The War Party, Then and Now

The widely noted dumbing-down of conservatism has elevated the clueless, the vapid, and the downright dangerous to leadership positions in the movement. The radio shouters and boob-tube oracles have reduced the thoughtful philosophy of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Frank S. Meyer to the braying, mindless sloganeering of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter. Their Bizarro World "conservatism" is an inversion of the original: it means big government and the surveillance state at home, and a "revolutionary" policy abroad. The noted conservative philosopher Claes Ryn aptly describes the post-9/11 Right as "neo-Jacobin," because it seems to have been generated by sheer bloodlust and a will to dominate.

This accurately captures the savage spirit of the new "conservatism." Cruelty is the leitmotif of the War Party’s polemics, whether it’s Max Boot’s lament that the Afghan war – in its early stages, at least – was the occasion for too few casualties, or the following from an old Jonah Goldberg column.

After making the argument that the fate of Israel depends on our decision to go to war, and that the destruction of Israel would be perceived by the Islamists as evidence of American weakness, Goldberg wrote:

"So how does all this, or the humble attempt at a history lesson of my last column, justify tearing down the Baghdad regime? Well, I’ve long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the ‘Ledeen Doctrine.’ I’m not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: ‘Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.’ That’s at least how I remember Michael phrasing it at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute about a decade ago (Ledeen is one of the most entertaining public speakers I’ve ever heard, by the way)."

It was never about "weapons of mass destruction," or Mohammed Atta supposedly high-fiving the Mukhabarat at Prague airport, and it sure as heck wasn’t about "democracy," either. It was all about the "Ledeen Doctrine" – the joy of bashing "some crappy little country" against a wall. We did it because we could do it, if only for its cathartic effect.

The glee at the prospect of so much death and destruction is disturbing, to say the least, but these people condemn themselves out of their own mouths. Adding insult to injury, Goldberg now avers:

"The Iraq war was a mistake.

"I know, I know. But I’ve never said it before. And I don’t enjoy saying it now. I’m sure that to the antiwar crowd this is too little, too late, and that’s fine because I’m not joining their ranks anyway.

"In the dumbed-down debate we’re having, there are only two sides: Pro-war and antiwar. This is silly. First, very few folks who favored the Iraq invasion are abstractly pro-war."

The Ledeen Doctrine – or what might be more properly called the Ledeen-Goldberg Doctrine – is surely "abstractly pro-war." It values war for its own sake, and glories in the cruelty of it. It is an expression of brazen sadism as the meaning and motive of U.S. foreign policy. Goldberg claims that not many war supporters held to this satanic doctrine: that is, not many agreed with him and Ledeen about the necessity of ritually sacrificing "some crappy little country" to the war god on a regular schedule. I, however, beg to differ. After all, this is not the sort of sentiment one would normally be proud of, or even admit to. In any case, the desire to punish the Arab world in some significant way as "payback" for 9/11 made the choice of targets largely irrelevant. According to the Ledeen-Goldberg Doctrine, it didn’t have to be Iraq. It could just as easily have been Syria, Lebanon, Iran, or Pakistan.

As for his curious argument that it is "dumbed down" to cast the Iraq debate in terms of pro-war and antiwar, one can only point to his previous writings, all of them unambiguously and even emphatically pro-war. Is he now saying his arguments then were dumb? If so, I’ll give him credit for honesty.

Goldberg’s recantation, if it can be called that, is merely a litany of excuses – including one for continuing an admittedly ill-conceived and downright mistaken war. Instead of bothering with his rather strange assertion that "antiwar types aren’t really pacifists" – hey, like we didn’t already know that? – and his whining that Democrats who favored Clinton’s numerous interventions have suddenly gone "antiwar," I’ll refer you to Matt Barganier’s demolition over on the blog, and leave it at that. One has to wonder, however, how he has the nerve to add:

"I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side."

All those dreadfully threadbare arguments – that civil war would break out, a humanitarian crisis in the form of an exodus from the region would ensue, and the war would go regional – that one wouldn’t wear to a Washington cocktail party back in ’02 have acquired a new luster now that they’re in style. Scott Ritter, for example, argued all along that Saddam had no WMD, and was denounced and smeared by Goldberg and his pro-war pals for his trouble. Ritter was right, and the War Party was either mistaken or lying – yet somehow, it’s the fault of the antiwar movement that Goldberg and his confreres got it wrong.

