Thunder on the Right
Conservative commentators have been exceedingly muscular in their
pronouncements on how the United States should respond to September 11.
By Nina J. Easton
Nina J. Easton is deputy bureau chief of the Boston Globe's Washington bureau.
The message on the cover of the October 15 issue of The Weekly Standard,
the conservative magazine founded by William Kristol, was hardly subtle:
"The Case for American Empire" the block-type headline blared across a
backdrop of sailors hoisting a U.S. flag aboard a ship. Inside, Max
Boot, the Wall Street Journal's editorial features editor, asserted:
"Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of
enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident
Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets."
Over at National Review, the biweekly founded by William F. Buckley Jr.,
a youthful editor in chief named Rich Lowry doesn't even bother with
metaphors to cushion the impact as he describes his strategy to convince
wary readers that the U.S. should invade and topple pro-terrorist
governments beyond Afghanistan. "I call it a kind of low-grade
colonialism," Lowry says. "The institutions of these countries are a
failure. The West knows best. There is a lot of good we could do, and
clearly it's in our interest."
Empire? Colonialism? Englishmen in jodhpurs? Are these editors caught in
a time warp? And whatever happened to all that conservative skepticism
about overseas interventions, when President Clinton's attempts at
"nation-building" in Haiti, Somalia and the Balkans were dismissed as
foolish international do-goodism?
What happened, of course, was the September 11 massacre of thousands of
Americans by terrorist hijackers who slammed commercial jetliners into
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon – followed in the ensuing weeks by
a deadly trail of anthrax distributed through the U.S. postal system.
While most Americans support President Bush's declaration of war against
Osama bin Laden, his al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime
that harbors both, influential conservative commentators are angling for
more aggressive military measures and a broader conflict.
At this point, with Pentagon decision-making under wraps, it's hard to
gauge the impact of these clarion calls for a wider war. But it's clear
that they have become part of the political dialogue in Washington – with
reporters citing conservative commentary in questions to such key
figures as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "It probably has some
effect," says one White House official. "It sets a kind of context, an
atmosphere. You can't connect the dots [on the precise impact] but
people in the administration do pay attention. None of these decisions
happen in a vacuum."
For their part, conservative editors and columnists hope their words
will shape the Washington zeitgeist and the direction of the war. "It's
always the case with intellectual journalism," says National Review's
Lowry. "You make your argument and hope you change the feeling in the
ether, that it will lead to a different action by people who make
Ground troops and swifter, more aggressive military action in
Afghanistan are just the first steps needed in America's war on
terrorism, conservative commentators argue. After that, they want a
broader war that would end, at a minimum, after the U.S. had invaded
Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein. Even as administration officials
worry that a protracted war risks the hard-won support of Arab leaders,
a growing chorus of conservative media voices wants the U.S. to expand
its military ambitions. One Weekly Standard cover featured "Most Wanted"
posters pairing bin Laden with Saddam.
A broader offensive is also espoused by the most important media
bullhorn for conservatives – the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where
longtime Editor Robert Bartley recently handed over the reins to
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Paul Gigot.
"War is not a court of law," the Journal opined shortly after the
attack. "We know a sworn enemy of America, a man who called us 'the
Great Satan,' has biological weapons. Are we supposed to wait until we
know beyond a reasonable doubt that he used them, or until more people
are killed, before we do anything about it?"
A week later, the Journal provided a forum for a prominent Democrat,
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, to argue that the U.S. "should focus on
Iraq after we have dealt with bin Laden." Similar calls are coming from
the conservative Washington Times and New York Post. The New York Times'
William Safire has weighed in with his own suspicions about Saddam,
writing that "no indisputable smoking gun may ever be found, but it is
absurd to claim – in the face of what we already know – that Iraq is not an
active collaborator with, harborer of, and source of sophisticated
training and unconventional weaponry for bin Laden's world terror
But many in the conservative media wouldn't even stop at Iraq.
