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Ten Years in the Right

A decade of The American Conservative—and its enemies
October 2002

Ten years ago, The New Republic greeted news of The American Conservative’s pending arrival with a mocking piece titled “Buchanan’s Surefire Flop.” Franklin Foer’s article now seems an almost museum-quality exhibit of neoconservative and liberal hawk hubris—the beating heart of an elite consensus that suppressed meaningful discussion about the wisdom of invading Iraq.

Pat Buchanan and his partners “couldn’t have chosen a worse time to start a journal of the isolationist right,” wrote Foer. When President Clinton waged war on Serbia, some conservatives opposed foreign military interventionism. But “no one on the right is listening anymore” to anti-interventionist arguments. The 9/11 attacks had “produced a war on terrorism that has virtually ended conservative qualms about expending blood and treasure abroad.”

Foer cited polls: 94 percent of Republicans supported Bush’s foreign policy. A triumphant Norman Podhoretz was quoted: there really was no conservatism distinct from neoconservatism anymore. A magazine whose thrust would be to attack neoconservative foreign-policy prescriptions was doomed to fail.

A decade later, how can TAC’s impact be assessed? Clearly, the magazine did not flop—it has steadily expanded its readership and survived an economy extremely inhospitable to print media. But if the Iraq War was a “clarifier,” it was unfortunately not a terribly strong one. If success is to be measured by influence on the conservative movement or the Republican Party, TAC still has a great deal of work to do: astonishingly, the neoconservatives—the group who sold the idea of the Iraq War to the last Republican president—are now if anything more entrenched in the GOP foreign-policy brain trust than in 2002.

Who might have predicted, seven years after it was clear that the Iraq War was one of greatest strategic disasters in American history, that Paul Ryan would be receiving foreign-policy tutoring from Elliott Abrams and two Kagans? To be a neocon in 21st-century America is truly never to be held accountable for one’s errors.

There is, to be sure, a much wider understanding among the attentive American public of TAC’s central message: of America’s need for a conservatism distinct from the neocon version, more Burkean, more prudent, less remote from the concerns of average Americans, less tied to the Israeli right.

Foer’s piece distilled the conventional wisdom of 2002: even conservatives who disliked the neoconservatives on other grounds—for their support of high levels of immigration, for example—shied away from frontal assaults on their foreign policy. Two months before the magazine’s launch I dined with a young economics writer who would soon write brilliantly for TAC. On the war, he advised a symposium—out-and-out opposition would only marginalize the magazine. Needless to say, his advice was not taken.

What Foer and the conventional wisdom missed was that the foreign-policy debate had already become three-sided by 2002. It had evolved considerably since 1991, when Buchanan was one of a handful of conservatives to oppose the first Gulf War. Opposition to that war was primarily “isolationist” in spirit, with Buchanan and a small cadre of others pitted not only against the neocons but a wide array of foreign-policy realists. The point is not to debate whether that war was necessary or strategically justified (though afterwards, the hawkish realist Robert W. Tucker wrote in The National Interest wrote that bombing a more or less defenseless Iraqi army in the open desert violated just war precepts). Desert Storm was not in the main a neoconservative enterprise; it was planned and executed by an internationalist establishment, sanctified by UN resolutions, and backed by a broad allied coalition. George H.W. Bush had essentially followed the script that had governed American foreign policy since the early Cold War.

Several months after Desert Storm’s conclusion, a memorandum produced under the guidance of undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz was leaked to the New York Times. It laid out a post-Cold War strategy for maintaining American global hegemony: Russia was still to be treated as an enemy; the U.S. needed to sustain a military powerful enough to suppress the emergence of any new regional power; America ought to be ready to go to war over the Baltic countries. As the leakers anticipated, the Wolfowitz plan was greeted with derision and mockery, and the Bush administration quickly made it clear that the memorandum was merely a “draft”—the kind of outside-the-box exercise an official might try in his spare time. More sober grownups were in charge.

But by 2002, Wolfowitz was number two at the Pentagon, and the building was filled with supportive neoconservatives. The grown-ups had largely lost access to the neophyte president’s ear. Brent Scowcroft, the first Bush’s national security advisor at the time of Desert Storm, was reduced to writing op-eds lamenting that attacking Iraq would jeopardize the broader aims of the war on terrorism. More or less unnoticed, the foreign policy pecking order within the GOP had been overturned during the 1990s. The neoconservatives had risen from being a significant but minority faction to a position of dominance.

Realists, including those with Republican leanings, remained influential outside Washington, in the major universities: in the fall of 2002, several dozen prominent international relations scholars published an advertisement decrying the rush towards war. But they lacked Beltway power. Unlike their neocon rivals, they had no network of think tanks and echo-chamber outfits, no Fox News or talk radio to disseminate their views, no columnists to advance their ideas or undermine their opponents’. Rather like the vanished WASP establishment to which many of them were culturally and temperamentally linked, realists seemed ill-suited to the contemporary rules of political conflict. But if the realist retreat was bad for the country, it would help secure TAC’s philosophical foundation.

