The Split on the Right

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1. How did the debate among the various groups of the American right develop since Sept 11?

September 11 has served a convenient purpose for some of those who position themselves on the right. For years, the neoconservatives, particularly those connected in some way to an organization called the Project for a New American Century, had been advocating the establishment of United States hegemony throughout the Middle East. But attracting the political support that such an undertaking would require was another matter entirely. Then September 11 came along.

I am reminded of 1950, when the National Security Council issued the famous secret memorandum (which was not made public until 1975) known as NSC-68. That document called for a tripling or quadrupling of the American defense budget in the face of an allegedly overwhelming Soviet threat. The North Korean invasion of South Korea that year provided them with the pretext for carrying it out. An aide to the Secretary of State even said, "We were sweating over it, and then, with regard to NSC-68, thank God Korea came along."

As I have argued in many places, there is absolutely nothing "conservative" about such a project. In some cases, though, people who describe themselves as conservative are getting caught up in it. They recall the Cold War, when the hawks tended to be conservative and the doves liberal, and they conclude from this that war is conservative and diplomacy is liberal. This is dangerous nonsense. The string of wars that the neoconservatives have in mind are in no sense in America’s interest, and would only multiply our problems beyond our present ability to imagine.

The nightmare scenarios that could arise from continued American intervention in this volatile region are practically endless, a point America’s European allies — reviled and considered dispensable by our neoconservative lunatics — keep trying to make to us. Unfortunately, some conservative Catholics suggest that the only reason we traditionalists oppose war is that we possess some perverse desire not to "liberate" the suffering people of Iraq, as if that had anything to do with the war’s ultimate rationale (or as if governing the ludicrous conglomeration of hostile groups that comprise Iraq could ever be a pleasant process). Concerns that an Islamic radicalism inflamed by our invasion of Iraq might lead to a fundamentalist takeover of Pakistan — which, unlike Saddam’s Iraq, is a nuclear power — or that a "liberated" Iraq could descend into turmoil and chaos, as the country’s three major groups come into conflict; or that terrorism against Americans at home and abroad could grow catastrophically worse — these are simply not raised. Even to raise them is to be accused of weakness or cowardice.

This is supposed to be conservative? Insane, perhaps, but hardly conservative.

2. How strongly do neoconservatives influence the Bush administration?

The neocons enjoy tremendous influence within the Bush Administration. Neoconservative magazines positively adore Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as such lesser advisers as Paul Wolfowitz and (until his recent resignation) Richard Perle. They are especially influential because George W. Bush is, frankly, not an especially intelligent man. He must rely unusually heavily on the advice of others.

It is entirely possible that President Bush really does believe his own rhetoric — that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction that he might share with terrorist groups. But the neocons who surround him, while they echo this logic for public consumption, have been advocating "regime change" in Iraq for years, long before any of this talk of weapons of mass destruction even emerged. So I believe they have been able to exploit a man like Bush for their own purposes. Some people say that President Bush does not support the neocon program of ceaseless wars, and that what he wants to do is depose Saddam, establish a Palestinian state, and let that be his legacy. For the sake of the world, let us hope so.

What is most embarrassing, though, is that so many otherwise sensible Catholics have bought into the specific rationale for this war — the U.S. finally settled on alleged Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" as its justification for invasion — when the architects of the war themselves are clearly not concerned about that. They have favored this invasion for years, and the WMD issue is now a convenient pretext. I’m sorry, but if you advocate a string of wars in the Middle East, against Syria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, for starters, and do not appreciate the potentially cataclysmic danger you are thereby inviting, then you have no right to call yourself a conservative.

3. Is the term "global democracy" (as a political goal) an invention of the Bush Administration?

The idea of "global democracy" does not in fact originate with the Bush administration. Something like it can be found on the left wing of the early left-right Cold War consensus that developed in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. It became much more visible, however, during the Reagan administration, when neoconservatives became more and more influential. In the 1980s, "global democracy" inevitably meant anti-Communism, so it was possible for neoconservatives and traditional conservatives to work toward similar goals, insofar as both opposed the Soviet Union. The traditional conservative, however, opposed the Soviet Union out of a concern for the national interest of his own country, and not because he imagined himself as engaged in a global, ideological crusade. Such crusades are incompatible with conservatism.

4. How have political conservatives changed since the Reagan administration?

It was during the Reagan administration that the neoconservatives really began to enjoy influence. And it was then that the tone of conservative thought began to change noticeably. Cultural issues, including immigration, began to be discussed with less and less frequency. Conservatism came to be dominated by policy experts rather than liberally educated scholars. The conservative’s traditional sympathy for the American South and its people and heritage, evident in the works of such great American conservatives as Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk, began to disappear. The traditional conservative concern for local self-government and states’ rights vanished altogether, and some neoconservative organizations even began suggesting that the real threats to liberty emerged precisely at the local level (Clint Bolick’s book Grassroots Tyranny is a good example). The neocons by and large like the federal government, and they like Washington, D.C. They like the power and the activity there. I need not tell you, on the other hand, how traditional conservatives feel.

