Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Spirited liberal internationalism

Michael Gerson likes Tony Blair, in part because he says things like this:

"They [the terrorists] are prepared to play a long game," he told me, "and they believe that we are not."


"The reason why the stance of a lot of public opinion is quite defeatist in my view is because we are still saying, ’Well, they’ve got a point, we understand their grievance, maybe it is our fault.’ . . . We get rid of two of the most brutal and terrible dictatorships, who’ve killed hundreds of thousands of their people, we then say you can have a United Nations-backed process of democracy -- and you say that provoked them to terrorism. I mean, explain that one for me."


"If those two external elements [al Qaeda and Iran] were not there, this thing [Iraq] would be very nearly manageable," Blair told me. "Sometimes you have to come to a very simple conclusion, which is that your enemies decided to fight you."

Gerson closes by citing something that probably comes from Harvey C. Mansfield’s The Spirit of Liberalism:

Thirty years ago, Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield mockingly asked, "Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?" By this high standard, Tony Blair is a liberal.

Gerson’s evident admiration for this side of Blair says a lot about him, and about his former employer as well. If my other choices are crabbed isolationism, heartless realism, and internationalist pacifism, then I choose this.

Discussions - 25 Comments

As the Bush speechwriter who thought that the purpose of conservative government was to promote "compassion," Michael Gerson did as much as any individual in destroying traditional conservatism.

As the author of Bush's Second Inaugural, Gerson advanced a utopian and messianic vision of presidential imperialism that has allowed Iran and other American adversaries to cripple us by bogging us down in Iraq.

As a consequence of all this, the Republicans have lost control of the Congress. And next year, they will lose the White House. Gerson's "compassionate conservatism" has thus destroyed the conservative Republican movement.

In the Bush administration, Mark Gerson was part of the problem, not part of the solution. Gerson too played a role in the remaking of the Republican Party into something we barely recognize.

To Gerson, most of the Party were what he called "fundamentalists," and he didn't mean it as a compliment.

Blair has acknowledged John MacMurray's Christian socialism as a great influence on him. David Brooks has a recent column that picks up on this, but it's been observed before. Considering Blair's domestic politics, I'm more inclined to look to MacMurray than to the other sources cited in the article (Gladstone, etc.) as influences. A Christian socialist can support Iraqi Freedom, although most who go by that name these days do not.

Blair's Christian socialism goes well together with Bush's and Gerson's compassionate conservatism. They share a utopian vision of the world that has nothing at all to do with traditional conservatism, which was rooted in a realist view of human nature as imperfect in knowledge and virtue. Shouldn't conservatives be repudiating the Christian compassionate socialism of Blair and Bush in order to revive that older tradition of conservative realism?

Amen Larry. Compassion at home (read with other people's money) and internationalism abroad does not conservatism make. In fact, it sounds an awful lot like old fashioned liberalism.

Professors Arnhart and Phillips,

Can Christians be conservatives, in your understanding?

In America, a Christian society, I think it is hard for a conservative to not be a Christian. Preferably a practicing, observant one. But they must at least concede and respect the American Christian tradition. It would be hard for a rigorous secularist to claim any kind of conservative mantle.

My point is, in case I have been misunderstood, is that the Bible does not mandate a federal government level Social Gospel type program of social welfare and poor relief. In fact, I think that subsidizes and breeds vice. Nor does it mandate a benevolent internationalism. I think the point about the limits of human capacity and the flawed nature of man is an entirely Christian one.

Yes, of course, Christians can be conservatives--conservatives who will express their compassion in civil society, but who would never think that statist collectivism and imperialistic wars can be proper expressions of Christian compassion

Professor Arnhart,

I agree, though we'd likely disagree about whether particular wars are "imperialistic," which is an assessment depending less upon principle than upon one's assessment of the facts at hand.

