This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War.
This month also marks three years since I lost my dear friend Jon Basil Utley.
In Washington, he was perhaps best known as the publisher of the American Conservative. He was one of the few conservatives who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning.
He was also a successful businessman, writer and, above all, a remarkable thinker.
I first met him in June 2005 at Grover Norquist’s Wednesday Meetings when I worked at Americans for Tax Reform. Jon would regularly attend those meetings.
As we started talking, he told me that he was born in Russia. We quickly realized that my grandfather, and his father, were both arrested and sent to the same gulag in Vorkuta in 1936.
Jon fled Russia as a child with his mother Freda Utley. Jon’s father was executed in Vorkuta in 1938.
Jon’s mother was originally a British communist who became disillusioned with communism after she lived in the Soviet Union.
Freda would write about the failures of communism in a book, "The Dream We Lost." Freda Utley’s friend George Bernard Shaw praised the book as, "The first thorough analysis of Soviet communism by an expert who lived in Moscow during the late 1920’s and 30’s."
For many Republicans, Iraq is a dream that we lost.
While the Bush administration made several mistakes in Iraq, I am still hopeful that Iraq will not turn out as badly as Afghanistan.
Iraq is an illiberal democracy. It wasn’t until 1988 that South Korea became a liberal democracy.
I think it is likely that the Iraqis will be better off in a few decades. I doubt most Americans will ever say the war was worth it.
While I disagreed with Jon on a few issues, I learned so much from him.
I learned that a great businessman could find lucrative opportunities even when Washington was literally in flames. After the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the nation's capital was burning from riots.
This was followed by the increases in violent crime throughout the 1970s. With all these problems, Jon was talking with his friend about real estate in D.C.
His friend was from France, and he told Jon, "This building would be worth half a million dollars in Paris."
Jon bought that building for a fraction of that price.
Jon believed that the expansion of the federal government would attract lots of young professionals to the capital. He became a wealthy man investing in D.C. real estate and insurance.
Jon’s entire life was about seeking opportunities and adventures. After graduating from Georgetown University in 1956, he moved to Colombia to become a branch manager for an insurance company.
He became fluent in Spanish after 19 years of living in a Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. In 1975, he returned to Washington, D.C.
After he achieved financial independence, he joined his mother in the fight against communism.
After the Soviet threat ended, Jon joined the anti-war movement. While many of his anti-communist friends supported both Gulf Wars, Jon Utley strongly opposed them.
When I met him in 2005, Jon was very critical of George W. Bush when it was very unpopular for conservatives to do so.
Because Jon Utley was not financially dependent on the Republican Party, he could criticize the Bush administration and the foreign policy establishment.
In his 1862 State of the Union, President Lincoln warned our nation that, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
After the Cold War, many Republicans didn’t think the party needed to change its playbook to meet new challenges. Jon was the kind of thinker who helped many conservatives think anew and understand the limits of American power.
Personally, I am glad that Jon lived long enough to see many of his neoconservative opponents discredited by the public and defeated within the Republican Party.
The final lesson from Jon Utley’s life is to always appreciate life in America.
In 1939, he arrived in New York on a ship with his mother when he was just 5 years old. Jon was very pro-immigrant and he wasn’t afraid to criticize President Trump. In 2018, Jon wrote:
"Tribalism has always been one of the strongest of human genetic traits. .... America is unique because it transcended this tribalism to become a multi-ethnic and multicultural nation. America is not, like European countries, based on ethnicity. It’s often forgotten that we were founded when Europe’s religious wars were still a fresh memory, and many of our ancestors came here to escape them."
Robert Zapesochny is a researcher and writer whose work focuses on foreign affairs, national security and presidential history. He has been published in numerous outlets, including The American Spectator, the Washington Times, and The American Conservative. When he's not writing, Robert works for a medical research company in New York. Read Robert Zapesochny's Reports — More Here.
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