates on trade long after globalist free marketeers had claimed the center of the rhetorical field. It was Buchanan who reminded the American right of the importance of the common man to the conservative’s vision of the nation. It was Buchanan who warned of “a religious war going on in this country…a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” It was Buchanan who saw the fate of all empires in America’s near future.

That is why he, along with Scott McConnell and Taki Theodoracopulos, founded The American Conservative more than twenty years ago.

With the tragedy of September 11, 2001 as pretext, the same neoconservative hawks who for years had been urging a regime change war in Iraq were gaining ground in the administration of George W. Bush. In January 1998—nearly four years before the Global War on Terror—the Project for a New American Century had sent a letter to President Clinton urging “military action” that would establish “removing Sadam Hussein and his regime from power…[as] the aim of American foreign policy.” By 2002, 14 of that letter’s 18 original signatories occupied key positions in the Bush foreign policy and defense establishments (a fifteenth, Jeffrey Bergner, would join in 2005 as assistant secretary of State). The sixteenth and seventeenth, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, were perhaps the two most important commentators urging war in the public square, based largely on information later proven to be false. The eighteenth, the lobbyist Vin Weber, was chairman of the National Endowment for Democracy, a technically non-governmental organization funded by the U.S. Congress to support regime change overseas.

The invasion of Iraq, driven almost entirely by these neoconservative ideologues, had nothing to do with the security of the American Republic or her people. It was a crucial piece of a plan to remake the world for the new millennium with the destruction of Iraq as a viable power and the complete rearrangement of political dynamics across the Middle East. (The same was true, on a much smaller scale, of the Gulf War of 1990–91.) It did not matter how many Americans would die in the process. It did not matter whether whole cultures, including some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, would be wiped out. It did not matter that civilian deaths would climb into the hundreds of thousands. It did not matter that there were no weapons of mass destruction. Iraq would fall.

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In the four decades from the Gulf War to the effective end of the Global War on Terror, Buchanan and TAC have been entirely consistent. The founding issue of this magazine included Buchanan on “the coming apex of American Empire;” Justin Raimondo on “the temptations of Empire;” and Eric Margolis on the “Iraq folly.” Five months later, Bush would put boots on the ground. It would take years of death and destruction, but the imperial adventures of W and his neocon mandarins would eventually be recognized almost universally as disastrous. We have nothing to show for the leveling of Baghdad but a destabilized Mideast, a rise in anti-American sentiment, and a great many boys sent home in boxes.

On Iraq and the neocons (as on so much else) the consensus is now: Buchanan was right.

Such conclusions are rather unwelcome in certain camps. Jack Butler, a junior staffer at National Review, published a piece Sunday with the ambitious title “The Limits of Pat Buchanan’s Post–Cold War Prophesying.” Regrettably, Butler does not deign to explore such limits. He merely rehearses the usual litany of supposedly objectionable quotes in which Buchanan addresses the links between American overextension, the neoconservative machine, and the U.S. Israeli lobby. The effect is simply to place Buchanan’s name alongside the charge of antisemitism—to leave a lingering impression that need not be supported by evidence or argument.

This is nothing new; it is not even anything new for National Review. At the end of 1991, the magazine’s founder, William F. Buckley, devoted an entire issue to accusations that the views on Mideast policy espoused by Buchanan and Buckley’s own friend and employee Joseph Sobran were rooted in animosity toward the Jewish people. “In Search of Anti-Semitism” was later re-published in book form, with responses from numerous leading conservatives. (Even Norman Podhoretz, a driving force in the smears on Buchanan and Sobran, admitted, “if one needs to search in order to find it, the possibility arises that it may not be there at all.”) The baseless charge in what was then still an influential journal of opinion did much to erode Buchanan’s support in the Republican primary, ensuring the nomination to George H.W. Bush and the presidency to Bill Clinton. 

Yet Buckley stopped short of condemning either Sobran or Buchanan. On Sobran, he concluded only that six columns had been “contextually anti-Semitic”—which is to say, not antisemitic, except insofar as they had been called antisemitic. His answer on Buchanan was less circular but even less complete: Somebody might conclude that Buchanan’s concerns over U.S.-Israeli relations were rooted in antisemitism. Or he might not.

In an interview on the subject, Buckley even described himself as “pro-Buchananism, absent this particular anomaly.” Yet he does not seem to have paused to consider whether the broader America First ethos could be melded with a singular America Second position. In fact, he went further, charging that “anybody who would permit Israel to go down militarily is probably motivated by anti-Semitism.” Buckley described this absurd position—which at its logical conclusion defines anything short of American blood spilled as proof of anti-Semitism—as “an analytical epiphany.”

