Observers who keep an eye on the internal dynamics of the conservative movement registered a seismic event scoring 8.0 on the political Richter scale when the April 7 issue of National Review, the movement’s leading journal, ran an eight-page “cover essay” by David Frum entitled “Unpatriotic Conservatives – A war against America.”
Under that unappetizing heading, the magazine grouped some famous names and others well known to students of conservatism, including Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Llewellyn Rockwell, Thomas Fleming, Samuel Francis, Scott McConnell, Justin Raimondo, Joseph Sobran, Jude Wanniski, Taki Theodoracopulos and Paul Gottfried. If “unpatriotic” at first seems a strange word to apply to these people, Frum is determined to make it stick. His condemnation is sweeping and uncompromising:
“Only the boldest of them as yet explicitly acknowledge their wish to see the United States defeated in the War on Terror. But they are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure in it if it should happen. They began by hating the neoconservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country. … In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
In fairness, it was the “unpatriotic conservatives” who started this fight. They call themselves “paleoconservatives,” implying that they are some older and purer rootstock of the breed. But in fact they first surfaced in 1986, in reaction to the influence in the Reagan administration of an earlier group of converts called the “neoconservatives” – former liberals who, under the leadership of Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, had broken with the left in the 1960s. It was the contention of the “paleos” – who oppose “foreign interventionism” – that the “neos” had hijacked the conservative movement to serve an agenda of their own, notably support for Israel.
In fact, both the neos and the paleos were preceded on the scene by the group that formed itself under the leadership of Bill Buckley and National Review as early as 1955, and which has been content ever since to describe itself as simply “conservative.” But these conservatives welcomed the neos when they came aboard in the 1960s, and have suffered for this hospitality by being lumped by the paleos with their enemies the neos.
The appearance of this bell-book-and-candle denunciation of the paleos in the National Review signals a firm alliance of the original conservatives and the neoconservatives against so-called paleoconservatism.
Among other things, this will make it a lot harder for such TV shows as “The McLaughlin Group” and “The Capital Gang” to peddle Buchanan and Novak, respectively, as representative generic conservatives on their panels. They are no such thing.
Frum’s indictment of the paleoconservatives is too comprehensive and profound to summarize here — his article deserves to be read in full. He traces the history of the various threads of the conservative movement, discusses the writings of prominent paleos in detail, and identifies what he believes to be their chief concerns. “Racial passions run strong among the paleos,” he writes, “… [but] I come away with a strong impression that … another antipathy is far more intellectually important to them.”
Frum quotes Buchanan as writing, in the March 2003 issue of his magazine, The American Conservative, “We charge that a cabal of polemicists and public officials seeks to ensnare our country in a series of wars that are not in America’s interests. … Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam? Answer: one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud.”
The break between the National Review and the paleoconservatives is no tempest in a teapot. It may well determine the direction of American foreign policy for decades to come.