Recanting the War

After a week or so of being backed into a corner by a mom with a few questions, George W. Bush is coming out fighting, we are told, with a new campaign to popularize the war. In a speech given on Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, however, it seemed more like he was coming out flailing. Once again, we were told “Iraq is a central front in the war on terror,” but the absurdity of this statement was only compounded by the widespread realization on the part of his audience that Iraq had nothing to do with al-Qaeda – before the war, that is. In the next breath, Bush took pains to remind us that the invasion and occupation of Iraq embedded terrorists where they weren’t before:

“Terrorists like bin Laden and his ally, Zarqawi, are trying to turn Iraq into what Afghanistan was under the Taliban, a place where women are beaten, religious and ethnic minorities are executed, and terrorists have sanctuary to plot attacks against free people. Terrorists are trying to block the rise of democracy in Iraq, because they know a free Iraq will deal a decisive blow to their strategy to achieve absolute power. The Iraqi people lived for three decades under an absolute dictatorship, and they will not allow a new set of would-be tyrants to take control of their future.”

Women being beaten? Maybe the president really doesn’t know about this. Or this. That the rest of us do, however, only underscores how utterly removed from reality he is. It doesn’t matter that he’s venturing out into the heartland to make the case for war to the American people, because he never gets out of that bubble he’s encased in – the one that doesn’t permit him to see that women in Shi’ite Iraq are going to be worse off (in a narrowly legal sense, at any rate) – than they were under the Ba’athists. Religious and ethnic minorities aren’t doing too well in the “new” Iraq, either: you don’t want to be a Turkmen or an Arab in Kurdish Iraq, and in Basra, secularists, Christians, and Zoroastrians are having a tough time of it.

The complete ineffectuality of the president’s strategy is recognized not only by his opponents, but by his friends – or, rather, those who were his friends, at least until rumors of a winding down of American involvement began to sweep Washington, and the neocons began to find themselves being politely but firmly shown the door. Now, suddenly, the former White House speechwriter is among his most acerbic critics:

“By now it should be clear that President Bush’s words on the subject of Iraq have ceased connecting with the American public. His speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars is the latest – and one of the most serious to date – manifestations of the problem. The polls tell us that the American public is losing heart. A substantial majority (56%) now say that the war is going either ‘very badly’ or ‘moderately badly.’ More than 50% now regard the war as a mistake. One-third want an immediate and total withdrawal. Maybe most fatefully: a plurality now say that they believe that the president deliberately misled the country into war.”

And whose fault is that? Not the neocons‘ – of which Frum is the exemplar and chief enforcer – who plumbed [.pdf] for this war years prior to 9/11, and wrote the administration’s talking points in the run-up to the invasion. Instead of taking any of the blame, Frum passes off responsibility solely to the president, who just isn’t doing as good a job communicating as he ought to. But never fear. The author of the president’s infamous “axis of evil” speech has a few suggestions:

“The president could have made news yesterday by itemizing the reasons to regard Iraq more positively than most journalists do. He could have ticked off some of the achievements daily posted on the site. (Here’s the latest.) He could have teased details even out of the mainstream media. (Mickey Kaus the other day noted that the reliably dour Robin Wright of the Washington Post casually mentioned in the course of her latest down-beater that Iraq has gone on a car-buying boom that has put a million new cars on the road since liberation. Kaus: ‘A “car-buying boom” – another shocking failure! Don’t they know about global warming?’)”

Is Frum saying the president ought to take on Mickey Kaus as a speechwriter? I’m not sure injecting a Kausian note of snarkiness is going to help sell this war. Nor will regaling Americans with stories of how the American military in Iraq helped a young Iraqi boy have surgery to repair the hole in his heart. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of Iraqi children as “collateral damage,” with holes in their hearts inflicted not by disease but by stray American bullets, what’s communicated is a doubly disturbing and oddly mixed message: an image of American soldiers as angels of mercy and dealers of death. As for the heartening news that some Iraqis are going on a car-buying spree, I wouldn’t advertise that too insistently. After all, they’re doing it with our money. Announcing that Ahmed Chalabi and his friends are all getting a brand-new Mercedes courtesy of the American taxpayers isn’t going to thrill anyone outside the hallowed halls of the American Enterprise Institute and the editorial offices of National Review.

