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Why the Paleos Were Right About Iraq

Twenty years after the Iraq invasion: The paleocons were right about the Iraq War because they were right about liberalism.

Ron Paul
Close-up of Ron Paul in May 1996. (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Would it be unkind to ask the Atlantic or Foreign Policy magazine, or the New York Times’s David Brooks, to stop for a minute to remember those who were right about the Iraq War?

Might we even ask them to consider why those who were right were right?


Legacy media have been awash lately with reflections on the war from those who supported it but who now feel some embarrassment. Readers might have more confidence in the mea culpa of a Max Boot, however, if Boot showed any sign of having learned from his mistakes. He has, after all, supported American intervention in nearly every possible conflict since the Iraq War, from Libya and Syria in the Obama years to Ukraine today.

When will these supposedly chastened Iraq hawks stop seeing the next conflict in the same terms they applied in 2003? Perhaps about the same time they can bring themselves to admit that Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, Chronicles, The American Conservative, Robert Novak, and other “unpatriotic conservatives” were right to oppose the Iraq War—and right for good reason.

The twentieth anniversary of the war, and also of David Frum’s “Unpatriotic Conservatives” essay in National Review, is a time for accountability. That means giving credit where it is due, to the anti-interventionist right, whose foundational importance for the politics of the 21st century was recognized by the fact that N.R. devoted a cover story to attacking it just as George W. Bush began bombing Baghdad.

It is almost as if Frum and his friends knew that the underfunded and ostracized paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians of 2003 would one day give rise to a greater force. With no money and few men, the very idea of a Buchananite right was still an existential threat to the conservative establishment. So it was the “unpatriotic” America First right, and not Saddam Hussein or his phantom weapons of mass destruction, that N.R.’s cover targeted at the outbreak of the war.

Frum’s essay was meant to be the political equivalent of “shock and awe,” the decapitation strategy the Bush administration pursued in the first days of the invasion. The American Conservative was less than a year old at the time. Pat Buchanan had been relegated to MSNBC, where executives pressured him to play the role of loyal Republican and support Bush’s invasion as expected. Ron Paul had few allies among his colleagues in the House of Representatives—there were just six anti-war Republicans, most of them moderates. And while Robert Novak was widely respected on the right, he had no institutions under his command.


On the other side, not only supporting the war but questioning the patriotism of those who opposed it, were Republicans robotically loyal to President Bush, elite neoconservative magazines and think tanks, and legacy conservative magazines and think tanks that deferred to the Republican president and neoconservative sophisticates. The elite D.C. and New York right had long exhibited a certain cognitive dissonance—it wanted to “own the libs,” as we would now say, but it also wanted to be respected the way the old liberal elite was. The neoconservatives, who had “made it” in New York and in prestigious circles in academia and the world of philanthropy, were worshiped by a middlebrow institutional right that was neither populist nor cosmopolitan.

So what was the War Party that occupied America’s center-right worried about? Did it have a clairvoyant flash that one day Donald Trump would arise, sounding a lot like Pat Buchanan or (on war and the deep state) Ron Paul?

Three things bothered the gatekeepers. First, Buchanan had drawn blood when he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. His popular following had dwindled by 2000, at least in electoral politics. But he could still write a bestselling book.

Second, Jonah Goldberg and others at National Review Online had taken notice of an intellectual rebellion on the internet—sites like Antiwar.com and Mises.org, as well as the personal website of Mises founder (and former Ron Paul chief of staff) Lew Rockwell, were attracting the young online right in the same way that unpoliced right-wing accounts on Twitter later would. Goldberg himself came in for much mockery from Antiwar.com editor Justin Raimondo and others in these “paleolibertarian” circles, as they were sometimes called. This was a direct challenge to N.R.’s self-appointed role as keeper of the right’s respectability.

The third and most important cause for concern in establishment circles, however, was ideology itself. The Iraq War was not a policy derived from facts independent of a pre-existing worldview. The reason essentially all neoconservatives and neocon-allied conservatives supported the war, while the right’s most consistent critics of neoconservatism tended to oppose it, is that the war was an extension of an already-raging clash of ideas.

On one side was the notion that American liberalism—which neocons frequently insist is the essence of American conservatism—is fundamentally true and good and requires universal expression. At the extreme, this means that America is not a place or a people at all but simply an idea, one that should not be constrained by borders, whether our own borders (limiting what goods and people may come here) or others’ (limiting the reach of American-style liberalism and democracy).

Neoconservatives ascended to leadership of the American right in the 1980s and 1990s in part through successful infighting and institutional warfare—insufficiently neoconservative editors at conservative magazines, for example, were deposed, new magazines and other institutions under the full control of neoconservatives were launched, and these institutions tended to practice coordinated cancel campaigns against anyone on the right who said the wrong thing about immigration, war, or the power of neoconservatives within the movement. What the online right now experiences when Facebook, Google, and Amazon coordinate to cancel right-wing expression is what Buchananites experienced in the 1990s and 2000s. (Thankfully, while starting one’s own Google or Amazon is hardly practical, back then, Buchanan and friends could start The American Conservative magazine.)