Commentators such as Boot and Kristol want international efforts to
produce regime changes in other Arab countries – even if it means leaving
American troops on the ground for peace-keeping or enforcing free
A growing U.S. military presence in the region, as well as support for
Israel, is often cited as a chief reason behind the rise of radical
Muslim groups espousing hatred of America. The addition of U.S. troops
to Saudi Arabia after the Persian Gulf War reportedly inspired bin Laden
to launch his al Qaeda terrorist training network. But Boot argues in
The Weekly Standard that the September 11 attack "was the result of
insufficient American involvement and ambition," including the U.S.
decision to let Afghanistan fall into the hands of the Taliban in the
'90s after the Russians were driven out of the country. By contrast, he
contends, "U.S. imperialism – a liberal and humanitarian imperialism, to
be sure, but imperialism all the same – appears to have paid off in the
Balkans," which otherwise might have fallen prey to terrorist sentiment.
And Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, also a contributor to
The Weekly Standard, recently wrote that narrow war aims "would leave us
mortally at risk.... Now is the time to go after state-sponsored
terrorism. This does not mean invading every country. It means getting
some regimes to change policies and others to fall, whether by economic
or diplomatic pressure, internal revolt or, as a last resort, military
This is not a unanimous view on the right. A minority faction of
conservative columnists – interestingly, some of the Reagan era's most
ardent cold warriors – denounce this "hawkish" view, hewing instead to the
John Quincy Adams argument that America should not "go abroad in search
of monsters to destroy." Columnist Robert Novak argued on October 15
that there is no evidence linking Iraq with the September 11 attack, and
that the country lacks the capacity for high-quality large-scale
production of bioweapons.
Then there are the hardcore isolationists, led by former Reagan
speechwriter and presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. "If the hawks
have their way, Iraq is next on the target list," Buchanan wrote in his
syndicated column. "[I]f Iraq is not guilty...and the U.S. lashes out at
Baghdad, the Islamic world will see it not as a valid act of
justice...but as an act of vengeance by an arrogant superpower on a
small nation that defied it." Even Oliver North, the former Reagan aide
made famous by his secret plan to lend military support to the
Nicaraguan contras, editorialized against "the new war hawks" on Capitol
Hill and elsewhere.
But the majority conservative view for a broader military engagement is
fast gaining a foothold in Washington's policy debates, in part due to
the efforts of three editors skilled at promoting their views in print
and on television: The Weekly Standard's Kristol, National Review's
Lowry and the Wall Street Journal's Gigot.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late October, reporters at a Pentagon briefing
listened to Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's introduction of the British
foreign defense minister, asked two questions about bombing during the
Muslim holy period of Ramadan, and then raised the names Kristol and
"Mr. Secretary," said one reporter, "I need to take my one question
today and ask you to address some of the sentiments expressed in some of
the editorial pages across the country, particularly in the Washington
Post today, where William Kristol says you're pursuing the wrong
strategy. Charles Krauthammer says [the war is being waged] 'without
enough might.' Kristol says, for instance, the administration's plan is
shaped by three self-imposed constraints: no ground troops in
Afghanistan, no confrontation with Iraq, no alarm at home. Krauthammer
[writes] that the war...is being fought with half measures.... Are these
editorial writers, pundits, delusional, or are you in denial, as he
The briefing room erupted with laughter. Rumsfeld gave a polite
response about "differences of views often [being] helpful and
interesting and informative and educational." After outlining a brief
defense of the administration's strategy, he added that the Pentagon had
not ruled out the introduction of mass ground troops to augment the
modest number already there. "So I think it's helpful for people to
write articles like that," he concluded. That evening, NBC's Tom Brokaw
raised the issue with Rumsfeld, while a camera zoomed in on the Kristol
and Krauthammer op-eds.
That week the United States intensified its bombing campaign in
Afghanistan. While Washington insiders say it would be ludicrous to
attribute the escalation solely to conservative pundits, many believe
that within the Bush administration these voices strengthen the hands of
hard-liners such as Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz
(a longtime fixture in conservative circles) – while making life difficult
for more cautious diplomats such as Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Conservative political magazines, like their liberal counterparts, are
typically starved for ads and profits. But their influence on the
national press and political establishments is potent. In the Clinton
years, an aggressive conservative press aided and abetted efforts to
sink the administration's civil rights appointees and health care
reform – and later kept up the pressure on reluctant Republican leaders in
Congress to pursue impeachment proceedings against the president.
