The Conservative Movement Is Dead

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Living in the Past

by Ryan McMaken

It’s now been almost fourteen years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but some people never tire of looking for a new place to throw it up again. For over a decade now, the global democracy gang at National Review has been trying to resurrect the Cold War coalition of what is known as the "conservative movement" in an effort to keep the movement alive. David Frum’s recent fatwa against everyone on the American right who has dared to come to terms with the end of the Cold War, illustrates the kind of wishful thinking that continues among the neoconservatives in general, and at National Review in particular. Like most of his fellow enthusiasts for "benevolent global hegemony" (read: neoconservatives), Mr. Frum is under the impression that the global drive for enforcing "democracy" at the point of a gun is somehow a natural heir of the anti-Communist conservative movement of the post-WWII world, and that anyone who disagrees with this prognosis has either betrayed the "cause," is an anti-Semite, or is just plain nuts. All of this is founded on not only a serious misunderstanding of the true foundations of the movement, but also on a refusal to accept the conservative movement for what it is: an obsolete coalition founded on combating a long-dead foe.

Mr. Frum quite insufficiently sums up "conservative ideology" as "the 50-year-old conservative commitment to defend American interests and values throughout the world." Well, it is nice to see that the global hegemony crowd of the right has finally admitted their true motives, but Mr. Frum’s definition hardly matches up with what most ordinary American conservatives believed the conservative movement to be about. As Daniel McCarthy has pointed out, National Review has always been devoted to the idea of the United States as global hegemon and international enforcer, yet most of the NR clique’s support came from ordinary Americans who feared Soviet Communism as a threat to the traditional American way of life, and hardly as something that needed to be replaced with an international welfare system so that they could assume the cost of a worldwide quasi-empire. American conservatives for the most part did not envision replacing the Soviet Empire with an American one. They just wanted to Soviets to go away.

Thanks to the histrionics of recovering Communists like Frank Meyer, James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, who were constantly being propped up as prophets by National Review, and who sincerely believed that all was already lost to the Communists anyway, Americans on the right were convinced that Communism was a threat never before seen in human history, and they were told that such a threat would require some "unique" tactics to combat it. It was this argument that William F. Buckley used to forward the proposition that in order to fight the Soviets, the Americans must become like the Soviets themselves; sacrificing precious American liberties and political traditions in the name of fighting the millennial war. Much has been said in these pages on Buckley’s call to save America by destroying it; but for now, let’s just accept that whether or not he was right, many Americans bought Buckley’s argument in full and dug in for the long war on the Soviets and on American liberty.

The view of the "traditional" American was probably best typified by Russell Kirk, the conservative and anti-Communist who referred to Soviet Communism as an "armed doctrine" and reluctantly lent his support to the militaristic anti-Communists of National Review. Kirk, (like the antiwar activist and Murray Rothbard mentor Frank Chodorov) was included on National Review’s masthead for years, although his influence on its thought clearly declined as the Cold War wore on. Kirk was always suspicious of the neoconservatives, and was no doubt referring to them when he announced his agreement with libertarians in their opposition to the neocon assertion "that the United States should station garrisons throughout the world.” The point of anti-Communist conservatism, was, well, to defend against communism. The "commitment to defend American interests and values throughout the world" was never a part of the deal except in the minds of the Buckleyites.

For those who had better things to do than fantasize about being benevolent global hegemonists, Communism was evil because it moved about destroying the indigenous cultures of the world, while replacing them with bureaucratic communism. The thought of roaming the world, leaving an American legacy stamped on the face of every foreign population in the form of bureaucratic democracy struck most Americans as pointless and un-American.

When the United States actually did begin doing this in the 1990′s, Pat Buchanan identified this hypocritical trend as the American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine; as a corollary to the Soviet leader’s proclamation that membership in the socialist brotherhood brought with it a necessary surrender of national sovereignty and self-determination. Who can claim that the global democrats behave any differently?

