May 21, 2003

Backlash on the right: mainstream conservatives reject Frum purge, oppose neo-imperialism

When David "Axis of Evil" Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, turned his rhetorical guns on antiwar conservatives and libertarians, this writer included, he ended his peroration against "unpatriotic conservatives" with the declaration that all good right-wingers must now "turn their backs" on the heretics. But what has happened is quite the opposite: mainstream conservatives are asking who appointed Frum the Commissar in charge of political correctness on the right and are coming to the defense of ideological diversity.

David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union (ACU) and a veteran activist, had earlier dissented with a ringing defense of calumniated columnist Robert Novak smeared by Frum as an "anti-Semite" and now Donald Devine, his colleague at the ACU, has come out with a stinging memo challenging not only Frum but also neocon orthodoxy on every point including foreign policy.

The sheer gall of Frum's interdict clearly has Devine's dander up. Frum & friends have so alienated the rest of the Right with their pretentious posturings as moral and ideological guardians of the Faith, that they have achieved in the conservative movement what the U.S. military has accomplished in Iraq: provoked a general rebellion against the occupying forces.

Devine calls for nothing less than "a general discussion on the future on conservatism." He laments that the official conservative movement has become an appendage of the Republican Party, and is reduced to cheerleading for the White House. Worse yet:

"Conservatives are fighting each other on the front pages of their own magazines. National Review writer David Frum made the argument public with a banner denunciation of any conservative with reservations about the invasion of Iraq. Those conservative intellectuals and activists opposed or even those critical of it before the fighting or even those who mentioned that protecting Israel's interests could complicate matters were all labeled paleo-conservatives and pushed off to the nutty fringe. The only good guys remaining on the right were neo-conservatives. Frum named names, some of who differed on principle, but most simply saw the facts differently. He was so obsessed with his own righteousness in anathematizing heretics he was heedless of how the split would further weaken the forces of the right."

The War Party has no loyalty, either partisan or ideological, except to the worship of Ares (not Zeus). The entire program of the neoconservatives has been reduced to a call for World War IV, and the need to create or, rather, recreate – an overseas empire on which the sun never sets. "The forces of the right"? To a neocon, there ain't no such thing: there is only the War Party, and their opponents, whom neocon wildman David Horowitz routinely describes as "fifth columnists."

Devine notes that "even those who mentioned that protecting Israel's interests could complicate matters" were "pushed off to the nutty fringe." But that is what the neocon Iago's polemic is all about.

When the interests of the U.S. and Israel clash, those who take the side of the former are, by definition, "anti-Semites" this is the neocon view of "patriotism." To point out that this is Israeli patriotism, and not the American variety, is to stand accused of ethnic and religious "bigotry," and this is the one unifying theme of Frum's polemic. All the individuals mentioned are smeared as "anti-Semites." With the neocons from the three Bills (Kristol, Bennett, and Safire) to the P.J. O'Rourke clones over at National Review it's always the same old song: there is no other issue.

Frum represents an organized grouping on the Right that will brook no criticism of a foreign country that is even now challenging their President on his latest Middle East initiative.

The critique of Pat Buchanan, Bob Novak, and others on the right who opposed this war was that it did not pass the test of serving uniquely American interests, but only furthered Israeli ambitions in the region. In a sane world, it is the neocons who would be consigned to the "nutty fringe," rather than those who question their alien agenda.

Devine's refreshingly bold call for open debate on foreign policy – as opposed to smearing and back-turning – is accompanied by a discussion of the "invisibility" of mainstream conservatism on this question. The neocons are getting all the publicity, he complains, and have become "the public face of the movement." Everybody now confuses mainstream conservatism with National Review's proposal in favor of a "revival of colonialism under U.S. auspices and the building of an American empire."

Devine fondly recalls the good old days when National Review was pushing Frank S. Meyer's "fusionist" brand of conservatism. But Meyer's ecumenical coalition, which consisted of traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-Communists, always existed in an uneasy alliance. Nor was Meyer all that ecumenical: when libertarians began questioning the Vietnam war, they were promptly and personally excommunicated by Meyer.