The circulation of the Weekly Standard, financed by Rupert Murdoch,
hovers at only around 65,000. But its voice is much louder than those
numbers suggest. The witty and erudite Kristol, a familiar talking head
on Sunday's TV roundtables, is particularly adept at steering Washington
policy debates by inserting himself and his views into the discussion.
In the early weeks of the war, he shepherded a letter to President Bush,
signed by 40 D.C. opinion-makers, urging a wider military engagement.
The letter – whose signers included former Education Secretary William
Bennett, former National Security Adviser Richard V. Allen, former
ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick and former
congressman Vin Weber – commended Bush for taking up arms in Afghanistan.
But it also called on the president to remove Saddam Hussein from power
and to "consider appropriate measures of retaliation against Iran and
Syria unless they withdraw support from the Hezbollah guerrilla
The letter implicitly criticized Powell's approach of building a broad
coalition among Arab leaders to assist in America's war against al
Qaeda. Jack Kemp, once a presidential aspirant and later the vice
presidential candidate on the 1996 GOP ticket, told Robert Novak that he
refused to sign Kristol's letter, viewing it as a swipe at the secretary
Kristol made his criticism of Powell more explicit in a Washington Post
op-ed (mischieviously headlined "Bush v. Powell") questioning the
secretary of state's emphasis on diplomacy and coalition-building. Novak
came to Powell's defense, reporting that the president's father was
"furious" at Kristol's assertion that during the gulf war, Powell tried
"his best to persuade President Bush not to wage that war against
This is a familiar role for Kristol, a Harvard Ph.D. in political
philosophy who began as a resident critic of Republican
administrations – leaking "concerns" about the elder George Bush's White
House even as he served as Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of
staff – before taking his barbs outside. Kristol's contrarian streak
shapes The Weekly Standard, producing as many enemies on the right as on
the left. For his part, Kristol complains that the conservative press
has been too reluctant to criticize a Republican president. "The main
thing I'm struck by is that in nine to 10 months of the administration,
how many [in the conservative media] desperately want to be pro-Bush,"
One White House official says that because Kristol has repeatedly
criticized the Bush administration, his views on the war carry less
weight than a commentator such as Krauthammer, whose foreign policy
expertise is highly respected and who is considered more objective
toward the administration. "Bill's distemper about the administration
creates a discount factor," this official says.
On foreign policy, fellow conservatives labeled Kristol a "hawk" and a
"warmonger" even before the terrorist attacks. In the 1990s, as
post-Cold War isolationist sentiment spread on the right, Kristol and
Robert Kagan – a foreign policy expert who regularly shares a byline with
Kristol – instead argued for a U.S. strategy of "benevolent hegemony."
Translated, that means that a militarily strong America should be
willing to use force if necessary to promote freedom and democracy
around the globe.
In 1999, Kristol allied with Sen. John McCain – and against much of the
right – in calling for the U.S. to send ground troops to Yugoslavia "to
defeat Serb forces and stop the slaughter and ethnic cleansing of
Kosovar Albanians." The Weekly Standard's position drew a slew of angry
responses from readers.
Kristol continues to push his aggressive views. In an October 30
Washington Post op-ed, he again called for an attack on Iraq. "We can
try to close our eyes to the truth about Iraq in the service of the
'coalition' and 'patience,' " he wrote. "But we cannot win a real war on
terrorism with our eyes closed."
And in an ominous Weekly Standard editorial, Kristol and Kagan predicted
that the war is going to "spread and engulf a number of countries in
conflict of varying intensity." Kristol and Kagan foresee a widening
Arab-Israeli war and the demise of moderate but authoritarian regimes in
Saudi Arabia and Egypt. "The stake the United States has in preventing
the rise to power of a radical Islamic regime in any of these
countries – which would produce an Afghanistan with money and power – is
enormous. American intervention in some form would be a near certainty."