As the libertarian journalist and scourge of the credulous John Stossel would put it: "Give me a break!"

I’m sure Goldberg would find much amusement in the concept that he was not so much pro-war as anti-antiwar, if only he had the wit to think of it. Yet one can only wonder at the complete vapidity of such a stance, which expects to be taken only half-seriously: it’s an affectation substituting for a real argument, worn like an actor’s mask. Every once in a while, however, the mask slips, and we get the Ledeen-Goldberg Doctrine, i.e., pure evil.

After subjecting us to his long litany of excuse-making, Goldberg writes,

"But that’s no excuse. Truth is truth. And the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003. I do think that Congress (including Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, and John Murtha) was right to vote for the war given what was known – or what was believed to have been known – in 2003. And the claims from Democrats who voted for the war that they were lied to strikes me as nothing more than cowardly buck-passing."

Let’s apply Goldbergian "logic" – which is surely an epistemological Great Leap Forward – to the realm of science, and we come up with the following: given "what was believed to have been known," medieval doctors were right to bleed patients half to death by attaching leeches to their skin, just as they were right to burn "witches" at the stake. After all, it wasn’t discovered until much later that bleeding couldn’t cure bubonic plague, and that witches – the WMD of their time – were just figments of the priestly imagination. Goldberg’s argument is relativism raised to the nth degree, surely a curious position for an ostensible conservative to take. Aside from that, however, Goldberg’s conception of what was "believed" begs the question – believed by whom? By Goldberg and his fellow neocons?

Surely a host of war critics, whom we published on this Web site, questioned the "intelligence" ad nauseam in the long run-up to the invasion. We consistently disdained and debunked the crude fabrications and third-hand tall tales retailed by Ahmed Chalabi and the neocon cabal in the Pentagon, from the Niger uranium forgeries to the myth of Iraqi nukes. Goldberg is well aware of, as his past writings indicate. And of course his magazine famously smeared not only me but also a host of other far more well-known and influential conservatives and libertarians as "unpatriotic" because we opposed the war Goldberg now admits was a mistake. Yet, according to him, it is a mistake still worth making:

"According to the goofy parameters of the current debate, I’m now supposed to call for withdrawing from Iraq. If it was a mistake to go in, we should get out, some argue. But this is unpersuasive. A doctor will warn that if you see a man stabbed in the chest, you shouldn’t rush to pull the knife out. We are in Iraq for good reasons and for reasons that were well-intentioned but wrong. But we are there."

The stabbing analogy is a double-edged sword, as far as the neoconservative advocates of this war are concerned: after all, some might accuse them of pursuing their own agenda, and figuratively stabbing the Bush administration in the back while walking away from the crime scene, bitterly criticizing the "betrayal" of their cause. And all without taking any moral or political responsibility – and without somehow convincing us, against all the evidence, to take them seriously about anything ever again.

Goldberg attempts a rather weak mea culpa, yet his old column explaining his original reasons for supporting the war can be seen as a bizarre kind of vindication. As a demonstration of raw, destructive power, the Iraq war can arguably be judged a success. In addition to recommending periodic outbursts of wanton aggression as a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy, Michael Ledeen has touted the virtues of "creative destruction" in the Middle East, and no doubt his admirers, such as Goldberg, find this "entertaining," too. Surely 650,000 dead Iraqis is the not-very-surprising consequence of throwing "some crappy little country against a wall" – instead of denouncing the Johns Hopkins study, the Goldberg-Ledeen wing of the War Party ought to be celebrating it. With the American death toll coming fast on 3,000, I’d be very surprised if even Max Boot’s desire for more American losses isn’t satisfied.

Oh, the twists and turns of Goldbergian "logic" are sinuously clever, full of little ironies and one great big one:

"Those who say that it’s not the central front in the war on terror are in a worse state of denial than they think Bush is in. Of course it’s the central front in the war on terror. That it has become so is a valid criticism of Bush, but it’s also strong reason for seeing our Iraqi intervention through. If we pull out precipitously, jihadism will open a franchise in Iraq and gain steam around the world, and the U.S. will be weakened."

