The neo-conservative who coined “axis of evil” on how writing for the president is like writing for the movies, the administration’s “departures from the law,” and why the president should have brought in Democrats to make decisions.

frum350.jpgDavid Frum is the neo-conservative writer whose memo to President Bush after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was used for the 2002 State of the Union address. The launching pad for the corrosive “axis of evil,” the phrase used to describe Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the address was also an early articulation of the “Bush doctrine,” the legal, intellectual, or—perhaps—moral formulation of the United States’ right to attack a nation it thought might be preparing to attack it. Frum wrote the memo after having been asked by chief White House speechwriter Mike Gerson to build the case for expanding the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in the winter of 2001-2002 into a new bombing campaign of Iraq, as part of a greater war on terror, with Iran penciled in as a tentative third target.

Frum’s role in the formulation of that doctrine, and specifically in coining that volatile phrase, might not have been probed in so much detail but for an email Frum’s wife, author Danielle Crittenden, sent to her family. In the email, intercepted and published in Slate in February 2002, Crittenden writes “…my husband is responsible for the ‘Axis of Evil’ segment of Tuesday’s State of the Union address. It’s not often a phrase one writes gains national notice—unless you’re in advertising of course (‘The Pause that refreshes’)—so I’ll hope you’ll indulge my wifely pride in seeing this one repeated in headlines everywhere!!”

The Bush-era contradictoriness (e.g. the much-cited exporting democracy abroad while curtailing freedoms at home) is embodied by Frum almost unabashedly. An outspoken conservative, he was born in Toronto, Canada, to parents he describes as a “Truman-Kennedy Democrat” (his father) and “slightly to the left of that” (his mother), parents who were “the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.” “The part of [his childhood] that was kind of unusual,” he reflects, “was my father became a very successful businessman. My mother had a very successful career as a broadcaster in Canada and was one of the leading figures in Canadian public life. So it was rather unconventional [in the sense] that she was someone who loomed enormously large, first on radio, then on television.”

Frum’s 2003 The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush hails President Bush as uniquely fit to expand the war on terror, however forthcoming the book may be about the president’s character flaws. But The Right Man also recounts Frum’s skittishness about joining the administration in the first place, as he was concerned that “compassionate conservatism” would expand a government he wanted to see shrink. Not long after joining, Frum sought to leave the White House, but was compelled to stay on after September 11. “I don’t know what I was ready to do,” he notes in The Right Man, “whatever it is that speechwriters do in times of war. Type, I suppose—but type with renewed patriotism and zeal.” Frum told The Atlantic that, “A lot of the objections to this war rest on personal opposition to this man.” The Right Man sets out to convince the war’s opponents that President Bush “is a man of powerful intellect and a man of great restraint.”

Frum’s next book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror, co-authored with Richard Perle, was described by Salon as Bush “on crack.” It advocates invasions of (or preparing to invade, or threatening to foster revolts in) North Korea, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya. (Regarding Libyan leader and once-terror bogeyman Muammar al-Qaddafi, whom the Bush administration has rehabilitated into an ally, Perle and Frum write, “The illusion that Muammar al-Qaddafi is ‘moderating’ should be treated as what it is: a symptom of the seemingly incurable wishful delusions that afflict the accommodationists in the foreign policy establishment.”) Perle and Frum foresee no state for Palestinians, but enjoin them to “let go of the past” and get used to living in whatever Arab states they find themselves (ignoring altogether the millions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories).

A ready self-deprecator, Frum predicted a definitive Republican defeat in the presidential elections last year, and his latest book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, out in paperback on Inauguration Day, challenges Republicans to take more moderate positions (read: Democratic ones) on issues as diverse as conservation and abortion. Regarding the latter, he writes that Republicans ought to look to educate rather than coerce; regarding the former, he writes conservatives need to engage more on green issues, but then he praises Republicans for not jumping on the green bandwagon too soon. Analyzing the 2008 election, he can go from something like, “Look … you can’t change your core philosophy. So Republicans are not going to stop being the party of free markets, of free enterprise, of the rule of law…” to something like, “But we have to have some policies that maybe apply these principles in ways that are more relevant to people.”

