A Conservative Continuum

A Conservative Continuum

Mini Teaser: The sharp divides within the conservative movement are more imagined than real. Any conservative—whether "paleo" or "neo"— would object to a foreign policy bereft of values.

by Author(s): David Keene


THE SOVIET Empire had just collapsed and Americans were giddily wondering what might be next. Some were talking of a peace dividend that Democrats might spend on social programs dear to their hearts or Republicans might send back to the taxpayers who had financed the Cold War.

Others, however, were arguing that the world's sole remaining superpower should consider imposing Pax Americana on an unruly world. Even many conservatives who should have known better were beginning to contemplate a far more robust and aggressive foreign policy than they ever had supported before.

It was in this atmosphere that a number of neoconservative intellectuals, led by the pre-Weekly Standard Bill Kristol, began articulating something they called "national greatness conservatism." During this time, I remember attending a small private dinner where Bill argued that with the defeat of the Soviet Empire, the United States "needed" a new crusade to engage our nation's energies and interests, because, as he put it, a nation's "greatness" is measured not by the prosperity of its people, but by its actions on the world stage.

I challenged him, suggesting that while Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House may have thought the Great War was about redrawing the map of Europe and creating a "new world order", those who filed into the trenches fought to defend their nation, homes and families against our enemies' alleged desire to impose their vision on us. We went to war not to make a dangerous world safe for democracy, but to protect our own democracy.

Two decades later, we reluctantly became involved in another global war, when it was clear that events half a world away posed a real threat to us. And many Americans resisted the idea of going to war absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland; it took the bombing of Pearl Harbor for families to throw themselves into the effort to defeat our enemies. When the war ended, they breathed a sigh of relief and soldiers came home to farm and take their places on our factory floors and in our executive suites. They were eager to marry, have families and return to what they considered important about their country.

During the Cold War, their sons and daughters responded when they believed our values and allies-and therefore our own security-were at risk. They paid for the Cold War without complaint. They went to Korea, Vietnam and most recently Iraq, not to seek glory, or to help establish their country as a hegemon or to remake the world in our own image, but because they felt it was in danger.

I told Kristol that if he thought the young men and women who fought our wars returned home to pine for new foreign crusades or adventures, he was wrong. They came home happy to trade their guns and uniforms for the way of life they believed, not inaccurately, that they had been called to defend.

THE FOUNDERS and their successors believed firmly that the nation they were creating was indeed John Winthrop's shining "City upon a Hill" that Ronald Reagan liked to describe. Others would emulate the freedom and limited government that characterized the new nation. Few of them believed, however, that it would be either proper or prudent to force others to copy the system they had created.

This view began to lose favor with the advent of the Hearst papers in the late 19th century, the aggressiveness of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and the emergence of the United States as a world power after World War I. Still, it wasn't until World War II, and the subsequent Cold War, that Americans began to accept the fact that, like it or not, they were going to have to play a permanently active role on the world stage and that this might well entail the use of force even absent a direct attack on us. While virtually all conservatives admired and continue to admire Bob Taft, most today would agree with the late Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg's decision after the conclusion of World War II that conservatives and Republicans could no longer afford to remain isolationist in an increasingly dangerous world.

Conservatives accepted this reality with reluctance, but eventually came around to the view that since Soviet communism represented an unprecedented existential threat to everything they valued, it would have to be confronted; no one thought that communists believed in "socialism in one country", but rather that they would seek to remake the entire world in their own image.

This is not to say that conservatives didn't care about the way the Soviet Union and other totalitarian or authoritarian nations treated their own citizens, but that they believed the prime imperative of U.S. foreign and defense policy should be to protect the United States and its interests. They were prepared to condemn the manner in which other nations acted at home and to support rhetorically and materially indigenous groups fighting for their own freedom, but few believed it wise to use American military power in support of others when American interests were not directly and materially involved. They believed that it was often wise to "keep one's powder dry" for the day when U.S. interests were at real risk.

Until very recently, few who called themselves conservatives would have argued, as the so-called neoconservatives do today, that the best way to guarantee our security at home would be to remake the rest of the world in our own image. During the Cold War, even though conservatives were prepared to fight if need be to prevent the Soviet Union from taking over friendly countries, there were few, if any, calls for U.S. military action to liberate either the Soviet Union itself or the nations it had occupied during and after World War II. At the same time, while American conservatives believed in providing aid to this country's allies, few ever accepted the idea that one could effectively counter Soviet expansionism through what is today known as nation-building.

There were and are sound conservative reasons for this view. Conservatives are by nature cautious about government's ability to change the way people live. We don't believe Washington, DC, for example, is capable of telling people in Peoria how to live their lives. It would stand to reason that reordering the way the citizens of Baghdad run theirs would be even more difficult, something that has been proven true in recent years.

Kristol and his "national greatness conservatives" shared the Founders' view of the United States as an ideal to be emulated but were convinced that, as the world's sole remaining superpower, the United States should become what Kristol termed a "benevolent hegemon", prepared to bully those rulers too ignorant or bullheaded to accept the U.S. economic and political model voluntarily.

Neoconservatives argued, in fact, that this nation not only had a moral obligation to do all in its power to spread the benefits of liberal democracy, but that doing so would serve its own national-security interests. "Democracies do not make war upon each other" became almost a neoconservative mantra, adopted after 9/11 by a president who campaigned promising to forgo the ambitious nation-building favored by his predecessor.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2001, many conservatives-along with the president and most Americans-seemed to accept this argument. But the realities confronted since have caused many, like National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr., to revert to a more traditional conservative view of the circumstances that might justify the use of force against actual and prospective enemies.

Thus, many-and perhaps even most-conservatives supported the initial U.S. decision to remove Saddam Hussein because they, like the president and just about everyone else at the time, accepted the intelligence reports on WMD. The need to strike against someone who might attack our regional allies or was working with our enemies was far more justifiable than an attempt to rebuild Iraq as a quasi-Western democracy.

That was a far more problematic task given the history of the region, the hatreds dividing the secular factions within Iraq and our track record of failure in accomplishing such things. We had parted company with George H. W. Bush's desire to create a New World Order because it smacked of Wilsonianism. We were quick to condemn what most of us saw as Bill Clinton's foolishness in attempting to transform Somalia and Haiti into liberal democracies at the point of a sword.

Moreover, in the post-invasion controversy over whether Iraq was a pre-war threat, many conservatives realized that they shouldn't have relied so heavily on what amounted to guesses about the enemy's armaments and intent to justify a pre-emptive strike.

Pundits and even a few serious analysts like to categorize the differences within the conservative movement as divisions, pitting what they call "paleoconservatives" like Pat Buchanan against the neoconservatives. In fact, there aren't many pure "paleos" or "neos" within the movement, which may explain why both sides keep attempting to identify with Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was the quintessential Cold War conservative. He was both a nationalist and a believer in the dreams of the Founders. He believed in the U.S. model's superiority and in an ultimate victory over his generation's existential enemy-a triumph made inevitable by the American system's pre-eminence. When he summed up his view of how he would like the Cold War to end by saying simply, "We win; they lose", he was reflecting the feelings of his fellow conservatives. Reagan wasn't interested in "peaceful coexistence" or in managing the decline of U.S. power and prestige, but in restoring U.S. strength and making clear to the world that we believed in ourselves and weren't interested in caving in to political correctness, multinationalism or Soviet power.

Essay Types: Essay