The Weekly Standard’s War
As the Weekly Standard celebrates its 10th birthday, it may be time to ask whether America has ever seen a more successful political magazine. Many have been more widely read, profitable, amusing, or brilliant. But in terms of actually changing the world and shaping the course of history, what contemporary magazine rivals the Standard? Even if you believe that the change has been much for the worse, the Standard’s record of success in its own terms is formidable.
At the time of the Standard’s founding in 1995, there was considerable speculation among neoconservatives over whether the movement had run its course. In “Neoconservatism: A Eulogy,” Norman Podhoretz argued that neoconservatism had effectively put itself out of business by winning on its two major battle fronts: over communism and the residue of the 1960s counterculture. In the process, it had injected itself into the main body of American conservatism to such a degree that it was no longer particularly distinct from it. The eulogy was not a lamentation, more an appreciation of a job well done.
But while there was something to the Podhoretz argument, the American Right in 1995 did not have a neoconnish feel. Newt Gingrich and the new Congress were the center of gravity; Rush Limbaugh was a far more important figure than Bill Kristol; the issues that most agitated the Right, gays in the military and Whitewater, were either the province of religious and social conservatives or committed Republican partisans.
On other national issues, neocons were either uncertain or not on the cutting edge. Charles Murray’s 1994 bestseller The Bell Curve, which argued that IQ was hereditarily based and was increasingly and ineluctably correlated with career success and life outcomes, was the most discussed and controversial book on the Right, but neocons were split over whether to distance themselves from it or quietly embrace at least some of its analyses. Immigration, already an issue of intense popular concern in California, was a key cause for National Review, the oldest and most popular magazine on the Right. But most neoconservatives deplored the immigration-reform impulse, with many claiming to see in it an echo of the restrictionists of the 1920s, whose legislation had the (obviously unintended) result of closing America’s door to Jewish refugees a decade later.
Foreign policy, which had been a prime unifier of the Right during the Cold War, was on the back burner. Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary had been waging a lonely battle against the Oslo peace process (a track leading to a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank), but its position was very much in the minority among both foreign-affairs experts and American Jews. In the quarterlies, foreign-policy specialists debated America’s role in the post-Cold War world, but it was hard for most newspaper readers to keep up with obscure struggles on the Balkans or complicated debate about NATO expansion. America, it seemed, had no real enemies. Thus in 1995, it could be rightly claimed that the original neoconservative movement had spawned a successor generation, even two. But it was not clear what that generation’s role would be, if any.
Enter the Weekly Standard—edited principally by William Kristol, a genial and sharp son of an eminent neoconservative family—which arrived on the scene thanks to a $3 million annual subsidy from Rupert Murdoch. It is not always understood beyond the world of journalism that political opinion magazines almost invariably lose money—sometimes a lot of it. The deficits are usually made up by their owners and subscribers’ contributions, some quite substantial. Commentary was supported for most of its life by the American Jewish Committee and now has a publication committee of formidably wealthy people. William F. Buckley’s National Review always had angels; Buckley once answered a query about when his magazine would be profitable by saying, “You don’t expect the Church to make a profit, do you?” The venerable Nation, at the time of the Standard’s founding, had an annual deficit of roughly $500,000, made up by owner Arthur Carter. The prestigious Atlantic Monthly reportedly loses between $4 and $8 million a year.
That said, while the Standard’s reported subsidy was gigantic for a small ideological niche magazine, if Rupert Murdoch’s purpose was to make things happen in Washington and in the world, he could not have leveraged it better. One could spend 10 times that much on political action committees without achieving anything comparable.
