It's somewhat old news to readers of the print American Spectator, as it appeared in their June issue, but fresh on the web this week: Blackwell Corporation chairman Neal Freeman's alternately scabrous and wounded account of his conflicts and eventual break with his long-time comrades at National Review over their support of the Iraq War.
Freeman had served on NR's board of directors for 38 years. It was, as he details it colorfully, an always-interesting convocation of like-minded souls, dedicated to the greater good of the magazine and the conservative movement, under the gentle suasion of first among equals William Buckley synthesizing the best of their views into the Correct Line.
Then came 9/11, and, as you might recall, everything changed:
George Bush had been elected President on a foreign policy platform with three planks: (1) that the U.S. would not act as the world's policeman; (2) that the U.S. would be humble before the nations of the world; and (3) that the U.S. would not engage in nation-building. Taken together, these three planks added up to a conventionally conservative approach, a platform that had been roundly endorsed by NR. Now, with a 180-degree whiplash, the Bush administration began to rumble about "regime change" and "going it alone," and "building a democratic Iraq." Call this 9/12 approach whatever you will—utopian, neoconservative, Wilsonian—it could not fairly be characterized as "conservative." And thus was set the agenda for every Board discussion from the fall of 2001 through the summer of 2004. We would talk about Iraq.
And during that talk, Mr. Freeman, even with his years of companiable partnership with the rest of the board, found himself an odd man out. He explains at length his intimate connections with a wide variety of people who ought to know–defense contracts, high level diplomatic and intelligence sources (Freeman had been the longtime producer of the PBS program American Interests)–and found
What struck me was that, over the course of the 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, I never encountered a single professional who knew that the case for WMD had been established.
The editors of NR were unafflicted by such doubts. Along with the rest of the commentariat, right, left, and center, they seemed to take it as a given that Saddam had built a serious WMD arsenal. When I would press them on this point at meetings, their impatience would show: "Oh please, he used them on his own people" or "Come on, why do you think he threw out the arms inspectors" or some other such non-responsive response. I wondered then and wonder still how so many people—all of them bright and journalistically trained people—could have been so trusting of secondary and partisan sources…..By January of 2003, as we rolled up the ramp to war, I was the only director who spoke against the invasion. Eleven people spoke in favor, with the rest in tacit concurrence.
Freeman goes on to detail, quite compellingly, the tensions his apostasy created between his old pals and him, and his growing disquiet as anyone who publicly opposed or questioned the invasion was excoriated by the magazine–Freeman was particularly upset when Robert Novak was pilloried by David Frum in his April 2003 cover story on "Unpatriotic Conservatives." Freeman thought Frum was unfair to a grand old man of the movement and longtime friend of the magazine who had perfectly legitimate questions about the war, and thought the magazine owed Novak a public apology. It didn't happen.
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….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.
His man Bill has now expressed similar reservations about how it has all turned out so far in Iraq, and second thoughts about whether the enterprise should have been entered into at all. His old magazine, officially, holds the line.