When it comes to US foreign policy, what exactly does it mean to be a conservative?
Before the Vietnam War, conservatism in foreign policy had less to do with principles than with temperament. As president, Dwight Eisenhower represented the very embodiment of that temperament. From his days as a soldier, Ike knew war well enough to treat it warily. Raised in the heartland, he was something of a prairie nationalist, with an aversion to crusades and a limited appetite for risk. This did not imply passivity, and Eisenhower made his fair share of lamentable mistakes—instigating coups in Guatemala and Iran, initiating the US commitment to South Vietnam, and overreacting to the Cuban Revolution, among them. Yet his overall approach to the business of statecraft emphasized prudence and even circumspection. Say what you will about US foreign policy in the 1950s, it could have been much worse. Indeed, Ike’s immediate successors, disdaining his stewardship, wasted little time in demonstrating this point, most disastrously in Vietnam.
In the wake of the war in Vietnam and as a direct consequence of the defeat the United States suffered there, conservative thinking about foreign policy acquired a pronounced ideological edge. By denouncing the Evil Empire and scrubbing the American past clean of ambiguity, Ronald Reagan made himself a favorite on the right. Among those succumbing to the allure of the Great Communicator, Reagan’s willingness to condemn adversaries as unabashedly wicked seemed to restore to US policy the moral clarity it had lost during the 1960s. Even so, Reagan’s rhetoric did not necessarily translate into action. While he might demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” nowhere in that demand was there any implication that if the Soviet leader refused to comply, Reagan himself would do the bulldozing.
Only after 9/11 did Manichaeism become the explicit basis for action. When it came to rhetorical flourishes, George W. Bush outdid Reagan, setting his sights on destroying a 21st-century Axis of Evil en route to forcing large chunks of the Islamic world into compliance with his Freedom Agenda. Unlike Ike—no longer in the pantheon of conservative heroes—Bush knew next to nothing about war. Perhaps for that very reason, he evinced supreme confidence in his ability to put America’s matchless military to work.
The defining features of American conservatism now became hubris and vainglory. Prudence? That was for wusses. Circumspection? A euphemism for cowardice.
Not everyone on the right climbed aboard the Bush bandwagon. But the great majority did, led by the most fervent crusaders—commonly known as neoconservatives—who promptly set out to expel dissenters. Writing in National Review in March 2003, with the US invasion of Iraq just under way, David Frum announced the purge, declaring that conservatives daring to oppose the Iraq War were treasonous. “They deny and excuse terror,” Frum charged. “They publicize wild conspiracy theories.” Some even “yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.” No alternative existed but to banish them from the conservative movement altogether. “In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”