Thus critics like Foer were wrong when they predicted that TAC’s only real audience would be the anti-globalist left. Foer had concluded his piece by gibing that “Workers of the world unite” would soon be Taki Theodoracopulos’s rallying cry. In fact, neoconservative war-mongering was viewed skeptically throughout the democratic West, including in Europe’s major center-right parties; in every country save Israel, the Iraq War was unpopular. TAC’s potential audience included all those who feared a neocon-led United States would be igniting wars throughout the Middle East and isolating itself.

But if Franklin Foer was wrong, why did TAC not make more headway with the conservative establishment? True, our writers never really experienced the shunning David Frum had urged in “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” his 2003 National Review attack on the outspoken antiwar right. Robert Novak and Pat Buchanan remained popular among the Republican rank and file. Five years after Frum wrote, most Republicans wanted to forget all about the Iraq War—and many were ready to acknowledge that TAC had been right to warn against it.

At the same time, they were unable to draw any conclusions from the observation. George W. Bush might have been treated as a non-person and his eight-year presidency an afterthought at the 2012 Republican convention. But prominent Republicans opposed to an aggressive foreign policy remain a minority. Ron Paul’s ceiling in the primaries seemed to be in the 20 percent range, and while a more establishment figure might have done better, there may be good reason why someone like Chuck Hagel never ran.

I think the answer is that the aging conservative movement needed, and acquired, a glue to substitute for the anti-communism that held its disparate factions together from the 1950s to the 1980s. Fear and hatred of Islam now serves that function. Many grassroots conservatives justifiably perceive an America besieged by demographic changes, globalization, and the collapse of job security, while Republicans have few answers to offer. As a substitute, talk radio and the activist right—the organs that link the GOP to the grassroots base—supply a belligerent attitude toward the Islamic world.

What can make allies of a lower-middle-class evangelical from Tennessee and a hedge-fund operator in New York passionately interested in Israel? The sense that America’s survival is somehow threatened by Islam, whether in the form of a mosque in Murfreesboro, a Palestinian trying to travel from one town to another in his homeland, a nuclear program in Tehran, or a genuinely hostile terrorist group.

A more measured view—that Islam is a historic civilization now in the throes of a tumultuous coming-to-terms with modernity, a process America is fortunately situated to observe from some distance, treat with judiciousness, and perhaps assist—has surprisingly little traction. Instead the right adopted the full “clash of civilizations” narrative. And eventually, as America became an occupier of Muslim countries, taking casualties and inflicting them, the clash acquired its own bloody momentum. It mattered not whether Islam is Sunni or Shia, democratic or monarchic, reactionary or modernizing. The “Islam-is-the-enemy” spirit may have been as alien to Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush as it is to Pat Buchanan. But it is now perhaps the most critical element holding together the conservative coalition.

If TAC’s successes in changing GOP politics have thus far been modest, the magazine’s central arguments continue to resonate with an ever wider public. In 2012, perhaps ten times as many Americans have a good sense of the problems caused by neoconservative ideologists as when we began. In the last decade there have been perhaps a dozen good books on the subject—not enough to dethrone the neocons, but enough to illuminate their ideology.

The same can also be said of the Israel lobby. In 1990, when Buchanan made an off-the-cuff remark on “The McLaughlin Group” that Capitol Hill was “Israeli-occupied territory,” it was seized upon by his foes as evidence of anti-Semitism. To speak in such a way was to break the most serious of taboos. Since then, two of America’s leading political scientists, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, have published The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which systematically explored the phenomenon Buchanan alluded to—and became a national and international bestseller. Tom Friedman, the bellwether centrist New York Times columnist, has written that Benjamin Netanyahu’s ovations in Congress are bought and paid for by the Israel lobby, and while some people complained, there was wider acknowledgment that he was simply stating a fact. That neoconservatism and the Israel lobby are now openly and widely discussed inside and outside the beltway is a major victory.

Moreover, if the current crystallization within the GOP looks dispiriting, there are several signs that point to better days ahead. In early contests where he had the resources to campaign competitively, Ron Paul—whose foreign policy stands had much in common with TAC—won the under-30 vote by wide margins, while drawing more donations from active-duty military personnel than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat. Even GOP insiders seem to understand that neoconservative foreign policy has little national backing at the grassroots, a fact indirectly acknowledged by the treatment of George W. Bush at the GOP convention.

The path Ron Paul forged in two campaigns will be followed and surely widened by others. One can look to his son Rand, casting iconoclastic votes in the Senate, or to congressmen like young Justin Amash, a Paul supporter from Michigan. Moreover, while younger neoconservatives have seldom served in the armed forces, it seems inevitable that the ranks of both parties will increasingly include many more veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Republicans among them are likely to scoff, not too quietly, at marching orders issued by the Weekly Standard. They will want a different kind of conservative magazine instead—one that takes a realistic and sober view of America’s challenges at home and abroad.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.