"National Review Goes To War"
by Neal Freeman
March 14, 2007
It evolved into a useful mechanism, the National Review Board of Directors.
We knew early on that there would be no such thing as a free dinner. After the meeting and the reception, after the Beef Wellington and the soufflé, even after the good cigars of suspect provenance, the evening would still be young and dangerous. At any moment the host might ring his goblet and call on one of us to declaim on some obscure issue that then engaged him. Over time we got used to it, but you never really forgot your first turn in the barrel at William F. Buckley's dinner table. In my own case, I was asked to assess the "recent events at NATO headquarters." It being the closing weeks of the NFL season those events, whatever they were, had escaped notice. My remarks were brief, pointless and canted sharply downhill. Think of Bode Miller, windmilling off course, and you have a sense of it.
Now and then, we got the night off. A special guest would appear, drawn from Bill's wildly eclectic circle of friends. Henry Kissinger, the great columnist Murray Kempton, Liberal activist Allard Lowenstein, convicted killer Edgar Smith. You never knew who might show up. The evening that lives in memory featured Sir James Goldsmith who was at the time (roughly speaking) the richest man in the world and (not so roughly speaking) the most pontifical man this side of Rome. Asked by Bill to suggest how the fraying Anglo-American alliance might be repaired, he bounced to his feet and declared, "It's really quite simple," by which he appeared to mean that we were unlikely to grasp its complexity without benefit of his navigational services. "It depends on whether or not we attend to twelve straightforward axioms." He then proceeded to describe each axiom at impressive length.
I had flown in on the redeye and, after a long day of back-to-back meetings, had consumed at least my share of Bill's nice Bordeaux. As Sir James' presentation rolled on I found it less and less compelling. Along about axiom #3, I nodded off. Not face down, gurgling-in-the-finger-bowl but chin-bouncing-off-the-chest, in the manner of the toy dog in the back window of the car in front of you. I caught a few winks. Sometime later I was shaken awake by a burst of applause. A relieved audience seemed to be congratulating Sir James on his march across the dry plains of axiom. He acknowledged the applause with a Windsorian wave and sat down, his face a rictus of frozen satisfaction. As the applause died away, WFB, who misses nothing, cleared his throat polysyllabically and announced, "Uhhhhh, responding for the United States... Mr. Neal Freeman." In that special moment I guess I admired Bill almost as much as I hated myself.
I got to my feet, launched a few dozen words in search of a coherent idea and, finding none, did what we all had learned to do in circumstances of last resort. I pulled an O'Sullivan. (John O'Sullivan, the onetime editor of NR, was, like many Brits, born glib. Roused from deep slumber, he could deliver, between yawns, six chiseled paragraphs on the similarities between Gladstone and Disraeli.) I wrapped up briskly with, "I think we can all agree that Sir James' axioms speak eloquently for themselves." I fooled nobody, of course, with the possible exception of Sir James Goldsmith, who at least on the subject of his own magnificence could occasionally be fooled. Bill found it all so hugely amusing that I entertained the idea of hating him, too.
As will be apparent from this small episode, the Board dinner worked at several levels. At the threshhold level, it served to separate the women from the girls. Aspirants who failed the ordeal by rhetorical fire tended to disappear, airbrushed from institutional memory. Those who remained were ushered into Bill's inner circle, which was always a fun place to be. And where, I might add, people tended to settle in for the long haul. After 38 years on the NR Board, I ranked no higher than third in seniority.
At the operational level, the Board regulars became NR's ready reserves. Most of the time, to be sure, the NR Board was corporate in name only. Bill as the controlling shareholder would call the shots and the rest of us would say more or less with one voice, "Attaboy, Bill." He owned the stock and we were all theological capitalists. But when the finances of the magazine took a Dickensian turn, as they did from time to time, the NR Board was there, pre-briefed, bonded to the enterprise and ready to heave to. (I can remember serving on one of those "special committees" with Joseph Donner, a savvy Wall Streeter who had acquired a Ph.D. in German history in his spare time. In the course of an afternoon, Joe dashed off a turnaround plan for which Booz Allen would have charged six figures.)
By far the greatest benefit of these dinners, however, was the opportunity to calibrate NR's center of ideological gravity. To even close readers of the magazine, it no doubt seemed that the magazine spoke with the distinctive and authoritative voice of WFB – the one man in our one-man, one-vote editorial regime. But for all his gifts of insight and expression, not to mention his hierarchical dominance, Bill was always factually hungry and intellectually humble. He rarely imposed his view at the outset of discussion, preferring to hear from others before refining and declaring his own position. In the dialectic of the magazine, he rarely advanced thesis or counterposed antithesis. His natural mode was synthesis. That is, while he may have been uncomfortable watching James Burnham and Frank Meyer batter each other – and their showdowns in my own staff days could turn into draining Borg-McEnroe five-setters – he was happy to learn from them.
