Political Animal


March 18, 2013 5:27 PM Frum’s Reminiscences on the Iraq War

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Bob Screed on March 18, 2013 5:38 PM:

    I seem to remember that certain precincts of liberal hawkishness were not necessarily buying into the case for war, though the Marshall-Nider clique certainly was on board with all the bullcrap in Powell's U.N. speech. I thought the much more disappointing view was the shoulder-shrugging view that we should just let Bush have his stupid little war and get it over with so we could get back to the task of winning in 2004. Almost as if Iraq would be like Grenada. That view turned out to be just as wrong as the view that clapping one's hands would make the WMDs real.

  • jkl; on March 18, 2013 5:53 PM:

    George Bush looked like he could barely contain his laughter as he tried to make the case for aluminum tubes from Africa.

    Citizen journalists knew it was bogus. We had the internets, after all.

  • c u n d gulag on March 18, 2013 6:01 PM:

    That was a time, that was not near, or dear, to my heart.

    Here's what I wrote on LG&M earlier today - which I hope doesn't have any weird cutting + pasting, errors.

    I was living in Chapel Hill, NC, while all of this BS was going on, and I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, or cry.

    This was the period of time when I stopped relying on the NY Times, and instead on the local McClatchy (then Knight Ridder) paper out of Raleigh.
    They weren’t part of the DC Village mindset, and didn’t interview everyone inside the Village to get information, and pass it off as “news.”
    And so, instead of inbred “news,” I got a more realistic appraisal of what was going on, and what could happen.
    And so, I knew the NY Times, and almost everyone on TV news was full of sh*t.

    There were three points where I was sure the Bush Administration had “jumped-the-shark,” and people would ‘see the light:’
    -The mushroom cloud, line.
    I laughed!
    WAAAY over the top, kids!
    -The little, itsy-bitsy Iraqi airplanes, dispensing clouds of pure evil, all across the US.
    I laughed.
    Surely, no one bought that BS?
    -Then, the TV news coverage of people Saran-wrapping their homes, like THAT was going to save people from the itsy-bitsy Iraqi airplanes, dispensing clouds of pure evil, all across the US.
    I laughed again.
    Surely THAT was SOOOOOO over the top, that the whole house of lies, would topple!
    People couldn’t be stupid enough to forget that, no matter how many times your wrapped your home in plastic, you still needed Oxygen, and the wrapping wouldn’t stop Anthrax, or some chemical or biological aerosol agent, no matter how much you were told it would, if there was enough of it, and/or you were close to it.

    But, TV news kept propelling the propaganda, and no matter how many times I pointed out the absurdity of what was going on to other people, we went right on into Iraq, a country that had as much to do with 9/11, since it was a secular Muslim country, as China did with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
    It’s as if, after December 7th, 1941, the Roosevelt Administration looked to attack China, and justified it by saying, “Hey, they got slanted-eyes, too, don’t they? And the Opium will pay for the invasion!”

    And then, Afghanistan being bad enough, when we went into Iraq.
    I cried.
    And I’ve been crying ever since.

    I did my part to help right things, as much as I could.
    I was an anti-war, anti-torture, anti-rendition, organizer in Fayetteville, NC (home of Fort Bragg), after my job took me to that city.
    I don’t know what that accomplished, but at least I wasn’t home, sitting on my fat ass, watching TV news, and crying.

    The whole Bush Adminstration should be tried for War Crimes.
    But, sadly, that’ll never happen.

  • arkie on March 18, 2013 6:19 PM:

    I always believed that Tony Blair and Colin Powell deserve more blame for the war than Bush and Cheney. Bush is stupid and Cheney is evil. Neither of those excuses apply to Blair or Powell. If either of them had spoken out (and, in Powell's case, resigned), there would have been no war.

  • sjw on March 18, 2013 6:28 PM:

    My 2 cents: there was a "bandwagon effect," with Powell and Blair helping to get lots of others on board, to be sure, but Bill Clinton and Andrew Sullivan and the WaPo editorial board etc. etc. all playing a part as well. Sullivan has been very public in his mea culpa; Frum deserves praise, too, for his. (I say this reserving my highest praise for those who were against the war before it even started: their good judgment proves their wisdom, and they should be the first to speak and be heard the next time we are hit with "war fever.")

  • schtick on March 18, 2013 6:31 PM:

    I'm with you, gulag. I kept asking everyone, how is Iraq going to bomb us? Tie the bombs on the backs of camels and have them swim to NY harbor?

  • mudwall jackson on March 18, 2013 7:14 PM:

    what i found most astounding at the time was the degree to which people swallowed powell's un speech. every piece of "evidence" of wmd he cited was years old. it was what one in the newspaper business would call a clip job; a bunch of stuff from the archives and absolutely nothing, nothing new. you'd didn't have to be a skeptic to find powell unpersuasive; you didn't have to be an intelligence expert. all you had to do was listen and realize that these guys had no evidence whatsoever.

