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How Robert Novak and the antiwar Right got it right on Iraq

Patriotic Conservative

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As conservatives continue to protest President Obama's massive spending, Democrats continue to ask, rightly, why Republicans were never as indignant about Bush's massive spending. That's easy. During the Bush years, fighting the "war on terror" reduced big government to an afterthought.

"Supporting the troops" meant supporting the war in Iraq, including the cost, with no questions asked. Being a "conservative" meant being pro-war, period. And White House speechwriter David Frum worked overtime to keep it that way.

Though most famous for coining the phrase "axis of evil" in President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, Frum's second most famous act was to try to drive antiwar conservatives out of the movement. In a 2003 cover story for National Review entitled "Unpatriotic Conservatives," Frum gave right-wing dissenters from Bush's foreign policy the Fredo treatment: "War is a great clarifier. It forces people to take sides. The paleoconservatives have chosen — and the rest of us must choose too. In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them."

So who were these unpatriotic paleoconservatives who had supposedly turned their backs on their country by opposing the war in Iraq? Of the names listed, Frum's most famous targets were Pat Buchanan and Robert Novak.

When Novak's death was announced this week, much of the focus was naturally on his decades-long career as a reporter and pundit, and of course his involvement with the Valerie Plame scandal in 2003. But on the single issue that defined the Right for the last decade, it cannot be overstated the importance of a man of Novak's stature bravely pointing out that on the Iraq war, the Right was completely wrong.

Writes colleague and friend Timothy P. Carney: "Novak's stance led some of the more bellicose writers in the movement to assail Novak's character ... I saw the effect this had on Novak. More than anything, it saddened him. It hurt his feelings that old friends joined Frum in turning their backs on him."

When "Unpatriotic Conservatives" was published, most Americans were justifiably angry, and Frum the propagandist successfully exploited the high-running emotion of that time to the Bush administration's advantage. Most right-wing publications, talk radio, and, indeed, the entire Republican Party had quickly succumbed to the pro-war narrative constructed by Frum and the neoconservatives.

With a reputation of having the keenest insight and best sources in the news business, the reliably perceptive and always resourceful Novak saw through the war hysteria and believed that 9/11 was being used as a convenient excuse, not a logical reason, to embark on the neoconservatives' long-term, pre-9/11 goal of establishing a permanent U.S. presence in the Middle East. Novak argued that invading Iraq was unnecessary and would prove too costly. Over 4,000 American lives and $3 trillion later, it becomes even clearer that he was right.

In trying to discard men like Novak, the pro-war Right was also discarding the foreign policy restraint and hard-headed realism that had always defined traditional conservatism. Carney notes that Novak was "saddened about the state of the conservative movement," adding that "Such intolerance of dissent and debate — and such disdain for conservatism's roots in a humbler foreign policy — would become a weakness for conservatives and the Republican Party, Novak correctly foresaw." The American Spectator's Jim Antle added that Novak "reminded his fellow conservatives that their skepticism of government once extended to foreign policy as well ... For this, Novak was roundly denounced by many of his former allies, for whom the neoconservative Bush doctrine equaled conservatism."

Today, as the Right has shifted its focus from being pro-war to opposing Obama's spending, the resurgence of old-fashioned, limited-government conservatism continues to be hampered by the hypocrisy of Republicans' neocon past. When Democratic Rep. Barney Frank can say that "the biggest single waste of money in one fell swoop in federal history was the war in Iraq," conservatives have a credibility problem.

In following Novak's advice to "always love your country, but never trust your government," antiwar conservatives have no credibility problem in questioning Obama. The only difference between Nancy Pelosi calling town hall protesters "un-American" and Frum calling antiwar conservatives "unpatriotic" is which party is in power.

With so much disinformation espoused by the neoconservatives about Iraq, their true intentions should not only be called into question but perhaps their patriotism. And while he was by no means perfect, America would be much better off today if conservatives had heeded the warnings of Robert Novak and instead turned their backs on David Frum, the president he worked for, and the unnecessary war they insisted we fight.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.

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