The 'National Review' Flip-Flop

National Review has issued a surprisingly semi-sober editorial acknowledging the state of the Iraqi occupation. They condemn the Wilsonianism neoconservative mindset that thinks that American can import democracy to Iraq. They also denounce the extreme optimism that denies any American failures or difficulties that occur in Iraq. While not admitting that the war was a bad idea to begin with, they at least call for a relatively prompt withdrawal from Iraq. Good for them.

The editorial concludes,

Ultimately, even if our choices now can help or hurt, it is Iraqis who have to save Iraq. It is their country, not ours. In coming weeks and months, we will have to defer to the authorities we hope will eventually take control, in the process endorsing compromises that we will consider less than ideal. But it is time for reality to drive our Iraq policy, unhindered by illusions or wishful thinking. We should do what we can to give Iraqis a chance at a better future, then pray that they take it.

I couldn't agree more, but it would be nice if our friends at National Review could admit that they were the ones full of illusions and wishful thinking. Maybe they could issue a mea culpa and apologize to us unpatriotic conservatives who have urged a "self-fulfilling defeatism." Just for fun, I thought it would be nice to compare what National Review's new illusion-free editorial board thinks to earlier comments made in the nations premiere conservative magazine.


Since the conclusion of the war, the Bush administration has shown a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations. The post-war looting was explained away as the natural and understandable exuberance of a newly-liberated people.


Violence is latent in Iraq, but with forethought and goodwill retired general Jay Garner and the several hundred other American officials of the newly formed Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance should be able to contain and defang it. The initial outburst of looting in Iraqi cities has struck some as an unwelcome surprise. But looting happens in war, and even more in the vacuum created by the collapse of a totalitarian regime.

Everyone was looting in Germany in 1945, including from art collections and museums. In Yeltsin’s Russia, everyone knew Communism had stolen so much from them that they felt impelled to take back anything they could, by whatever means. Saddam Hussein stole the whole of Iraq, and the looters are also only trying to lay hands on a little of their own. Why, as a war correspondent in the Six Day War of 1967, I took from a Syrian trench a copy of Balzac’s Pere Goriot in Russian, presumably abandoned by a Soviet adviser.

The Great Sorting Out: Iraq has been reborn; how shall it grow up? David Pryce-Jones May, 05 2003

Besides, there is the point I started out with. Whether you think these treasures belong to Iraqis or to all mankind, they are treasures nonetheless. They should therefore be stored and displayed in the safest place we can think of. Where would that be? Well, that depends on what course you think world events are likely to take over the next few decades. I don't believe Saddam Hussein's Baghdad would be near the top of anybody's list, though. Saddam's regime was lawless, and its fall – however it fell – was bound to be accompanied by civil chaos. It seems, in fact, that the old despot had helped himself to some of the museum treasures, and used them to adorn his own numerous palaces….

As a matter of fact, we may reasonably hope that the West is precisely where the artifacts looted from the Iraqi National Museum will end up sooner or later. The Times quotes Mohsen Hassan, a deputy curator of the museum, as saying that many of the looters were middle-class people who knew exactly what they were looking for. My guess is that there were some museum employees among them… What the city undoubtedly has many more of, though, are well-educated people who are utterly penniless. These people know that even "priceless" objects do, in point of fact, have prices – that private collectors in other countries will pay large sums of money for them. Then, 20 or 40 years in the future, when those collectors pass on and their irresponsible heirs sell off their estates, those objects will find their way to institutions here in the West.

I am therefore sanguine about the looting of the Baghdad museum.

Churning: Rethinking the Iraqi National Museum by John Derbyshire April 17, 2003


Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld denied the obvious reality of a guerrilla resistance and compared it to urban street crime in the United States.


History has some lessons to teach us here. In 1945 Germany resisted the allied advance to the bitter end, relying on the fanaticism of the SS and calling up elderly men and 14-year-old Hitler Youth, despite the deep war-weariness of the German people. There were even plans for a campaign of guerrilla resistance – the so-called “Werewolves” – after a formal German surrender. The wartime allies took this threat very seriously.

With Hitler’s death, however, the Nazi myth of totalitarian power evaporated and the entire apparatus of terror collapsed. Those who had acted from Nazi conviction – like Saddam’s thugs – vanished into the shadows, deprived of the drug of power that had sustained them in their wickedness. Those who had acted from fear – like ordinary Iraqis today – were suddenly released from a living nightmare. Not a single “Werewolf” emerged from his lair. And the allies, who had arrived as conquerors not liberators, soon found themselves handing out food parcels to a grateful German population.

