Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Back to the Future?

National Review’s Byron York offers some useful reflections on the intraparty debate going on the GOP right now in "Same Old Party: Tranquility in the Ranks" in the latest issue of World Affairs (unfortunately only the abstract is available online to non-subscribers).

On the surface, Byron notes that the fault line between neoconservatives and other varieties seems not to be opening up as many have predicted (and hoped for). By Byron wonders whether the seeming reluctance to think more openly and critically about the Iraq War is a good thing.

I detect another subtext in his article that he may not have intended. Byron notes that on the campaign trail last year, most rank-and-file Republicans (and some candidates, especially Huckabee) were distinctly uninterested in foreign affairs. Is this simply a function of war weariness over Iraq, or might it be a sign that a large part of the Republican base is reverting slowly back to its isolationism of the pre-Cold War era? It used to be in the late years of the Cold War that it was liberals and Democrats who were uninterested or unserious about foreign affairs. Is the shoe now on the other foot?

Back in 1985 John P. Roche wrote (in my mind) one of the most memorable features in NR’s history lamenting the decline of liberal internationalism. It would be a pity if someone a few years hence has to write the companion feature on the decline of conservative internationalism.

(Cross-posted at The Corner.)

Discussions - 12 Comments

"... or might it be a sign that a large part of the Republican base is reverting slowly back to its isolationism of the pre-Cold War era?"

I think this is happening, but, of course, I think it is a good thing. I am currently working on an essay that says as much. The War was off the radar screen in the election. Conservatives were not crying that if we elect Obama he will "wave the white flag" or whatever. They were wailing about Ayers and birth certificates.

Now some of this might have been because they knew Obama would really be very similar to Bush on the War and foreign policy, even though he ran as an anti-war candidate in the primary. His Cabinet selections and foreign policy team are proving this. But it also could be because conservatives and the public were just loosing interest. Gone were the protests that if we don't bomb Muslim Country X we will all be bowing to Mecca and other such nonsense.

As Obama practices liberal interventionism compared to Bushes neoconservative interventionism, the rank-and-file conservative is going to start catching on that neoconservative interventionism is not the opposition to liberal interventionism. They are two sides of the same coin. The true opposition to both is non-interventionism.

Non-interventionism is already the gospel on the “far” right. And it is starting to bleed over into the mainstream right. The fact that there is substantially more sympathy on the right for the Palestinians then there has been in the past is more evidence. Bloodlust “conservatism” like the noise makers at Free Republic are now the anomalies. They are the bitter enders.

The crashing economy isn’t helping the interventionist case either. Interventionism is expensive.

I didn't see much evidence of resurgent isolationism in the GOP primaries. Ron Paul was an isolationist of course, but he is also marginal (in his vote totals if not his fundraising). All of the mainstream GOP candidates supported the surge with varying degrees of emphasis and the candidate who was most identified with the surge turned out to be the winner. None of the mainstream candidates questioned America's collective security arrangements. But Steve is getting at something real in the lack of enthusiasm regarding foreign policy among conservatives. Some thoughts,

1. Most conservatives recognize that the strain of the Iraq War and America's other defense commitments have limited America's military flexibility. This has made most Americans (and that includes many conservatives) more cautious about any military intervention in the near future. That doesn't mean backing away from any of our defense commitments or not standing up from American interests, but there is a sense of limits that I don't think was there four years ago.

2. Huckabee came across as a foreign policy ignoramus in the early part of the GOP campaign. I remember one time when he was asked a national security question and he turned it back to his own weight loss and his busybody plan to make us all more healthy. But people responded anyway. Part of that was his ability to connect with evangelicals in an identity politics kind of way, but another part was his ability to articulate the frustrations and challenges of lower middle class voters when the other candidates were saying that the economy was basically okay. One conclusion to be drawn is that the Huckabee voters were basically unserious about national defense. Maybe. Another way of looking at it is that to succeed politically, a conservative internationalism needs to be combined with a conservative domestic program that clearly addresses itself to people's lives. It isn't impossible.

Both really good comments.

I am not sure there can be a "conservative" internationalism. Conservatism is inherently about the particular, not the universal.

Don't you find it amazing that foreign policy was such a non-issue in the general? Obama did a good job of moving to the center and diffusing it, but that doesn't entirely explain it. What just a couple of years ago was supposed to be some existential threat to our very existence became a non-issue.

