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Reality Bites

The purging of a war critic.

The Heritage Foundation has never been known as an intellectually adventurous place. For decades, its policy briefs and studies have closely tracked Republican talking points. So did the opinions of the think tank's senior foreign policy analyst, John Hulsman. In his op-eds and Fox News appearances, he cheerfully whacked the French, John Kerry, and other enemies of the cause.

But all these years of fidelity to the conservative cause couldn't spare Hulsman from suffering the wrath of his comrades. On July 7, his boss, Kim Holmes, sent a note to the Heritage staff wishing Hulsman "the very best in his continuing career." No one at Heritage was fooled by Holmes's euphemistic send-off--least of all Hulsman. "After getting fired," he says, "I was a walking corpse."

Following Holmes's lead, the official line from Heritage is that Hulsman left his job of his own volition. Indeed, two Heritage spokespeople initially denied to me that Hulsman had been shown the door. When I pressed them, both then told me that the think tank doesn't discuss its "human resources policies." The reasons for Hulsman's departure, however, seem perfectly evident. "At Heritage," says Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute, "anything that smacks of criticism of Bush will not be tolerated." And, as the Iraq war faltered, Hulsman grew bold in criticizing administration policy in essays and conversations with reporters. Next month, he will co-publish a book with the New American Foundation's Anatol Lieven titled Ethical Realism, a scathing indictment of the neoconservative worldview. With his firing, Hulsman joins Bruce Bartlett, the economist who was dismissed by the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis for his criticisms of Bush, in the ranks of the conservative purged.

And, in the coming months, their ranks will likely grow even larger. Conservative battles over the Iraq war are igniting all across Washington, with opponents loudly assaulting its leading champions (see Francis Fukuyama versus Charles Krauthammer and George Will versus Bill Kristol). But what the Hulsman incident reveals is that the war's supporters aren't about to passively absorb criticism and issue public apologies. They will fight back against their critics--and an ugly debate will become even uglier.

The evening of his dismissal, a stunned Hulsman led a procession of ex-colleagues to Lounge 201, a Capitol Hill martini bar. "We pretty much closed the place," recalls Hulsman. Responding warmly to the respects paid to him by friends, Hulsman quoted Max Fischer, from the dark comedy Rushmore, who tells Bill Murray's beaten-down Herman Blume, "I guess you've just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life." Then he decamped to his farm in the Shenandoah Valley.

When I spoke with Hulsman a few weeks later, he told me that a nondisclosure agreement prohibited him from providing details about the terms of his departure. But he was eager to speak about the ideological differences that prompted it. Despite his firing, he says he continues to harbor warm memories of the think tank. When he arrived there in 1999 to revitalize its European studies program, it seemed an intellectually exciting place. "It was always a big tent," he remembers. "There was a sense that you had authoritarians, neocons, realists, and libertarians all bubbling along."

But what Hulsman took for intellectual freedom may simply have been ideological incoherence. In the '90s, no foreign policy doctrine dominated the party. And Hulsman's brand--a dispassionate realism and distaste for both liberal and neoconservative interventionist impulses--resided close to the party's mainstream. That, of course, changed with the Bush administration's response to September 11, which quickly rallied a new conservative consensus.

As that consensus emerged, Hulsman hesitated to buck the administration and repeat his old complaints about moralistic foreign policy. In 2004, several of Hulsman's friends established the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy--a loose anti-neocon confederation of liberal and conservative realists--but he declined to add his name to any of the coalition's manifestos. "People at Heritage said, `You've gotta be careful signing this,'" Hulsman recounts.

But years of insurgency and general chaos emanating from Iraq emboldened Hulsman finally to vocalize his dissent. Last summer, he and Lieven penned a National Interest essay contending that the neoconservatives--and, implicitly, Bush--were "expending blood and treasure for problematic gains such as Iraq" and "significantly retarding America's ability to act against the true barbarians at the gate." In March, Hulsman argued against the arch-neocon Michael Ledeen during a House International Relations Committee hearing on Iran policy. He says he was subsequently informed that he was not to write anything on Iran for Heritage.

Soon after publishing their National Interest essay, Hulsman and Lieven signed a deal with Pantheon to expand their argument into a book. "I worried about getting fired, but we keep encouraging people to believe in moral courage, so we had to show some," Hulsman says. As the book's publication date loomed, however, Heritage apparently began worrying about the attention his doctrinal deviations would receive. "They had a desire to see what the book said ahead of time," he says. "I had a desire to say it was none of their business." And, although Hulsman won't say what exactly happened next, that was the end of his affiliation with Heritage.

The key figure in Hulsman's demise seems to be Kim Holmes, who has been the vice president overseeing Heritage's foreign policy program almost continuously since 1992. Holmes is an unlikely defender of neoconservatism. When Kristol and Robert Kagan published their seminal 1996 manifesto, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," Holmes laid waste to it in Foreign Affairs, denouncing it as "pure escapism." Throughout the '90s, he sneered at the notion of America as a "global policeman."

But that was before he went to work as the assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs in 2002. Over the next three years, Holmes apparently ditched his old qualms about moralistic foreign policy. And, when he returned to Heritage last summer, he began proselytizing for the Bush doctrine with a convert's zeal. In a speech last April, he contended that "there can be no real security in America without the advance of liberty in the world," an almost word-for-word quote from Bush's second inaugural address. Given Holmes's new outlook, it may have been only a matter of time before Hulsman found himself in his boss' crosshairs. (When I sought comment from Holmes about the Hulsman affair, he first denied that Hulsman was fired and then demanded I give him the name of the Heritage press aide who transferred my call.)

While some believe that Holmes was simply enforcing Bush's prerogatives within the GOP, Hulsman gives his old boss more credit. "Kim began to adhere to the views of the administration," he says. "He sincerely changed his mind." But he predicts that the recriminations at Heritage--and throughout the conservative movement--will soon intensify. "If the midterms go badly, the civil war in the GOP starts the day after," Hulsman says. "The neocons and Kristol will say that Bush is incompetent and the neocons are not to blame." Maybe then it will be Hulsman who leads the next purge. 

This article originally appeared in the August 28, 2006, issue of the magazine.