Rich Lowry, National Review's editor, was at home – about two miles north
of the World Trade Center – when he heard the eerie screech of the first
jetliner before it smashed into the north tower. He reached his
magazine's offices, located atop a rap recording studio at 32nd and
Lexington, three miles from Ground Zero, to find just one working phone
line. When the windows were open, the rank smell of smoke permeated the
A magazine cover featuring education issues was scheduled to go to the
printer that day. Instead, dining on takeout Indian food and borrowing
friends' computer lines to send files to the printing plant, Lowry and
his staff worked overnight to transform the next issue into a war cover.
"It was a little like Apollo 13, trying to fix things on the fly," Lowry
But among the top editors there was no disagreement about what to say in
that issue. "This was an act of war, and we'd have to fight back
relentlessly," Lowry says.
The affable Lowry, a University of Virginia graduate, was tapped by
Buckley in late 1997, at the age of 29, to recharge a magazine founded
in the 1950s and suffering from a reputation for being stodgy, appealing
mostly to an aging audience. After taking over the 150,000-circulation
magazine, Lowry relaunched a daily Web site with lots of attitude. It's
now logging about 70,000 unique visitors a day – roughly twice the size of
the magazine's Web audience before the terrorist attacks.
Like Kristol, Lowry has become skilled at using the airwaves to
publicize his magazine and broadcast his hard-right views. In a profile
last year, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz called Lowry "the latest
sound-bite star, hopscotching from ABC's election night coverage to
'Charlie Rose,' 'Hardball,' 'Late Edition,' 'NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,'
'Crossfire,' 'News with Brian Williams' and 'Capital Gang.' "
Lowry criticizes Kristol's Weekly Standard for being "too harsh on
China, too friendly toward nation-building, and too driven by
woolly-headed idealism to convert the world to democracy." Since the war
began, however, the two magazines have been largely in sync – and Lowry is
reconsidering the "nation-building" policies he had criticized under
"The first speed bump in the war on terrorism has its source in an
intellectual mistake, a particularly conservative one," Lowry wrote in
an October 21 column that first appeared in the New York Post. "American
air strikes had been leaving Taliban front-line troops intact – although
this finally has changed – because the Bush administration didn't know
what political entity should replace the Taliban government." Lowry
attributed this strategic mistake to conservative skepticism about
nation-building, in which the U.S. helps rebuild the governments and
civic institutions of war-torn countries. Conservatives had vociferously
attacked Clinton's policy of nation-building in Haiti and Somalia and,
to a lesser extent, in the Balkans.
Now, however, Lowry says that when U.S. interests are clearly at stake,
the U.S. should not hesitate to move in. In the case of Iraq, Lowry
favors invasion over U.S. support of opposition forces, which might let
"chaos reign." Together with the United Nations (an institution feared
and maligned by the right's isolationist faction), the U.S. should forge
a post-Saddam regime, Lowry argues. "This raises what should be another
attraction of nation-building for conservatives: It operates on the idea
that the hoariest of Wilsonian ideals, self-determination, has its
limits in the Third World," he wrote.
On the domestic front, Lowry generally supports giving the government
broader anti-terrorist authority but notes that proposals to create a
national identity card would be greeted with skepticism on the
anti-government right. Like many fellow conservatives, Lowry insists
that America adopt stricter immigration policies. Policymakers might
have averted tragedy if they had heeded warnings that "letting aliens
run around the country unsupervised is a dangerous mistake," he says.
In fact, a strong anti-immigrant sentiment runs through much of the
conservative press in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Columnist and
former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan said Americans should be
suspicious of "Middle Eastern looking men" and wrote of her regret over
not confronting men who fit this description when she saw them
videotaping St. Patrick's Cathedral. After recounting episodes of other
Americans seeing camera-wielding Middle Eastern men, she aired
suspicions that terrorists are building a library of images of targets
they want to hit. Columnist Ann Coulter, writing in Human Events, argued
that the U.S. should cancel the visas of all those in the U.S. from
"suspect" countries. Earlier, she created a firestorm by saying, "We
should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to
From his second makeshift office since the terrorist attacks damaged the
Wall Street Journal's lower Manhattan headquarters, Paul Gigot issues a
barely concealed harrumph when asked about these views on immigration.
