Even Conservatives Are Wondering: Is Bush One of Us? | The Nation


Even Conservatives Are Wondering: Is Bush One of Us?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

But is neoconservatism simply Reaganism adapted to changing times? According to Stefan Halper, who served in the Reagan Administration, and Jonathan Clarke, a fellow at the Cato Institute, it is nothing of the sort. In the April 2004 issue of The American Spectator, Halper and Clarke argue that, contrary to the gunslinging figure neoconservatives invoke, Reagan was a conservative internationalist who structured his foreign policy around containment and diplomacy, an approach many neoconservatives dismissed as feckless at the time. (In 1981, for example, Reagan resisted pleas from hard-liners to place an economic embargo on Poland after Warsaw cracked down on the Solidarity movement, a decision characterized by the neoconservative Norman Podhoretz as "following a strategy of helping the Soviet Union stabilize its empire.")

About the Author

Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

Also by the Author

Breaking the Silence’s Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000–2010.

Corporate whistleblowers get the silent treatment from Washington.

Of course, Reagan also pursued his share of aggressive actions, such as arming the Nicaraguan contras and invading Grenada, that neoconservatives cheered. But as Halper noted in an interview, Reagan balanced aggression with diplomacy, engaging in extensive arms control negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev. "The neocons edit history to extract and emphasize Reagan's moral purpose, which he certainly had," maintains Halper, "while ignoring the nuanced, multidimensional Reagan who found diplomatic solutions through pragmatic approaches--who had many arrows in his policy quiver, not just the arrow of military action."

It's notable that Halper and Clarke's essay appears in The American Spectator, which, like most conservative publications, tends to support GOP foreign policy. If the editors there are experiencing second thoughts, they are not alone. National Review, which enthusiastically supported the Iraq war, recently published an editorial, "An End to Illusion," that criticized the Bush Administration for its "underestimation...of the difficulty of implanting democracy in alien soil." It's a view that conservative columnist George Will has also voiced. "This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts," wrote Will in a scathing recent column on Iraq. To these critics, the spirit behind the Iraq venture is not conservative but "Wilsonian," a crusading internationalism inflected by overweening faith in military force.

All of which sounds familiar to Scott McConnell. The executive editor of The American Conservative, McConnell is a former neoconservative who broke ranks in the 1990s, when publications like The Weekly Standard were clamoring for a more belligerent US stance toward China, Iraq and Yugoslavia. This was a time when many liberals were calling for humanitarian intervention in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. The two strands converged, McConnell notes, in the peculiar alliance that formed over Iraq. "Actually, the neocons were originally liberal hawks," he says. "When I first became a neocon I was a registered Democrat." Prestowitz, author of the recent book Rogue Nation, echoes this. Today's neocons are not conservatives, he told me, but "right-wing Trotskyists" who are every bit as determined as their counterparts on the left once were about revolutionizing the world. Clarke and Halper call them "Wilsonians with guns."

Conservatives alienated from this expansive vision do not fall into a single ideological camp. Some, like Pat Buchanan, one of the founders of The American Conservative, are nationalists who, like the isolationist old right of the pre-cold war era, combine skepticism about foreign entanglements with opposition to immigration and free trade; others, like McConnell and John Mearsheimer, a professor of international relations at the University of Chicago, are realists who favor a hardheaded approach rooted in pragmatic rather than utopian considerations.

In October of last year, Mearsheimer, Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute and others came together to form the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an organization that opposes "the move toward empire" in favor of a "restrained and focused foreign policy." Mearsheimer acknowledges that some elements of the Bush doctrine--the faith in military force, the suspicion of multilateral institutions--have deep roots within certain segments of the American right. But in the past, he argues, Republicans have hewed more to the sort of realism articulated in 2002 by Brent Scowcroft, who warned that attacking Iraq would create "an explosion of outrage against us" and likely require "a large-scale, long-term military occupation."

Neoconservatives are well aware that events on the ground have lent credibility to such views, which is perhaps why the editors of The Weekly Standard recently felt compelled to publish an article about the need to resist "the realist temptation"--i.e., diplomacy and engagement--vis-à-vis Iran. The problem for the neocons is that many conservatives realize that imperialist ventures don't come cheap; implanting "freedom and democracy" on foreign soil requires just the sort of "big government" they are supposed to be against. As Leon Hadar of Cato observes, "A conservative administration is now suggesting that all you need is, yes, government--a few days and nights of aerial bombing, 140,000 US troops, bureaucrats with good intentions and economic aid from Washington--and, voilà! we have 'nation building.'" Halper and Clarke note the irony of the Wall Street Journal's "waxing enthusiastic about using taxpayer money for electricity and water services in Iraq," a spectacle that horrifies other conservatives. "Many traditional, mainstream Republicans see America's most vital juices being expended in Iraq," says Halper. "They see an outflow of tax dollars and think of all the local services they will not have, all the unfunded state requirements, all of that not happening, and they worry about very large deficits saddling their children with debt."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size