James C. Banks

That Was Then, What Is Now?

In Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 at 2:11 am

This time it’s different. At least, that is what it looks like. Martin Peretz has joined the axis of internationalism in calling for establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, while Ross Douthat, The National Review and other prominent conservatives—while not explicitly backing the president’s status quo approach to foreign policy—have expressed skepticism as to its alternatives. 

This realignment seems strange given where it was just four years ago—the National Review holding firm on Iraq, The New Republic running away from its support of the invasion and then-candidate Obama touting his dovish instincts in debates.  While I was surprised to see such a severe a critique of the Obama administration’s foreign policy coming from TNR, I was not surprised that they rediscovered their inner-hawk. 

Nor is it particularly surprising that The National Review should oppose formidable intervention. Most decisions relating to international relations are not made at the level of ideology, but rather at the level of strategy. But it is the dynamic within conservatism that is most interesting. I suspect that it is not just The National Review. I have no desire to see the authorization for use of force in Libya go to vote in Congress, but I would be curious to see what would happen if it did. Such a bill would not garner much support from either party, but I have no idea which party would oppose it more vociferously.

Robust international foreign policy has been one of the three legs of American conservatism since V-Day Europe, but it is the weakest leg of the stool. Foreign policy conservatives no longer have the Soviet Union to contend with, and while radical Islam is probably as dangerous as the Soviet Union (in the sense that mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent to their resolve) it does not unite the movement as effectively.  It does not seem as threatening because Islamism is not an ideology which could ever gain much currency in liberal democracies. 

During the Cold War, this was a different matter. The main line between the Free World and the Commissars was not a wall running through Berlin. Rather, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, the line that separates good from evil cuts through every human heart. The War on Terror has produced traitors, like Major Hasan at Fort Hood, there is comparatively little danger of Islamists infiltrating American institutions in the same way as Alger Hiss or the Rosenbergs. Enemies in the War on Terror do not represent a visible nation state, unlike enemies during the Cold War, but that does not mean all of them are harder to see.

More importantly, though, is the fact that while a robust foreign policy during the Cold War could be easily tied to support for free enterprise and social conservatism—since these were the very things which the Soviet Union had sought to root out—it is harder to connect these values with the foreign interventions associated with the War on Terror. 

This is not because the principles of free enterprise and social conservatism (in its American manifestation) are consistent with anything that Islamism represents; they are not.  Rather, it is because Islamism lacks the strength and precision necessary to corrode the institutions of society and, therefore, can only hope to destroy society itself. There is no bifurcating option of “Better dead than red” because red—or green, for the matter—is not an option.  Only dead is.

The conservatism of interventionists is often running up against the goals of the other sectors of the conservative movement.  While some social conservatives consider support of Israel to be a family value, or at least an appropriate priority for a Values Voters Summit, and any reasonable conservative can agree the readiness and vigilance is important in a world which he gauges to be too complicated for predictability or ideology, it has become much more difficult to determine how conservatives should evaluate strategies at the international level.  On issues like support of Israel, I agree with most mainstream conservatives; but, on issues like Libya . . . well, foreign interventionist conservatives might have to get used to the fact that there is a new mainstream.


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