Preparing for Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, it is fair to wonder which neo-conservative policies may survive into either this administration or a future Republican one. Which of the most controversial neo-con ideas, particularly on foreign policy—preemptive strikes, whether to engage “enemies” in discussions, and how best to conduct the war on terror—do neo-conservatives themselves still favor? You really do have to listen through all the qualifying and disclaimers to find out. In the discussion that follows, peppered with affable aboots, Canadian-inflected “for sure”s, and moments of testiness, Frum reveals himself to be a quasi-pragmatist improv act who prefers what he calls “modalities” to “first principles.” He tells readily which ideas he thinks will last, such as the war on terror remaining a military matter—a war—rather than a police matter. But getting him to admit where he and his bosses were wrong is a heck of a job, but not impossible.

I spoke with Frum by telephone, with follow-up questions by email.

—Joel Whitney for Guernica

Guernica: When would you say you first had a sense of yourself as a political person, or as someone who could weigh in on political questions, and when did you start thinking about politics critically?

Probably that period in which these crucial decisions were made—December 2001 and January 2002—that probably was as self-confident a moment as any White House has ever known.

David Frum: When did I start thinking I could weigh in? Many, many years before I had any reason to think so. Probably my first political experiences were in the summer of 1975. I worked on a provincial campaign for a friend of my parents who was running as a New Democratic Party candidate—that was the Left Wing party (in Canada). It wasn’t that I was so left-wing, but this was a chance to work on a campaign with somebody my parents knew. So he gave me a little job getting coffee and typing up letters. That was also the summer I read The Gulag Archipelago. My mother had given it to me as a birthday gift, and it made a huge impression on me. And then the uncertainty and anxiety of the late nineteen seventies were crucial. I think I probably began to think of myself as a right-of-center person when I was in college—starting in the fall of 1978.

Guernica: Not too many foreigners end up in the White House, helping formulate drastic new policies in a time of crisis. Can you describe a little bit what it was like back then in 2002 going into 2003?

David Frum: Much of our life passes in a blur. I think maybe the middle nineteen sixties was the last time where time moves very slowly, and [where] each month is like a distinct ideological period. You’ll see people say that about the nineteen sixties. “Well, you have to understand, that was the summer of 1965. Things were completely different by January.” I think there was a quality to that in those days. Yes, the administration went from this shock in September of 2001, this humiliating disaster and exposure of the limits of what the United States could do, to this sense of heady triumph in October and November of 2001, when things seemed to have gone so suddenly and abruptly and unexpectedly easily well in Afghanistan. Probably that period in which these crucial decisions were made—December 2001 and January 2002—that probably was as self-confident a moment as any White House has ever known. As we now know, things had not gone as well in Afghanistan as we thought. Some of that confidence was pretty misplaced.

Guernica: You say “heady triumph.” It must have been heady to write speeches announcing such momentous events.

David Frum: Yes and no. Because that conveys the wrong mood. The key to understanding this was that as important as nine-eleven was, almost as important were the anthrax attacks of October 2001 and the Washington sniper that took place around that time… So I know what I’m going to say sounds crazy: But had you asked me in December 2001, “Do you personally think you’re going to live to see the end of the first Bush administration, or the end of the Bush administration?” I would have told you I did not. I was convinced there was going to be some kind of event, near the White House, downtown Washington, something, a car bomb, something like that, and the chances were that a good number of those of us serving were not going to make it. So we were not in a euphoric mood. We were going to work every day with quite an expectation that each time you kissed your family in the morning, you may well not be coming home that night.

Writing for the president is like writing for the movies.

Guernica: From your time within the Bush administration and more broadly as part of the neo-conservative moment, what would you say you’re most proud of?

David Frum: I have to say I was very unimportant in the Bush administration. [But] there was a team of people who were working on decisions that seemed really momentous. We articulated together I think a new approach to terrorism that I think is going to stand the test of time. I don’t think the United States is ever going back to the days when terrorism was seen as a police matter. It wasn’t that, like, police work is soft, military work is hard. [But] police work is something that you do within the domestic rules of your society. I mean criminals do horrible things and we execute them. But they remain part of the American community. They’re not outsiders. And so they are treated in the same way as fellow Americans. Military enemies—they can even be quite honorable people, but they’re outside the national community. You don’t put them through courts. You don’t handle them in that way. President Bush decisively determined that terrorism is going to be treated like an act of war, that they’re going to be outside the national community, that we’re not going to deal with this problem through the domestic court system, and I think that’s going to remain.

Guernica: What about “axis of evil?”You coined that, right?