It has never been obvious, however, what Murdoch’s ideological and political ambitions were. A brilliant businessman, he was generally right-wing—though his newspapers and networks hardly humored socially conservative sensibilities. His papers tended to endorse conservative candidates who had a good chance of winning. More than anything else, he seemed to relish his triumph over the British press unions. He was not an immigration restrictionist but didn’t share the neocon antipathy to them. In 1993, it took considerable effort by New York Post editorial-page editor Eric Breindel to persuade Murdoch that Rudy Giuliani was vastly superior to the incumbent David Dinkins as a candidate for mayor of New York. In one conversation I had with him (during my own brief tenure as Post editorial-page editor) about the paper’s foreign-policy positions, he told me, when the discussion had veered to Israel and the Middle East, “Well, it might not have been a good idea to create it [Israel], but now that it’s there, it has to be supported.” A splendidly ambiguous statement—perfectly consistent with a strong pro-Israel position, but not the sort of thing an American neoconservative would ever say.
The subsidy Murdoch accorded the Standard assured the new venture would be highly visible by the standards of start-up political magazines. It could afford a wide newsstand presence: it is costly for any new magazine to print issues that will in most cases not be sold. The Standard not only passed out thousands of complimentary issues around Washington, it had them personally delivered to Beltway influentials as soon as they were printed. Above all, the new journal provided employment for a small coterie of neoconservative essayists and a ready place to publish for dozens of apparatchiks who held posts at the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon-friendly think tanks.
With the fledgling Fox News network, the Standard soon emerged as the key leg in a synergistic triangle of neoconservative argumentation: you could write a piece for the magazine, talk about your ideas on Fox, pick up a paycheck from Kristol or from AEI. It was not a way to get rich, but it sustained a network of careers that might otherwise have shriveled or been diverted elsewhere. Indeed, it did more than sustain them, it gave neocons an aura of being “happening” inside the Beltway that no other conservative (or liberal) faction could match. Murdoch had refuted the otherwise plausible arguments in Norman Podhoretz’s eulogy.
But what was the Standard’s type of neoconservatism? To some degree the new magazine echoed the most popular GOP obsessions, exhibiting for example a limitless enthusiasm for Kenneth Starr’s inquisition into Bill Clinton’s sex life. It warned Republican lawmakers against supporting a 1996 immigration reform that would have reduced the numbers of legal and illegal immigrants. (Asians and Hispanics had “increasingly Republican partisan inclinations” the magazine claimed, without evidence.) It had a moment—one issue, precisely—of Great Fear when it seemed possible that Pat Buchanan would capture the 1996 Republican presidential nomination and devoted a three-article cover spread to bemoaning the possibility. (One piece was a smear, one a reasoned look at Buchanan’s protectionist economic views, and one contained the interesting assertion that Buchanan’s views on issues were not particularly extreme—and in fact shared by tens of millions of Americans—but his way of presenting them was, and therein lay the problem.) It published Robert Kagan’s attack on Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” under the charming neo-McCarthyesque title “Harvard Hates America.” But except for its foreign-policy stances, the Standard seemed a bit themeless throughout its early life.
Nor does the recently released The Weekly Standard: A Reader 1995-2005 pinpoint the editorial heart of the publication. The volume (as does the magazine itself) contains several excellent pieces, exuding an urbane and sophisticated moderate conservatism. Worthy of note is what may be the finest appreciation in print of the Columbia literary critic and neoconservative precursor Lionel Trilling, written by Gertrude Himmelfarb (Bill Kristol’s mother). The collection also contains essays by Christopher Caldwell, Joseph Epstein, and Andrew Ferguson that any editor would be proud to publish. The magazine’s hawkishness is not exactly swept under the bed; Kristol and Robert Kagan’s “Saddam Must Go” editorial of November 1997 is reprinted: “We know it seems unthinkable to propose another ground attack to take Baghdad. But it’s time to start thinking the unthinkable.” Charles Krauthammer’s “At Last, Zion” (May 1998) is a powerful and moving explanation of why Israel is at the center of his (and much neoconservative) consciousness. In “The Holocaust Shrug” (April 2004), David Gelernter wheels out the tried and tested appeasement analogy in support of the Iraq War. Saddam is no Hitler, Gelernter acknowledges, but “the world’s indifference to Saddam resembles its indifference to Hitler.”
