Can Obama Resurrect Real Conservatism?

Can Obama Resurrect Real Conservatism?

Can Obama Resurrect Real Conservatism?

A conversation with Andrew Bacevich about what conservatives and progressives can hope for in the post-Bush era.


Andrew Bacevich may not be swooning for Barack Obama, but he is going to vote for him. “Obama is no conservative,” the career Army officer who now teaches military history at Boston University wrote last month. “Yet if he wins the Democratic nomination, come November principled conservatives may well find themselves voting for the senator from Illinois.”

As one of those principled conservatives, Bacevich has been a vocal critic of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda and American military adventurism in Iraq. In an April 2007 article in The Nation, he warned of the “profound irrationality and acute narcissism informing the Administration’s response to 9/11.” In April he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, rejecting General David Petraeus’ assessment of the war’s progress and declaring that “the strategic rationale for this war, transforming the Middle East [in order to] eliminate or greatly reduce the threat posed by violent Islamic radicalism…is defunct.”

He repeated that message a few days later in New York, at a conference entitled “Forceful Engagement: The Role of Force in US Foreign Policy,” calling for an end to the Bush doctrine of preventive war and lamenting how the Republican party has hijacked traditional conservatism in the years since 1980. Back in his office at BU’s Department of International Affairs, Bacevich spoke by phone about what conservatives and progressives alike can hope for, post-Bush.

Coming as you do from a military and academic background, what led you to publicly support a candidate in this presidential race?

From an orthodox conservative point of view it became apparent to me that of the three candidates–Hilary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack Obama–Obama was clearly the best. And not because he is a conservative–he is not, he is clearly a liberal–but because I believe he is the one candidate who will end the Iraq War and I see that as the overriding issue.

Electing Obama is not going to put people in his inner circle that reflect my views. But he is going to end the war, which will drive a stake through the heart of these preposterous ideas that came out of the cold war: that we live in a unipolar moment; that we are the world’s indispensable nation; that US global military supremacy is the crucial instrument to advance our interests. An Obama presidency would discredit a set of ideas that I view as malignant, and killing those malignant ideas will lead to a debate over foreign policy that could yield a new set of principles that would be better for conventional conservatives and other people as well.

Do you think that the Democratic Party has a clear foreign policy narrative of its own?

The Democratic narrative and the Republican narrative are remarkably alike. Were it not for the Iraq War–where differences are real–the two parties would be in agreement on 95 percent of the most important foreign policy issues. Both parties subscribe to a broad consensus that revolves around a conviction that there is no alternative to the US exercising global leadership. The Democratic party of Bill and Hillary Clinton subscribes to that as much as the Republican party of both Bushes. Both parties see military power–its possession and its use–as providing the very foundation of American leadership.

So why should we expect a President Obama to end the war? A lot of people are convinced he can’t.

It is my sense that his mind is not made up about foreign policy despite the way he recites certain clichés. He says he will end the war more emphatically than Senator Clinton, who voted for the war and maintains a fairly belligerent tone. She says she’ll end the war, but in a framework that still suggests a more belligerent posture than we get from Obama.

My hope is that once in office Obama would undergo a very rapid education and that he might reach conclusions about our role in the world that would differ from the conclusions that McCain and Clinton have already drawn and will likely remain committed to. And once the doctrine of preventative war is renounced, you can begin to think more narrowly of the role of force in American foreign policy and to advance significantly different points of view.

Does skepticism towards the projection of American hard power unite people on the left and the right, providing an opening for some sort of coalition?

A conservative argument on behalf of classical realism would give up the notion that you can change the world and remake it in your own image, and would be skeptical of those who promise to bring about world peace and global utopia. I think we need to have far more limited expectations than progressives tend to have. And in a sense we need to keep a gun in our holster because from time to time were going to have to use it.

I think that one of the under-exploited opportunities of not only the past seven years–but maybe of the entire post-cold war era–is the chance to have a left-right dialogue between principled progressives and principled conservatives. I don’t think we’re ever going to agree on a range of very important issues that relate to domestic policy–we’re not going to see the role of government or important cultural and moral questions the same way. And that’s what politics ought to be about, fighting out those different viewpoints. But I really think that there is a possibility for a progressive-conservative alliance with regard to foreign policy, an alliance that challenges the Democratic-Republican mainstream. And the cornerstone of that alliance is a shared skepticism about the utility of war.

In order for us to have a genuine foreign policy debate between principled progressives and principled conservatives we need to discredit the notion that the US must play the role of global superpower. There’d be people in the progressive camp who would say that now that we’ve woken up to the knowledge that preventive war is really a stupid idea, perhaps we can get serious about multilateralism, perhaps we can get serious about creating an effective regime of international law. That’s not my camp, but I could see that those ideas would have a better chance of getting a hearing–if only because conservatism has been utterly and completely discredited by this pseudo-conservatism over the past several years.

How do you define pseudo-conservatism?

The conservatives who have wielded clout over the past thirty or so years, beginning with Reagan, the first Bush, Newt Gingrich and certainly this President define it for me. President Bush views himself as a conservative, but President Bush hasn’t even made an effort to balance the budget, and he has articulated the most grandiose and utopian conception of how the US ought to be able to transform the world in its own image of any president since Woodrow Wilson.

Richard Hass just wrote in Foreign Affairs that we’re entering an era of non-polarity rather than multi-polarity–“a world dominated not by one or two or even several states but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power.” Do you think this is true and, if so, how will it shape US foreign policy in the coming years?

No. I think we do live in a multi-polar world. NGOs and other international organizations will continue to play a role, but a less-than-decisive one. I don’t mean that they are of no consequence but by and large the international order is going to be determined by states.

The best way to respond to the threat posed by terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda is through state action, but not through war. Instead of a global war on terror we should have mounted an international police campaign against an international criminal conspiracy–that’s what Al Qaeda is–in which states would still be the principal actors. The US should have dealt with the threat posed by Al Qaeda by making common cause with other states, not by invading Arab countries and occupying them.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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