NR would publish an even more sweeping denunciation of the war-weary right in March 2003, as the first casualties of the War on Terror made their way home for burial. David Frum, a neoconservative speechwriter for George W. Bush who had crafted much of the rah-rah rhetoric around the Iraq folly, charged those who disapproved of hawkish foreign policy—not to mention war crimes—as “unpatriotic conservatives.” (Frum would not become a U.S. citizen until four years later.) These people’s concerns over restraint and moral considerations, Frum argued, were merely cover for personal resentments, antisemitic or otherwise. It seems never to have occurred to Frum, a Canadian liberal who came to this country to study at Harvard, that there might be noble reasons to oppose the shipment of American boys to die by the thousands in service of the neoconservative’s vision of a “new world order.”

The most thorough rehearsal of the charges against Buchanan, however, dates back to January 1991, in the midst of the Gulf War, when Joshua Muravchik published “Patrick J. Buchanan and the Jews” in Commentary. Muravchik’s argument hinged in large part on Buchanan’s defense of those whom he believed to be falsely accused as Nazi war criminals. These are stands Buchanan took at great personal risk for very little reward: to ensure that in combating the inhumanity of our enemies we did not lose sight of our own moral code. Muravchik assumes layer upon layer of untruth: Buchanan was wrong about the innocence of the accused; he knew that he was wrong; and he attempted to deceive everyone out of a secret affinity for the Nazis and a burning antipathy to their Jewish victims. The simple explanation that Buchanan was sincere is practically dismissed out of hand.

Yet on the particular question of Israel, buried under a mile of bluster and suggestion, Muravchik could only charge Buchanan with “detached indifference,” which he inexplicably condemned as “more chilling than the fulminations of radical screwballs who honestly believe that the PLO is devoted to peace, democracy, and secularism.”

Other than “detached indifference,” Muravchik pointed to the same few lines Jack Butler trots out a generation later. There were aspersions cast on the “Israel lobby,” which was far and away the strongest foreign influence on American policymaking; especially troublesome was the quip about Capitol Hill as “Israeli-occupied territory.” (In 2007, long after the attacks on Buchanan, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard would give the subject a scholarly treatment in The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; they would endure the same smears from the same sources.) There was the time Buchanan asked, “Why is painting swastikas on a temple considered a hate crime, while the desecration of the host at St. Patrick’s cathedral by a rabid group of sodomites is not?” Most famously, there was the line on the Gulf War: “There are only two groups that are beating the drums...for war in the Middle East—the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”

All in all, the evidence convicted Buchanan of two counts: common sense and rhetorical flair. Yet Commentary, National Review, and a host of other powerful institutions whose interests aligned with the neocons’ made a massive leap from these pundit’s barbs to the charge of ancient bigotry.

He would tackle the issue head-on in a 2003 TAC feature titled “Whose War?” In one essay, Buchanan restated with discomfiting clarity the role of the Israel lobby (and of neoconservatives for whom Israel was a top priority) in forming U.S. Mideast policy, and rebuked the charge that it was anti-Semitic even to point out these facts in public.

Indeed, it is the charge of “anti-Semitism” itself that is toxic. For this venerable slander is designed to nullify public discourse by smearing and intimidating foes and censoring and blacklisting them and any who would publish them. Neocons say we attack them because they are Jewish. We do not. We attack them because their warmongering threatens our country, even as it finds a reliable echo in Ariel Sharon.

Buchanan insisted that his concerns were broader, even if the fact of Israeli influence was central to the argument: “The neocons seek American empire, and Sharonites seek hegemony over the Middle East. The two agendas coincide precisely.”

In 2003, it is doubtful even Buchanan knew how completely future events would bolster his position. Not just in Iraq but in Afghanistan and beyond, the results of the War on Terror are abysmal for America, for her allies, and for the people she claimed to be liberating twenty years ago. The neoconservatives are as thoroughly discredited as any political movement in American history. An unlikely president ascended to the White House on a platform virtually identical to Buchanan’s old positions. But where does it all leave us?

It is 2023. The boys who will die in the next misadventure were not yet born when Pat Buchanan was drummed out of polite society. (Of the 13 service members killed in Biden’s coda to the War on Terror, five were not alive on 9/11.) They have been raised in the heartland hollowed out by NAFTA, by Chinese hegemony, by closed factories and open borders. They have suffered the social chaos of family collapse and moral anarchy. Enough time has passed for unheeded warnings to play out.

So much has changed, and so much is the same. Today more than ever before, the mainstream right accepts Buchanan as a kind of secular prophet. Why, then, do we still assume that the man who was right on so much when everyone else was wrong, was wrong on just this one decisive thing, and his critics for once were right? Why do we concede the substance of their attacks and hope they will simply leave the spoils of victory behind? Why do we allow 30 years of slander to go unanswered?

