The Real Radicals of the Iraq War: Its Proponents

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Compare a huge anti-war rally with a few "Bush = Hitler" signs to what mainstream conservative writers were saying.

san francisco anti-war rally 2003 reuters.jpg
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On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, The Guardian editorializes that "with the passage of time, the judgment of those who took to the streets against the rush to war only looks wiser." My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that "more than anything the Iraq War taught me the folly of mocking radicalism. It seemed, back then, that every 'sensible' and 'serious' person you knew -- left or right -- was for the war. And they were all wrong. Never forget that they were all wrong. And never forget that the radicals with their drum circles and their wild hair were right." Adds Rod Dreher, "I don't think this makes radicals always right, or beyond mockery. But I learned that sometimes, radicals of the left and the right see things, however imperfectly, that most of us don't."

All excellent articles, but one caveat: The vast majority of the people who took to the streets to oppose the Iraq War weren't radicals, and they weren't making radical arguments. As Daniel Larison points out, "The people in government advocating for an illegal, preventive war to counter a threat that did not yet exist and never would were the ones proposing a radical 'solution' to an entirely manageable problem, and they did so without any consideration of or preparation for the consequences. When judging someone's 'radicalism,' one should always focus on the substance of the policy he is proposing rather than the position or status of the person."

Accounts of "radical" anti-war protesters inevitably cite "Bush = Hitler" signs, as if huge crowds are properly placed on the political spectrum according to the most hyperbolic slogan in their midst. In fact, when tens of thousands take to the streets in multiple world capitols and major U.S. cities, it's easy to see that the position being advocated has substantial mainstream support. That's corrective number one: Insofar as there were antiwar radicals, yes, credit them for being right, but an even more important lesson is to refrain from presuming anti-war protesters are radical.

Corrective number two is appreciating how radical the pro-war voices were.

Going back through Project for a New American Century literature or Weekly Standard editorials is too easy. Instead, let's look back at writing from National Review, a publication safely inside the conservative mainstream.

Take Jonah Goldberg, no one's idea of a radical writer. These statements he made in columns on Iraq were apparently uncontroversial at his magazine:

  • "Iraq shouldn't have existed in the first place. It's lasted this long thanks to the Stalinist repression of the Baath regime. And the only reason we didn't get rid of it last time was that the Saudis despise the idea of toppling Hussein because they don't want us to establish an attractive alternative to the nasty form of government they profit from. Well, boohoo for the Saudis. If they hadn't found oil on their land they'd be a trivia question for students of comparative government today. Wouldn't such a huge move inflame the Middle East? Sure. Wouldn't such a humiliating effort give Osama bin Laden exactly what he wants? Yes. Wouldn't this cause the European diplomats to drop their egg spoons in disgust over such barbarism? Most definitely. Wouldn't the civilized world -- with the notable exception of the British -- turn its collective back on us? I guess so. All that would in all likelihood be true. Until we win."
  • "I've long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the 'Ledeen Doctrine.' I'm not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: 'Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.'"
  • "The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense."
  • "There is nothing we want to see happen in the Middle East that can be accomplished through talking around long tables festooned with bottled water and fresh fruit at Swiss hotels, that cannot be accomplished faster and more permanently through war. But there is plenty that cannot be achieved by such gabfests that can only be achieved through war."
  • "Wouldn't an invasion of Iraq result in instability in the region? Yes. But in this context, instability is more likely to be good than bad. I'm no general, but it seems to me the only real military fear would be a Chinese invasion of Taiwan while we were distracted elsewhere."

Here are contemporaneous words from Michael Ledeen:

Scowcroft has managed to get one thing half right, even though he misdescribes it. He fears that if we attack Iraq "I think we could have an explosion in the Middle East. It could turn the whole region into a caldron and destroy the War on Terror."

One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. If we wage the war effectively, we will bring down the terror regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and either bring down the Saudi monarchy or force it to abandon its global assembly line to indoctrinate young terrorists.

That's our mission in the war against terror.

And although it slightly predated Iraq, who can forget Ann Coulter's controversial declaration of support for any old war in the region:

This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack. Those responsible include anyone anywhere in the world who smiled in response to the annihilation of patriots like Barbara Olson. We don't need long investigations of the forensic evidence to determine with scientific accuracy the person or persons who ordered this specific attack. We don't need an "international coalition." We don't need a study on "terrorism." We certainly didn't need a congressional resolution condemning the attack this week.

The nation has been invaded by a fanatical, murderous cult. And we welcome them. We are so good and so pure we would never engage in discriminatory racial or "religious" profiling. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers.

We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.

Circa 2002, had a prominent anti-war protester said that America wanted to embark on a crusade of Christian conquest, designed to turn the Middle East into a cauldron, eliminate nation states on a whim, and start wars for no other reason that we need to kick someone around, he or she would've been widely condemned as a hyperbolic, hateful, America-hating moonbat.

Yet in National Review, writers were earnestly calling for all those things.

That their words were amplified by publishing professionals in bow ties rather than "dirty hippies" sitting around a drum circle does not mean that they weren't staking out the more radical position.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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