As the dinners evolved, then, they were rarely the occasion for issuing encyclicals in matters of conservative faith and almost always a convocation of the likeminded in pursuit of fresh doctrine. At the end of most of those evenings, with his thoughts neatly gathered, Bill would say goodnight, go upstairs and write a column, sometimes spiced with unattributed quotes from his dinner guests. A few days later we would open the newspaper to find Bill's elegantly synthesized position on the issue of the day. If you want to perceive in this process a right-wing conspiracy resulting in a party line, be my guest. There are worse ways to run a political movement.
And so we came to 9/11. On that unforgettable Tuesday morning, a series of ugly events occurred. Unspeakable death and destruction that produced terror and fear and, soon thereafter, the birth of a pernicious cliché. It was said and then repeated and then echoed and then chanted that "9/11 changed everything." Never underestimate the power of cliché to sweep all argument before it. In Washington at least, 9/11 did seem to change everything. Less than a year earlier, George Bush had been elected President on a foreign policy platform with three planks: 1) that the US would not act as the world's policeman; 2) that the US would be humble before the nations of the world; and 3) that the US 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.
In the early rounds of the running debate, I would guesstimate that sentiment ran three-to-two in favor of the Iraq invasion. (I should note that the subject of Afghanistan was quickly put to one side. It was a straight-line projection of long-standing NR policy that we should respond to 9/11 with disproportionate force and to disproportionate effect. If there was reservation within the circle about the assault on Afghanistan, it was no more than quiddity.) I was at first opposed to the Iraq invasion based on my skepticism about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. What information I had was not first-hand and dispositive. It was more interstitial and suggestive. Over the years, I had served on the boards of a number of defense contractors all of which did classified work. Two of them had provided information that, it's not too much to say, proved vital to US security interests. A third developed technology that, perhaps second only to nuclear weaponry, tipped the balance of terror against the Soviet Union. A fourth was the only private entity I'm aware of whose employees came under attack in all three 9/11 buildings – a clandestine office in one tower, a protective service post in the other tower, civilian contractors at the Pentagon. A fifth company ran supplies to America's unacknowledged allies in sundry twilight struggles. I spent a lot of seat-miles with these people. Additionally, as a journalist I had produced for many years the PBS foreign affairs series, "American Interests". In the course of an average week, I talked to a score of sources professionally engaged in matters of national security – defense, diplomacy, intelligence. I stayed in touch with these people. Finally, as a resident of northern Virginia’s high-tech corridor for twenty years, I rubbed elbows with members of "the community" all week long – at the gym, at school events, at overpriced coffee bars. If you happen to reside in Kohler, Wisconsin, I suppose that the chat turns to sinks and tubs. In Vienna and Reston you talk shop, too. What struck me was that, over the course of the eighteen 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. My best guess is that it was an example of what psychologists call rational herding, which is the modeling of your beliefs on the beliefs of others whom you presume to be better informed. Rational or otherwise, there was much herding. 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.
It has become fashionable in recent months to say that the US invaded Iraq "for lots of reasons." It has been said, variously, that we were seeking to establish an island of democracy in an unstable region; (more nobly) that humanitarian principle obliged us to free an oppressed people; (more crassly) that we had no choice but to protect the flow of oil; (more colorfully) that the President was driven to avenge old man Bush; (more tendentiously) that we were manipulated into advancing Israel's interests. Pick your axe and grind it. The notion that we invaded Iraq for "lots of reasons" – like so much else in the discussion of Iraq – misses the point. There was only one "reason" that permitted the President to take the country to war: the presence of weapons of mass destruction. The American people were and are viscerally opposed to the idea of pre-emptive war. In the absence of a threat, pre-emptive war looks to them very much like naked aggression. (In the absence of a threat, even the argument from principle would collapse. The Administration’s stated preference for democracy was based on the asseveration that democracies don't attack other countries.) It's important to remember that WMD was not just one of a cluster of fungible "reasons" for war. It was the only reason for war.
Another statement that has been swapped-out by the fashionable in recent months, most famously by Sen. Jay Rockefeller of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is this: "If I knew then what I know now, I would have opposed the war." With great respect, Senator, we know now exactly what you knew then. And to my knowledge not a single datum of US intelligence has been changed over the past three years. There have been additions and reassessments as information accumulated, but the veracity of the data file at the time of the Senate vote has not been challenged in any material respect. (I hope not to confuse the term "data" with the broader term, "intelligence." The latter comes in two forms. The first is data – the hard artifacts of intelligence including pictures, voice intercepts, alphanumeric files snatched from ocean-bed cables and such like. The other form is human interpretation, an attempt to tell the customer what the data mean. These assessments vary widely in quality, ranging from brilliant analysis and actionable extrapolation to bureaucratic cant and partisan spin. Over time, the data record stands motionless. The interpretation swings freely in the Beltway breeze.)
