The real fallout from this war is intellectual, because it continues to overturn everything we thought we knew about politics and ideology. These are times when leftist intellectuals, down-and-out peaceniks, and Hollywood stars are making a lot more sense than the paragons of conservative thought. These have fallen for the war hysteria to the point of sounding like Robespierre and most every other advocate of violent collectivism in history.
1. We have been taught to believe that the essence of American conservatism is warning against infatuations with unlimited political power. The entire tradition, as Daniel McCarthy says, is about decrying the ideology of social and economic regimentation associated with the planning state, about embracing of natural law and traditional morality instead of the modernist messianic attempt to remake the world according to our liking. As a corollary, conservatism has urged us all to face the reality of totalitarian horrors and not putting on blinders concerning the reality behind the eggs that evil dictators crack to make socialist omelets.
Then comes this war. The dominant strain of American conservatism is heralding the most horrifying use of power in the midst of aggressive war, waged by socialistic means by a president with autocratic power, costing a third of a trillion dollars, designed to remodel an entire country as a prelude to an imperial regional makeover with the goal of permanent global domination. Every book I can recall reading in the history of the American conservative tradition, broadly speaking, stands in condemnation of this spirit of conquest.
Yes, I know that this tendency has been building for some time now. Far too many conservatives went along with the first Gulf War, believing the propaganda that it was all about the liberation of Kuwait as versus a border dispute about oil rights. But this war is more brazenly imperial, more outrageously intrusive, more openly aggressive, more dictatorial and ambitious, more costly, and more likely to lead to endless reprisals, war, and ruin. I’ve wondered whether Bush might at some point consider nuking Baghdad; if he did, we don’t need to speculate where the conservatives would stand.
Chris Ruddy at Newsmax writes that the real problem so far is that the US has not been targeting schools and hospitals. The first article I clicked on National Review this morning calls for “unrelenting bombardment” in which “there will be some civilians killed” — one of a hundred similar pieces. William Buckley has granted an interview in which he manages not a word about the expansion of government but instead actually defends mass murder by the state: “How in the hell are you going to get Saddam Hussein without killing a lot of innocent people?” he demanded in outrage at Bush’s promise to spare innocents. “And the answer is you can’t.”
If conservatism can’t see what’s wrong with the slaughter of innocents, what use is it? Say what you want to about the dominant strain of American liberalism, it can at least tell the difference between the responsible conduct of foreign policy and an outright war crime. And as regards the supposed pro-life politics of American conservatives — the long record of denouncing abortion as an American holocaust — one wonders how it is possible to segue so effortlessly from being against killing to being for it. Is the suppose romance of war capable of so completely rending such a basic moral point?
And whatever happened to the opposition to immanetizing the eschaton? Peggy Noonan sounds worse that a New Economy hysteric when she opines that: “we are witnessing a triumph of activism over fatalism. Victory will remind the world that faith and effort trump ennui and despair. It will demonstrate to the civilized world that the good do not have to see themselves as at the inevitable mercy of barbarians. It will demonstrate that we are not part of a long and unstoppable slide, that we can move forward and win progress, that we don’t have to cower in blue suits behind the Security Council desk. We can straighten up, join together and make things better.”
2. We have been taught to believe for generations that the Republicans favor limiting government while the Democrats believe that government is the solution to all woes. Now we have a Republican president backed by a Republican House and Senate increasing federal spending by roughly twice the rate of Clinton in the 1990s, while engaging in protectionist trade policies and prosecuting an off-budget aggressive war abroad. Yes, I know that the Republicans are only living up to their real history, but still: the departure from stated principle is beyond belief.
Anyone who ever decried the big-government policies of Bill Clinton needs to face the facts here. If the standard is who is going to preserve freedom from DC, Bush has proven to be a far worse threat than Bill Clinton. And yet right-wing websites continue to trumpet books about the awful legacy of Clinton! I opposed the guy as much as anyone, not because of a ridiculous affair with an intern but because of all his awful uses of government power. Was I just being naïve in believing that anti-Clintonism on the right had something to do with his policies, something to do with principled opposition to Clintonian socialism?
3. We have been taught to believe that displays of anti-Americanism abroad are based fundamentally on envy toward American wealth and loathing of her freedom. But the anti-American protests taking place all over the world, and mirrored right here at home, have a clear precipitating event: not the opening of new McDonald’s restaurants but the aerial bombardment of Baghdad.
It is not free enterprise but government intervention by the world’s most militarized state that is prompting this. As even Paul Hollander tells us, “nothing stimulates anti-Americanism more effectively than the display of American military power.” How much does American militarism succeed in recruiting for the left globally? How much of the anti-Americanism we have so long poked fun at stem from a wholly justified moral revulsion at the consequences of a militarized attempt to become the global hegemon?
Speaking of Hollander, when I was in college, I was crazy for his book on Political Pilgrims, an extended treatise about the moral blindness of the left, giving example after example of goofy intellectuals who traveled to totalitarian societies and reported finding heaven on earth. Now he writes articles condemning anyone who questions the absurdities and horrors of US foreign policy. It is not anti-freedom activists who bother him but anti-US-government activists that get his goat. One has to wonder whether or to what extent his previous work similarly suffered from a messianic view of US power. Perhaps he has been nothing but a cheerleader for US power all along!
4. We have been taught to believe that the anti-communists of old were driven by love of liberty, not love of the military as such. But passionate Cold Warriors have largely fallen into line with the current war, even though the enemy in this case is no threat to the US whatsoever. Without provocation, the US has entered Iraq as an invading force in an attempt to overthrow the government and remake the place from top down, and the Cold Warriors are all for it.
We sneered at Communist propaganda, how these creepy Stalinoids would confuse tyranny with freedom, how they would claim to be liberating people as they slit their throats, how they would decry all resistors as reactionaries, Kulaks, and agents of a capitalist foreign power. And yet here is the US claiming to be liberating Iraq as it invades the country, decrying all resistors as terrorists, and generally feigning astonishment that these people do not immediately submit to the occupying power. What is it about other people’s patriotism that American conservatives cannot understand?
What’s at work here in the conservative mind? Just a leftover of the militarized mindset? They are stuck in the past and just retain the habit of cheering the US military, right or wrong? Was the entire anti-communist rationale for the Cold War nothing more than an ideological veneer for the crusader state, and these intellectuals just useful idiots? Is it war psychosis, and, if so, why does the left seem less disposed to it? Again, call me nave, but I actually believed that these people were sincere, that they hated communism not because it was a challenge to US global supremacy but because it was the end result of what happens when liberty and property are not protected from the grasp of the state.
It certainly seems that this war requires a fundamental rethinking of everything we thought we knew, concerning the Republican Party, conservatism, right-wing publishing outlets, the anti-American left, and modern political history as well.
One lesson that might be tempting to draw from all this is that the deconstructionists are right: language is a lie and all appearances of meaning in this world are mere political artifices. But is that a lesson we want to teach our children? Surely that is no foundation for hope.
I would like to avoid that conclusion, and instead remember the words of Lord Acton: Liberty “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization…. At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own….”