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Washington, DC - March 7, 2014 8AM-5PM at the National Press Club

"..a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils."

-George Washington, Farewell Address


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  Did Neoconservatives take over GOP Foreign Policy?
(Video YouTube, Audio MP3)

by Scott McConnell is an American journalist and founder of The American Conservative.  After working on the 1976 presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, McConnell earned a Ph.D in history at Columbia University, During this time he became attracted to the neoconservative movement and began writing for Commentary and National Review. In 1989, McConnell became an editorial writer and later columnist for the New York Post and served as editorial page editor in 1997. McConnell was fired from the Post later that year.

McConnell has since emerged as one of the leading figures in the broadly defined paleoconservative movement. After spending many years as a columnist for the New York Press and, in 2002 he collaborated with Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopolous in founding The American Conservative, a magazine which has served as a voice for traditionalist conservatives opposed to both liberalism and the policies of the George W. Bush administration. By the end of 2004, McConnell became the sole editor of The American Conservative.

I was concerned there’d be some overlap with Justin because we have almost the same subject, but there’s none. It’s over-simplified, but I think true that after 1970 the Nixon administration began to think of Israel as a genuine Cold War ally. Israel had shown it could fight effectively against Moscow’s allies, which put it in a very different category than South Vietnam. Of course, there would be complications in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. You know about them. But most of the Republican establishment during the Nixon and Reagan years viewed Israel as a friendly asset.


When the Cold War ended, this would become more complicated. Obviously, Israel was completely useless as a regional asset when Iraq invaded Kuwait. And once the problems in the region, America’s problems, it was clear that they came from within the region and not with or not Soviet-sponsored, issues such as Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians would become more salient, and so maybe for a brief time the place of Israel in the American conservative mind was potentially in flux.


This is the context of the story I want to tell about, the rise of neoconservative hegemony within the conservative movement. It’s a big subject, but I’m going to focus on one turning point, William Buckley’s decision to allow neoconservatives to regulate the terms of Mideast discussion in his own magazine, National Review. This development was signaled by his treatment of senior editor Joe Sobran and his denunciation of Pat Buchanan.


First, some earlier context, Buckley is often and rightly credited with pushing hardcore anti-Semitism out of the American right. I read recently that the most widely read right wing book of the early ‘50s was something called Iron Curtain Over America, which described how Khazar Jews were completing a takeover of the Democratic Party. This book went through 14 printings. Buckley’s National Review founded in 1955 was a sharp break from this kind of stupidity. Buckley famously excluded writers from The American Mercury from contributing to National Review in 1957.


But National Review itself was not free from publishing some pretty odd stuff. The historian Peter Novick concludes in his book, The Holocaust in American Life, that no American general interest magazine published more vehement and strident stuff against Israel bringing Adolf Eichmann to trial. In numerous articles and editorials, National Review stressed that the trial would do nothing but incite hatred of Germany. "The Christian church," said a National Review editorial in 1961, "focuses hard on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ for only one week of the year. But three months, that’s the minimum estimate of the Israeli government for the duration of the trial. Everyone knows the fact, has known them for years, the counting of corpses in gas ovens. There’s a studious attempt to cast suspicion on Germany. It’s all there - bitterness, distrust, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of communist aims."


So 25 years later, in 1986, Bill Buckley was presented with a dossier compiled by Midge Decter and her husband - commentary editor Norman Podhoretz. It consisted of six syndicated columns by Joseph Sobran accompanied by a tough letter from Decter accusing Sobran of being a naked anti-Semite.


Who was Joe Sobran? He was a conservative Catholic who came to Buckley’s attention in 1972 when he was a graduate student at Eastern Michigan and Buckley was coming to visit the campus. And Sobran wrote a letter to the school paper opposing those who wanted to oppose Buckley’s appearance on the campus. So the polemical grace and power of that letter impressed Buckley as it would a generation of Sobran’s readers. So soon thereafter, Sobran was flying to New York fortnightly to write editorials for National Review and became a senior editor.


Midge Decter naturally sent her indictment to a few dozen of Buckley’s allies and other luminaries in the conservative movement. I’m not sure how to characterize the six columns, which were not published in National Review. One attacked people who were critical of Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. Another said that the Times’ reason for supporting the bombing of Libya was because Israel wanted it. A third noted that Maimonides, the famous Jewish sage, had said that it was not okay to kill or cheat gentiles, but Sobran wanted to know why was this even an issue. My sense, and I’ve only read the excerpts compiled by Midge, is that they were not something I would want to write but that they were less anti-Semitic in tone than what National Review was producing about the Eichmann trial.