In our final meeting before the balloon went up in Iraq, I pleaded with my NR colleagues to reconsider their drum-beating for war. I rehearsed my old arguments and added the prudential point that we should husband our resources to meet the real threats in Iran and North Korea. I thought then and I think today that if NR had opposed the invasion it could have made a decisive difference within the conservative movement and, radiating its influence outward, across the larger political community. There were no takers for my brief. For all involved, I suspect, that last pre-war evening was difficult. I probably pressed too hard against the carefully-tended fences of collegiality. In an overwrought phrase that I regretted instantly, I characterized the decision to invade Iraq as "stupid, dangerous and hubristic." (I recall the phrase only because it was tossed back at me repeatedly in the early months of the war, as if it had been memorialized on a plaque in the Hall of Crazy Sayings.) For all the sense of estrangement between me and the magazine I now barely recognized, though, there was in the air a hint of reconciliation. We were marching to war after all and as soon as American boots hit Iraqi soil, there would be no more debate, no more policy differences. It would be our guys, right or wrong. We would all be in it together. Right?
As America went to war, NR gave its warm endorsement to the invasion but then - rather than rallying reluctant conservatives to flag and cause – it turned abruptly to the settling of intramural scores. In the issue immediately following the invasion, NR ran a long cover story excoriating what it called "Unpatriotic Conservatives." The principal villain of the piece was, of all people, Robert Novak. I had a history with Novak. Back in the 60's when I opened NR's Washington bureau, there weren't many established pressies who wanted anything to do with our little right-wing magazine. Novak had opened doors and offered friendly counsel. As his career and influence waxed, he became a mentor to many conservative journalists. Fred Barnes, John Fund, and Kate O'Beirne, among others, are in his debt. By the time that Reagan came to town, Novak was the most important conservative journalist in the nation's capital – as important to the DC network as WFB was to his in New York. (The other giant in town was my old Washington Star colleague James Jackson Kilpatrick, but Kilpo was not by temperament a team-builder.) I will admit that the cover line had arrested my attention. In what way had Robert Novak – US Army veteran, indefatigable Cold Warrior, true-believing supplysider, the man on whose shoulders so many NR editors stood – in what way had Robert Novak suddenly become "unpatriotic?"
The case against Novak focused on the four pillars of his reportorial skepticism about Iraq. In his columns and television appearances he had opined: 1) that the case for WMD had not been made; 2) that the occupation of Iraq might not be a "cakewalk" (in the neocon phrase of the day); 3) that democratic values might not easily take root in the sands of the Middle East; and 4) that global terrorism might not be deterred by the invasion of the US military. For making these points unabashedly, Novak had, in the judgment of NR's author, revealed his true feelings and base motives. Robert Novak "hated" America. Robert Novak was "unpatriotic." (The author, David Frum, seemed to be an odd choice as lead investigator for NR's Committee on Un-American Activities. Only recently naturalized, Frum had spent most of his life as a Canadian.) My own response to Novak's reporting was mixed. As noted, I shared his view on #1. About #4 I was agnostic. Most of what I knew about #2 and #3, which was not much, came from my reading of T.E. Lawrence's dispatches. The young officer had informed his Colonial Secretary (Winston Churchill, as it happened) that the sprawling territory that would one day be called Iraq was in fact three distinct entities with natural capitals in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad. It was the estimate of Lawrence of Arabia that the three Ottoman provinces could be held together only at the point of a gun. That estimate proved to be durable. Even Saddam's long tenure offered no evidence to the contrary.
Rereading some of Novak's columns, I concluded that he had made a plausible case and a wholly responsible contribution to the public conversation. The historical record has now confirmed that judgment. On each and every point Novak had been right and his opponents had been wrong. In opinion journalism, you would hope that the quality of opinion would count for something. But in those poisonous days, truth was no defense. "Unpatriotic." It was the cruelest cut you could inflict on a conservative of a certain age. When I put down my copy of NR, I felt a genuinely new sensation. For the first time in my long association with the magazine, I was ashamed. If only in an attenuated way, I felt somehow complicit. All of the moral capital we had accumulated over the years, all of the credibility we had earned by weeding out the Randians, the Birchers, the racists, the anti-semites and the 24-hour nutbars– all of it was used to leverage an ad hominem attack on one of our oldest friends.
I instigated a campaign to pressure NR to print an apology. Novak's many friends chimed in and the editors agreed. I wasn't asking for any rending of garments. What I had in mind was a brief, boxed editorial saying, basically, "We made a mistake and we regret it." I should have known something was afoot when the process dragged on for some weeks. What finally appeared was a lengthy "collection" of responses to the Novak piece – some pieces blandly complimentary to Novak, others sharply critical. The latter pieces for the most part skipped over the work product and dwelled speculatively on dark motivation. (Frum was allowed to review his own performance and found it flawless.) The impression created by the "collection" was that Novak was a controversial and deeply divisive figure within the conservative community. The reality was that he was, after only WFB himself, the most admired and influential conservative journalist in the country. In my eyes, the original felony had been compounded by the "apology." (From time to time I have reminded NR editors that conservatism means that it's never too late to say you’re sorry.)
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. Hell, Bill and our little gang had repainted the map of the known world. I had deep reserves of affection for the magazine and for my band of brothers 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.
(Neal's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)