But these foreign-policy essays, making up perhaps a fifth of the volume, don’t do justice to the central role the Iraq War played in establishing the Standard’s identity. For despite the publication’s subsidy and visibility, before 9/11 it seemed to be floundering. It was unable to push George W. Bush in a direction it wanted. Most of the editors had supported John McCain in the Republican primaries; no neoconservatives received cabinet-level posts in the administration. The varied balloons Kristol and company hoisted to give a focus to their politics (“national greatness conservatism” was one, with an emphasis on an assertive foreign policy and constructing patriotic monuments) never gained much altitude. In 2001, Kristol mentioned to some that he was considering closing down the magazine. The Standard’s last cover story before 9/11 was a long meditation by David Brooks on the TV show “Gilligan’s Island” and what the evolution of pop culture said about globalization.
One day a novel must be written that conveys the sense of purpose and energy that surged through the Standard’s offices—and that of the whole Washington neoconservative network—in the days after September 11, 2001. No more esoteric musings about Gilligan and the Skipper. The Project for a New American Century—a Bill Kristol-founded pressure group that specialized in gathering the signatures of the obscure and moderately famous in support of a more militarized foreign policy—would be ignored no longer. At long last, there would be an audience.
Inside the administration were Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their staffs, heavy with signatories of the original 1998 PNAC Saddam-must-be-removed letter. They set out to neutralize the skeptical CIA and Colin Powell’s more cautious State Department and rush the White House into a war in Iraq. Their story has been told in several book-length accounts and administration memoirs. Outside, with the vital task of shaping public opinion, the Standard emerged as the nerve center, a focal point to concentrate and diffuse the message of the Beltway neocons. For these bookish men, it was a Churchillian moment, an occasion to use words to rally a nation and shape history.
Their job was to divert America’s wrath away from those who perpetrated the attack and turn it against those who did not. It was, on the face of it, quite a stretch. The day before 9/11, the idea of a ground invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was as “unthinkable” as it had been when Kristol and Kagan had first broached it four years earlier. But the country was confused—in shock and primed for vengeance. Suddenly there was a large national audience for foreign-policy discussion on the TV networks and talk-radio programs. The whole conservative movement was looking for guidance. If repetition could somehow insert into the national consciousness and thereby render plausible an idea that would otherwise have occurred to very few, the Standard would be up to the task. Again and again the refrain would be pounded out, “Saddam Must Go!” and would be picked up by commentators further down the ideological food chain.
In the first issue the magazine published after 9/11, Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly, two employees of Kristol’s PNAC, clarified what ought to be the country’s war aims. Their rhetoric—which laid down a line from which the magazine would not waver over the next 18 months—was to link Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in virtually every paragraph, to join them at the hip in the minds of readers, and then to lay out a strategy that actually gave attacking Saddam priority over eliminating al-Qaeda. The first piece was illustrated with a caricature of Saddam, not bin Laden, and the proposed operational plan against bin Laden was astonishingly soft. “While it is probably not necessary to go to war with Afghanistan, a broad approach will be required, ” they wrote. Taliban failure to help root out bin Laden ought to be “rewarded by aid to its Afghan opposition.” Presumably Ramsey Clark was tendering advice more dovish than this, but it could not have been by much.
Against Saddam, by contrast, no such caution was contemplated. “To be sure,” the PNAC duo intoned, “Usama bin Laden and his organization should be a prime target in this campaign. … But the larger campaign must also go after Saddam Hussein. He might well be implicated in this week’s attacks … or he might not. But as with bin Laden, we have long known that Saddam is our enemy, and that he would strike us as hard as he could. …The only reasonable course when faced with such foes is to preempt and to strike first.” “Eliminating Saddam,” they concluded, “is the key to restoring our regional dominance.”
If by week two the Standard had laid out a grand strategy (focus on the Saddam end of the fanciful “Saddam-bin Laden axis”), by week three it had found an iconic cover photo to reinforce the message. Max Boot’s “The Case for an American Empire” was illustrated with two Navy enlisted men in bright white uniforms, one black, one white, raising (or perhaps lowering) the stars and stripes, the sea stretching before them. This imperialism, the photo said, would be based on racial harmony. It evoked the “France of 100 million” posters that recruited soldiers from the empire to fight the Huns in World War I. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen,” Boot wrote.
