David Frum Owes Conservatives an Apology

[PHOTO] Iraqis who have volunteered to join the army and fight ISIS militants parade in Baghdad. (Reuters/The Atlantic)

Wow! Former neocon hawk David Frum urges against further US involvement in Iraq in this Atlantic op-ed. I was shocked when I saw the title: “Iraq Isn’t Ours to Save: A Hawk’s Case for Caution.” While the article is not a complete repudiation of his past neo-conservatism, it’s not nothing either.

First what it is not. Frum is careful to clarify that he still supports an active interventionist foreign policy. He begins by stating:

I was a strong supporter of the Iraq war. Now I urge caution about military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgency in the country.

U.S. intervention to defend its interests and support its friends remains essential.

He advises against US involvement primarily because he believes saving the Maliki government serves the interests of Iran, which reveals he still has that peculiar neocon obsession. But contrary to the hysteria of many of his fellow hawks, he concedes that ISIS is a purely regional threat and not the global or, even more foolishly, existential threat that the alarmists are making it out to be. He also believes there is little likelihood that ISIS will succeed in “taking over” Iraq. They will meet increased Shiite and Iranian resistance as they move toward more heavily Shiite regions.

For someone who once co-wrote a book called An End to Evil in which he treated the mere existence of terrorist and rogue regimes as a threat that the US must confront, his admission that ISIS is only a local problem is a significant concession.

It is this concession, though, that is most shocking:

The United States overestimated the threat from Saddam Hussein in 2003. Without an active nuclear-weapons program, he was not a danger beyond his immediate vicinity. That war cost this country dearly. The United States failed in its most ambitious objective: establishing a stable, Western-oriented government for all of Iraq.

Again, for someone who was a chief neocon propagandist prior to the Iraq War, this is a significant admission. He concedes that we overestimated the threat from Saddam Hussein, although the “Without an active nuclear-weapons program…” clause leaves room for him to warmonger against Iran in the future. He also admits that we failed in our mission to establish a Western-friendly government. While he doesn’t say as much, he arguably implies that this was an unrealistic goal to begin with. He says we left Maliki with a framework, but expresses no surprise that that framework was quickly subverted.

I think some of what we see here is part of Frum’s broader transformation to “thoughtful” moderate. Frum began as a fairly typical mainstream conservative who even once wrote a book chastising the Republicans for not being conservative enough on big government and spending. He slowly transformed into a “reform conservative,” aka a moderate, which cost him his job at the American Enterprise Institute and National Review. While I don’t agree with his move toward moderation, I have always thought that Frum, while blinded by his ideology on foreign policy and too quick to smear his perceived enemies, is not a complete idiot and knows how to count.

For example, Frum has always been sounder on immigration than many of the other neocons, I highly suspect this is because he can do math, apparently unlike many of his fellow Republicans, and knows that importing a bunch of new Democrat voters does not bode well for the future electoral success of the party that supports his foreign policy agenda. Likewise, his move to moderation likely reflects his ability to count noses and his belief that the GOP must become more competitive in the Northeast and Upper Midwest if it is to remain a viable national party. As a true-believing conservative I don’t support this approach, but it is clearly recognizable pragmatism.

What has always struck me as obviously unworkable about Frumism, however, was his seeming belief that he could keep his hawkish foreign policy interventionism but wed it with social and economic moderation. There is simply no significant constituency for this. Just look at how well Rudy Giuliani fared outside New York. (And Giuliani really isn’t that much of an economic moderate.) Moderates tend to be moderates across the board. People who value moderation for moderation’s sake are likely to be social, economic, and defense moderates. I believe Frum recognizes that a hawkish foreign policy is also a liability with the moderation caucus he is attempting to court, hence his efforts, which began before this article, to polish the rough edges off his militarism.

That said, here is what I want to know: Now that Frum has admitted that the Iraq War was a mistake, when is he going to apologize to all the paleoconservative and libertarian war opponents that he slandered in his now infamous National Review hit piece, “Unpatriotic Conservatives” In that piece he smeared many conservatives who are likely favorites of readers of this website such as Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Thomas Fleming, Sam Francis, Joe Sobran, and Charley Reese. They clearly got the Iraq War right, and Frum now admits he got it wrong. Is it not fair to believe an apology to these fine men, several now deceased, is in order? Come on Mr. Frum, we’re waiting. tr favicon

Dan E. Phillips, MD is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. His work has been published at Lew Rockwell, Chronicles Magazine, Intellectual Conservative, the Abbeville Institute blog, and several other places. He can be contacted at danphillipsmd@gmail.com.