Is there a conservative split?

The growing rift within the conservative movement over foreign policy, recently manifested in the highly visible battle between two prominent conservatives, is deeply concerning.

David Frum, author of “The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush,” and Robert Novak, a long-time beltway commentator have been sniping each other publicly for little over a year. This has some conservatives worried. Not worried that the personal feud has left an irreparable personal break between the two, but worried that the feud is representative of deep-seated and growing policy differences between so-called “neo-conservatives” and the old guard of the conservative movement.

By all accounts, the feud between Novak and Frum began with Frum’s departure from the White House as a speechwriter in February 2002. Novak reported that Frum, widely credited with coining the President’s infamous “Axis of Evil” phrase, had been fired from his position – a contention denied by both Frum and the White House.

Frum, it appears, took the report as a personal affront. Questions regarding Novak’s report dogged him at nearly every stop on his book tour. He was repeatedly forced to repudiate Novak’s version of the story. As luck would have it, one of Frum’s appearances in support of the book was a January 2003 episode of CNN’s Crossfire that Novak was co-hosting. The tension between the two was palpable, and the mutual contempt was barely hidden.

The spat quieted down until the March 24, 2003 issue of Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative, the spiritual home of the “paleo-conservatives,” in which Novak lashed out in a wholly negative review of Frum’s book. It read more like a vicious personal smear than anything else. The last paragraphs of the piece were used as space in which to publicly sever all ties with Frum.

The fight has escalated quickly, now involving not only Novak, but also all those sharing his views. The April 7 issue of National Review features a Frum-authored piece entitled, “Unpatriotic Conservatives: A War on America.” It is a devastating critique of the paleo-conservative movement and its adherents. He criticizes the publications and prominent figureheads of the movement, Novak amongst them. Novak responded shortly after the article appeared, launching a vigorous defense in his regular syndicated column, dismissing Frum’s criticisms as baseless.

A good deal of the National Review piece’s sharpest criticisms were directed at the publication Chronicles. That publication responded angrily, and posted two responses to Frum’s National Review piece on their website. In it, the writers lash out at both Frum and the “kids” at National Review.

The feud has become so visible, and so widely followed, that David A. Keene, head of the American Conservative Union has waded in, saying that

[Frum's] vituperative attack on one of the nation’s most respected conservative columnists marks the man as neither conservative nor intellectually respectable. Like many other conservatives, I happen to disagree with Novak’s analysis of what’s going on in the Middle East. But to suggest, as does Frum, that his disagreement with Bush’s Iraq policy stems from a hatred of the president and the country is scandalously and irresponsibly absurd.

While this is all fine and good, it reads more like a high school gossip war than anything substantive.

So, the question is: Is this something that all conservatives should worry about?

Normally, the answer would be no. Clashing egos, especially amongst the pundit intelligentsia, are all too common. But this is different for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the differences between Frum and Novak go much, much further than petty personal qualms.

There is every reason to believe that this feud is representative of a rapidly growing rift between two factions of conservatives who have long been wary of one another. And the fact that Keene, one of the nation’s most influential conservatives, saw fit to wade in lends only more credence to this assessment.

One need only read Frum’s lengthy National Review article, or the transcript of the Novak/Frum Crossfire incident to know that this is more than personal.

The war in Iraq has, perhaps, brought the policy differences between these two groups of conservatives into sharper relief than any other issue in recent history. President Bush and his inner circle, too, have played a role in deepening the divide, however unintentionally.

The divide between the two groups is deep to begin with, with disagreements on numerous fundamental issues. Both groups, given the chance, would steer the Republican Party in radically different directions; while neo-conservatives are enamoured with President Bush, the paleo-conservatives have been less than happy with him. And both groups hold one another in very low regard.

Pat Buchanan, in the New York Times on September 8, 2002 declared that “The conservative movement has been hijacked and turned into a globalist, interventionist, open borders ideology, which is not the conservative movement I grew up with.” The group that hijacked the movement, Buchanan seems to be implying, are the neo-conservatives, terminology which Buchanan seems to slyly use to mean Jews. (Several of these supposed “neo-conservatives” who are Jewish, such as Frum, do not fit into the “neo” mould because they didn’t convert to conservatism from another ideology, like the original neocons, Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. Frum has, as near as I can tell, always been on the right.)