David Frum: Writing for the president is like writing for the movies. So you are always part of a team of writers. And whenever I’ve talked about that, I’ve always tried to make this point clear. The language originated in a memo I wrote. It went to Matt Scully; he made changes in it. Then he sent it to Mike Gerson, and Mike Gerson liked it, and then it went to the President. And the President liked it. To figure out who wrote that is kind of as pointless as trying to figure out who wrote a movie script. Some writer wrote. Somebody edited. A director revised, and an actor improvised.

Guernica: Well, it started as “axis of hatred,” you have said.

David Frum: Right. The memo began as… saying if the president were to decide he wanted, after Afghanistan, to make a case for military action against Iraq, possibly Iran, how would he go about doing it? So I wrote a memo that said: Here’s the argument; it would go like this. It was always in the conditional mode. It was completely hypothetical. And it was a lengthy piece. And portions of that memo Scully worked into the 2002 State of the Union speech. And then Gerson revised it and edited; he was the chief speechwriter and had the last say. So what happened was when my wife sent this email to relatives in Canada, the point was not to say I wrote this speech; the point was—there had been this very intense bureaucratic debate on whether the president would do this, would he go this far? So when we saw him on TV, we were all very excited that he had taken this bold step. So my wife sent this email, and obviously it went astray.

Guernica: I hear a lot of clarifying: is that not wanting to take too much credit, or blame, or do you not feel satisfied with the phrase?

David Frum: I wrote a whole book about this. You’re part of a team.

Guernica: So you’re comfortable with the phrase “axis of evil?”

David Frum: Am I comfortable? It’s not my responsibility to be comfortable or not. It’s the president’s language.

Guernica: But you wrote it.

David Frum: I think the language I wrote was maybe more exact. But with all of these things…

Guernica: But doesn’t an “axis” imply that they’re working together?

David Frum: No. The original Axis powers did not work closely together. There was no German-Japanese general staff. Germany and Japan were not allies. They didn’t coordinate plans at all. They weren’t at war with the same people. They had conflicting ideologies. The Germans thought the Japanese were subhuman. Had the Axis powers somehow won the war, Germany and Japan would surely have come into conflict. So they’re not an alliance where they share information and make plans together. “Axis” meant they rotated around a common point. The axis part of it—that phrase is almost literally true. What was going on was groups very different from each other, not linked, who didn’t have common ideologies, were willing to collaborate because they were united by their hatred, as the original Axis was. That’s why the phrase “axis of hatred” is more exact. The point was, they share one thing: their hatred of the United States and free institutions, and America’s friends and allies. They are therefore willing to cooperate. For example, what would a Stalinist hermit kingdom have to do with a Shiite theocracy? Nothing. But they’re prepared to exchange a missile and weapons technology.

Guernica: Certainly Iran and Iraq were not cooperating.

David Frum: At the end of the Gulf War, the Iraqis picked up their entire air force and moved it to Iran.

Guernica: Well, the United States worked closely with Saddam Hussein. That hardly makes an axis.

David Frum: Maybe that’s true. That’s completely irrelevant. If I say “Jimmy and Freddy are working together” and you say, “No they aren’t,” and I say, “Here’s the photograph,” and you say, “Well you stole Freddy’s lunch money,”—well, maybe I did and maybe I didn’t. But it’s not an answer to the question that Jimmy and Freddy were working together. The point is that Iraq, Iran, North Korea—all these terrorist groups… this is now, this should get less controversial by the minute. People would tell us that it’s not possible that a Shiite group would work with a Sunni group. Well, how come Hamas is on the Iranian payroll?

Guernica: You argued in An End to Evil that the United States should take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia, Pakistan. These are countries the United States still has a favorable relationship towards.

David Frum: One of the things that really occludes our ability to understand what was good and bad in the Bush administration in an intelligent way is that when people talk about it, there’s often an any-stick-will-do-to-beat-a-dog argument, or attitude. Where I raise an argument, now there’s another point. But let’s finish with point one before we go on to a completely separate question. And the question was, Are we comfortable saying that these states and groups demonstrated that despite their ideological diversion, they were able to cooperate? At the time, when President Bush made that speech, a lot of people said it was crazy. I think by now it’s established fact… Now to go shifting…

Guernica: But the greater question is, I think, David: isn’t it true that under the Bush administration and particularly during the Iraq intervention, those feared alliances, axes if you like, grew stronger rather than diminished?

