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Archive for the ‘Neoconservatism’ Category

Obama has been critiqued by some conservatives for a lack of sufficient embrace of “American exceptionalism,” which is normally defined as the view that America is a unique nation, with a unique international role, which views that role as chiefly a positive for the advancement of human rights and justice around the world. As the Washington Times put the matter:

President Obama’s reference to British or Greek exceptionalism suggests a belief that the United States doesn’t stand alone with a particular greatness but that every nation is great in its own way and America is simply one of many nations with something cool to offer.

This kind of multicultural, politically correct, “we’re all unique in unique ways, every kid must win at dodgeball” thinking is the basis for his economic and foreign policies, from his schemes to nationalize the auto, banking, and health care industries to his lollygagging on behalf of those fighting for greater freedom in Iran.

So, we are led to believe by interventionist neoconservatives and others, the choice is between the John McCain and George W. Bush approach that would have America involved everywhere fighting for democracy and justice. And, on the other hand, we have the “internationalist” approach of Barack Obama, which also wants to be involved in the world, but shows contempt not only for America’s military and diplomatic power, but contempt for all distinctive aspects of America, such as free markets and limited government, an historical people of mostly European ancestry, a history of very charitable treatment of the defeated in foreign conflicts, and an historical desire to maintain sovereignty and independence.

Missing from this false dichotomy, and the political scene generally, is a true nationalist voice that is neither excessively indebted to nor overly influenced by or concerned with the rest of the world. A humble view that is aware of our limitations and jealous of our advantages. A view that does not seek to manage or influence the world with the exception chiefly of providing a good example to others and protecting what is ours.

America’s foreign policy and sense of self was, to some extent, permanently altered by its heading down the wrong road in World War I. That was the war “to make the world safe for democracy” where our elites’ first widely embraced the idea that we should be transforming the world to make the rest of it more like America. It’s not clear this sunk very deep in ordinary Americans’ consciousness. It took Pearl Harbor for America to get involved in World War II, in spite of FDR’s best efforts, and the Cold War was largely understood as a unique threat that called for a unique response by Americans fearful of domination by an aggressive internationalist ideology. Even then, Americans desire not to get too involved in unnecessary conflict eventually led to an early withdrawal from Vietnam and a more practical approach of containment, with a special emphasis on our backyard in the Western Hemisphere. In any case, regardless of the merits and rhetoric of that lengthy detour, the world changed dramatically with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Americans more or less remained aloof from and only mildly supportive of our activities overseas in the 1990s.

With the 9/11 attacks, like Pearl Harbor, Americans widely called for tribal revenge for our murdered countrymen. Bush and Obama both have misread the cause of this attack as the lack of American-style institutions overseas, and Bush in particular sought in its aftermath to make the spreading of democracy in the Middle East by force of American arms the central strategy, even when ordinary revenge attacks would have sufficed for his conservative supporters. Some conservatives, liberals, and moderates all eventually soured on the nation-building approach in Iraq in particular. Obama now has scaled back these ambitions, even as he desires to get foreigners and international institutions more involved in controlling America and its policies, whether on carbon output or the use of force and much else. His incoherence reflects this tradition of division between foreign involvement as “savior of the world” and its equally liberal counterpart in the form of deference to the UN and suspicion of American unilateralism of all types.

What neoconservatives and liberals both reject is the tradition of American non-intervenetionism. The distinct American tradition is one of avoidance of controlling and being controlled by foreigners. It stretches from George Washington’s Farewell Address and the Monroe Doctrine, to the so-called Know-Nothings, and more recently to Charles Lindbergh, Robert Taft, and Pat Buchanan. It has been the abiding idiom of American conservatism. It is the real exceptionalism because, in addressing the uses of American power, it does not seek domination of others whether from the will to power or the missionary impulse to transform the rest of the world. Its ideas on the use of force are largely defensive and focused on the preservation of the American way of life. It’s a view largely absent from both parties, yet it finds support in what is likely a majority of working class ethnic whites, business-oriented conservatives, many Vietnam veterans, as well as a swath of anti-war Americans who come from a variety of traditions.

The nationalist is against the proposed surge in Afghanistan (and was against saving the anarchy of Somalia or liberating the supposedly victimized Kosovars) not because such acts are an evil to these people–to them, they are probably on balance a good–but because such activity distracts us from our chief concern, which is our own flourishing as a people and the protection of a distinct way of life from foreign attack and excessive foreign influence. This older tradition has the benefit of being more just, less costly, and more consistent with free institutions and fiscal austerity than the so-called “American exceptionalism” of the bellicose neoconservatives.