5. Which are the main reasons for the split within American conservatism?

I’ve already described some of them. In addition, the neocons are heavily influenced by Woodrow Wilson, with perhaps a hint of Theodore Roosevelt. They believe in an aggressive U.S. presence practically everywhere, and in the spread of democracy around the world, by force if necessary. (How they will reconcile their alleged commitment to democracy with the obvious fact that most freely elected governments in the Middle East would be anti-American will be interesting to see.) And they believe that any other country’s opposition to their belligerence can be explained only by weakness or moral perversity. They are like spoiled children, both in their thinking and their behavior, not to mention their ignorance of history. It’s embarrassing.

And although the neoconservatives portray themselves as free-marketeers (as opposed to the allegedly anti-market traditional conservatives or paleoconservatives), this claim is misleading. Neoconservatives tend to want more efficient government agencies; paleoconservatives want fewer government agencies. They generally admire President Franklin Roosevelt and his heavily interventionist New Deal policies. Neoconservatives have not exactly been known for their budget consciousness, and you won’t hear them talking about making any serious inroads into the federal apparatus. When the Republicans won a major victory in 1994, neoconservative leaders like William Kristol warned them not to be too extreme! He needn’t have worried — the federal apparatus he loves remained almost entirely untouched in the wake of that Republican victory. Neoconservatives often favor national standards in education, including the outlines of a national curriculum, whereas such an idea runs counter to traditional notions of local self-government. They would also rather avoid discussions of race — especially involving preferential policies for minority groups. That would be "divisive."

In addition to all of this, the neoconservatives possess a strong attachment to Israel, and particularly to the Likud wing. Opposition to Likud policy will also render you suspect, to put in mildly, in neoconservative eyes.

6. Do the neocons have clearly defined political targets? Do you consider them to be fanatics?

The neocons certainly do have clearly defined political targets. One of them is traditional conservatives. It enrages them beyond words that there now exists in the United States a magazine called The American Conservative, which generally takes an antiwar position and which questions the neocons’ right to call themselves conservative. They cannot tolerate such challenges to their authority. They are generally far more genial toward members of the Democratic Party than they are toward traditional conservatives, for whom they have nothing but venom and vitriol. (It is also worth noting that in general, the neocons possess a palpable loathing for Germans.) If these belligerent children aren’t fanatics, I don’t know who is.

7. Many Catholics in the US wanted to get rid of Bill Clinton and voted for Bush. How would you describe the infrastructure of conservative Catholic thinkers in America?

Conservative Catholics certainly did want to get rid of Bill Clinton. But their understandable distaste for Bill Clinton contributed to a profound political naivete among some of them, for whom a dislike for Clinton translated into an unrestrained enthusiasm for the Republican candidate in 2000. This naivete is evident among conservatives in general. Believe it or not, there is right now a bestselling book among conservatives called The Leadership Genius of George W. Bush. That about sums up the complete lack of any sense of nuance, proportion or discernment among many self-described conservatives in America at this point.

8. Does the majority of conservative Catholics in the US really share Bush’s vision of "global democracy"?

Not all of them, by any means. Some conservative Catholic publications have come out against the war with Iraq. Among traditional Catholic periodicals — yes, there is a difference — the news is even better. The Remnant and Catholic Family News have both been solidly anti-war.

Frankly, many conservative Catholics, like Americans in general, simply do not read anything substantial, if indeed they read anything at all. They get their news and their ideology, by and large, from American television. If Germans could watch an hour of a typical American news channel, they would never again be able to keep a straight face when they hear Americans boasting of their free press.

Some of them, I think, do buy into this program of global democracy. My instinct, though, is that most conservative Catholics who support the war are at least sophisticated enough to see through this rhetorical silliness. They would tend to favor the war more because they believe — wrongly, in my judgment — that it serves an urgent American security interest.

9. Many European Catholics see with some disconcertment that American Catholics who were supposed to be "orthodox" are pro-war although they used to share the Vatican’s position in moral matters. Has the crisis inside the Church weakened their confidence in the Pope, especially in his interpretation of the just-war doctrine?

I don’t think so. In fact, most neoconservative Catholics have defended John Paul’s handling of the crisis to an almost embarrassing degree, blaming everything on bad bishops or biased media coverage. There have been a few exceptions, like Rod Dreher of National Review (one of the most hawkish magazines), who argued in this context that John Paul’s moral authority had indeed been compromised, but in general the crisis does not seem to have influenced people’s perceptions of John Paul’s ability or moral right to apply just-war criteria to the conflict with Iraq. Whether there was a crisis or not, the Catholic neocons would have adopted the political positions they have now. They would not have been more likely to support John Paul.

Interestingly, it has been Catholic traditionalists, who have been most critical of John Paul’s pontificate, who have been more likely to agree with his judgment about the war. These traditionalists have been forthright in their criticisms of Rome in the present crisis, arguing that we cannot seriously be expected to believe that the situation could have grown this bad without any Vatican knowledge of it at all, and it is the Vatican, moreover, who appoints these appalling bishops in the first place (ignoring the pleas of orthodox faithful entirely). And yet they have generally supported the Pope on the war issue. So there does not appear to be a connection between the two.

Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds an AB from Harvard and a PhD from Columbia. He teaches history, is associate editor of The Latin Mass Magazine, and is co-author (with Christopher A. Ferrara) of The Great Faade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church (2002). The book (as well as a sample chapter) is available at greatfacade.com.

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