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Presumptive Neoconservatives

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: Thoughtless neocon punditry had real-life consequences.

Politicon 2018 - Day 2

If memory serves, I don’t remember denouncing the American invasion of Iraq when it began in March 2003, or at any time soon afterwards. Eventually I did come around to the view that we had embarked on a foolish enterprise. Yet I didn’t explicitly state that view, certainly not at first, although it was widely assumed that I was among the invasion’s earliest and most outspoken critics. 

I also rattled David Frum, who in a screed published in National Review on March 25, 2003, named me among his “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” Frum obviously assumed that I opposed a war that he fervently backed, although his invective against me had nothing to do with my presumed opposition to the invasion of Iraq. My adversary scolded me for being “the most relentlessly solipsistic of the paleos,” because I had reacted to the successful efforts of his neoconservative friends to keep me from obtaining a graduate professorship. Frum also mentioned, quite parenthetically, that I was accused of coming late to a class and lecturing in a way this disgruntled student mistook for rambling. Curiously, Frum offered no evidence that I was an “unpatriotic conservative” for openly opposing the neoconservative-planned invasion of Iraq. He assumed my position from my working relationship with others whom he attacked in his screed.


Since I was on the board of this magazine when it was founded in 2002, Frum undoubtedly took my non-statement for implicit support of the position of The American Conservative’s founders. I also wrote for other publications, including Chronicles, which were less than enthusiastic about W’s military adventure.

My critics were of course right about the position toward which I was tending all along. Although I didn’t go around declaiming against the war, I eventually realized that it was a catastrophic blunder based on a dubious claim that the Iraqi government held “weapons of mass destruction.” Although the invasion resulted in many Iraqi deaths and served no American interest that I could discern, it did benefit its most strident instigators. David Frum and other neoconservatives launched careers as political pundits or government advisors on the basis of their defense of a war that should never have been fought. Propagandists such as Michael Gerson also built journalistic careers as advocates of an American mission to spread our “democratic values.” We are still engaged in that task, as seen by our efforts to bring LGBT rights to Hungary and other apparently benighted traditional Christian countries.

But it took me a few weeks to become aware of these facts that many of my associates grasped earlier. At first, I actually cheered the American forces landing in Iraq because they were, well, American. It soon became obvious, however, that we had wandered into a quagmire whence we didn’t officially extricate ourselves until 2011. Moreover, neoconservatives had been pressing this conflict since at least the end of the First Gulf War in 1991 and were defending it with wild claims about Saddam Hussein planning to unleash weapons of mass destruction, together with their usual vacuous human rights rhetoric.

One of the things that became crystal clear from the invasion and reaction was a large antiwar presence on the right. Throughout the Cold War, I had generally assumed that the right, with which I identified myself, was the side that favored military force against America’s enemies. I also believed that those who opposed our military efforts were invariably on the left. Yes, I knew there were exceptions to my generalization, from George Kennan among traditionalists to Murray Rothbard in the libertarian camp. But I thought these opponents of a confrontationally anti-Communist foreign policy were the rare outliers.

Then in the 1990s I became acquainted with more non-leftist opponents of the “warfare-welfare state” through building connections at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. At that point I figured out that not all opponents of American involvement in Vietnam had been Communist sympathizers. Further, my battles with the neoconservatives in the 1980s showed that not all passionate Cold Warriors had been on the right. There had been anti-Communists on the left, who continued to have influence on American foreign policy even after the collapse of the Soviet empire. By the end of the Cold War, moreover, it should have been obvious that the non-Communist left was going to come out on top.

It was, however, the reaction to the Iraqi invasion that made clear to me in a way that had not been as apparent before that the right could be antiwar for right-wing reasons. This was the big cognitive takeaway for me from the war crisis: that one could oppose American military force not as a “bleeding-heart liberal,” but because its use was strategically and morally unjustified and was an invitation to even greater usurpations of power by the deep state. I came to that conclusion in thinking about the Iraq invasion and the stormy reaction to it. Contrary to what my neoconservative critics have asserted, that was not my initial response in March 2003.