Buckley’s response, after meeting with Sobran and the National Review staff several times, was to publish a long editorial disassociating his magazine from the tendentiousness of the columns while asserting that those who knew Sobran knew that he wasn’t an anti-Semite. The two also agreed to a covenant under which Sobran would read to Buckley aloud on the telephone anything he wrote for the magazine which mentioned Israel and Buckley would approve or disapprove. This is pre-fax machine. Buckley apparently also told Podhoretz that Sobran would not write in the National Review at all about the Mideast. What he did not do was tell Midge and Norman to go fly a kite. In any case, the arrangement didn’t last. Sobran became an impassioned opponent of the first Iraq war. Buckley prepared a letter asking him to step down as senior editor while continuing to contribute or whatever, and Sobran resigned.


The other and more important half of this story concerns Pat Buchanan who was not a colleague of Buckley’s, but in the 1980s clearly America’s most prominent media conservative. Like Sobran, Buchanan had begun to reevaluate his view of Israel which had used to be very warm. He too hadn’t liked the attacks on Reagan over Bitburg when he was in the Reagan White House, and he too opposed the first Iraq war. The campaign against Buchanan was instigated not by Midge and Norman, but by Times’ columnist Ann Rosenthal using a dossier of Buchanan columns prepared by the Anti-Defamation League.


I don’t know how much of the story is very, very familiar. But the indictment turned on several phrases. Pat had claimed that there were only two groups beating the drum for the Iraq war, the Israeli Defense Ministry and its "amen corner" in the United States. In another column he had named four defense commentators, all Jewish, who favored the war, and none that were not.  In a third he   listed four representative names of American casualties - "McAllister," "Murphy," "Gonzales," "Leroy Brown." On a TV show he referred to Congress as "Israeli-occupied territory." Rosenthal claimed that these kind of things could lead to Auschwitz. Buchanan saying these kinds of things.


So Buckley’s first reaction was in a column where he said most of Pat’s discrete points were defensible, but his rhetoric was insensitive. Then the topic heated up and became a major intellectual media affair and Buckley published a lengthy essay in National Review, “In Search of Anti-Semitism” and gathered it along with a dozen or so responses in a book form. In the 10,000-words section on Buchanan, Buckley weighed very carefully the arguments of Buchanan’s attackers and defenders and finally came to this tortured conclusion: "I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he said during the period amounted to anti-Semitism. Whatever it was that drove him to say it, most probably an iconoclastic temperament."


So let me say in general that Buckley’s essays in the book were, I think, nuanced and remain interesting to this day most of all because of the collected remarks of other journalists and friends of National Review. One can read Bob Novak’s accounts of all the efforts made to get newspapers to drop him and Rolly Evans’ column because they were frequently realist on the Mideast. And one can treat Eric Alterman’s very amusing comments about AIPAC’s efforts to drum up efforts to drop Buchanan’s column, you know, but of course AIPAC wasn’t trying to "silence" anyone. Perish the thought.


In general, Buchanan’s depiction of the power of the Israel lobby to break reputations is perceptive and unequivocal. In describing his first private dinner with Sobran where they discussed the accusations, Buckley tells the story of William Scranton, a governor of Pennsylvania who, in the ‘60s, was considered presidential timber. Nixon sent him on a fact-finding mission to the Mideast and Scranton came back with a recommendation that the United States be more even-handed, and no one ever heard from Scranton again. Buckley writes, “We both laughed. One does laugh when acknowledging inordinate power even as one deplores it.”


And in the book, there are a lot of good lines. One of them is given to Sobran from a private letter he wrote to Buckley, “When I talk to a Palestinian for an hour or two, I’m struck at how absolutely bizarre it is that an editor of commentary or the New Republic can buy a plane ticket to Tel Aviv and instantly benefit from a whole range of rights denied to the native Arabs.”


But none of this mattered. Buckley did cut Sobran loose from National Review, and Sobran’s career subsequently deteriorated into the indefensible. He did conclude that what Buchanan wrote amounted to anti-Semitism. And even as he appended a highly qualifying clause and defended most of what Buchanan said, Abe Rosenthal, and David Frum, and Podhoretzes got the guilty verdict they had sought. And his verdict could be simplified, "Buchanan, anti-Semitic says Buckley." Then it could be repeated 10,000 times in newspapers columns and sound bites over the next 10 years, and the lesson would sink in. Buchanan, because of his Israel views, was banished from the ranks of respectable establishment conservatism.


From our present point, we can see more clearly the consequences. By getting Buckley to denounce first one of his own writers - a man with whom he was personally very close - and then another extremely prominent conservative on questions related to Israel and it’s influence, the neoconservatives essentially won the right to supervise Israel-related discussions in National Review which is not a neocon publication and was the largest and most influential publication on the American right. Thereafter, any young Conservative knew the rules - you’d best be sufficiently pro-Israel to satisfy Midge and Norman if you wanted to advance. And this would prove very consequential for the Republican Party moving forward through the ‘90s and set the tone into the next century.


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