It is more accurate to ascribe an air of relative tolerance for doctrinal differences to the conservative-libertarian alliance of the New Deal and postwar eras. This was the Old Right of the America First generation, where conservatives such as businessman William H. Regnery and General Robert E. Wood, and libertarians such as Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov, existed side-by-side in a peaceable kingdom.

Next to the neocon-dominated movement of today, however, the conservative movement of the 1960s was a model of ecumenism. Devine notes bitterly that even William F Buckley, Jr., in criticizing his own magazine's endorsement of British-style colonialism, was forced to resort to the pages of Human Events (sorry, it's not online): National Review apparently would not give even so distinguished a dissenter a forum.

In any case, the "fusionism" that tried to reconcile traditionalists with libertarians, and simultaneously accommodate the fervent anti-Communism of the ex-commies within its ranks (such as Meyer, a former Communist Party theoretician), was a product of the cold war. The sudden implosion of the Communist empire relegated "fusionism" to irrelevance, sent the neocons on a quest for new enemies to conquer, and opened up the neo-paleo divide.

Devine rejects the paleoconservative label, but on the defining issue of foreign policy he seems to fit the bill, asking "Empire, or National Interest?" To any authentic conservative or, indeed, any American worthy of the name the answer to that one is easy, and Devine is unequivocal:

"Global empire is an important issue for conservatism. If the U.S. government has the ability to bring peace and democracy to the world, big government can obviously also run America's economy and plan its social life – and limited government becomes irrelevant. Government keeps growing and journalistic conservatism is silent that this growth, especially fueled by dreams of empire."

This is precisely the critique of the paleoconservatives, grouped around The American Conservative and Chronicles – both of which Devine deems insufficiently devoted to the cause of limited government. Yet an identical theme is apparent in the very title of Pat Buchanan's book, A Republic, Not an Empire. It was in Chronicles magazine, under editor Tom Fleming, that the Old Right's opposition to what Murray N. Rothbard called the "Welfare-Warfare State" was first revived, and this same tradition of conservative anti-imperialism is invoked by on a daily basis. These disparate tendencies libertarians, American nationalists, and cultural conservatives are all asking the same question: What good is it if we win an overseas empire, and lose our old republic? The current crisis on the Right is due to the lack of a good answer to this question, and Devine clearly sees this:

"For a movement that began uniquely united in opposition to communism, it is strange that the conservative split would become most profound on foreign policy. From its founding document, The Sharon (Connecticut) Statement, conservatives had agreed that all foreign policy had to be justified on the criterion – was it in "the just interests of the United States"? Communism was the "greatest threat" to those interests, so it had to be opposed. Iraq was not so simple for the question was empirical, not principled – was that war in the U.S. interest or not? Was it necessary to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and control terrorism or was Iraq not a threat unless the U.S. invaded and stirred up Mideast terrorism?"

It is not at all strange that the split on the Right is over foreign policy, the key issue of the post-cold war era. What united conservatives for so long what allowed them to forget about their devotion to the Constitution and the cause of limited government was the alleged necessity of fighting a global war against a militant Communist movement that seemed poised, at several points, to overtake and overwhelm the West. That this was largely an illusion and a self-created one at that is nothing new to libertarians, who opposed a policy of global intervention and for that reason opted out of "fusionism" sometime in the late 1960s. Ludwig von Mises had confidently predicted the implosion of socialism as early as 1920: it was doomed from the start, due to its economic impossibility. As Rothbard and other libertarians pointed out during the cold war, the main threat to liberty was not in Moscow, but was situated in a capital city closer to home.

When Rothbard's confident prediction that Communism would soon "fall victim to its own inner contradictions" came true, the Sharon Statement no longer represented a conservative consensus on foreign policy. Furthermore, the disappearance of "the greatest threat" meant that the "fusionists" had been wrong about the alleged danger posed by "international Communism" they always called it that, just to make it sound more grandiose and scary. But how could something so overbearingly ominous and dangerous vanish almost overnight, short of being knocked out of commission by a nuclear first strike?

The fusionists of yesteryear made a pact with the devil of Big Government at the beginning of the cold war. Convinced of the necessity of launching a global crusade against Communism, including fighting a series of futile losing wars on the Asian landmass, the Meyer-Buckley crowd were resigned to accepting the necessity of Big Government "for the duration," as Buckley put it in a 1956 article for Commonweal, "even with Truman at the reins of it all."

