Ten Years in the Right

Article excerpt

A decade of The American Conservative - and its enemies

Ten years ago, The New Republic greeted news of The American Conservative's pending arrival with a mocking piece titled "Buchanan's Surefire Flop." Franklin Foer's article now seems an almost museum-quality exhibit of neoconservative and liberal hawk hubris - the beating heart of an elite consensus that suppressed meaningful discussion about the wisdom of invading Iraq.

Pat Buchanan and his partners "couldn't have chosen a worse time to start a journal of the isolationist right," wrote Foer. When President Clinton waged war on Serbia, some conservatives opposed foreign military interventionism. But "no one on the right is listening anymore" to anti-interventionist arguments. The 9/11 attacks had "produced a war on terrorism that has virtually ended conservative qualms about expending blood and treasure abroad."

Foer cited polls: 94 percent of Republicans supported Bush's foreign policy. A triumphant Norman Podhoretz was quoted: there really was no conservatism distinct from neoconservatism anymore. A magazine whose thrust would be to attack neoconservative foreign-policy prescriptions was doomed to fail.

A decade later, how can TACs impact be assessed? Clearly, the magazine did not flop - it has steadily expanded its readership and survived an economy extremely inhospitable to print media. But if the Iraq War was a "clarifier," it was unfortunately not a terribly strong one. If success is to be measured by influence on the conservative movement or the Republican Party, TAC still has a great deal of work to do: astonishingly, the neoconservatives - the group who sold the idea of the Iraq War to the last Republican president - are now if anything more entrenched in the GOP foreign-policy brain trust than in 2002.

Who might have predicted, seven years after it was clear that the Iraq War was one of greatest strategic disasters in American history, that Paul Ryan would be receiving foreign-policy tutoring from Elliott Abrams and two Kagans? To be a neocon in 21stcentury America is truly never to be held accountable for one's errors.

There is, to be sure, a much wider understanding among the attentive American public of TACs central message: of America's need for a conservatism distinct from the neocon version, more Burkean, more prudent, less remote from the concerns of average Americans, less tied to the Israeli right.

Foer's piece distilled the conventional wisdom of 2002: even conservatives who disliked the neoconservatives on other grounds - for their support of high levels of immigration, for example - shied away from frontal assaults on their foreign policy. Two months before the magazine's launch I dined with a young economics writer who would soon write brilliantly for TAG On the war, he advised a symposium - out-and-out opposition would only marginalize the magazine. Needless to say, his advice was not taken.

What Foer and the conventional wisdom missed was that the foreign-policy debate had already become three-sided by 2002. It had evolved considerably since 1991, when Buchanan was one of a handful of conservatives to oppose the first Gulf War. Opposition to that war was primarily "isolationist" in spirit, with Buchanan and a small cadre of others pitted not only against the neocons but a wide array of foreign-policy realists. The point is not to debate whether that war was necessary or strategically justified (though afterwards, the hawkish realist Robert W Tucker wrote in The National Interest wrote that bombing a more or less defenseless Iraqi army in the open desert violated just war precepts). Desert Storm was not in the main a neoconservative enterprise; it was planned and executed by an internationalist establishment, sanctified by UN resolutions, and backed by a broad allied coalition. George H. W. Bush had essentially followed the script that had governed American foreign policy since the early Cold War.

Several months after Desert Storm's conclusion, a memorandum produced under the guidance of undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz was leaked to the New York Times. …