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IT HAS BECOME FASHIONABLE in recent months to say that the U.S. invaded Iraq “for lots of reasons.” It has been said, variously, that we were seeking to establish an island of democracy in an unstable region; (more nobly) that humanitarian principle obliged us to free an oppressed people; (more crassly) that we had no choice but to protect the flow of oil; (more colorfully) that the President was driven to avenge old man Bush; (more tendentiously) that we were manipulated into advancing Israel’s interests. Pick your axe and grind it. The notion that we invaded Iraq for “lots of reasons” — like so much else in the discussion of Iraq — misses the point. There was only one “reason” that permitted the President to take the country to war: the presence of weapons of mass destruction. The American people were and are viscerally opposed to the idea of pre-emptive war. In the absence of a threat, pre-emptive war looks to them very much like naked aggression. (In the absence of a threat, even the argument from principle would collapse. The administration’s stated preference for democracy was based on the asseveration that democracies don’t attack other countries.) It’s important to remember that WMD was not just one of a cluster of fungible “reasons” for war. It was the only reason for war.
Another statement that has been swapped-out by the fashionable in recent months, most famously by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is this: “If I knew then what I know now, I would have opposed the war.” With great respect, Senator, we know now exactly what you knew then. And to my knowledge not a single datum of U.S. intelligence has been changed over the past three years. There have been additions and reassessments as information accumulated, but the veracity of the data file at the time of the Senate vote has not been challenged in any material respect. (I hope not to confuse the term “data” with the broader term, “intelligence.” The latter comes in two forms. The first is data — the hard artifacts of intelligence including pictures, voice intercepts, alphanumeric files snatched from ocean-bed cables, and such like. The other form is human interpretation, an attempt to tell the customer what the data mean. These assessments vary widely in quality, ranging from brilliant analysis and actionable extrapolation to bureaucratic cant and partisan spin. Over time, the data record stands motionless. The interpretation swings freely in the Beltway breeze.)
In our final meeting before the balloon went up in Iraq, I pleaded with my NR colleagues to reconsider their drum-beating for war. I rehearsed my old arguments and added the prudential point that we should husband our resources to meet the real threats in Iran and North Korea. I thought then and I think today that if NR had opposed the invasion it could have made a decisive difference within the conservative movement and, radiating its influence outward, across the larger political community. There were no takers for my brief. For all involved, I suspect, that last pre-war evening was difficult. I probably pressed too hard against the carefully tended fences of collegiality. In an overwrought phrase that I regretted instantly, I characterized the decision to invade Iraq as “stupid, dangerous, and hubristic.” (I recall the phrase only because it was tossed back at me repeatedly in the early months of the war, as if it had been memorialized on a plaque in the Hall of Crazy Sayings.) For all the sense of estrangement between me and the magazine I now barely recognized, though, there was in the air a hint of reconciliation. We were marching to war after all and as soon as American boots hit Iraqi soil, there would be no more debate, no more policy differences. It would be our guys, right or wrong. We would all be in it together. Right?
AS AMERICA WENT TO WAR, NR gave its warm endorsement to the invasion but then — rather than rallying reluctant conservatives to flag and cause — it turned abruptly to the settling of intramural scores. In the issue immediately following the invasion, NR ran a long cover story excoriating what it called “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” The principal villain of the piece was, of all people, Robert Novak.
I had a history with Novak. Back in the 1960s when I opened NR’s Washington bureau, there weren’t many established pressies who wanted anything to do with our little right-wing magazine. Novak had opened doors and offered friendly counsel. As his career and influence waxed, he became a mentor to many conservative journalists. Fred Barnes, John Fund, and Kate O’Beirne, among others, are in his debt. By the time that Reagan came to town, Novak was the most important conservative journalist in the nation’s capital — as important to the D.C. network as WFB was to his in New York. (The other giant in town was my old Washington Star colleague James Jackson Kilpatrick, but Kilpo was not by temperament a team-builder.) I will admit that the cover line had arrested my attention. In what way had Robert Novak — U.S. Army veteran, indefatigable Cold Warrior, true-believing supply-sider, the man on whose shoulders so many NR editors stood — in what way had Robert Novak suddenly become “unpatriotic”?