Professor Dan,

I agree that the Bible doesn't mandate either the welfare state or "benevolent internationalism," though it surely permits prudential judgments (and hence disagreements) about the best mechanisms for caring for "widows and orphans" (domestically and internationally) and about how best to secure one's nation. Conservatism also leaves some room for such prudential disagreements, does it not?

Neoconservative and Straussian proponents of the Iraq war have been quite open in identifying the war as imperialistic. For example, Harvey Mansfield (in his recent WALL STREET JOURNAL article) explicitly justified the war under George Bush's "one-man rule" as vindicating Machiavelli's teaching about the importance of imperialism in advancing the glory of the prince.

So that makes Gerson, who continues (bless him) to support the war, a neocon hypocrite (whose Christianity is inauthentic), a neocon dupe (unable to hold see through the transparent neocons), or, perhaps, someone who thinks for himself. I'd hesitate to make either of the first two judgments.

JK, have you asked yourself if Gerson would consider you another one of those "fundamentalists?"

I thought Iraqi Freedom was waged to rid the world of Saddam, and it was done on the basis of intelligence that he had WMD (which Saddam himself seemed to think) and had made enough connections with al-Qaeda to make his possession of them a clear and present danger. That the overall quality of that intelligence is still being debated suggests the administration was probably acting in good faith - it seemed to have truly believed its intelligence was actionable.

Compassion for the suffering Iraqis was a nice additional justification, but certainly not a central principle of the invasion. Similarly, I think JK in other posts has also shown that W's 2nd Inaugural contains enough equivocations about the US mission to spread democracy that left the administration enough outs to avoid spreading it to, say, China. Whether the overall tone of that speech overrides those equivocations - Prof. Arnhart's concern - is a question, however.

Just to mix things up some more, it looks like Tony Blair's about to convert to Roman Catholicism:,,2-2007220625,00.html

"If my other choices are crabbed isolationism, heartless realism, and internationalist pacifism, then I choose this."

Mega-dittoes, Professor Knippenberg.

I would add that pacifism in these times is also quite heartless, in its way.

In terms of domestic policy, however, Gerson seems to have been a semi-liberal influence in the administration.

My comments on this thread: 1. You can't be a very good imperialist if you're a utopian. 2. In the Summa, St. Thomas treats of war in the Treatise on Charity. 3. Most utopians I know today are either libertarian small government types or certain sorts of one world leftists. 4. Larry Arnhart continues to represent Harvey Mansfield's thought in surprisingly cartoonish ways.

Mr. Jeffrey,

Why do you say that "Larry Arnhart continues to represent Harvey Mansfield's thought in surprisingly cartoonish ways"?

In his WALL STREET JOURNAL article, he explicitly says that the "rule of law" is defective because it does not recognize "the need for one-man rule" in those circumstances where we need "the living intelligence of a wise man." He then goes on to defend President Bush's exercise of such "one-man rule." He also repeats Machiaveill's teaching about the need for imperialistic expansion. His only complaint about the Bush administration is that Bush's policy of imperialism is not really imperialistic enough: "I believe too that the difficulties of the war in Iraq arise from having wished to leave too much to the Iraqis, thus from a sense of inhibition rather than imperial ambition."

In his book MANLINESS, Mansfield praises Teddy Roosevelt for his "manly nihilism" in showing "the assertiveness of executive power."

Is this what conservatives now stand for--"one-man rule" expressing "manly nihilism"?

Quickly, HM gives due deference to legislative power at the outset. His defense of executive power is consistent with both Aristotle and Locke. Perhaps your opposition to the war colors your reading of his theoretical treatment. I've already spoken on the manly nihilism canard. Off to the SC Rep Convention for the night and morning--then graduation weekend. Maybe we can continue....

"Due deference to legislative power"? I don't understand. Could you please quote any passage where Mansfield argues against "one-man rule" and in favor of legislative power and rule of law?