And a lot of conservative support for the War was never motivated by internationalism, spreading democracy, etc. Many supported it only because they thought it was necessary for our safety and security. Many others did because "supporting the troops" is what conservative are "supposed" to do and protesting wars is what leftists do.

Paul got more grief for his foreign policy views in the primary than Democrat Obama got in the general. The tide is changing. Go check out conservative websites and blogs. Where non-interventionism was never seen before it is now prominent. Non-interventionism is a thought leader, and the masses are slowly coming around.

Red, in this case "conservative internationalism" refers to an openness to collective security arrangements. Barry Goldwater, William Buckley and Ronald Reagan were all "conservative internationalists" in this sense. John Bricker and to a lesser extent Robert Taft were not. It is also true that liberal and conservative internationalists might agree on some things (like NATO) while disagreeing on others (the World Criminal Court or the global warming treaty). It is also true that conservative isolationists often end up on the same side as extreme leftists, yet it would not be fair to say that you and Noam Chomsky are two sides of the same coin based on your opinions of the Iraq War.

You are right that many Americans supported the Iraq War based on questions of safety and security rather than on spreading democracy. But American conservatives shifted towards collective security in the first place because guys like Buckley, James Burnham, Goldwater and Reagan won the argument within the Right that some kind of collective security is in America's interest.

As for the future of the debate within the Right, heck I don't know. The greater relative stress on domestic issues is not a sign of incipient isolationism. It showed that people were (rightly) worried about domestic issues. Isolationist candidates did not profit by this domestic focus if the election results are any guide. Ron Paul showed that there was no mass constituency on the Right for isolationism in 2008, but who can say what is to come? It is possible that a really, really bad economic downturn will scramble our politcs in many different directions. One direction is an American version of social democracy. Another is a large, populist, and isolationist movement on the Right. There are of course many other possibilities - most of them bad. But the data for a conservative move towards isolationism is not there if the 2008 election is any guide.

Pete, we already have social democracy. That is precisely what our mixed economy and social welfare safety net is.

Why on earth do we need collective security arrangements? Who is the enemy about to invade our shores? Is Bermuda about to roll up on North Carolina? Is Canada about to overrun Maine? And if so, do we really need NATO to help us out?

Collective security arrangements basically means we guarantee the security of others with American blood and treasure. I guess if you are the other country getting secured then that is a pretty good gig, but for us it makes us a bunch of schmucks.

Red, we ain't Scandanavia yet. The demands of the free market and productivity still weigh very heavily on lots of our people and in many ways more heavily now than thirty years ago. Thats more good than bad, but it is a long way from the false security (and economic sclerosis) of social democracy.

The dogmatic arguments against the principle of collective security (as opposed to case-by-case arguments on say letting Georgia into NATO)have not really changed since the 1930s. The closest countries are friendly or weak. Our allies are freeloaders. Those arguments have consistently failed in political competition with the counterarguments that the world would be far more hostile to American interests and safety in the absence of collective security. That we are safer because the US helped defeat Nazi Germany and that US policy helped prevent Western Europe from being absorbed by the Soviet Empire.

In some ways the case for isolationsism is stronger now and would be even stronger if the Ron Pauls of the world did not feel the need to refight WWII in order to vindicate isolationism in the present. There is not a singular empire that has ideological ambitions to take over the world. Many Islamists have the ambition but they are divided and only Iran has the state structure. Russia and China's hegemonic are local as compared to the dreams of Stalin or Hitler. The collapse of America's alliances would almost certainly set off a series of wars or conquests through intimidation that dwarf what we now have. We would be among the last to feel the effects of all that chaos, but one way or another the chaos would come for us, and most people in some sense know this, which is why isolationism has so consistently been a political loser.

Pete, non-interventionism has not recently been consistently advocated. The elites and institutions are all internationalist. Prior to WWII and the Cold War, staying out of foreign Wars was a political winner. That's why the Presidents that plunged us into wars had to lie about their intentions.

Also, non-interventionist wouldn't have to talk about WWII if the interventionists would quit shrieking about Chamberlain, appeasement, Hitler, Nazis, etc. as if it were perpetually 1938.