Buchanan, along with Novak and a handful of others, represent the old guard of the conservative movement. Their beliefs are the antithesis of nearly everything that neo-conservatives hold dear. They dismiss free trade, dislike immigration, oppose support for Israel and cringe any time that the American state “unnecessarily” projects force around the world. Sound foreign policy to the paleo-cons looks strikingly similar to isolationism. For this reason, they have been steadfast in their opposition to Bush’s foray into Iraq. For neo-conservatives, paleo-conservative opposition to the war has been hard to swallow. Especially as the paleo-conservatives seem to identify more closely with the “new left” than with today’s Republican Party.

President Bush’s determination to project American force overseas in an effort to stop attacks before they hit American soil has the paleo-conservatives up in arms. Already concerned that American support of Israel has alienated Arab countries to an unacceptable and near-irreparable extent, they are adamant that this war will make the problem worse. The best solution to terrorism, they hold, is not to become more involved in the Middle East, but to leave it alone.

This has highlighted a fundamentally different view of how to deal with the problem that is, of necessity, at the forefront of the American consciousness. Neo-conservatives are adamant supporters of a proactive approach to the Middle East. Nothing scares neo-conservatives more than the idea of Arab leaders fomenting anti-Americanism in their countries unchecked. The Middle East is the biggest single security threat to America, and to leave it alone is to invite more terror to American shores. And to the most devout neo-conservatives, the war on Iraq is but a stepping-stone to a complete reshaping of the region–the hope being that a democratic Iraq would serve as a beacon of freedom in the region and spur reform in other Arab countries.

Perhaps the only other issue to divide the two camps as deeply as the war on Iraq is support of Israel. Paleo-conservatives seem to harbour deep-seated anti-Israel sentiments, firm believers in both appeasing Arab states and lending less support to Israel.

So deep is this belief that some paleo-conservatives, most notably Pat Buchanan, have gone so far as to suggest that the neo-conservative movement’s devout belief in the Israeli state has left them beholden to it. In the same issue of American Conservative that Novak’s review of Frum’s book appears in, Buchanan all but declares the Bush administration’s Iraq policy the result of a neo-conservative/Jewish cabal operating from the inside–with Richard Perle and others at its helm. In the paleo-conservative world, those that identify themselves as Friends of Israel are viewed with suspicion, their foreign policy views all but summarily dismissed. Unfortunately, the neo-conservatives, who almost unanimously support Israel, fall into that camp.

These feuds have existed for some time. But the differences are becoming larger, the voices becoming louder, and the positions becoming more entrenched than ever. Warring publications and commentators will turn into warring constituencies in due time. And this is, by far, the biggest concern.

While these differences have so far remained of interest only to beltway commentators and avid politicos, there is no reason to believe that things will stay this way. The ramifications of this split will eventually be felt at the grassroots level. There is every reason to believe that if some reconciliation between the paleo and neo-conservatives cannot be negotiated, the Republican Party will suffer.

Leaders must, of necessity, have their followers. And if the paleo-conservative movement’s leaders continue to feel marginalized in the Republican Party, there is little hope that they will remain committed to it. Their departure will signal the departure of those that follow them. It may very well be the end of a long and successful alliance.

If this seems like an unlikely doomsday scenario, it might be particularly instructive to look northward, to Canada. Conservatives there know all too well the danger of failing to create “big tent” conservative movements. “Red” and “Blue” conservatives, unable to avoid fractious infighting and unable to find enough common ground, split into two federal parties shortly after Canada had its last conservative Prime Minister. One has maintained enough support to remain the official opposition, while the other remains the fifth largest federal party. Yet this small rump prevents the larger party from garnering enough of the conservative vote to become government.

The divide has never been bridged, and there is no end in sight to the impasse–conservatives on both sides are too bitter to seriously consider rejoining forces. The parallels are eerie. Yet there is still more than time enough to prevent the same from happening to the Republican Party.

There is reason for conservatives of every stripe to be worried. For the Republican Party and the conservative movement to continue to be successful, common ground must be found. Conservative movements have never achieved success when they fall apart into feuding camps.

While no one can doubt that paleo-conservatives and neo-conservatives have fundamental ideological differences, they both have one overwhelming concern that draws them together: the desire to elect conservatives to office. To do this, both groups need each other.

This should be a golden age for conservatism in the United States. The Republican Party has experienced unprecedented success as of late. Now in control of the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, conservatives should be rejoicing. Yet these victories are in serious risk of being for naught if the deep divisions currently plaguing the movement cannot be reconciled.

One only need look north to Canada to see the results of a refusal amongst conservatives to see the forest for the trees–over a decade of Liberal rule, the slow and painful death of a country, and no end in sight.

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