"His defense of executive power is consistent with both Aristotle and Locke." Is it? When Mansfield speaks of "the living intelligence of a wise man," do you agree that this applies to Bush? So you agree that George Bush's "one-man rule" is the rule of a "wise man"? So you agree with Mansfield that being ruled by George Bush is the same as being ruled by a philosopher king? Really? Are you serious?

When Mansfield speaks about Machiavelli's endorsement of imperialism, how do you interpret this? Would you say this is not really an endorsement of Machiavellian imperialism? Well, where exactly does Mansfield criticize Machiavelli?

You speak of the "manly nihilism canard." What do you mean by this? Are you saying that Mansfield doesn't really endorse the "manly nihilism" of Teddy Roosevelt? Where exactly in MANLINESS does Mansfield reject TR's "manly nihilism"?

Apparently, you have seen some passages in Mansfield's writing that I have not noticed. Would you please quote them?

If Mansfield is not endorsing "manly nihilism," then all you have to do is to quote any passage in which Mansfield rejects this as untrue.

Ah, the persistent and engaging Professor Arnhart: it turns out I have wireless access in my temporary abode and so can elaborate somewhat. Going back to post 19, I agree with Professor Mansfield that the living intelligence of a man with a name may repair the defects of the rough and incomplete rule of law. I agree with him that our times call for a lively and energetic executive leadership. I disagree most vociferously that Prof. Mansfield endorses or crowns GWB as philosopher king! Outlandish! You can even read the Weekly Standard and see why. I also agree with Mansfield, and agree strongly, that the Bush Administration underestimated the cost of imperialism, even an imperialism forged of national interest. One must rule the barbarians, no? Churchill would never have made the mistake of leaving too much to the Hindus. With regard to post 21, I think it self-evident that Mansfield's focus is the American Constitution, and that the said Constitution places the Roman dictator into a framework of the rule of law. The contest of legislative and executive power depends on the times as HM says, and however we might wish that foreign policy be completely subordinate to domestic policy, this cannot always be. Since HM is not a statesman, he can be more frank in stating the pre-eminince of kingly rule. I think your attempt to tie HM to GWB's failed prudence is, frankly, self-evidently self-serving. HM's Manliness is a frontal assault on your niche. Why, if HM is a manly nihilist, and a manly nihilist that has made mince meat of Darwin, then only you are left to be a natural right conservative. HM's essay is more statesmanlike than your objections to GWB, due to the objective situation. Will the West fight to defend itself? This, Prof. Arnhart, will depend on men with names.

"One must rule the barbarians." Is this what we have come to? We promise liberty. But this is only Machiavellian fraud. Because what we really want is imperial power. So America is no longer a republic. Now we are an Empire. And this is what American conservatives stand for?

One must contemplate ruling the barbarians or one should not choose to be imperial. That, of course, is what I meant. And, of course, to distinguish between the civilized and the uncivilized is the beginning of the discovery of an un-nihilistic manliness. Republic or empire, empire or republic, this liberal democracy will have to fight for its preservation. As I said, and as you adamantly ignore, this is the only question.

Sorry to answer the question belatedly.

Conservatives presumably want to conserve something, correct? So I would think we should try to conserve the Christian, Anglo/Celtic, limited constitutional Republic that we inherited. The Constitution simply does not allow for social welfare programs. We want originalist judges, but don't insist on originalist legislators. If we did they would all vote pretty much like Ron Paul.

Now I understand realism. I am temperamentally ill suited for that role, but I am not naive. But I think that should mean something more along the lines of accepting a bad thing as a reality. When Christians attempt to co-opt social welfare programs and use them as positive goods, then that strikes me as giving legitimacy to a bad thing. It is sleeping with the enemy.

Now the Constitution does not prohibit social welfare at the State level. But I would be against social welfare programs at the State level as well. I think they interfere with the natural role of family, Church and community, and promote vice and non-productive behavior. You don't hear that argument much anymore, but I am more concerned about the ill social effects that it breads than I am the purely libertarian objection that it is theft.

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