Is Bill Kristol the Antichrist?
Patrick Buchanan, sitting in his sparse MSNBC office, explodes with a guffaw. He knows why he’s being asked this. In late September he launched The American Conservative, a new magazine with a succinct mission statement: Kick the bejesus out of the neoconservatives. And Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and son of original neocon Irving Kristol, is the Michael Corleone of the clan Buchanan accuses of hijacking his beloved conservative movement.
“No, he is not the Antichrist,” the 63-year-old pundit and three-time presidential candidate replies. “But there is no doubt the neocons have come to define the conservative movement, which bothers me. They do not represent traditional conservatism. Commentary, National Review and The Weekly Standard are nearly interchangeable in terms of foreign policy and empire. It’s all degenerating into outright imperialism. This is not conservatism. The idea of our magazine is to recapture the flag of the conservative movement.”
Buchanan craves a pissing match on the right. Paleocons versus neocons. Sure, he and his nemeses agree on a lot of things: boosting military spending; opposing abortion rights; hailing tax cuts; championing ballistic missile defense; scoffing at the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court and the United Nations; and bemoaning government regulation, affirmative action and an alleged overall cultural decline. But they split on trade (Buchanan despises so-called free-trade pacts for undermining US sovereignty and claiming American jobs; to most neocons free trade is a religion), immigration (Buchanan says keep ’em out, while the Wall Street Journal welcomes the cheap labor) and, most important, foreign policy. Buchanan, a self-appointed heir to the isolationist America First movement of the 1930s, opposes war against Iraq. “The old policies of containment and deterrence work,” he says. Moreover, he fears the larger agenda of the get-Saddam neocons: “They not only want to go into Iraq and disarm and overthrow this regime. They want to make Iraq a satellite of the US, democratize it and use it as a base camp for modernizing the Arab and Islamic world. That is imperialism pure and simple.”
Why does an old Reaganite cold warrior recoil from imperialism? Because he believes modern-day adventurism of this sort cannot work and is unnecessary for protecting US security. Intervention abroad will only bring trouble back to America. “I don’t think 1.2 billion Muslims, who are increasingly militant and who do have bloody borders, can be pacified and converted into little Western states,” Buchanan remarks. “This Wilsonian ambition will end in disaster for this country.” In other words, it’s an uncivilized world out there, and the civilized United States ought not to become more involved than it absolutely must.
The first issues of the magazine–starting out with a modest circulation of about 15,000–were dominated by old-con critiques of the coming war. The premiere’s cover featured “Iraq Folly,” an article whose author, Eric Margolis, observed, “Lust for destruction is not policy, no matter how much Pentagon hawks and neoconservative media trumpets may yearn to plow salt into the fields of Iraq.” In the same issue, Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com and a gay conservative activist, asserted, “there is no security at the top of the world.” And in his column, Buchanan predicted, “a US army in Baghdad will ignite calls for jihad from Morocco to Malaysia.” Issue two’s cover story was an 8,000-word essay, “Iraq: The Case Against Preemptive War,” by historian Paul Schroeder. This time out, Buchanan chastised Democrats for supporting Bush’s war: “to vote for a war the Left opposes is to make them poodles of Perle.” Filing from Baghdad, Nicholas von Hoffman reported on dying children who are not receiving adequate chemotherapy because of the US-led embargo.
Much of what has appeared in The American Conservative–which Buchanan edits with columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, the jet-setting son of a shipping tycoon and convicted drug felon who is underwriting the publication–echoes the sentiments and skepticism of the anti-interventionist left. In fact, conservative author Ronald Radosh quipped that readers of Buchanan’s magazine “might have been excused for wondering if they had accidentally picked up The Nation.” The first issue even contained a caustic piece by Kevin Phillips–“Why I Am No Longer a Conservative”–that assaulted “Washington conservatism” for representing “Wall Street, Big Energy, multinational corporations, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Religious Right, the Market Extremist think-tanks and the Rush Limbaugh Axis.” Phillips called for supporting “Democratic retention of at least the Senate.”
Old right and current left do overlap in their opposition to war and corporate-friendly free-trade pacts, but convergence is hardly imminent. Buchanan notes that the populist right is not predisposed toward collaborating with the antiglobalists of the left. “I was in Seattle in 1999,” he recalls, “and we were crowded out by the anarchists and their rock-throwing.” And Buchanan won’t make common cause with antiwar Democrats who dare to criticize the President while visiting Baghdad. Unlike war critics on the left, Buchanan is soft on Bush: “The President is not a neocon…. September 11 put the steel in his spine and gave him his mission–to eliminate these evildoers. But it’s the neocons who want to remake the whole Middle East and Islamic world and deradicalize them. They are the berserkers.” Buchanan still hopes that Bush, who scorned nation-building during the campaign, will end up disappointing the Kristolites: “If the President goes to war, our side of the argument will be seen as being defeated. But the great battle will come on the question of American empire”–that is, What happens after the war?
The magazine, while initially short on the culture-war screeds that earned Buchanan his infamy, has provided a few nuggets one might expect from a Buchanan endeavor. There was a positive allusion to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in an item lambasting National Review editor Rich Lowry for comparing Saddam to Pinochet. And Taki wrote, “My main aim is to remind Americans that since we are a predominantly white society rooted in Christianity, our responsibility to immigrants is to bring them into our culture, not the other way around.” (Conversion before citizenship? Paging Ann Coulter.) Buchanan has taken shots for hooking up with the philandering Taki, who’s hardly a role model for family values. “I don’t think if I wrote a piece about advancing the pro-life cause, he would object to it,” says Buchanan. “I don’t know if he would agree with it.” But if Taki were to pen an article praising the value of mistresses, as he has done in the past, would Buchanan object? “I’m not going to touch that,” he replies.
Preoccupied with the false-cons, The American Conservative, unlike most right-wing media, has mostly ignored the left, taking few pokes at liberals or Democrats. “The pagans have always been out there,” Buchanan explains. “It’s what you’d call the Arian heresy that we have to deal with.” He’s referring to Arianism, a Christian sect that in the fourth century nearly pushed over mainstream Christianity before being quashed. “This is inside the church,” Buchanan says. “It is a civil war.”
Can the cause of de-neoconization sustain a biweekly magazine in an Internet world of three news cycles a day? (And this is a publication without a major website–which is so paleocon.) Buchanan has miscalculated before. Remember that he thought he could lead the Buchanan Brigades–those angry, populist-minded GOPers who voted for him in 1996–into the Reform Party for his presidential bid in 2000. That was an ugly flop. How many troops can Buchanan rally for his purge-the-church crusade, and how many of them are magazine readers? TAC considers the defining issue of the day to be the supposedly titanic conflict between isolationist conservatives (who put aside their reservations during the cold war to fight the Commies) and messianic, let’s-remake-the-world-and-help-Israel neocons. It’s a self-consciously sectarian magazine spoiling for a fight. The question is, Who, if anyone, is going to show up for Buchanan’s big battle?