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One confusing development is the identification of any activist foreign policy or non-libertarian domestic policy with neoconservatism, as if pure libertarianism were the true standard of authentic conservatism. This is simply a misnomer. Gaullism is not neoconservatism. Rockefeller Republicans–who are more “libertarian” on issues like gay rights and abortion–is not neoconservatism. Nixonian authoritarian pragmatism is not neoconservatism. And libertarianism is certainly not conservatism. As is evident in the writings of Russell Kirk and older issues of National Review, libertarians have always been uneasy coalition partner with conservatives. The temporary unity of many paleoconservatives and libertarians on the undesireabiliy of the Iraq War should not be mistaken for a melding of the two groups and their views. Even without Bush and the Iraq War, conservatives still believe in ordered liberty, which is to say, an historical and inherited Anglo-American balance of state action and private life. This is traditionally translated as economic libertarianism and social conservatism. That is, while conservatives favor a relatively free economy and a small federal government, no principle tells them that local and state governments cannot engage in everything from traditional control of vice, the provision of public education, prohibitions of drugs, and modest welfare programs for the “deserving poor.”

For a time, particularly the early 1990s, paleoconservatives and libertarians joined forces in opposition to the burgeoning federal welfare state. Prior to this marriage, the Cold War created unity among conservatives of all stripes–including Rockefeller Republicans and neoconservatives–all of whom recognized the need for opposing Soviet Communism. Paleolibertarians existed as a species apart for the most part during this era, with Murray Rothbard infamously saluting Nikita Khruschev during his 1959 visit to the United States. Just as national defense in World War II was not a major point of debate among conservatives after Pearl Harbor, neither too was the need for protecting America, Europe, and various resource-rich corners of the Third World from an explicitly statist and expansionist threat in the form of Soviet Communism. In fact, the alliance with the Soviets against Hitler was itself a point of friction during WWII for many conservatives, otherwise disposed to defer to leaders of state during a national crisis.

The Soviet system also provided a useful symbol with which to contrast the American way of life. Everything from urban renewal, interference with freedom of contract (including the freedom to discriminate), and generous farm subsidies could be legitimately described as a kind of creeping socialism, rooted in the same egalitarian values and technocratic faith that reached its apotheosis in the Soviet Union.

At the end of the Cold War, conservatives were in a state of disunity and ferment intellectually. Neoconservatives demanded a continuation of the Cold War model of interventionist foreign policy and a rejection of the small government conservatism popular in the South and West, while many neo-nationalists, such as Pat Buchanan, demanded a turn inward and a dismantlement of much of the welfare state, while also advocating restrictions on immigration to reduce its largest and (more important) growing constituencies.

If the expanded government power of the Cold War was a necessary evil in the eyes of paleoconservatives, for neoconservatives this constituted America’s finest hour. Neoconservatives, it must be remembered, were liberal defectors from many Democrats’ turn to the New Left at the tail end of the Vietnam War. In the New Left, the neoconservatives saw nihilism, indifference to Soviet expansionism, solidarity with anti-Western (and anti-Israeli) movements for “national liberation,” and alienation from the consensus American position of the Cold War. As liberals with strong ties to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, neoconservatives saw themselves as natural moderates without the taint of racism that characterized the right, which largely opposed the social-engineering utopianism of the civil rights movement, while also avoiding the unpatriotic nihilism of the New Left.

In the early 90s, the burgeoning Welfare State with its invasive focus on the activities of private life and private businesses presented itself as a logical locus of unity among traditional conservatives uneasy with the compromises of the Cold War–compromises that could no longer be justified as necessary and temporary measures to oppose the Soviet Union. This anti-Welfare/Warfare State coalition included the self-described paleolibertarians. As the “emergency” needs of the Cold War ended, paleoconservatives urged a major reduction in America’s foreign policy commitments, just as they had continuously urged an end to the federal government’s involvement in the economy through the “emergency” programs of the New Deal and the Great Society. The divisions between traditionalist paleoconservatives with the neoconservatives–revealed with great drama in the derailment of Mel Bradford’ appointment to head the NEA–became manifest, as the neoconservatives advocated US interventionism for the sake of power, expanding democratic capitalism, protecting Israel, resisting a revanchist Russia, and generally preserving the exceptional US power of the post-war era.

Earlier friction on such varied issues as antidiscrimination laws, the meaning of the Civil War, and the existence and nature of “racism” provided continued fodder for friction. Since liberals, libertarians, and traditionalist conservatives all had various degrees of opposition to the War in Iraq–or developed opposition as WMDs did not materialize and the war’s idealist nature became manifest–pacifist libertarian ideas on foreign policy allowed paleoconservatism in some people’s eyes to be reduced to a single, small government principle. Like any authentic conservatism, paleoconservatism demands different treatments of different situations and peoples. If paleoconservatism is for small government at the federal and international level, it often embraces “republicanism” at the local level, a tradition that extols the idea of a small, self-governing society where the virtue of its members consists in part of the salutary act of considering the good, being an active citizen, and expressing that commitment politically.