But neoconservative hegemony was also a product of ideas. Just as conservative movement functionaries were torn between wanting to be lib-owning outsiders or respectable counterparts to the liberal elite, conservatism as a philosophy was fractured at the end of the Reagan era. An ideologically charged grassroots Christianity didn’t obviously gel with free-market beliefs whose early exponents had celebrated the indifference of markets to sectarian passions. Right-wing foreign policy thought had been overwhelmingly focused on the Cold War and communism; there was no obvious place for a middlebrow conservative to turn in the postwar era for any kind of guiding principle in foreign affairs. How would he know what was a threat, and what was the vision that should inform America’s posture?

The neoconservatives had answers to these questions—more articulate answers than mere partisan hacks and single-issue policy advocates could supply for themselves. Neoconservatives, in tandem with center-right Catholic intellectuals who had followed the same left-to-right trajectory as the neocons themselves, worked out a theory to reconcile faith and markets. And they supplied a map to navigate foreign policy: Threats were now everywhere, because the aim of American policy should be to extend American principles—universal as they are—across the planet.

A rogue state was not just an obstacle to immanentizing this eschaton (forgive me!), but also represented an indigestible principle, a counter-universalism that if not extinguished would inevitably expand. Hence the obsession with “Islamo-Fascism” after 9/11, a nonsense term that construed Iraq, Iran, and Al Qaeda—and, always, always Nazi Germany, which is somehow never defeated—as one and the same threat. Today the enemy is still fascism, only it is now domestic fascism. Consult the latest iteration of neoconservatism at the Bulwark for a reminder.

On the other side of the civil war on the right—the side that opposed the Iraq War and most, if not all, other wars since then—is a markedly different set of philosophies. The thinkers that David Frum denounced as “unpatriotic conservatives” in 2003 were extremely eclectic.

While united in opposition to wars like the invasion of Iraq, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul have obviously very different political philosophies in general. Even within the pages of a single paleoconservative magazine, such as Chronicles, there could be wide differences: between Sam Francis as a nationalist nonbeliever and Clyde Wilson as an anti-nationalist Southern Catholic and supporter of mostly free-market economics, for example. And at the level of individual personalities, the paleo-right is notorious for fractiousness and eccentricity. Wounded honor has caused almost as much purging among paleos as the imperative of respectability has caused among the establishment right. And Robert Novak, anti-Iraq War though he was, had little in common with his fellow alleged un-patriots, though he was friends with Buchanan and some of the others.

If the Atlantic and Foreign Policy, or for that matter the New York Times, want to withhold credit from the anti-neoconservative right for being right about the Iraq War when almost everyone else was wrong, there is an easy excuse for doing so. The anti-neocons were right despite themselves—only accidentally right, like a proverbial stopped clock. Why should they be accorded the kind of respectful hearing that Max Boot or David Frum, or the Davids Brooks or French, get for their agonizing self-examinations? The Buchananite right is racist and homophobic and fascist; so what if it hasn’t contributed to the deaths of a million or more innocent Iraqis the way the well-meaning center-right has done?

I don’t agree with my fellow paleos on everything; that would be impossible, given their diversity. And I understand why liberals—left, right, and center—find them so disagreeable. But in matters of life and death, matters of war and peace, anyone who feels the slightest sense of responsibility must grapple with the awkward fact that the disrespectful right seems to have something to teach the more enlightened precincts of American punditry. A stopped clock may only be right twice a day, but that is two times more often than a clock that has been set wrong.

One of the qualities that makes the anti-neocon right so objectionable to liberals is precisely what makes “unpatriotic conservatives” smarter about war than their neoconservative opponents. Are you ready for it?

It is their rejection of liberalism itself—even the libertarians of the anti-neocon right do not subscribe to the liberalism that unites the respectable elite in this country. With this rejection of an idea comes a rejection of the class that embodies it, namely, that very same respectable elite. The paleos are outsiders and “aginners,” even on those rare occasions when they are inside institutions like Congress. They do not believe that America’s leaders in public or private life are good or competent, or that the ideas that inspire them are necessarily benign or realistic. They do not believe that with smart enough and virtuous enough liberals in charge, Washington will do the right thing and do it well—because the philosophical keystone of the entire edifice is unsound. Of course it failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. (And no, it didn’t succeed after World War II: not liberal idealism but the threat of Soviet domination led Japan and Germany to embrace the American order. Far from that being the end of history for those states, the liberalism that served a useful purpose during the Cold War has become a source of dangerous irresponsibility in the post-Cold War world.)

Liberal magazine editors will not give up their worldview just to learn a lesson about the Iraq War, or about American foreign policy in general. Yet even a little more skepticism the next time—this time, in fact—will better prepare them for the foreign policy setbacks of the future. And even the slightest acknowledgment of why men like Pat Buchanan were right twenty years ago would amount to a revolution in intellectual openness and seriousness in our legacy media. Think of it as glasnost.

If the challenge for the liberal elite is to learn a discomfiting lesson from the deplorable right, the task for the right itself is to overcome its eclecticism or negativity without forfeiting its skeptical wisdom. The opponents of the neocons were right about the Iraq War because they rejected liberal utopianism. But human beings live by ideals, even foolish ones. To stop a horror like the Iraq War requires more than just seeing clearly; it depends on getting others to share your vision. The right might have lessons to learn about that from the neoconservatives and the rest of the liberal war party.


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