The response henceforth must be unequivocal: Buchanan was right about Israel, just as he was right about most everything else. There was a time when Israel was a vital part of U.S. grand strategy, as the Soviet Union’s global ambitions hung in the balance in the Middle East. The calculus is radically different when no such existential conflict is underway. In the post-Soviet world, we return to the usual logic of interactions between nations: Insofar as Israel is a friend of the United States whose interests align with ours, American policy should reflect this fact. But the idea that Israel alone among the nations is beyond reproach does not survive first contact with reality.

On Israel, as in the rest of his politics, Pat Buchanan is a realist. Israel is a distinct nation with its own priorities, its own goals, its own concerns; it is not the 51st state of the Union. On the best day, those priorities will still not be perfectly identical to ours. The D.C. establishment’s rejection of Washington’s warning “to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” can only be grounded in a stubborn denial of this fact. Israel’s unique position in the heart of hostile territory and its unique character as a religious ethnostate also make the Israeli military posture unique on the globe. It is not a posture in which the U.S. can justly or sensibly join. Friendship is not without limits; nothing in politics is.

The strength of the Buchananite position is especially relevant in light of recent events, as Israel and the rest of us approach another decisive moment. The partisans of war have been quick to cast the massacre of October 7 as Israel’s 9/11. That analogy will do. But let it be understood, then, that for Israel to rerun our post-9/11 course would be both a grave sin and a catastrophic error. Already we have seen atrocities committed in the name of retribution. Already we have seen the military response morph into an aimless, endless quagmire of the kind we know too well. Are Americans not right to ask where our friends are going—and where they are leading us? On the right especially, it is almost impossible to raise such questions without inviting the usual accusations. And as Buchanan and others know, once the accusation is levied, it sticks—no matter what.

It is a rhetorical diversion of astonishing brashness and devastating consequence. A great many sincere conservatives have been shunted to the sideline on charges of antisemitism when they cannot even be plausibly convicted of anti-Zionism. Their question is not whether Israel has a right to exist; I have never met an American conservative who bothers to dispute that. It is whether Israel’s existence can or should be underwritten by American blood and treasure. It is how far American power should extend on behalf of a longtime friend when our own national interests are nowhere under threat. It is whether we will allow—even encourage—our allies to make the world a worse and more dangerous place for America. If we cannot have these conversations in good faith, then the American right that was revived in 2015 has no real reason to exist. 

One wonders whether that might be the point. The antisemitic smear does not just silence dissent on Israel. It silences dissent across the gamut of conservative political issues. Why should we indulge the trade policy of a man who would harbor death camp torturers? Why should we secure our borders at the urging of those who would deny another nation’s sovereignty? Why should we heed the moral warnings of a man tarnished by hate?

This is the transparent purpose of Butler’s latest attack on Buchanan—it is not an attack on Buchanan at all. He merely drags the tribune of the common man back through the same old mud in hopes that some will splash on Kevin Roberts, the president of the Heritage Foundation, whose first experience in politics was volunteering on Buchanan’s campaign in 1992. That a Buchananite is now the president of Heritage, the great machine of the conservative establishment, is one of many long-delayed vindications of the man and his vital message. Roberts is a friend of this magazine, and it is his praise of Buchanan at TAC’s gala last month that has set Jack Butler off. Rather than engage with Roberts’s characterization of Buchanan as “a thorn in the side of elites who badly deserved one” or his reminder of “how our own leaders sold out our republic’s Cold War triumph for a mess of globalist pottage,” Butler simply points at the Israel controversy and hopes that the conversation will end there.

In a way, this double smear is even more objectionable than the actual warmongering of the Iraq-era hawks. At least they were sincere, and when they deflected criticism of their policies onto the Israel question they were merely retreating to their own strategic center. With Butler, it is hard to understand it as anything more than a cynical conceit. He knows not just that the antisemite smear is unshakeable, but that those to whom Israel is sacrosanct will do the heavy fighting against any response. It is an attempt to skirt the battle on America’s domestic issues altogether. Why should serious people engage in serious debate when Jonah Goldberg’s lap dog can just yap at the heels of America Firsters, then run for cover behind the actual neocons? It accomplishes the same goal—the elimination of any challenge to 2004 GOPism—without any of the hard work.

The alternative is not just to concede the field to Buchanan on Israel and U.S. foreign policy. It is to concede the field to Buchanan, period: to give the America First agenda a fair hearing, and so to accept its victory; to admit that two generations of political warfare have been waged not just in bad faith, but for no final reward.

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