Conservatism is defined above all else, in my view, by the instinct to defend a known way of life that is under threat. In the American context, that means the limited government traditions of the Founders, the tone and tenor of civil society provided by the WASP elite, and the rough-hewn unpretentiousness provided by the Scotch-Irish that exists today in America’s scorn for elitism and disdain for dependency. A “conservatism” that decries everything from 1789 onward is not conservatism, but is instead a kind of ideological romanticism. Like any ideology, it does not have to deal with compromise, results, facts, statistics, and lived experience. The past and the present both can be castigated as hopeless compromises. For romantics–including libertarians–the best is yest to come, and if we enact their a priori proposals the perfect society is just over the the next hill, like the Lost City of El Dorado.

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Most of George Bush’s foreign policy mistakes have been caused by what may be termed excessive foreign policy idealism.  Though Bush is rightly criticized for his incompetence and failure to learn from events, no amount of competence would have saved him from the pathetic, ongoing insurgency in Iraq. This outcome was a natural consequence of the situation that he put himself in due to foreign policy idealism:  our ambitious plans to change Iraq’s people and culture, the lack of an Iraqi center of power or leader to which we could appeal, and the inherent friction of a proud, ancient people in the face of foreign occupation. 

Bush misjudged where we should intervene (Iraq, Ukraine’s elections, Kosovo Independence), how long we should stay (forever), and what kind of results we could expect (flowers) because of this idealism. In the world of Bush and the neoconservatives, we should concern ourselves not merely with security or commerce, but high ideals like democracy and human rights among both our allies and our enemies.  The lack of concern for such things has undergirded our historical alliance with folks like Saudi monarchs and Indonesian dictators.  The idealists respond that these regimes fuel terrorism amongst their resentful and downtrodden people.  So, we must democratize places like this by force, including Iraq, as a matter of englightened self-interest. 

McCain believes all of this in spades.  Pat Buchanan describes what we can expect in a President McCain:

Like Condi Rice, who regularly disparages the policies of every president from FDR to Bill Clinton, McCain enjoys parading the higher morality of his devotion to democracy-uber-alles.

“For decades in the Middle East we had a strategy of relying upon autocrats to provide order and stability. We relied on the Shah, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family. … We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on these outdated autocrats is the safest bet.”

Speaking of self-delusion, does McCain believe the “democrats” lately elected in Pakistan will be tougher on al-Qaida and the Taliban than Pervez Musharraf, who has twice escaped assassination for having sided with us?

Does McCain think this new crowd in Islamabad will be more pro-American than the general, when the people who voted them in are among the most anti-American in the Islamic world?

From Richard Nixon to George Bush I, we expelled Moscow from Egypt, won the Cold War, brought peace between Egypt and Israel, and created a worldwide alliance, including Hafez al-Assad of Syria, that drove Saddam’s army out of Kuwait.

What has the Bush-McCain democracy crusade produced, save electoral victories for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas? And if we dump the sultan of Oman, President Mubarak, and the king of Saudi Arabia, who does McCain think will replace them?

The “idealists” are the most war-mongering bunch around.  Their idealism has no respect for the diversity of political arrangements in the world, nor the benefits of tolerating injustice compared to initiating the horrors of war. Idealists are behind such varied campaigns as Kosovo, Iraq, and Vietnam, as well as the current call to intervene in Sudan.  Without a sustained focus on America’s abiding interest in peace and the avoidance of trouble, the idealism of a Clinton or a Bush or a McCain will always get us into wars.   The “no war for oil” folks have it all wrong.  That at least would make some crude sense.  The neoconservative ideaslists are seeking not power or lucre, but the satisfaction of standing up for a noble cause.  For them, every threat is Hitler, every decision Munich, every threat of world historical importance.  This same idealism does not give a leader the analytical tools to realize our predicaments and extricate ourselves. 

Idealists always paint vivid images of the future, a world characterized by law and right. Our present difficulties are always treated casually, necessary and bearable suffering that will be vindicated by the verdict of history.  Such “this worldly” optimism is reminiscent of the Hegelian-Marxist view of history, where any given state of society is only a step on the way to the Communist paradise. 

But sometimes it’s not December 1944. Sometimes the stakes are not existential.  And in these cases, hard-headedness is needed to go with softer-heartedness, in McCain’s case the admirable concern for others and a high sense of duty and persistence.  There is a time to throw in the towel, and that time has arrived in Iraq.

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Andrew McCarthy reminds us why Pakistan is messed up, that feel-good slogans about democracy miss the point, and the Bhutto assassination is merely business-as-usual.

Auster notes that our language in dealing with atrocity is impoverished by the logic of liberalism, which does not like to call evildoers evil.

Ace explains the fundamental contradiction of Democratic Party calls for diplomacy while also criticizing our diplomacy–as in financial and diplomatic support–of people like General Musharaff.

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