That will happen in Iraq too. When? That no one can predict with certainty. But happen it will – and not long after the battle of Baghdad is joined.

Cracks in Iraq's Resistance: expect a mood change by John O Sullivan April 1, 2003


But this concession points to an intellectual mistake made prior to the occupation: an underestimation in general of the difficulty of implanting democracy in alien soil, and an overestimation in particular of the sophistication of what is fundamentally still a tribal society and one devastated by decades of tyranny…

But Iraq was not a Wilsonian – or a “neoconservative” – war. It was broadly supported by the Right as a war of national interest. The primary purpose of the war was always to protect U.S. national security, by removing a destabilizing and radical influence in the strategically crucial Persian Gulf and eliminating a potential threat to the United States.


The only constant is that [liberal elites] will probably proclaim themselves to be Wilsonians a year from now when Iraq is calmed down and a consensual government established there. Yet while the elites of America and Europe chatter on, so also does the building of democracy in Iraq…

Removing dictators and implanting democracies, after all, used to be just as much a Democratic idea as was the use of force to ensure national security in a world of dangerous and criminal tyrants [emphasis added]. But now the sorry crop of would-be presidents resembles Republican antiwar contenders circa early 1939, who would have been outraged had we agreed to join Britain in stopping a nascent Hitler in Poland and France…The future of the Middle East, the credibility of the United States as both a strong and a moral power, the war against the Islamic fundamentalists, the future of the U.N. and NATO, our own politics here at home – now hinge on America’s efforts at creating a democracy out of chaos in Iraq.

The Event of the Age by Victor David Hanson October 23, 2003

[President Bush] made it clear that America’s days of tolerating Arab dictators for the sake of an illusory stability are over.

Skeptics argue that the notion of exporting democracy to Iraq is Wilsonian utopianism. Iraqis, they argue, are too fractured and divided for democracy, and what they really need is a “strong hand” (read: another dictator or at least a strongman) to hold them together.

A recent three-week visit to Iraq and months of working with Iraqi democracy activists, have convinced me that the naysayers are too quick to dismiss the potential for democracy in Iraq. But on one point their arguments have force: We should not take it for granted that democracy will come easily to Iraqis. Thus far, the administration has done way too little to advance the process of creating democratic values and institutions.

Democratizing Iraq: The U.S. needs to do much more to make it happen by Eleana Gordon December 1, 2003

The fact that Iraq's people deserve liberation is also important – even if it makes me sound like a Wilsonian liberal, something I have always hated. Still, that is where I stand.

This Is Where I Stand by Bruce Bartlett February 18, 2003

Some people may take this as gloating, and perhaps it is. But again, let us look at what our new allies at National Review said shortly after the fall of Baghdad. You see the editors came up with a “Hall of Shame” to highlight the “many pundits, pols, and, yes, celebs” who “said so many wrong – and downright silly – things about the war in Iraq, prewar. We knew that back then, but now that Baghdad has effectively been liberated by the U.S.-led Coalition, we provide a handy snapshot of what was said by some of those who should be looking down and making their apologies.”

Among the statements worthy of the Hall of Shame that they highlighted to show how evidently wrong they were was this fatalist line by Eric Alterman.

Is Wolfowitz really so ignorant of history as to believe the Iraqis would welcome us as “their hoped-for liberators”

And this defeatist statement by Nicholas von Hoffman

…while I found few people willing to fight for Saddam, I encountered plenty of nationalists willing to defend Iraq against Yankee invaders. And while ordinary Iraqis were very friendly toward me, they were enraged at the U.S. after 11 years of economic sanctions….

….So if Saddam thinks the average Iraqi is going to miss him, he’s deluding himself. But if President Bush thinks our invasion and occupation will go smoothly because Iraqis will welcome us, then he too is deluding himself.

Hall of Shame: Media recriminations after VB Day by NR Staff April 20, 2003

Well it looks like its National Review who looks downright silly now. Of course all these terrible things that von Hoffman and Alterman predicted are happening to Iraq. The antiwar right has predicted many of the other problems that would occur trying to occupy Iraq and impose democracy on it well before the War even started. Are the hundreds (potentially thousands of American lives), not to mention the thousands of dead Iraqis, really worth removing a “destabilizing” influence and “potential” threat from the Middle East? Perhaps our friends at National Review can tell us why in their next editorial.

April 20, 2004


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