Putting aside the question of how and why the Soviets imploded, the indisputable death of communism once again re-opened conservative eyes to the growth of government power as the main danger. Now the Devil makes his reappearance, rising out of the smoke and fire of 9/11, and proposes a pact similar to the one fusionists signed on to in the 1950s: give up the conservative agenda of limited government for the duration of the post-9/11 emergency, i.e., indefinitely. Let John Ashcroft read your email. Let "national greatness" supplant the stern republican modesty of the Founders. Let the Republic give way to the Empire.

Devine's memo is the neo-fusionists' unequivocal no. This time, faced with Lucifer's choice, it looks like many if not most conservatives are saying: get thee behind me, Satan!

Now that we have "won" the Iraq war, and are the proud possessors of 25 million Iraqis, the question of what to do next is isolating the neocons, who want to go on to Iran, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia. Those fusionists who supported the Iraq war, such as ACU director David Keene and Devine, are ready to draw a line in the sand:

"Buckley and many others calculated war was necessary but still opposed empire building. Philosophically, either he was right that building an American world empire was against conservative principles or Bill Kristol, Max Boot and Paul Johnson – with some NR and The Wall Street Journal support – were correct that a new American colonialism was required to bring peace and democracy to the world. Even President Bush had said: 'America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish' – but neo-conservatives were still trying to push him there anyway."

The neocons are not only trying to push Bush down the road to empire with some success but they are intent on dragging the "official" conservative movement along with them. Those who refuse their marching orders will be summarily expelled, but not before being tried by Commissar Frum, or Comrade Goldberg, and denounced as "unpatriotic." This distinctly Soviet style of politics has finally! driven the conservative mainstream (ably represented by the ACU) to shed its invisibility and come out in open opposition. Devine's has thrown down the gauntlet to the neocons, and one wonders if they will have the courage to pick it up and respond to the challenge with anything other than the usual smears. Somehow, I doubt it.

Devine's dissent from the neocon party-liners is good news indeed. Although he sees the development of an alternative as mid-way between The Weekly Standard and The American Conservative, it is clear that on all the important issues in style and spirit, as well as substance the neo-fusionists are much closer to the latter. As both groups unite in their opposition to the methods of the neocons in "policing" (as Comrade Goldberg once put it) the conservative movement, their common opposition to empire-building means that the foreign policy debate on the right is about to heat up.

Devine proposes an online fusionist magazine, and this is a welcome development. The more venues there are challenging neo-imperialism from the right, the merrier. I am all for a new fusionism, albeit one that doesn't require unity around the high "principle" of perpetual war in pursuit of empire.

I note that Frum has popped up again denouncing paleoconservatives, myself included, in the pages of National Review. The occasion is a veritable symposium in which Frum answers the letters of protest received by the magazine when they ran his denunciation of "unpatriotic conservatives." Gee, I wonder why they haven't put it online? Maybe they're too embarrassed by the extent and voltage of the expressed outrage from some prominent conservatives.

Frum's smear of Robert Novak provoked outraged reactions from Jack Kemp, David Keene, and former Federal Trade Commission chairman Daniel Oliver as well as a sharp response from Novak (ouch!). Keene, while a supporter of the Iraq war, nonetheless rejects Frum's self-appointment as the conscience of the conservative movement: "I am as opposed as the most ardent 'paleo' to the idea of Uncle Sam on a white charger roaming the world in a mindless quest to right every wrong."

Amen, brother!

This section also contains a very abbreviated version of the letter I sent them: two short paragraphs out of six. In his original smear, Frum accused me of writing that the Israelis were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. All I am allowed to say in response is:

"My belief is that Israeli agents were watching the 9/11 hijackers in this country, knew about the plot, and somehow neglected to tell us in time to prevent it."

The expurgated portion of my brief letter goes on to protest that I was merely citing news reports, from such sources as Fox News and Die Zeit, to that effect. Another good reason why they don't put all this online is because the lack of a link to my original comments would underscore the essential dishonesty of Frum's assertion that I am saying the Israelis were "implicated" in 9/11. (They never provide any but the barest possible links on NRO.). But why expose National Review's readers to the facts? They might begin asking inconvenient questions. Besides, paleo moles in the National Review office are chortling over the number of outraged letters they didn't print, or even acknowledge.