What Frum must have found particularly disturbing, however, were the frequent references to an implied endpoint of our intervention:

“Our military is strategy is straightforward: As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down. And when Iraqi forces can defend their freedom by taking on more and more of the fight to the enemy, our troops will come home with the honor they have earned.”

Bring the troops home – that meme creeps even into the president’s speeches, and surely it must give Frum and his fellow neocons a nasty start to hear it. Why bring them home when there’s so much more work to be done – so many wars of choice to embark on, so much regime change to effect – in Syria, Lebanon, Iran … perhaps even Saudi Arabia?

Never mind that the American people wouldn’t buy it. How can the president know until he tries? We’ll just work up some juicy talking points, whip up some “evidence” of Iranian “weapons of mass destruction,” and get some oddball exile group to feed us phony “intelligence” while keeping them on the payroll. That should do the trick. By Christmas, we’ll have visions of mushroom clouds dancing in our heads.

The neocons are deserting the U.S.S. George W. Bush like rats leaping off a sinking ship. It started with Bill Kristol in the Weekly Standard, and now Frum is openly deriding the president’s leadership, as well as his lack of rhetorical muscle. Adding a distinctive note of bitterness and disappointment to the chorus is Andrew C. McCarthy, in National Review, who bluntly declares:

“For what it’s worth, this is where I get off the bus. The principal mission of the so-called ‘war on terror’ – which is actually a war on militant Islam – is to destroy the capacity of the international network of jihadists to project power in a way that threatens American national security. That is the mission that the American people continue to support.

“As those who follow these pages may know,
I have been despairing for a long time over the fact that the principal mission has been subordinated by what I’ve called the ‘democracy diversion’ – the administration’s theory that the (highly dubious) prospect of democratizing Iraq and the Islamic world will quell the Islamists. (Aside: go ask Israelis if they think the fledgling ‘democracy’ in Gaza and the West Bank – which is very likely to bring Hamas to power – promotes their national security.)

“Now, if several
reports this weekend are accurate, we see the shocking ultimate destination of the democracy diversion. In the desperation to complete an Iraqi constitution – which can be spun as a major step of progress on the march toward democratic nirvana – the United States of America is pressuring competing factions to accept the supremacy of Islam and the fundamental principle no law may contradict Islamic principles.” [Emphasis in original]

The invasion of Iraq was itself a great diversion, in that it had nothing to do with the alleged attempt to crush al-Qaeda. Instead, it had everything to do with the preconceived agenda leading neocons took with them to Washington when they were brought in by the Bush administration to run American foreign policy. They hijacked that policy to engage in an ideology-driven adventure, one that – having achieved, like so many government programs, the exact opposite of its stated intention – is ending in bloodstained tragedy.

If McCarthy is getting off the bus, he ought to recognize that his defection was preordained before his journey was even begun. After all, the American invasion had to empower the Shi’ite majority: the replacement of Saddam Hussein by the Ayatollah Sistani and his fellow mullahs was inevitable, a matter of simple demographics. Unless McCarthy believes we should have taken on the Shi’ites, in their millions, after defeating the Ba’athists, it is hard to see what he would do differently, given his initial support for the war. Perhaps he’ll develop a more wide-ranging critique in the future, but in the meantime, he isn’t the only conservative supporter of the war to have second thoughts.

While McCarthy is angry that, in Iraq, America seems to have “gone into the theocracy business,” Stephen Bainbridge, a professor of law at UCLA and a respected conservative scholar, is more concerned with the domestic consequences of the war:

“It’s time for us conservatives to face facts. George W. Bush has pissed away the conservative moment by pursuing a war of choice via policies that border on the criminally incompetent. We control the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and (more-or-less) the judiciary for one of the few times in my nearly 5 decades, but what have we really accomplished? Is government smaller? Have we hacked away at the nanny state? Are the unborn any more protected? Have we really set the stage for a durable conservative majority?”

War, as Randolph Bourne famously explained, is the health of the State, and – as libertarian scholar Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute has exhaustively shown – the history of the growth of centralized government in America is really the history of our nation’s wars. The self-augmenting power of the permanent government bureaucracy invariably takes a great leap forward in wartime, and surely the present conflict is bringing that point home to conservatives like Professor Bainbridge. Libertarians always knew this, and conservatives used to know it. With the more thoughtful figures on the Right rediscovering this timeless principle, one can only hope such disaffection is becoming a trend.