Translation: Good luck solving the problem we created, but you’re stuck with it – and don’t blame us warmongers! We’re absolved precisely because "what was believed to have been known" is now known as either fabrication or fable. Oh, and by the way, says Goldberg on his way out the door, you might try this:

"According to the conventional script, if I’m not saying ‘bug out’ of Iraq, I’m supposed to say ‘stay the course.’ But there’s a third option, and, funnily enough, I found it in an old column of mine (journalistic taboos be damned!). I think we should ask the Iraqis to vote on whether U.S. troops should stay. …

"If Iraqis voted ‘stay,’ we’d have a mandate to do what’s necessary to win, and our ideals would be reaffirmed. If they voted ‘go,’ our values would also be reaffirmed, and we could leave with honor. And pretty much everyone would have to accept democracy as the only legitimate expression of national will."

To begin with, why should the Iraqis be the only ones to vote on this? How come Americans don’t get a voice, too? Instead of "exporting democracy," how about having a little more of it right here at home? Let’s have a referendum in the good old US of A. Give the people a chance to vote the war up or down: that’s one fight I’d love to wage.

Unfortunately, it isn’t likely I’ll get the chance: they don’t let us vote on stuff like that. Foreign policy is considered the domain of the enlightened elites. Left to the popular will, the result might be the dreaded "isolationism" that one survey of public opinion described as a foreign policy of "minding our own business." Such commonsensical notions are seen by the elites as hopelessly naïve nostrums. As Goldberg frames the question, perhaps abandoning our dowdy old Republic for a glittering Empire that turned out to be made of fool’s gold was, after all, a mistake, perhaps even a major one. But we can’t do anything about it now: we’re stuck with the consequences of interventionism, like it or not. Let the Iraqis vote on it.

The Iraqis, you see, have the "right to self-determination" – but we Americans do not. The destiny of all other nations is to live in perfect freedom, yet we must resign ourselves to our fate as world-savers. What we destroyed in Iraq – the political, social, and physical infrastructure – we’re desperately trying to rebuild, and paying no small price for it, in treasure and troops. Similarly, we paid for the bombs that fell on Lebanon, and we’re now pouring money into the Lebanese reconstruction effort. In our role as global hegemon, we’re destined to suffer as much as Sisyphus, condemned by the gods to eternally roll a rock up a hill, only to have it invariably fall down the other side.

"Finishing the job is better than leaving a mess," concludes Goldberg, yet there is no finishing the "job" of world policeman.

For Goldberg, it is vitally important that "the war won’t be remembered as a mistake" – even though, by his own admission, it was a mistake. Truth? Fact? Objective reality? These concepts are alien to the Bizarro Conservatives – bizarro-cons, if you will. It isn’t truth that matters, in the end, to these people: that’s for those deluded souls who inhabit the "reality-based community." What matters is that we’re supposedly locked into massive military intervention in Iraq and perhaps elsewhere in the Middle East.

That’s what the War Party is counting on – keeping us in Iraq just long enough to provoke a wider war. They’re already ratcheting up the hate campaign against Iran, dragging them to the Security Council, while the one country in the Middle East aside from Pakistan that we know has nukes is never questioned or hauled up before any UN agency. Making an exception for Israel has certainly not helped the cause of nonproliferation in the region. Yet the bizarro-cons defend this policy, arguing that Israel has a "right" to defend itself – including with nuclear weapons. The Iranians, on the other hand, have no such right. It is a policy that can only lead to a regional arms race: the prospect of a nuclear-armed Egypt, and perhaps a nuclearized Saudi Arabia, is clearly not in American interests. Yet our Israel-centric policy in the region has made this outcome almost inevitable.

Goldberg’s eagerness to try for "a mandate to do what’s necessary to win" implies a clear dissatisfaction with Bush’s management of the war, similar to that expressed by many of his fellow neocons. They gripe that their policies were never discredited because they were never really tried, not in their "pure" form, anyway. These complaints eerily resemble those of Western Leninists after the implosion of world communism. The followers of Ledeen, like those of Lenin, are insistent that the validity of their program is unaffected by events: it simply needs to be more consistently and militantly applied. They aver we not only need more troops and more force, but a much more ambitious agenda, extending the war into Lebanon, Syria, and – ultimately – Iran. As long as we stay in Iraq, we are a border incident or two away from this scenario, and the neocons know it. If only they can hang on long enough, their dream – and everyone else’s nightmare – of a regional conflagration could become a reality.

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].