The Pat Buchanan experience, incidentally, illustrates well for us the reality of the break-up in the anti-Communist coalition that has destroyed the conservative movement. All the Catholic-bashing and accusations of anti-Semitism notwithstanding, Pat Buchanan was as fervent a Cold Warrior as anyone, and still praises the foreign policy of Ronald Reagan. As recently as 1999, in his book A Republic, Not an Empire, Buchanan identified Reagan’s anti-communism as the best kind of Communism with its funding of anti-Communist guerillas, its weapons build-up, and its willingness to intervene in Latin America. Pat Buchanan still believes in the righteousness of these Cold War measures in spite of being an alleged peacenik, and would no-doubt support them today if there were still a Cold War to fight. Buchanan’s great sin for the neocons, no doubt, is that his support for military action close to home (as in the invasion of Grenada) has not been expanded to include the entire planet. Buchanan cites the wisdom of pulling American military forces out of Beirut after the 1983 terrorist bombing that killed 242 Marines. Reagan, rather than commit to become entangled in a foreign war thousands of miles from North America, decided to cut his losses and get out. Even Murray Rothbard, who was no fan of Reagan, had to praise the courage and wisdom it took for Reagan to pursue this course. Reagan could likely have gotten away with calling for revenge and invading the Middle East (with plenty of neocon support) but he chose restraint instead, and decided that direct involvement in such distant parts of the world was none of America’s business. We should also keep in mind, that while Reagan was ruling out any more troop involvement in the Middle East, the Soviets were actively pursuing their own interests there. Why the difference in tactics between Grenada and Beirut? We know that in Buchanan’s case, the neocons say it’s anti-Semitism. Do they believe the same thing about Reagan, or could it be that their great anti-Communist hero simply had the good sense to keep America’s nose out of some places where it didn’t belong?

The most bizarre aspect of the neoconservative dream for a new Cold War has been their attachment to the military infrastructure and equipment of the Cold War. The threat of international terrorism, which neocons everywhere have been trying to morph into a new Soviet Union with darker skin demands virtually none of the same military tools that the Cold War did. Yet, here we are being repeatedly told that "Star Wars" missile defense could actually be an important defense against suitcase bombs, and that the wholesale invasion of foreign countries complete with B-52′s and nuclear subs will be instrumental in the destruction of Al-Qaeda, a loosely knit terrorist group that claims approximately 5,000 adherents worldwide.

The terrorism threat truly does require new tactics and serious thinking about America’s role in the world and what instruments the government should employ to combat it. The neoconservatives, however, in their obsession with a mythical one-world utopia of the future, refuse to consider anything other than belligerent globetrotting.

In contrast to the neoconservatives, there was serious and thoughtful debate among the various groups of the American right over how to respond to the Terrorist Attacks of 2001. Virtually no one called for no action at all, and most supported at least some military action in Afghanistan where Al-Qaeda was known to be openly supported. All the neoconservatives could see though, was invasion and nation-building. Consumed by the thought of forcibly remaking yet another country into a democratic bureaucracy (we even donated computers to help the Afghani government collect taxes), the search for the criminals of September 11th became a costly side-show in the quest for global democracy.

Thus, the concentration on finding the leaders of international terrorism was shunted aside, and the Afghanistan invasion became a test run for the invasion of Iraq. It was at this point that the Cold-War buddies of the neocons failed to show up for the party. The list of Cold-Warriors turned anti-interventionists has proven to be formidable. The most hated and attacked, of course, has been Pat Buchanan, but Buchanan has been joined by the likes of Robert Novak, Paul Craig Roberts, Doug Bandow, Gene Healy, and Charley Reese. The neoconservatives would have you believe that all of these people are paleoconservatives from the "fringe," but it’s not exactly clear when places like the Hoover Institution (Roberts) and the Cato Institute (Bandow and Healy) became havens for paleoconservativatism. Even Phyllis Schlafly, who generally avoids writing on foreign policy, has condemned the neoconservatives for their raging illogic in refusing to give it a rest on their "open borders" project while sending troops to foreign lands and maintaining their claim that "the last thing we want to do is militarize the borders." Apparently, militarizing the Middle East is the much better idea.

Just as the Democratic Party takes the "black vote" for granted, so too have the hegemonists of the right always assumed that the contemptuous common folk would always fall in line behind them. Who can forget the virtual panic in the voices of George Bush the Elder and his advisors in the days following the fall of the Berlin Wall? After two generations of trampling the rights of Americans in the name of defeating the Communist threat, the global democracy gang suddenly realized that they needed a new excuse to keep the tax dollars and the foundation money rolling in. They think they have found an airtight case in Iraq and Al-Qaeda, but they have not received the universal praise from the right that they think they deserve. For fifty years, the American right was consumed with the question of "will this help defeat the communists?" In spite of all neocon wishes to the contrary, however, the Cold War is over, and the question that many old anti-communists are now asking themselves is "will this secure American liberties?" It shouldn’t need to be said that this is a much different question than "will this contribute to benevolent global hegemony and global democracy?" The one all-consuming question is obsolete and the conservative movement that National Review ruled over is gone. Perhaps the magazine itself will not be far behind.

Ryan McMaken [send him mail] writes from Colorado. His personal web site can be found here.

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