The Cult of Reagan

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Recently by Thomas E. Woods, Jr.: Left-Liberal Catholics: Yay for the AtomicBombings!

Some time ago The American Spectator's Jeffrey Lord claimed Ron Paul's foreign policy of nonintervention was "liberal," and that conservatives are supposed to be hawkish on foreign policy. Now to some extent, no one really cares about these labels, and who qualifies as what. But it is obviously false to say that supporters of nonintervention must be left-liberals. I showed this in my YouTube response, which dismantled Lord's entire position:

I figured that would be it. There is no wiggle room left for Lord after that. As Gary North put it, "The lesson here is simple: don't get Woods on your case if you are saying really stupid things about American history."

Yet he came back for more. With a busy schedule both personally and professionally, I have only now had the time to respond, which I'm doing in a series of bullet points.

1) I pointed out in the video that the anti-imperialist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was dominated by the conservatives, as historian William Leuchtenberg has noted. I likewise pointed out that we may count on one hand the number of Progressives who opposed U.S. entry into World War I. I further noted that the recent interventions Lord supports were likewise supported by Hillary Clinton, Howard Stern, the New York Times, and the Washington Post (among others I mentioned). Before Lord goes attacking other people for their tactical alliances, he might make note of the beam in his own eye.

Lord does not acknowledge any of this. I wouldn't, either, were I in his shoes.

2) Lord is obsessed with Ronald Reagan, and again condemns Ron Paul for opposing Reagan's expansion of government power. The weird cult of personality around the deceased former president reveals that Reagan has become the Right's Obama: a man whose every action is to be treated as ipso facto brilliant, perhaps even divinely inspired. Critics are mere heretics whose arguments need not actually be refuted; the mere fact that they have disagreed with the Great Leader is enough to condemn them forever.

How dare you say Ronald Reagan wasn't free-market enough! He supported the free market to the precisely correct extent, says the Supreme Neocon Council.

That Lord is more interested in someone's loyalty to a man than he is in loyalty to the principles that the man was supposed to represent, is the classic expression of a cult of personality.

3) In pointing out that Felix Morley, one of the founding editors of the weekly conservative newspaper Human Events, was himself a noninterventionist, it was obviously not my intention to argue that Human Events favors nonintervention abroad as an editorial position. I myself have been published and interviewed numerous times in Human Events, so I'm quite familiar with its editorial line. The point is that Lord describes nonintervention as a "liberal" (as in left-liberal, not classical liberal) position. As long as I can find some indisputably non-liberal supporters of nonintervention, I win. No one in his right mind would consider Morley a left-liberal. But Morley is simply Exhibit A.

4) Here's Exhibit B: Lord's own superior at The American Spectator, senior editor Angelo Codevilla. Speaking on the Mike Church Show about the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus to which Lord and Levin subscribe, Codevilla said:

This is a radical departure from the way that America's status in the world was built in the first place. It was built by a founding generation and the statesmen of the nineteenth century who adhered to the traditional view that the governors of any country are the stewards of the interests of that country only, and they are not entitled in any way to interfere in the affairs of other countries….

Beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, people like Woodrow Wilson began supposing that we had the right and duty to be the world's keepers, and they have proceeded to mess things up around the world ever since.

What I try to do in this book [A Student's Guide to International Relations] is to explain…that the world really is filled with people who are really different, who really do think differently, and that they work in an international system which gives them full rein, full capacity to be what it is they want, and that makes it impossible for foreigners to conduct their affairs.

In other words, imperialism has always been something of a losing proposition, especially in the modern international system, and our ruling class's attempt to nation-build the world in their own image is doomed to failure and to creating one disaster after another….

[Other countries] have, according to our Founding Fathers, every right to be as benighted, backward, and nasty to one another as they want. The Declaration of Independence says all men are created equal, all nations have the right to be who they are…. The Declaration of Independence claimed no special rights for the American people. It claimed for the American people the rights that the American people recognized in the rest of mankind….

Americans, like the rest of mankind, have an inalienable right to self-determination. Now that's not simply a theoretical statement. It's also a practical one. Because it is utterly impossible for one people to transfer its own ethos, its own notion of good and evil, its own way of doing things, to another. The Afghans, the Arabs, are who they are; they have grown up in a particular culture. It is what they know, what they love. As John Quincy Adams would have put it, who has appointed us as judges over them?

Codevilla also shot off a one-liner against the chickenhawk phenomenon; when Church asked him about neocon Bill Kristol, Codevilla replied: "And by the way, I served in the armed forces…. Billy didn't at all."

5) For Exhibits C, D, E, and on through the alphabet, see Bill Kauffman's book Ain't My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism, which I reviewed here.

6) Catholic University's Claes Ryn, who is more conservative than Lord and his entire circle of friends put together, has explained the difference between conservatism as classically understood on the one hand, and the militant Jacobin universalism to which Lord and the neoconservatives subscribe on the other. It should hardly be necessary to point out that the "global leadership" propaganda and the endless "democracy" project GOP candidates urge us to embrace is completely foreign to the finite goals and expectations of a conservative. A sample from Ryn's speech to the Philadelphia Society:

Because universality manifests itself variously, the conservative is no narrow-minded nationalist. He is a cosmopolitan. This does not mean that he is a free floater, at home everywhere and nowhere. That describes the Jacobin ideologue. The conservative is a patriot, deeply rooted in the best of his own heritage. It is because he is so attached to what is most admirable in his own culture that he can understand and appreciate corresponding achievements in other cultures. He is able to find in different places variations on a common human theme. The culturally distinctive contributions of other peoples deepen and enrich his awareness of goodness, truth and beauty.

The Jacobin is not interested in diversity, only in imposing his blueprint. What history happens to have thrown up is just an obstacle to what ought to be. Only what is “simply right” deserves respect. It's all so obvious.