David Frum: I’ll stand by the previous answers, I think. Now to go shifting from what President Bush said to what I personally say, I’m happy to talk about that. I wrote a book with Richard Perle, having nothing to do with the administration. It was published in 2004. Yeah, we did talk about being tougher with Saudi Arabia because, at the time, Saudi Arabia was being very recalcitrant about cooperating fully with the United States on counterterrorism. After the book was published, there was a series of terror bombings inside Saudi Arabia, in, I think, 2005. Partly as a result of that, partly as a result of pressure from the United States, since 2005 the cooperation with Saudi Arabia has become much more satisfying. And that’s one of the ways the world has changed since Richard and I published that [book].

Guernica: But for posterity: when is it okay to engage with countries with ties to terrorism?

David Frum: When it will work.

Guernica: But how do you determine this?

David Frum: That’s where statesmanship comes in, and you’re sometimes wrong…

Guernica: So when were you guys wrong?

When you’re objecting, you’re not objecting to all discussions, at all times, under all circumstances. You’re objecting to this set of discussions at this time. The U.S. has been having secret conversations with Iran off and on almost continuously since 1979, and the results have been frustrating.

David Frum: Well, I think that in retrospect, the Bush administration was right about Saudi Arabia and wrong about Pakistan. Closer engagement with Saudi Arabia has worked. Saudi Arabia’s attitude toward terrorism is much less ambivalent than it was as late as 2003. The cooperation with Saudi Arabia has been much better. They don’t have telethons for Hamas anymore. They share banking information. And people who are engaged in terror financing find Saudi Arabia a much more difficult place to do business than it used to be. Unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing about Pakistan. But I’ll tell you this. If you pulled together some of the smartest people in Washington, of all parties, in 2002, and said, “If we put pressure on these two states, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which is more likely to cooperate?” I think people would have picked Pakistan. That was a place where we were wrong; the Pakistanis proved unable to crack down on their internal terrorist organizations.

Guernica: So you guys have no principle or guideline on when to talk to your enemies? When should you?

David Frum: When it will work.

Guernica: Yeah, you said this…

David Frum: It’s hard. The question is what are you gonna talk about, under what circumstances, with what preconditions? These are judgment calls.

Guernica: But your team likes to make a big stink when Democrats want to talk to people we have friction with. Now you say, “When it will work.” Is this a departure from your views in An End to Evil?

From a legal point of view, it doesn’t look so much like a preemptive strike. The United States resumed the war that had been suspended by the armistice.

David Frum: No, because the specific question has always been, What about Iran? Because… well, actually I don’t think we discussed it much in the book. But in articles I wrote around that time, I made the case as to why I didn’t think that talking to Iran was gonna be very effective. In my latest book, I said, “Look, I still don’t think talking to Iran is gonna be very effective. But there’s something to be said for not being seen to be obstructionist.” Sometimes you make offers knowing that the answer will be no. Negotiating. It’s not a matter of first principles, whether you talk to your enemies or not. It’s a matter of modalities. The problem is that so many believe that everything can be solved by discussion. But when you’re objecting, you’re not objecting to all discussions, at all times, under all circumstances. You’re objecting to this set of discussions at this time. The U.S. has been having secret conversations with Iran off and on almost continuously since 1979, and the results have been frustrating.

Guernica: What about the Bush doctrine; has the idea of the preemptive strike been discredited by the Iraq fiasco?

David Frum: Uh, you mean, do I think the United States will never carry out another preemptive strike? No.

Guernica: Do you think it was effective? Do you think it’s tenable?

David Frum: What is that?

Guernica: Isn’t the fear of a preemptive strike exactly why we committed one? It doesn’t seem like something the United States could tolerate from other countries. It is a double standard, a legal loophole in international law.

David Frum: Well, from the point of view of international law, the United States had a very strong case in Iraq. From a legal point of view, it doesn’t look so much like a preemptive strike as it does… The United States resumed the war that had been suspended by the armistice. From a legal standpoint, it doesn’t look like a new war. There were a series of things that Iraq did or promised to do to obtain peace in 1991, and it didn’t comply with those terms. So if you’re worried about, Well, now we have a system of international lawlessness, I’d say, “Look, if there are international actors who are threatened by a neighbor or by a rogue power the way the United States felt itself to be—and to go through what the United States went through between 1991 and 2003, all of the intermediate steps—I would feel pretty good.” We had a pretty stable, cautious, international system.

Guernica: So you’re not an advocate of different rules for the United States? Of explicit American exceptionalism?

