Frum’s Reminiscences on the Iraq War

Long before he became generally known as the Republican critic Democrats most like to quote, David Frum was mostly famous outside conservative circles as one of the proudest authors of George W. Bush’s first big speech (the “Axis of Evil” State of the Union Address is 2002) aimed at building the public case for the invasion of Iraq. After moving to the American Enterprise Institute in 2003, Frum continued to be closely associated with those supporting the war, and with the neoconservative faction of the GOP more generally. I don’t know when he first publicly expressed self-recrimination over his role in Iraq War advocacy (he was part of Rudy Guiliani’s short-lived 2008 presidential campaign, and was considered a reasonably orthodox Republican until AEI dumped him in 2010). But at the Daily Beast today, Frum comes to grips with his responsibility for fanning the war fever, and while not totally repentant, (he still challenges the ideas the war did no good or that leaving Saddam Hussein in power would have been vastly preferable), he’s pretty honest about the propaganda machine to which he contributed.

You can read and judge it yourself, but there was one tidbit in his account of the runup to war that bears repeating since it reflects a largely forgotten aspect of the pro-war coalition:

[Tony] Blair, who had previously led his country into humanitarian military campaigns in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, laid more stress on the liberation of the Iraqi people and less on WMDs. Perhaps Blair’s version of the argument should have been heard as a warning that the WMD case was not as strong as the Bush administration made it out to be. At the time, though, Blair’s human-rights case for war reinforced the Bush administration’s national-security case.

Brits sometimes question how crucial Blair was in the run-up to war. My own sense, for what it’s worth, is that it was Blair, not Bush, who swayed Democrats in Congress and liberal hawks in the media. Without Blair, the Iraq War would the Iraq War would have been authorized with only the smallest handful of non-Republican votes.

As someone working in one of the precincts of liberal hawkery at the time (not really involved in, but certainly not speaking out against, the pro-war arguments of my colleagues), I think that’s probably right. Blair was the number-one hero of self-conscious Clintonian Democrats back then (it’s often forgotten his own political demise began with later revelations of duplicity about Iraq), and his support for the war was more influential in those circles than anything Bush had to say (though a general fear of looking “weak” on national security was also an important factor). And in general, “liberal hawks” put a lot more emphasis on human rights and collective security (you know, going to war to enforce U.N. sanctions, albeit without the express approval of the U.N.) arguments for the war than on the WMD lies. As it happened, Blair’s support for the war significantly outlasted that of most “liberal hawks” in the U.S. (this side of Joe Lieberman), who began criticizing the occupation almost immediately. But it mattered for a while, and was part of a broader circle of self-deception that made W.’s deliberate deceptions easier. I regret buying into it even briefly and passively, and wonder whether Frum will ever be rid of the war fever’s distinctive scar on his public life.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.