Once Afghanistan has been dealt with, America should “turn its attention to Iraq.” “Who cares if Saddam was involved” in the 9/11 attacks? Boot did not. Saddam “has already earned himself a death sentence a thousand times over. … He is currently working to acquire weapons of mass destruction that he or his confederates will unleash against America. … Once we have deposed Saddam, we can impose an American-led, international regency in Baghdad, to go along with the one in Kabul. With American seriousness and credibility thus restored, we will enjoy fruitful cooperation from the region’s many opportunists …”
Standard writers would repeat these arguments for the next 17 months. “If two or three years from now Saddam is still in power, the war on terrorism will have failed,” wrote Gary Schmitt some weeks later. Several weeks after that, it was Reuel Marc Gerecht’s turn: “Unless Saddam Hussein is removed, the war on terror will fail.” The line derived from the letter of menace Kristol and PNAC had addressed to George W. Bush on September 20, 2001. Failure to attack Iraq, they told the president, would “constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender” in the War on Terror.
A magazine communicates through its covers as well. Most telling was one of George W. Bush, gesticulating before an audience of troops, arm extended in a Caesarian pose. “The Liberator,” the Standard headline proclaimed. Flatter the leader who will do your bidding. It was February 2003, and the editors knew by then that war was almost certain.
Bush and his team have since fallen out of favor in Standard land. The magazine has begun blaming the bungled prosecution of the war on Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and has called for his resignation. As Bush sinks in the polls, the journal will surely look to other politicians to carry out its aspirations. If David Brooks, now a New York Times columnist, is an indicator, that figure is likely to be a centrist or a “progressive” in the Joe Lieberman mode—conservatism as a vehicle for neoconservative foreign-policy goals having been pretty much run into the ground.
During the second week of the Iraq invasion, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz interviewed several intellectual supporters of the war. The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman (who backed the war despite being haunted by its similarities to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which he saw firsthand) suggested that this was very much an intellectuals’ war. “It’s the war the neoconservatives marketed. Those people had an idea to sell when September 11 came, and they sold it. Oh boy, did they sell it. So this is not a war that the masses demanded. This is a war of an elite. … I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom are at this moment within a five block radius of this office) who, if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.” Then Friedman paused, clarifying, “It’s not some fantasy the neoconservatives invented. It’s not that 25 people hijacked America. You don’t take such a great nation into such a great adventure with Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard and another five or six influential columnists. In the final analysis what fomented the war is America’s over-reaction to September 11. … It is not only the neoconservatives that led us to the outskirts of Baghdad. What led us to the outskirts of Baghdad is a very American combination of anxiety and hubris.”
That kind of ambiguous conclusion about the Standard’s and the neocons’ role in starting the war is what the undisputed and public evidence will sustain. The Standard was important. It amplified the views of “the 25” the way luncheon seminars at the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon think tanks never could have.
Its role can be likened to the Yellow Press, the Hearst papers and Pulitzer’s New York World, which did everything they could to instigate a war against Spain over Cuba in the 1890s and boosted their circulation mightily in the process. In the wake of 9/11, the Standard didn’t have to create the martial atmosphere artificially, just divert it from Osama to Saddam.
Without the Weekly Standard, would the invasion of Iraq taken place? It’s impossible to know. Without the Standard, other voices—including those of the realist foreign-policy establishment, which had been dominant in the first Bush administration and which opposed a precipitous campaign against Saddam—would have been on a more level playing field with the neocons. That would have made a difference.
So in a sense the Iraq War is Bill Kristol’s War as much as it is George W. Bush’s and Dick Cheney’s, and the Standard is the vehicle that made it possible. It should go down in history as Rupert Murdoch’s War as well, and thus becomes by far the most significant historical event ever to be shaped by the Murdoch media.
How ironic it would be if it were not, in the end, a war Rupert Murdoch particularly wanted.