David Frum and the "Unpatriotic Conservatives"

Something has changed for the better since 2003.


There's a lot of nuggets to be mined from David Frum's self-serving memoir of the Iraq war—Jon Schwarz points to a notable one here—but it's just as interesting to look for the things the author left out. One piece of history that went unmentioned was an article Frum wrote for National Review called "Unpatriotic Conservatives," in which he attacked right-wing opponents of the war. Or more exactly, as Daniel McCarthy explains over at The American Conservative,

Alt-text confiscated. Report immediately to party HQ.
Jack Chick

only the first dozen paragraphs did that. The rest, about two thirds of the essay, rehashed roughly a decade's worth of right-wing squabbling that had little to do with patriotism, war, or foreign policy. Frum conflated critics of the war with paleoconservatives and conflated paleoconservatives with critics of neoconservatism. These categories overlapped but weren't identical even in 2003—Robert Novak was a stalwart of movement conservatism, not a paleoconservative rebel. Scott McConnell had worked for Pat Buchanan's 2000 presidential campaign, but his start in journalism came writing for Commentary, and he was still best known for having been editorial page editor of the New York Post. Frum included University of Michigan history professor Stephen Tonsor in his account of the origins of paleoconservatism, but Tonsor never adopted that label—he was a traditionalist, a 1960s National Review type—and he actually supported the Iraq War.

McCarthy's point isn't to rake the author over the coals (though I wouldn't say Frum comes off well here). It's to note that there was a time when those conflations were easy to make, since "the only organized opposition to the war on the right came from institutions that were distinctly, indeed definitively, paleo….There were dissident neocons, non-Rothbardian libertarians, non-paleo traditionalists, and mainstream foreign-policy academics who opposed the war but had no outlet. They were the sort of people who before the war would have published in First Things or National Review or, for that matter, The Atlantic rather than in paleo publications, which had their own tone and set of interests that were self-consciously—even defiantly—out of the mainstream."

I can't entirely agree with McCarthy about that—antiwar libertarians, many of them non-Rothbardian, published frequently here at Reason and in other libertarian venues. But I don't really consider the libertarian movement part of the right, though the two do intersect at certain points, so I think his basic argument is valid: A lot of antiwar conservatives lacked a highly visible outlet 10 years ago. And I agree with McCarthy's conclusion, which is good news for those of us who want to see skepticism about an interventionist foreign policy increase across the political spectrum:

When Frum wrote his essay "antiwar conservative" was nowhere near as strong a brand as "paleoconservative"—with all the additional baggage that concept carried. Today the reverse is true: there are all kinds of relatively well known "antiwar conservatives"—the label is less important than the core idea—and nobody would think that the antiwar perspective on the right could be discredited just by attacking the paleos.