  • skeptonomist on March 18, 2013 7:29 PM:

    Sure, blame Tony Blair. But no, Americans just don't pay that much attention to foreigners. Blair had no particular claim to authority, and his claims were so silly and exaggerated as to be comical to those who weren't drinking the cool-aid. He was obviously just a me-too guy during that time, and I still don't know exactly why other than general incompetence.

  • Nick on March 18, 2013 8:34 PM:

    "My youngest daughter was born in December 2001: a war baby. When my wife nursed little Beatrice in the middle of the night, she’d hear F-16s patrolling the Washington skies."

    You really have to be a clueless ahole to reference the anxiety caused by friendly F-16 patrolling your skies, when you were one of the propagandists for a war where American aircraft were dropping very real bombs on very real men, women, and children.

  • janinsanfran on March 18, 2013 10:52 PM:

    The Iraq war was a crime as millions of ordinary citizens knew all through the run up. "Leaders" of both parties completely failed in their duty to their country and to humanity by enabling it.

    That's what I knew then and what I know now.

  • emjayay on March 18, 2013 11:13 PM:

    I knew it too. The full on marketing campaign waged by the Bush administration was all too obvious, evey step of the way. But it was all removed from our lives, and we really didn't know (although anyone versed in history particularly of the Middle East would have strongly known what to expect) without a draft, with no new taxes to pay for the war only a not acknowledged federal debt, the whole thing was cleverly divorced from our daily lives.

    The Bush/Cheney administration is the most pernicious and otherwise worst administration in American history.

  • James M on March 19, 2013 7:40 AM:

    I would feel pretty safe in assuming that all the regular commenters on PA knew the Iraq War was B.S. The overriding paradox was that if Saddam really did have all of the awesome WMD's the proponents of the war alleged the invasion would have been impossible because the casualties simply would have been too high. Near the end I thought that GWB was so confident in invading Iraq because he knew they didn't have WMD.

    However, to offer a little 'sympathy for the devil', there is a good reason that President Bush didn't adequately finance the war. His Neocon advisors had convinced him that Iraq would be a mix between a hostile takeover and a leveraged buyout. We would borrow the money to finance the invasion, conquer the country in a relatively short period of time and then either manage or sell off the oil rights to pay for it all. In fact, I'll bet that V.P. Cheney and his friends at Halliburton actually thought the U.S. would realize a net profit on the war.

    Also, as miserably and cowardly as the MSM behaved in the run up to the war, I am not sure there is much they could have done differently. Many individuals who were critical of the war plan did suffer grave career damage, and there was an irrepressible national urge to do something after 911. If you have ever ridden a rush hour subway train in NYC (or Tokyo), you will know that when the doors open there is an unstoppable surge of people onto the train cars from the platform. If you stand in the middle of that wave you will simply be crushed. After awhile, you learn to step to the side. I think that is what the MSM did.

  • Anonymous on March 19, 2013 8:31 AM:

    Totally agree with points above - 2 men could have stopped the war - Tony Blair and Colin Powell. Both instead pushed very hard to make it happen. If Britain had not gone along - the US would have been acting completely solo, and we probably would not have been able to use European bases to do it. And Powell - well he blatantly lied.

    And yes, it's sad to see that in the UK "Tory" Blair is deservedly considered a disgrace, but in the US Powell is still feted.

    Also - people's observations about the media reaction are correct. The day after Colin Powell's speech the US media celebrated his speech - but abroad almost every major newspaper around the world immediately pointed out the Powell had clearly lied and that US had just done Gulf of Tonkin II. And yes, anyone who thought about the bogus rationale for a second - even an economist - knew the US administration was blatantly lying.

    NOt sure whether Clinton could have stopped it - I think yes, but the GOP really had written him off back then. He was the Socialist from Arkansas :)

  • jkl; on March 19, 2013 9:59 AM:

    Filling in for Chuck Todd today on MSNBC's Rundown program, Luke Russet should have immediately stopped the interview with Republican Representative Tom Cotton.

    Cotton, supposedly an educated man, said the Iraq War has NOT contributed to the U.S. deficit, instead saying it is discretionary spending.

    Will Republicans ever stop lying, deflecting-- and deceitfully trying to change facts?

    Rachel Maddow had a great segment last night where she said we have to correct these lies so politicians can never again start a war on lies, this destructive, ruinous legacy of Bush and Cheney. Republicans are striving to change the true history of this war.

    Bill Maher said Bush has been staying in his room, thinking about what he has done.

    Bush's own paintings of his body in the tub do seem quite Freudian, to say the least. Can that blood ever come off??

    And I note that people like Cotton, and other Republicans like Mitt Romney and Joe Scarborough are using platforms to misrepresent the truth of this war.

    The Orwellian phrases such as "Iraqi Liberation," "Shock and Awe," should cease to be used. All mindgame, Frank Luntz distortions from the start.

    The Bush/Cheney/neocon phrase--Operation Iraq Liberation-- stood for OIL--and that is what the greedy war-monger, war profiteers were all about, Haliburton, and Halliburton stock, etc,funds directed to their cronies...our and shrink wrapped American dollars in the zillions unaccounted for....
    Millions dead, or living ruined lives.
    It is breathtaking.