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Why ‘Unpatriotic Conservatives’ Couldn’t Be Written Today

Ten years ago—less than 24 hours before the formal start of the Iraq War—National Review published David Frum’s “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” an essay anathematizing every outspoken conservative critic of the war. (And several who didn’t call themselves conservatives at all.) 

Actually, only the first dozen paragraphs did that. The rest, about two thirds of the essay, rehashed roughly a decade’s worth of right-wing squabbling that had little to do with patriotism, war, or foreign policy. Frum conflated critics of the war with paleoconservatives and conflated paleoconservatives with critics of neoconservatism. These categories overlapped but weren’t identical even in 2003—Robert Novak was a stalwart of movement conservatism, not a paleoconservative rebel. Scott McConnell had worked for Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential campaign, but his start in journalism came writing for Commentary, and he was still best known for having been editorial page editor of the New York Post.

Frum included University of Michigan history professor Stephen Tonsor in his account of the origins of paleoconservatism, but Tonsor never adopted that label—he was a traditionalist, a 1960s National Review type—and he actually supported the Iraq War.

These mistakes were easy to make because the only organized opposition to the war on the right came from institutions that were distinctly, indeed definitively, paleo. If you were a conservative of any kind, the only outlets you were likely to have for antiwar views were Chronicles magazine and the LewRockwell.com website. (As well as the six-month-old American Conservative—but we’ll get to that.) Paleos, certain libertarians, and some old-guard traditionalists published in those places. But other antiwar conservative voices (not that there were many) were unlikely to do so. You wouldn’t expect to see Jeane Kirkpatrick’s byline in those venues, for example.

There were dissident neocons, non-Rothbardian libertarians, non-paleo traditionalists, and mainstream foreign-policy academics who opposed the war but had no outlet. They were the sort of people who before the war would have published in First Things or National Review or, for that matter, The Atlantic rather than in paleo publications, which had their own tone and set of interests that were self-consciously—even defiantly—out of the mainstream.

As a result, a great deal of conservative doubt about George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda went unpublished, and what criticism was published, even when it didn’t appear in explicitly paleo outlets, was easily tagged as part of the Buchananite fringe.

From the start, The American Conservative aimed not to be part of a fringe—our second issue led with a cover story by diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder making the case against pre-emptive war. Pat Buchanan was one of the magazine’s founders, but Buchanan was more than just a paleo figure; he was an experienced Nixon Republican as well. In fact, there were many old Nixon, Reagan, and Bush I hands who thought the Republican Party had put itself, and quite possibly on the country, on the path to suicide.

There was a need for paleo criticisms of the Iraq War, and Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist criticisms. But there was also a need for institutional vehicle for criticisms that came from other quadrants of the right, a vehicle that didn’t have such a restrictive identity. In 2003, however, there was very little room for such a thing: the war’s non-paleo critics were often prevented by their employers from expressing any dissent. But the dam cracked as catastrophe of the war became ever harder to deny. And perceptions broadened: no longer did it seem as if only the paleos held this eccentric, “unpatriotic” view of U.S. foreign policy.

When Frum wrote his essay “antiwar conservative” was nowhere near as strong a brand as “paleoconservative”—with all the additional baggage that concept carried. Today the reverse is true: there are all kinds of relatively well known “antiwar conservatives”—the label is less important than the core idea—and nobody would think that the antiwar perspective on the right could be discredited just by attacking the paleos. In this, as in so many other ways, the Iraq War has altered our political landscape profoundly.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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