But my favorite parts of this "Frum Forum," as the editors of NR call it, are the hosannas from neocon party-liners. "David Frum's article will serve the important purpose of compelling conservatives to consider more carefully just what their movement stands for and who is entitled to claim membership in it," writes William Rusher, onetime publisher of National Review. "David Frum's essay is a welcome indictment of the unpatriotic tendencies of paleoconservatism," avers Charles R. Kelser, a professor at Claremont McKenna College. "NR remains a beacon," says one Arnold Steinberg, described by the editors he hails as "Political Theoretician for Young Americans for Freedom." Pete Dupont, failed presidential candidate and fake-"libertarian," accuses the "Buchananites" of "supporting Serbian terrorism" and hails Frum's pack of lies as "educational." "David Frum's piece is a bracing contribution to the library of conservative polemic," announces the magisterial Roger Kimball, editor of The New Criterion and the neocons' chief cultural commissar (Department of High Culture).

In their uniformly obsequious style, there is a distinctly Soviet air to all these fervent testimonials to the wisdom of Commissar Frum. It is altogether grotesque to see them printed in an ostensibly conservative magazine. But what is even more bizarre is Frum's response to such servility. He lashes out at Rusher, who made the mistake of appending the mildest criticism to the tail end of what was otherwise a paean to Frum's infinite wisdom. Rusher wrote:

"One minor cavil: I think the adjective 'unpatriotic,' in the title of Frum's article, was unfortunate. These people are not unpatriotic. It is true, as Frum says, that 'They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president.' But they do not hate America. They are simply, desperately, wrong."

Rusher is mostly wrong about that. There is no consensus among paleos and, now, the fusionists on the Republican party's role as either the guarantor or the destroyer of liberty, nor is there even any agreement on the question of whether this President is freedom's friend or foe. Unanimity is achieved, however, when it comes to hating the neoconservatives.

The reason for this dislike is apparent in the tone as well as the substance of Frum's rebuke of Rusher's gentle critique. Rusher, says Frum, is being "too generous." The dreaded paleos are traitors who are "excited" by the "inevitable reverses" suffered by the U.S. in its bid to turn Iraq into Arizona. On the other hand, America's "ensuing victories and successes seem to sadden and frustrate them." How dare that impertinent Buchanan ask "are we willing to crush an Iraqi intifada to hold onto the country?"

Whom does Frum think he's fooling? There are any number of Republicans not only in Congress, but throughout the country, who are no doubt asking the same question. They are wondering, too, why not declare victory and go home?

Devine, at the end of his piece, recalls the beginning of the modern conservative movement,

"When there were only a few thousand committed activists and intellectuals in the whole country. Liberal intellectuals proclaimed 'The End of Ideology' because there was no conservative alternative. The GOP was dominated by Nelson Rockefeller and the Eastern liberal Republicans controlled the White House, which threatened conservatives with expulsion if they even complained.

I have news for Mr. Devine: those liberal intellectuals who proclaimed the "end of ideology" back in the 1950s are, in good part, the same neoconservative intellectuals who, today, hail "the end of history" – and the birth of an American Empire. And the GOP still operates in the same manner, with the neocons replacing the Rockefeller Republicans and "national greatness" conservatism taking the place of liberal republicanism as the ideological rationale for Big Government. But Devine isn't ready to give up without a fight:

"We rose up then and moved the world right and we can do it again. If we cannot rise to oppose empire, the movement deserves to fail. All we need to do is get off our butts and speak up for our principles."

The rebellion against the neocons couldn't have come at a more crucial time. Today, the question is posed pointblank: do we want to fight for our old republic, or will we go the way of empire?

That more conservatives have decided to fight has the neocons in a panic. The American Right is on to their game. It is even possible that, one day soon, the conservative movement will be liberated from the Ba'athist-style conformity imposed by its neocon overseers. In moving toward that day, our best ally is the puffed-up Frum and his comrades, whose arrogance and hectoring style have alienated the conservative mainstream. Good work, guys. Please keep it up.

– Justin Raimondo

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against U.S. Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.

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