One of the things that has happened in the way that the Bush administration gets discussed is this closed-loop discussion that critics of the administration have, where something gets asserted often enough as either a statement of fact or law, and then people sort of seal it in their minds as an accomplished thing.

David Frum: Well, American exceptionalism is not a doctrine that there are different rules for the United States; it’s a doctrine that the United States has a very unique kind of historical development compared to European countries. That’s a different, I think, question. But we’re going through, again, a lot of questions in pretty rapid succession. The question about Iraq, you raised questions about prudence and legality. And questions of prudence, everyone’s going to have their own judgment about it. But the idea that the United States, somehow, out of the wild blue yonder picked some unoffending character or some character with which it had a purely private disagreement and hurled it against the wall, that’s just not right. There was a system of sanctions, there was a system of inspectors and all of that—there were rules about no-fly zones and the ability of international aircraft to police Iraq. And all of that just disintegrated between 1998 and 2003. I don’t think that’s why the United States went to war. But it’s part of the backdrop that governed the legal character of that war.

Guernica: In a USA Today op-ed entitled “The Scandal that is the United Nations,” you wrote that the oil-for-food scandal ought to permanently discredit the United Nations. By that logic, how long should the United States be discredited for the scandals of the Bush administration, and do the scandals discredit the Bush administration alone, the Republican party, or the whole nation?

David Frum: Well, which scandals are you thinking of?

Guernica: There was Jack Abramoff, Valerie Plame, firing U.S. attorneys who wouldn’t narrowly single out Democrats for prosecution, spying on Americans without FISA approval, nearly a billion dollars lost in Iraq to paper companies like one called the Ever-Flowing Spring in Arabic, twelve billion dollars that Paul Bremer lost and couldn’t account for to Congress…

David Frum: We’re back…

Guernica: Seymour Hersh reported that U.S. money was going to Sunni insurgents in Iraq with ties to al Qaeda, the Bush administration paid reporters for positive stories in the U.S., as well as paying journalists in Iraq, fixing Iraq’s elections in 2005 I think, criminally false intelligence about Iraq, or at least cherry picking it…

David Frum: We’re back to the any-stick-will-do-to-beat-a-dog argument. In what sense was Abramoff…

Guernica: Abu Ghraib, torture…

David Frum: I think you need—in order to call something a scandal…

Guernica: Well, spying on Americans…

David Frum: …of the Bush administration, and there are a couple of criteria…

Guernica: … without FISA approval, or Plame—this was arguably a high crime.

David Frum: Okay, are you sure? It might be a mistake. It might be an outrage. It might be necessary. It might be legal. I think you want to be real caref-… One of the things that has happened in the way that the Bush administration gets discussed is this closed-loop discussion that critics of the administration have, where something gets asserted often enough as either a statement of fact or law, and then people sort of seal it in their minds as an accomplished thing. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking particularly about the legal regime that needs to govern terrorism and there are a lot of debates and controversies over what the Bush administration did. And I’ve written about them; there are things that clearly were mistaken. But (laughs) let me put it this way. I think it is very hard to argue that there was anything that the Bush administration did that was as far a departure from the law as the Roosevelt administration’s destroyers-for-bases deal with Great Britain…

Guernica: “Departure from the law”?

David Frum: Something illegal. Remember the destroyer-for-bases deal in 1940?

Guernica: No.

David Frum: Okay, well look it up. I think that just about everybody at the time argued that it was almost certainly illegal. But it was a war. And in retrospect, you know the law that prevented that was a kind of mistake. Or Abraham Lincoln, using presidential authority to suspend habeas corpus.

Guernica: So protecting an undercover CIA operative’s identity is a mistake?

David Frum: One of the things that Jane Mayer, who is obviously no softy on the administration, says at the beginning of her book, is, By comparison with previous wartime administrations, the Bush administration’s illegalities were admittedly—and now I’m gonna forget the exact term she used—trivial or small. But she begins her whole book, which is an accusation of massive lawlessness, saying that if you compare it with other administrations during wartime, these things look pretty trivial. Um, that doesn’t mean they’re okay, if they’re illegal. It just means that people need to have some context in which they judge these things.