"Because of Mohamed Atta, we should be punishing Mexican waitresses?" he
asks. "The INS is certainly incompetent. But if we had a security
bureaucracy – like the CIA and FBI – better informed about the bad guys and
how to track them, that solves the problem. The hijacking of September
11 and the anthrax – that's not about a porous Mexican border. It's about
deterring enemies of the U.S. who want to attack us."
While the Wall Street Journal editorial pages are firmly on the right of
the political spectrum, they offer a free-market, pro-immigrant,
pro-civil liberties brand of conservatism sometimes at odds with others
in the movement. Gigot calls himself, and the editorial page he runs,
"We supported Clinton in Kosovo, when many others did not," Gigot says.
"We even supported [Clinton's unsuccessful attack on bin Laden] as
better than nothing, though in retrospect it was clearly feckless." (At
the time, conservatives largely viewed Clinton's decision to launch
cruise missiles at Afghan terrorist camps as an attempt to distract the
public from his political problems.)
From 1987 until his promotion this summer, Gigot penned the Potomac
Watch column on the Journal's editorial page, combining his reporting
talents with a pointed free-market ideology. He became a familiar face
to TV viewers as a regular political commentator, paired with liberal
columnist Mark Shields, on PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
As the newly installed editorial page editor, the Dartmouth graduate and
Wisconsin native had to hit the ground running. His going-away party,
celebrating his move from Washington to New York, had been scheduled for
the evening of September 12 at Novak's D.C. apartment. The party, like
everything else that week, was cancelled. Instead of sipping champagne
and hearing toasts, Gigot spent the evening ensconced in a New Jersey
satellite facility that for five weeks served as the paper's editorial
page staff's headquarters.
The Wall Street Journal's Manhattan offices were 200 yards away from the
World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11, Gigot had taken the
6 a.m. shuttle from Washington to New York and was inside a cab, on his
way to the Journal's offices, when he heard the first plane fly
overhead. He and his driver got out of the car and watched in amazement
and disbelief as the grisly scene unfolded.
Gigot followed the evacuation plan put in place after the 1993 World
Trade Center bombing. For Gigot, that meant walking to Grand Central
Station, taking a train to Yonkers, traveling by cab to White Plains,
renting a car and driving into New Jersey to Journal owner Dow Jones'
South Brunswick facility.
With the U.S. under attack, the Journal's editorials have reluctantly
supported expanded police powers, including more wiretap authority and
controls on banks to trace money laundering. At the same time, the paper
has raised concerns about detaining and deporting noncitizens and has
suggested that some of the anti-terrorism bill's provisions be phased
out after the war. "If this means we walk right down the middle on this
issue of expanded police power," the editors wrote, "we plead guilty."
But when it comes to retaliating, the Journal has taken an aggressive
stance. "As far as the war goes, it should be as wide as it needs to
be," Gigot says. "My only question is whether we should have gone to
Iraq first. Ultimately, we will have to deal with Saddam Hussein. He did
try to assassinate a former American president. He's developing weapons
of mass destruction. His fingerprints are all over the 1993 World Trade
Center bombing. Just because you can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt
that he's involved in this one..."
However, Gigot is less certain than Lowry or Kristol that America should
become a quasi-colonial power in the region. "It became clear after we
left Somalia that there wasn't a consensus in this country to do
something like that," he says. "I'm not sure whether there is now. You
can't run a policy like that without domestic consensus. Even if it's
done in a relatively benign fashion, you're going to have to do some
ruthless things. I think the American right is prepared, but not the Joe
Bidens or Chris Dodds" of Congress.
"I don't have a problem playing that role in a post-Taliban Afghanistan,
working with the U.N. to supervise an election," he adds. "I wish we'd
done that in Baghdad after the gulf war."
Nina J. Easton, a former writer for the Los Angeles Times Sunday
magazine, is a Washington writer. She is the author of "Gang of Five,"
which profiles five key figures in the conservative movement.