Let’s Invade Somebody!

As best I can tell, that sums up David Rieff’s view of what conservatives want in foreign policy. Writing in today’s New York Times Magazine, Rieff begins by grotesquely overstating conservatives’ alleged dissatisfaction with President Bush’s second term foreign policy. He then suggests that the conflict in Lebanon gave rise to hope among us neo-cons that more invasions might be in the offing:

Hezbollah’s decision to break the de facto truce that it had maintained since Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and the subsequent Israeli onslaught, seems to have halted, at least for now, this maelstrom of criticism from the conservative advocates of a transformational foreign policy. Instead, it appears as if the analysts and pundits grouped around magazines like The Weekly Standard, and on such increasingly influential blogs as Power Line, are doing everything in their rhetorical power to urge the White House to return to the verities of regime change it espoused in the aftermath of 9/11 and settle accounts with the regimes in Syria and Iran that not only are backing Hezbollah, but, in the minds of neoconservatives at least, are also at the root of the problem in Iraq as well.

The best thing about that paragraph is the flattering reference to us. However, I’m not aware of any evidence that we are now, or ever have been, very influential. It’s true that we are widely read by influential people, but that’s a different matter.

Beyond that, Rieff’s characterization of the state of conservative opinion (including ours) is another crude caricature. Let me just speak for us: we have written about the mischievous role, in the current crisis and far beyond, being played by Iran and its minion Syria; we have tried to call attention to the grave threat posed by Iran’s regime; we have discussed the logistics of trying to set back Iran’s nuclear program; and we have argued the pros and cons of air strikes on Iran unaccompanied by ground action. At no time have we advocated an effort at “regime change” in either Iran or Syria through military action, although we would certainly welcome such change if it were possible to bring it about. Internally, we may be somewhat divided, as I think Paul would like to see air strikes against Iran, while I am doubtful about their effectiveness and concerned about the political implications of what may seem a half-hearted air offensive. In any case, the idea that events in Lebanon have caused us (or virtually any other conservatives I know of) to “urge the White House” to “settle accounts” with Iran and Syria by bringing about “regime change” through a military offensive is false.

Rieff concludes with considerable schadenfreude, arguing that conservative hopes of a broader war are doomed to be frustrated, in part because of problems in Iraq:

Airstrikes against Syria and Iran may be contemplated by both American and Israeli war planners, but a boots-on-the-ground war is a nonstarter for both Jerusalem and Washington, and bombing alone cannot produce regime change.

No kidding. Invading Iran is not only a non-starter today, it has been a continuous non-starter for a quarter century. I am not aware of a single conservative politician or pundit who has advocated invading Iran since the hostage crisis ended at the beginning of 1981. So the fact that a “boots on the ground” attack is a “non-starter” is hardly due to the situation in Iraq, whatever one’s view of that situation may be.

Some conservatives of various stripes have criticized aspects of Bush’s second term foreign policies, just as some conservatives (George Will, for example) criticized his first-term policies. To suggest, however, that there is a substantial group of conservatives who are champing at the bit to invade Iran, Syria and perhaps other Middle Eastern countries, and who see the Lebanon conflict as an opportunity for such an offensive, is nonsense. As is any suggestion that conservatives of any variety are other than infinitely grateful that it is the administration of George W. Bush, and not that of John Kerry or Al Gore, that is grappling with the intractable problems of the Middle East and North Korea.

SCOTT adds: David Rieff writes:

Given the quotes I cite in my NYTimes piece from William Kristol and Danielle Pletka, which you conveniently omitted from your account of what, absent these quotes, might indeed seem like hyperbolic charges, I’m not quite sure what your factual quarrel with my piece actually is (the self-evident ideological quarrel is another matter, and obviously you have every right to highlight it). And given the fact that people on the right from Newt Gingrich to Norman Podhoretz have been writing of World War III (or is it IV?) for some time, I also don’t see where my piece distorts the facts either. However, on the offchance you don’t read your ideological soul-mates, I append Barbara Lerner’s article (currently available on the National Review Online website). Obviously, I could also have sent you Podhoretz’ World War IV piece, etc., etc.

JOHN responds: To my knowledge, Bill Kristol does not advocate invading either Iran or Syria, although it’s fair to say that he would like to see a more aggressive foreign policy. Likewise, Ms. Pletka–of whom, no offence, I’d never heard–apparently does not advocate any form of military action against Iran. From there we go to Newt Gingrich, Norman Podhoretz and “World War IV.” We, too, have talked about World War IV, but since when does that mean invading Iran or Syria? This is simply a non sequitur.

Barbara Lerner does advocate bombing Iran; in this, I believe, she agrees with Paul. But I’m not sure what Rieff’s point is. The claim he made in his article was not that many conservatives want to bomb Iran; it was that we want to invade some combination of Iran and Syria to bring about regime change, a desire that, he says, will most likely be frustrated:

Airstrikes against Syria and Iran may be contemplated by both American and Israeli war planners, but a boots-on-the-ground war is a nonstarter for both Jerusalem and Washington, and bombing alone cannot produce regime change.

Rieff’s rebuttal offers not a single instance of a conservative who is urging the administration to invade Iran or Syria, let alone an entire movement of such conservatives.

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