In the case of the Valerie Plame thing, I think where we need to break out of the… Yeah, it’s probably bad. To seek retribution against a government employee, even if everything her husband says is a lie, even if the explanation of what they said they were up to is certainly untrue, even if she wasn’t exactly covert, you shouldn’t take retribution. That’s probably right. Probably right. It seems that one looks to me, not with the identity of a covert agent, that one looks to me like, you know, the kind of cheesy hardball tactics you often find in political operations. It was wrong. They shouldn’t have done it. But the idea that the Constitution was tottering as a result strikes me as… It’s that kind of stupid tough guy stuff that goes on in every administration. And an administration should be bigger than that. And they have to understand you’re going to be criticized, it’s often gonna be unfair and you’re gonna have to just roll with it, and it’s always a mistake to try to exact that retribution; it’s undignified, and it seems to have led people into illegality, and you should obey the law.

Guernica: But you describe above fearing for your lives making decisions the administration made in late 2001 and early 2002. Here a law was violated that protects the identity of a covert operative who was working on nuclear issues. You seem to find her destroyed career little more than “cheesy” or “hardball.” That’s astonishingly partisan, David.

David Frum: There are two answers, one technical, one deeper. The technical answer is that the release of Valerie Plame’s name did not in fact break any law. That’s why Patrick Fitzgerald had to rely on perjury charges rather than bringing actions under the Protected Identities law—and why there was no action against Karl Rove when he told the Grand Jury, “Yep, I did it.” The deeper answer of course is that if the Plame case is evidence of anything, it is evidence of the strange, all-absorbing legalism that defines American liberalism today. You want to oppose a war? Fine. Why do you feel the need to tangle yourself in the intricacies of the Protected Identities Act? Why reduce all politics to litigation?

Guernica: Plame was working to keep nukes out of the hands of terrorists, and your colleagues outed her. Did your guys think this was a joke, a game?

David Frum: I’ll stand by the previous answers, I think.

Guernica: Given the way the Bush administration went into Iraq, given the disastrous results, and considering broad neo-conservative ideas, particularly about shrinking government, nation building, what, I wonder, are your regrets?

David Frum: I can’t imagine there isn’t a person in America who would not wish the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan had been more successful than they were. Those two wars don’t look very successful. And even if we’re stumbling in Iraq toward a better outcome than we thought we were going to have a year and a half ago, it’s still a much worse outcome than we thought we were going to have in the summer of 2003. So that’s pretty bad. And the situation in Afghanistan also looks pretty bad. In some ways, you could even argue that it’s even harder to see how the situation in Afghanistan can be corrected. So those are disappointments. I could do this all afternoon. There’s a pretty good legal argument that the president acted within the law in using his executive power. But politically, should he have gone to Congress in 2001 and said we’ve got this new kind of problem with these new kinds of combatants and we ought to have a code of law that governs how they’re going to be treated? Yeah, for sure he should have done that. That would have been a really good idea. Should the administration have taken terrorism more seriously in its first six months in office? Yes. Should the administration have worked harder to broaden its party bases after nine-eleven? You know, sort of reconfigured itself to bring Democrats into the decision making foreign policy positions? Yes, sure. Should the administration have taken another chance to do that in 2004? Yes. I wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that for sure they should have done that; we’d be in a much stronger position now. Does the Department of Homeland Security look like a good idea? No. I mean you can go on and on.

Guernica: Is the common thread here, would you say, an arrogant approach to these questions? Not enough homework? Incompetence? Bias?

David Frum: Well, different mistakes have different origins. What was the cause of the problem in Iraq? It’s got so many causes—I think one of them, there was a breakdown in the way the national security system works. So the administration didn’t have a good way to coordinate disagreements between different parts of the government. We had a very weak National Security Council and a very weak Adviser. So what happened was, instead of working out differences, different parts of the government were allowed to proceed along their own track, yielding differing policies. So we had the Defense Department planning a war that involved racing into Iraq, deposing Saddam, installing a substitute government, and racing out again. And we had other parts of government that were systematically mutually vetoing all possible contenders for that role of substitute government. There were like three or four contenders for the role of who that substitute government was going to be. They all got vetoed. And so we ended up having the Coalition Provisional Authority. But if you’re going to have that, it means the United States has to stay for a long time. Except the war plan called for getting out as fast as possible. So that was obviously pretty contradictory.

Guernica: David, that memo you wrote helped sell a war to the public that has killed more than four thousand American soldiers, maimed tens of thousands of them, and killed tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians. Do you bear any responsibility for those lives destroyed?

David Frum: Only to the extent that I deserve credit for the overthrow of one of America’s most implacable enemies and one of the world’s most vicious and aggressive tyrants. Which is to say—to a very minute degree. I’ve lived in Washington for thirteen years now, but still there remain some limits to my self-importance.

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