Conservatives see in Jacobin principles a hair-raising obliviousness of life's complexity. To implement such principles may devastate a society. A society may be wholly unsuited or unprepared for changes demanded of it. So what, say America's neo-Jacobins. We need moral clarity. What was there before does not matter. “Democracy” must take its place. One model fits all. To ensure a democratic world, America must establish armed and uncontested world supremacy.

The will to power is here bursting at the seams. What argument could be better for placing enormous power in the hands of the neo-Jacobins than a grandiose scheme for remaking the world. At lunch yesterday we got to hear [from Max Boot] the pure, undiluted neo-Jacobin message.

All Jacobins warn of the Enemy with a capital “E.” The Enemy is the embodiment of evil, a force with which no compromise is possible. For the American neo-Jacobins the Enemy is Terrorism with a capital “T.” Though the only superpower, America must be in a permanent state of emergency, be armed to the teeth and relentlessly pursue the Enemy.

One current assumption about conservatives is nothing less than weird: that they are hawks, always looking for prey and always bullying. Conservatives are in reality normally doves, looking for ways to settle conflicts peacefully. They view war differently from neo-Jacobin desk-warriors. The suffering and destruction of war are frightful realities involving actual human beings. War is the very last resort.

Conservatives harbor no illusions about the international arena. Bad people behave badly. So conservatives want to be prepared to handle threats to their own society and civilization or to international peace. But their normal way of interacting with other peoples is to try to defuse conflict and to pursue a common human ground. This is the cosmopolitan way.

In domestic affairs, American conservatives have always feared unlimited power, partly because of their belief in original sin. Fallen creatures must be restrained by law. Government must be limited and decentralized, hence the separation of powers and federalism. The sprit of constitutionalism forms the core of the American political tradition. Unchecked power is an invitation to tyranny. The framers even wanted the U.S. Congress, which was to be the preeminent body of the national government, to have divided powers. Needless to say they disdained democracy.

Jacobins see no need for restraints on virtuous power. Today American neo-Jacobins are promoting presidential ascendancy and great leeway for the executive. Old restraints and liberties must yield to the needs of the virtuous national security state.

Ryn has just described the difference between Jeffrey Lord and a conservative. No one who listens to neoconservative talk radio has ever heard these distinctions before, which is why Lord can get away with pretending all his opponents are left-liberals.

7) Lord's discussion of the Cold War reads like something from 1974. It's as if the Soviet archives were never opened. As Sir Michael Howard (rather a credentialed historian) has noted, no serious historian any longer makes claims about Stalin's intentions abroad — claims I myself once believed, before the archives were opened and the evidence forced me to change my mind — that Lord repeats as if out of a Richard Nixon campaign brochure.

For example, we are told, breathlessly, about the communist threat to Greece in the late 1940s. In fact, Stalin specifically instructed Yugoslavia — which is where the aid to Greece was coming from, not from the Soviet Union — not to aid the Greek communists, who were not allowed to join the Cominform and whose Provisional Government was not recognized by the Soviet Union or indeed any other communist government. Senator Taft didn't see any US interest involved in Greece in any case.

As for Turkey, long before the Bolshevik Revolution the Russians had sought control of the straits. There was no military threat to Turkey at all, as George Kennan, the man who famously called for "containment" of the Soviets in his Long Telegram and his 1947 Foreign Affairs article, tried in vain to point out. In Lord's party-line world, we are evidently not even allowed to agree with George Kennan.

Throughout the Cold War, Soviet capabilities were consistently, almost ludicrously, inflated. It is hard to believe that so-called conservatives could in effect have shared the rosy view of Soviet productive capacity put forth by the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Samuelson, but share them they did. It is as if they didn't actually believe the free-market rhetoric they otherwise used. They expected a gigantic, socialistic basket case to conquer the world. What it wound up doing was accumulating basket cases in Africa and elsewhere that in no way helped and surely intensified its own economic backwardness.

But Lord, never one to question the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus — we heretics, on the other hand, dissent from every bipartisan consensus — takes Truman, a middle-of-the-road Democrat, to be a model statesman. Question Truman and his grandiose statements and strategy? What are you, some kind of commie?

I realize that in questioning the Cold War consensus I am violating one of the long list of unforgivable sins in the official conservative movement. The Cold War, like Ronald Reagan, is one of those topics on which mainstream conservatism will admit no dissent. There is the Official Version of Events, and there are the heretics who question it.

The Cold War apparatus gave birth to a military-industrial complex that is evidently impossible to rein in, and which is constantly in search of further justifications for ever-greater levels of spending. (There's no fat to trim from the $1.2 trillion annual defense budget!) This is the one government program conservatives may never question. This one is run by omniscient angels who don't need to be audited. This one has no entrenched interests of its own that it might pursue at the expense of the common good. That's true only of the farm lobby and the education bureaucracies. This is the Department of Defense, citizen. Trust them. USA! USA!

8) Russell Kirk, one of the most important conservative thinkers of the twentieth century, was critical of libertarians. I assumed everyone knew that. But just as interesting is that Kirk was no neocon like Lord and Levin, as I showed here.

More to the point: although Lord doesn't mention it, by the 1990s Kirk was praising libertarians for having "an understanding of foreign policy that the elder Taft represented."

That's right — the iconic Kirk praised libertarians for their foreign-policy views.

What other conclusion can we draw, then, except that Lord must now expel Kirk from the conservative canon? We can hope Lord's sense of the ridiculous is developed enough to stop him.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail; visit his website], a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, is the author of eleven books, most recently Rollback: Repealing Big Government Before the Coming Fiscal Collapse and Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century, as well as the New York Times bestsellers Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. He is also the editor of five other books, including the just-released Back on the Road to Serfdom.

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