Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
In his post on the midterm elections and their discontents, Jody Bottum argues that conservatives haven’t made support for the Iraq War a defining test of one’s conservatism, in the way that opposition to the war¯and indeed, war of almost any kind¯has become an abortion-style cultural litmus test in many precincts of the left. I think this is true but incomplete; the right has never been so pro-war as the left is anti-war, certainly, but neither has it been nearly so ecumenical as Jody suggests. There’s plenty of room for dissent on the wisdom of the Iraq War in the conservative tent now , which is to conservatism’s credit, I suppose¯had the war gone well, I doubt there would be a lot of soul-searching going on in the pages of The Nation ¯but for those who think the war was a mistake, now is far too late. The moment for a vigorous debate was the months before the invasion, and in that period I think the right exhibited many of the same inflexible, with-us-or-against-us tendencies that Jody rightly identifies as being characteristic of the left’s approach to foreign policy. Sure, I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that anyone was "strip[ped] . . . of his conservative credentials" for opposing the war, exactly. But I was in Washington during the run-up to the invasion¯and supportive of the war at the time, I should add¯and I remember the intellectual climate pretty well. There were plenty of conservatives who thought the war was a bad idea, both in government and in the pundit class, but precious few of them spoke up¯largely, I think, because the movement had closed ranks on the issue, everywhere from Capitol Hill to two major magazines of the right, and conservatism has cultivated an extremely strong "team player" mentality over the past thirty years (for understandable reasons). This unwillingness to break ranks is to the anti-war conservatives’ discredit, of course; if Brent Scowcroft, say, or George Will thought we shouldn’t invade Iraq, which they pretty obviously did, they had an obligation to say something explicit, instead of just dropping hints about how they really felt. But it also says something unfortunate about the conservative movement, I think, that there was so little oxygen available to the anti-war right and so many people eager to jump down the throats of anyone who did speak up. Jody makes light of the famous David Frum "Unpatriotic Conservatives" piece in National Review , but at the time it was written¯as a "who is a conservative"-defining cover story, in a major magazine of the American right, just before the invasion of Iraq¯it felt very serious indeed, a frontal attack on the "paleocons" but also a shot across the bow (Frum’s protestations to the contrary) of almost any conservative who opposed the war, with imputations of anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism thrown in for good measure. Again, I supported the war at the time, and it was a popular war, backed by liberals as well as conservatives; the invasion had a thousand fathers, and they weren’t all in the halls of the Department of Defense or the pages of the conservative media. But it was a war that we entered into, I think, without adequate deliberation and debate. It was critiqued, of course, but mainly by left-wing shouters like the "poets against the war," and, what seem in hindsight like the best arguments against the invasion¯the conservative arguments against it¯were often conspicuous in their absence. One of the great virtues of the conservative movement has been its willingness to encourage debate within its own ranks, and on the question of invading Iraq¯the most momentous question, so far, of the post¯September 11 era¯I think the movement didn’t live up to those standards, and we’re all the worse for it.

(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)

Show 0 comments



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles