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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

A Time for Silence?

(Reprinted from the issue of April 3, 2003)

Capitol BldgNow that the war on Iraq has begun, many people, including some who have opposed war from the start, take the view that we must now suspend criticism and “support the president.” I understand the sentiment, but it seems to me to get some basic principles backward.

Under our constitutional principles, “We the People” are the ultimate authority in the United States, and our officeholders are our servants. There is no room for a quasi-sovereign or quasi-monarchical presidency which we are bound to obey, especially when it comes dangerously near to usurping powers delegated by the people to other branches of government, such as the power to declare war.

Yet many Americans talk as if exercising the right of criticism which belongs to the people were a kind of disobedience to authority, or even a form of aid and comfort to the enemy. And how long should such criticism be suspended?

This already threatens to become a long war. We must be prepared for a protracted struggle. Not only is Iraq, at this early phase, stubbornly resisting American efforts to “liberate” it; President Bush has suggested the need to liberate neighboring countries, effecting “regime change” and establishing “democracy” throughout the Mideast, a project that would require some years, or even decades.

If it becomes another Vietnam, or worse, why shouldn’t we criticize the government that has brought it on?

Free criticism of the government is not just rude heckling; it is supposed to be part of the process of governance itself. Otherwise, we are at the mercy of government propaganda.

It may even be a misnomer to speak of “the war on Iraq.” The neoconservatives who have shaped our president’s thinking have been calling openly for “World War IV” to achieve regime change in most of the Arab countries and Iran. Michael Ledeen, a prominent neoconservative, calls the attack on Iraq “just one battle in a broader war.” Iran, he adds, is “the mother of modern terrorism.”

Richard Perle, yet another influential neoconservative, pronounces himself “rather optimistic that we will see regime change in Iran without any use of military power by the United States.” But of course this hardly rules out U.S. military power, if necessary, to effect that regime change.

So we may be in only the first phase of World War IV. Surely we may, without disloyalty, oppose the projected attacks on Iran, Syria, and other countries.
A Personal Note

I have just been listed among “unpatriotic conservatives” by one David Frum in a cover story in National Review for my failure to support the hawks before the attack on Iraq. Frum also cites Patrick Buchanan, Robert Novak, Charley Reese, Thomas Fleming, and Samuel Francis among those who are waging “war on America.”

Frum has patriotic credentials, of sorts. He is now best known as the author of Mr. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, laying the rhetorical groundwork for a war beyond Iraq. Though he hails from Canada, I gather he is now technically an American citizen.

I first met the patriotic Mr. Frum 20 years ago, when I still worked for National Review. (At that time and long afterward, I must say, I always found him personally genial.) His first contribution to the magazine was an article warning that a Reagan arms sale to Saudi Arabia, by endangering Israel, would drive many people away from the conservative movement.

At the time I was too naïve to have suspicions of Frum. But two things about his article troubled me.

First, the question for Americans should have been not whether the arms sale was good for Israel, but whether it was good for America. But this obvious consideration didn’t seem to occur to Frum, who now challenges the patriotism of Americans. (Nor did Canadian interests seem to concern him, but never mind.)

Second, conservatism was a whole philosophy of government, and it struck me as odd that anyone, let alone “many people,” should reject its principles — natural law, tradition, limited government, prudence, constitutional constraints — over something as trivial as an arms sale.

Gradually it sank into my slow brain that Frum’s “many people” — the neoconservatives — regarded both America and conservative principles as purely instrumental to Israel’s welfare. Such is his, and their, American patriotism. We are entitled to wonder why they are eager to see the United States fight a war concentrated in the Mideast, against Israel’s enemies.

But they are equally eager to suppress this question. Frum’s latest article is an audacious attempt to silence conservative opponents of the war by smearing them. All of his targets are manifestly patriotic men, who have opposed war on Iraq because they regard it as harmful, not helpful, to America. How it must elate him to be allowed to indict their loyalty in the very magazine that once symbolized American conservatism!

In fact, Frum’s article marks the takeover of the American conservative movement by neoconservatives who care nothing for the principles of classical conservatism. Just as pro-Soviet Communists once infiltrated the ranks of liberals by adopting liberal rhetoric, today the pro-Israel neoconservatives ape conservative rhetoric for their own purposes.

True to form, Frum makes no reference to conservative principles in pronouncing certain “paleoconservatives” unpatriotic. He insinuates, of course, that they are racists, anti-Semites, nativists, etc. But their “war on America” seems to consist entirely in applying their principles to the current U.S. government and reaching conclusions he dislikes. He especially dislikes their suspicion that the war on Iraq and its neighbors will serve the interests of Israel, not the adopted country to which he has recently sworn allegiance. Either they are unpatriotic or he is.

But as in his article on Reagan’s arms sale, Frum never gets around to a discussion of conservative principles. He seems unaware, and utterly unconcerned, that the U.S. government today is further than ever from its founding principles, the very principles his “unpatriotic conservatives” have struggled to conserve. All that matters is that they oppose the war he craves.

Frum has described himself as “liberal” on “social issues,” including abortion. So it seems that you can be a full-fledged member of the Culture of Death — pro-abortion and pro-war — and still be a good American.

But how would Frum’s America deserve anyone’s loyalty?
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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