The case against Novak focused on the four pillars of his reportorial skepticism about Iraq. In his columns and television appearances he had opined: (1) that the case for WMD had not been made; (2) that the occupation of Iraq might not be a “cakewalk” (in the neocon phrase of the day); (3) that democratic values might not easily take root in the sands of the Middle East; and (4) that global terrorism might not be deterred by the invasion of the U.S. military. For making these points unabashedly, Novak had, in the judgment of NR’s author, revealed his true feelings and base motives. Robert Novak “hated” America. Robert Novak was “unpatriotic.” (The author, David Frum, seemed to be an odd choice as lead investigator for NR’s Committee on Un-American Activities. Only recently naturalized, Frum had spent most of his life as a Canadian.) My own response to Novak’s reporting was mixed. As noted, I shared his view on #1. About #4 I was agnostic. Most of what I knew about #2 and #3, which was not much, came from my reading of T.E. Lawrence’s dispatches. The young officer had informed his Colonial Secretary (Winston Churchill, as it happened) that the sprawling territory that would one day be called Iraq was in fact three distinct entities with natural capitals in Basra, Mosul, and Baghdad. It was the estimate of Lawrence of Arabia that the three Ottoman provinces could be held together only at the point of a gun. That estimate proved to be durable. Even Saddam’s long tenure offered no evidence to the contrary.
Rereading some of Novak’s columns, I concluded that he had made a plausible case and a wholly responsible contribution to the public conversation. The historical record has now confirmed that judgment. On each and every point Novak had been right and his opponents had been wrong. In opinion journalism, you would hope that the quality of opinion would count for something. But in those poisonous days, truth was no defense. “Unpatriotic.” It was the cruelest cut you could inflict on a conservative of a certain age. When I put down my copy of NR, I felt a genuinely new sensation. For the first time in my long association with the magazine, I was ashamed. If only in an attenuated way, I felt somehow complicit. All of the moral capital we had accumulated over the years, all of the credibility we had earned by weeding out the Randians, the Birchers, the racists, the anti-Semites, and the 24-hour nutbars — all of it was used to leverage an ad hominem attack on one of our oldest friends.
I instigated a campaign to pressure NR to print an apology. Novak’s many friends chimed in and the editors agreed. I wasn’t asking for any rending of garments. What I had in mind was a brief, boxed editorial saying, basically, “We made a mistake and we regret it.” I should have known something was afoot when the process dragged on for some weeks. What finally appeared was a lengthy “collection” of responses to the Novak piece — some blandly complimentary to Novak, others sharply critical. The latter pieces for the most part skipped over the work product and dwelled speculatively on dark motivation. (Frum was allowed to review his own performance and found it flawless.) The impression created by the “collection” was that Novak was a controversial and deeply divisive figure within the conservative community. The reality was that he was, after only WFB himself, the most admired and influential conservative journalist in the country. In my eyes, the original felony had been compounded by the “apology.” (From time to time I have reminded NR editors that conservatism means that it’s never too late to say you’re sorry.)
I CONTINUED TO ATTEND BOARD FUNCTIONS, holding a grin-and-bear-it pose as the editors reported, early on, how swimmingly the Iraq campaign was going and then, in a later analysis, how Rumsfeld’s inept tactics were botching Wolfowitz’s brilliant strategy. I hung in there because I had enjoyed a great run with the magazine. Hell, Bill and our little gang had repainted the map of the known world. I had deep reserves of affection for the magazine and for my band of brothers and I just didn’t have it in me to tell Bill I was quitting. When in July of 2004 he announced to a hushed Board meeting that he was withdrawing as proprietor, my colleagues were stunned and disappointed. I have to say that I was relieved. It gave me a chance to go out the way I came in — with my man Bill.
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