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07.12.10

The Coulter Wars

The blond bomb-thrower is now targeting neocons. Conor Friedersdorf on how her latest salvo on Afghanistan is changing the way the right talks about war.

Ann Coulter is suddenly relevant again.

In a recent column, the right-wing polemicist expressed doubts about the Afghan War that immediately transformed how conservatives debate the subject.

Skepticism of nation building in Afghanistan is not new. The project has long been criticized on the paleo-con right. In escalating the conflict, President Obama drew sharp dissent from well known figures like Congressman Ron Paul and conservative columnist George Will. Until last week, however, it seemed like these skeptics were operating on the margins of the right-of-center coalition.

That is no longer true.

When even Ann Coulter is calling you a warmonger, it tends to frighten people.

The war in Afghanistan is being debated as never before. And Ms. Coulter is being defended and seconded by many staunchly conservative bloggers, right-leaning pundits, and readers of hard-right publications. As a result, observers are wondering whether her column “may have officially kicked off the next great schism within the conservative movement,” as Politics Daily columnist Matt Lewis put it. “Until now, there has been somewhat of an unspoken rule, adhered to by most on the right, that conservative Republicans would vigorously oppose Obama's liberal domestic policies while supporting his efforts to win in Afghanistan.”

Why is this particular column so consequential?

That question requires a trip down the memory hole—a worthwhile one, because the answer speaks volumes about the conservative movement.

September 11, 2001 is where many of these stories begin.

Immediately after the U.S. got attacked by Islamist radicals, Ms. Coulter infamously argued that Americans should “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Executed in succession, a program of war, pacification, church construction, missionary recruitment, bible study, and eventual baptism would seem to require a lengthy boots-on-the-ground commitment. So it’s amusing to see Ms. Coulter write circa 2010 that “unlike liberals, the Bush administration could see that a country of illiterate peasants living in caves ruled by ‘warlords’ was not a primo target for ‘nation-building.’”

Ms. Coulter also wrote in 2004 that Democrats opposed the War on Terrorism “except their phony support for war with Afghanistan, which they immediately complained about and said would be a Vietnam quagmire.” In other words, her own record on Afghanistan is basically that of a war hawk who mocked precisely the liberal concerns about quagmire that she now echoes.

But her anti-war stance isn’t new.

Back during her February 28, 2009 address to CPAC, the nation’s premier gathering of conservative activists, Ms. Coulter said, “The one real problem with Obama on national security is… he’s putting more troops into Afghanistan... which could well be another Vietnam. So for politically correct reasons, we’re moving the focus of the war on terrorism to a very bad place for us. The Russians couldn’t win there. Peter the Great couldn’t win there. Oh, but maybe the messiah can win there, OK.”

Skip ahead to July 2, 2010, when Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele expressed misgivings about the war in Afghanistan during remarks he made at a fundraising event. "This was a war of Obama's choosing," he said. "This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."

It was a high-profile violation of the "unspoken agreement." And William Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, immediately acted as enforcer, calling on Steele to resign in an open letter that concluded, “There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn't be the chairman of the Republican party.”

Why did Ms. Coulter’s forcefully stated misgivings about Afghanistan attract so little attention in 2009, whereas her recent column, so similar in substance, has pundits wondering if a conservative schism is afoot? It doesn't have anything to do with specific arguments about the war. The answer is in the title: “Bill Kristol Must Resign.” Hawkish Republicans have been able to enforce foreign policy orthodoxy since 2001, especially among intellectuals and politicians intent on remaining movement conservatives in good standing. Cross them and they’ll question your ideological loyalty, your patriotism, and your fitness for a job inside the movement.

With a few deft phrases, Ann Coulter may have ended their whole game. “Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney have demanded that Steele resign...” she wrote. “Didn't liberals warn us that neoconservatives want permanent war? I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense, but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too.”

She added, “if Kristol is writing the rules for being a Republican, we're all going to have to get on board for amnesty and a ‘National Greatness Project,’ too—other Kristol ideas for the Republican Party. Also, John McCain. Kristol was an early backer of McCain for president—and look how great that turned out!”

In other words, Ms. Coulter is questioning the patriotism of Afghanistan hawks, the Kristol/Cheney coalition’s ideological loyalty and their fitness for jobs inside the movement.

The inquisitors stand accused of heresy.

They say that only Nixon could go to China, and that only a Democrat like Bill Clinton could “end welfare as we know it.” Over many years of forcefully argued, often odious books and columns, Ms. Coulter has done everything the dirtiest hawk operatives in the conservative movement expect of team players. Like Mr. Kristol and Ms. Cheney, she’s accused liberals of treason. She has implied that she is comfortable carpet bombing Muslim cities, the deaths of innocents be damned. She remains a particularly bellicose, unreflective supporter of the Iraq War, and even her opposition to the war in Afghanistan is framed around the alleged folly of Obama’s actions there.

The usual smears that foreign policy hawks use to discredit their critics simply cannot work on Ms. Coulter, and as a result, everyone inside the conservative movement who harbors secret doubts of their own about Afghanistan is thinking, “they can’t question her ideological loyalty, or her patriotism, or her hatred for liberals. I guess being anti-war isn’t verboten anymore.”

That’s a problem for the hawks. When even Ann Coulter is calling you a warmonger, it tends to frighten people.

It’s too bad that the conservative movement couldn’t have a free-wheeling debate about the war in Afghanistan ages ago. It's also a shame that the capital required for credibly standing up to Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney is a career spent spewing indefensible provocations at ideological adversaries.

Observers might conclude with some reason that Bill Kristol, Liz Cheney, and Ann Coulter basically all deserve one another. Let's just hope that their methods don't prevail, because the rest of us deserve a robust debate about Afghanistan, and the difficult decision about whether to stay or go, that is conducted by people whose histories as public figures are less rife with calculated intellectual bullying.

In this case, Ms. Coulter has probably helped that to happen in spite of herself. It's an opportune moment for her to retire as a polemicist and start a third act in public life.

Conor Friedersdorf blogs at True/Slant and The American Scene. Follow him on Twitter at Conor64.