The Cold War and fear mongering re. the Soviets did change the dynamic some.

I am generally a pessimist regarding the potential for authentic conservative change via the current political process, but non-interventionism is on the rise. Look at the conservative blogosphere. The conservative foot-soldiers will follow. A good test will be CPAC this year. You watch. Non-interventionists will be everywhere. You heard it here first.

Red, no doubt that isolationism has its articulate advocates but it has been a political loser for over 60 years and that is a long time. Its not just elites it is the voters too. The Paul's and Buchanans just lose. No coincidence that Buchanan's popularity dived as he moved his focus from abortion to isolationism. While not an isolationist myself, I would counsel isolationists to make their case on prudential rahter than dogmatic grounds. There is no reason why they can't argue that collective secururity MIGHT have made sense in WWII but no longer does. It spares isolationists from having to argue that we would have been sage from Hitler if only we had left him alone. Thats just an argument they aren't gonna win.

The fact that you cite Paul and Buchanan proves my point. I like both men. I voted for Buchanan in three primaries and Paul in one, but both were protest anti-establishment candidates. As I said, non-interventionism has not been consistently offered to the public as a choice for many years. Both the establishment "right" and left, the foreign policy community, etc. presuppose interventionism. They can't imagine anything else. The closest thing to non-interventionism among the establishment is foreign policy "realism" but it is still internationalist. That that rubs off on the people after a while and opposition to it sounds foreign is understandable.

But prior to the Cold War this was not the case. The population at large wished to avoid foreign wars. It was the establishment that supported them. A large percentage of the American public opposed our entry into WWII. That is why FDR purposely antagonized the Japanese so he could backdoor us into a European war that the establishment desperately wanted but the people opposed.

The establishment's opinion on this ain't changing anytime soon, and I’m not suggesting that it is. What I am suggesting is that the opinion of self-identified conservatives is trending non-interventionist. The evidence is all around.

Red, if by nonintervetionism you mean greater caution in engaging in future military campaigns, then you are right of course (though the GOP primary voters chose the most interventionist of the available candidates). There is little enthusiasm to "bomb, bomb, bomb, Iran"

But if by noninterventionsism you mean the abandonment of our alliance system, then there is no solid electoral evidence to support that point. Ron Paul was a protest candidate, but he had enough money to get his message out. He could not compete even in a situation in which the other candidates were splitting the GOP internationalist vote. Buchanan finished second in the 1996 GOP candidate when he ran as a social conservative. He switched to an isolationist message in 2000 and became a blip (behind Alan Keyes). If there had been a substantial and energized isolationist constituency, both guys could have expected to do alot better given Paul's money and Buchanan's name recognition and record as vote getter. Between them they failed to win a sigle primary even in multi candidate fields. That wasn't because the establishment got them, it was because the voters rejected them and their message,

Pete, the league of uninformed voters would like to caution your assumption that we even knew who ron paul was alone what his policy stances where. I think a lot of the same people who gave money to Obama supported McCain because he was the candidate that could not win. Do you believe that Ron Paul would have lost it he got to debate Obama and be the candidate? Especially the way in which McCain campaigned, saying that global warming is a real problem, ouch conservatives. I think people by in large support isolationism, but they don't have the gumption to go beyond the mainstream candidates so they just shrug and say politicians are all a bunch of crooks. How does Isreal existing help american security? I am not an anti zionist by any means, I think they were actually there first so by saying its the muslims domain because they once held it is week, they got it by conquest too. In reality though, what does it do to help ensure that you and I are not killed by terrorists? You could make a more compelling case that the constant destabalizing in the region post world war 2 is the reason for terror. As for being a beacon of democracy...Philosophicly I like the idea, but I can't find much evidence to support this in this case. However, I think the old school idea of living well and providing a shining example to the world would be a far better way for America to spread liberty than by bombing cities and torturing farmers. Alas, without the bombing and torturing how would Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrup Grummand, Haliburton, the Carlile group ect get their money.

Who is a legitmate threat to conquer the United States? I will submit that the only group with the might to do that is our own government. Thats why we don't stop illegals at the border, but a housewife who is pulled over and refuses to show her papers because they is no cause or warrant is thrown in jail. Then they check her car and find a pocket constitution, leading them to believe that she must be with some extreme group.

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