Tucker Carlson Goes to War Against the Neocons

Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

This week’s primetime knife fights with Max Boot and Ralph Peters are emblematic of the battle for the soul of the American Right.

“This is the level of dumbness and McCarthyism in Washington right now,” says Carlson. “I think it has the virtue of making Max Boot feel like a good person. Like he’s on God’s team, or something like that. But how does that serve the interest of the country? It doesn’t.” Carlson says that Donald Trump, Jr.’s emails aren’t nearly as important as who is going to lead Syria, which he says Boot and others have no plan for successfully occupying. Boot, by contrast, sees the U.S. administration as dangerously flirting with working with Russia, Iran and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. “For whatever reason, Trump is pro-Putin—no one knows why—and he's taken a good chunk of the GOP along with him,” Boot says.

On Fox last Wednesday, Boot reminded Carlson that he originally supported the 2003 Iraq decision. “You supported the invasion of Iraq,” Boot said, before repeating, “You supported the invasion of Iraq.” Carlson conceded that, but it seems the invasion was a bona fide turning point. It’s most important to parse whether Carlson has a long record of anti-interventionism, or if he’s merely sniffing the throne of the president (who, dubiously, may have opposed the 2003 invasion). “I think it’s a total nightmare and disaster, and I’m ashamed that I went against my own instincts in supporting it,” Carlson told the New York Observer in early 2004. “It’s something I’ll never do again. Never. I got convinced by a friend of mine who’s smarter than I am, and I shouldn’t have done that. . . . I’m enraged by it, actually.” Carlson told the National Interest that he’s felt this way since seeing Iraq for himself in December 2003.

The evidence points heavily toward a sincere conversion on Carlson’s part, or preexisting conviction that was briefly overcome by the beat of the war drums. Carlson did work for the Weekly Standard, perhaps the most prominent neoconservative magazine, in the 1990s and early 2000s. Carlson today speaks respectfully of William Kristol, its founding editor, but has concluded that he is all wet. On foreign policy, the people Carlson speaks most warmly about are genuine hard left-wingers: Glenn Greenwald, a vociferous critic of both economic neoliberalism and neoconservatism; the anti-establishment journalist Michael Tracey; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation; and her husband, Stephen Cohen, the Russia expert and critic of U.S. foreign policy.

“The only people in American public life who are raising these questions are on the traditional left: not lifestyle liberals, not the Williamsburg (Brooklyn) group, not liberals in D.C.—not Nancy Pelosi.” He calls the expertise of establishment sources on matters like Syria “more shallow than I even imagined.” On his MSNBC show, which was canceled for poor ratings, he cavorted with noninterventionist stalwarts such as Ron Paul, the 2008 and 2012 antiwar GOP candidate, and Patrick J. Buchanan. “No one is smarter than Pat Buchanan,” he said last year of the man whose ideas many say laid the groundwork for Trump’s political success.

Carlson has risen to the pinnacle of cable news—succeeding Bill O’Reilly. It wasn’t always clear an antiwar take would vault someone to such prominence. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or Mitt Romney could be president (Boot has advised the latter two). But here he is, and it’s likely no coincidence that Carlson got a show after Trump’s election, starting at the 7 p.m. slot, before swiftly moving to the 9 p.m. slot to replace Trump antagonist Megyn Kelly, and just as quickly replacing O’Reilly at the top slot, 8 p.m. Boot, on the other hand, declared in 2016 that the Republican Party was dead, before it went on to hold Congress and most state houses, and of course take the presidency. He’s still at the Council on Foreign Relations and writes for the New York Times (this seems to clearly annoy Carlson: “It tells you everything about the low standards of the American foreign-policy establishment”).

Boot wrote in 2003 in the Weekly Standard that the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government “may turn out to be one of those hinge moments in history” comparable to “events like the storming of the Bastille or the fall of the Berlin Wall—after which everything is different.” He continued, “If the occupation goes well (admittedly a big if), it may mark the moment when the powerful antibiotic known as democracy was introduced into the diseased environment of the Middle East, and began to transform the region for the better.”