While McCarthy’s departure from the president’s position is more tactical, in that he seems disappointed by what he imagines is Bush’s lack of the proper ferocity, Bainbridge’s is a more far-reaching critique. While the professor, like McCarthy, is none too pleased at the prospect of an Iraqi theocracy installed by U.S. force of arms, he rejects the “flypaper” strategy in moral as well as practical terms. Invoking the caution of the Powell Doctrine in implicit contrast to the reckless Bush Doctrine [.pdf], Bainbridge writes:

“The fly paper strategy seems to be radicalizing our foes even more. For every fly that gets caught, it seems as though 10 more spring up. This should hardly come as a surprise to anybody who has watched Israel pursue military solutions to its terrorist problems, after all. Does anybody really think Israel’s military actions have left Hezbollah or Hamas with fewer foot soldiers? To the contrary, the London bombing suggests to me that it is only a matter of time before the jihadists strike in the US again, even though our troops remain hung out as fly paper in the Augean Stables of Iraq.”

Bainbridge’s argument sounds very much like the arguments advanced by former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer. In his book, Imperial Hubris, Scheuer argues that, by invading Iraq, we have become Osama bin Laden’s one “indispensable ally.” Scheuer, too, compares the occupation of Iraq to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, and darkly points to the likelihood of another devastating attack on U.S. territory – a prospect exacerbated rather than reduced by our incursion into Iraq.

In reading some of the responses to Bainbridge’s remarks by pro-war Bush loyalists, one is reminded of Lew Rockwell‘s thesis that what energizes the “official” conservative movement today isn’t conservatism as we’ve traditionally known and understood it, but “red-state fascism” – a mutant ideology spawned by ex-leftists (known today as neoconservatives) the essence of which is power-worship and the glorification of war. The hectoring style of denouncing anyone who disagrees on the War Question as a “traitor” and a “leftist” is here on display, and an ugly sight it is. So ugly that the professor had to warn certain commenters that they were pushing the envelope of acceptable discourse, expressing his puzzlement

“As to why some people (including some very prominent bloggers) seem to believe that blind loyalty to Bush and his Iraq policy is the definition of what it means to be a conservative. It’s as hard to have a debate with those folks as it is to have a debate with the anti-war paleos and types.”

Believe me, Professor Bainbridge can debate us antiwar paleos until doomsday, and we’ll never accuse him of treason because he fails to follow the party line or berate him for believing blindness to be a terrible disability. It seems like only yesterday that Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Tom Fleming, Lew Rockwell, myself and a host of others were all labeled “unpatriotic conservatives” for failing to be convinced by the very same arguments Messieurs Bainbridge and McCarthy find so lacking in logic today. Bainbridge objected when Andrew Sullivan called him a paleocon – “Now that’s hitting below the belt” – but it’s just a matter of time before the War Party is on your case, professor. One can only wonder how long it is before you share our fate and are cast into the Outer Darkness by the same David Frum you say you like. You may like him, professor, but given the tenor of your current views on the war, I very much doubt he has much use for you.

The conservative crack-up over the war is already in progress, and recent developments have only served to accelerate it. Before the most recent recantations, we had Bill Buckley and Tucker Carlson, among others, who said if only they’d known then what they know now, they would never have supported the war, and we can expect that after the upcoming congressional elections the wave of recantations will be in full swing. Senator Chuck Hagel has already positioned himself to take full advantage of this emerging political demographic, and we will soon see a phenomenon that we at have labored long and hard to bring about: the antiwar Republicans, whose rise may augur the end of our long neoconservative nightmare. This is what can really end the war, and prevent another major conflict from developing beyond a dangerous potentiality – the destruction and implosion of the War Party’s base in the conservative movement.

The seeds of this rebellion on the right were planted long ago. Although I don’t mean to brag about my own small role, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, had something to do with building an alternative to the neocon-dominated, war-happy Right. Pat Buchanan’s seminal A Republic, Not an Empire, and the magazine he co-founded with Taki Theodoracopulos and Scott McConnell, The American Conservative, gave the emerging paleoconservative critique of American imperialism a platform and the kind of visibility that proved an effective counterpoint to the nutty neo-Jacobinism [.pdf] of the neocons.

We at, while giving antiwar voices on the left their just due, have always made a special point of highlighting conservative opposition to this war, seeing it as a measure of the broadness of the antiwar movement, and a key element of its strength. We’ll know the troops are coming home when many of the loudest voices calling for their prompt return are Republicans. We aren’t quite there yet – but we’re getting there. And that is good news indeed.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].