May 19, 2008

Foreign Policy—Conservative Identity Politics

The swift-blogging Larison beat me to the punch, but Yglesias?s recent post on ?conservative? foreign policy demands comment. Yglesias establishes a facile, and pretty convenient, polarity of ?liberal? (read ?Good?) and ?conservative (read ?Bad?) foreign policy:

Diplomacy + Realism + Prudence = Liberal
Aggression + Stubbornness + General Craziness = Conservative

Yes, this is obviously wrong, both in theory and in fact, but it?s also a polarity that a large swath of the population?devotees of both O?Reilly and Olbermann?holds dear, even if each side would use different adjectives to describe their cause. You say ?stubbornness,? I say ?moral clarity?!

Still, J. Peter Scoblic, whose essay on negotiation and ?appeasement? prompted the whole discussion, is actually making a subtler point than is Yglesias, and it?s an insight that we at a ?online magazine for independent conservatives? should take note of.

The modern conservative movement was founded in no small part on the idea that presidents Truman and Eisenhower were ?appeasing? the Soviets. The logic went something like this: Because communism was evil, the United States should seek to destroy it, not coexist with it; the bipartisan policy of containment, which sought to prevent the further spread of communism, was a moral and strategic folly because it implied long-term coexistence with Moscow. Conservative foreign policy guru James Burnham wrote entire books claiming that containment?which, after the Cold War, would be credited with defeating the Soviet Union?constituted ?appeasement.?

As a ?movement conservative,? Reagan used much of this rhetoric when he ran in 1980, and actually called SALT II ?appeasement.? But once in office, particularly during his second term, and once Gorachev had taken over in Moxcow, Reagan started negotiating. Conservative movement hacks never tire of proudly exclaiming, ?Reagan won the Cold War!? But the fact is when the Gipper talked to Gorbi, the movement called him an?appeaser.? 

When he and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, which for the first time eliminated an entire class of nuclear weapons, Buckley’s National Review dubbed it “suicide.” The Conservative Caucus took out a full-page newspaper ad saying ?Appeasement is as unwise in 1988 as in 1938.? It paired photos of Reagan and Gorbachev with photos of Neville Chamberlain and Hitler.

Clearly there is something very deep and ideological going on here. Things have obviously gotten worse since the neocons took over on the foreign policy front; however, I think it?s important that we start rethinking the idea that they ?hijacked? or ?perverted? the conservative movement. We don?t have to buy into Yglesias?s simplistic polarity to recognize that something has been wrong about movement thinking on foreign policy for a long time, well before Paul Wolfowitz. 

I wonder to what degree to which this is a purely social issue. It?s a clich? among the elite classes here and abroad that average Americans are solipsistic bumpkins, a nation of Miss Teen South Carolinas, who ?don?t care about foreign policy? and couldn?t locate the U.S. or China (not to mention Myanmar/Burma) on a map. There?s some truth in this. But I?m also stuck by the degree to which being Strong, being Big, being Everywhere is a major part of Americans? collective identity. This was hammered home to me recently while watching the ?I?m willing to totally destroy Iran!? pornography of O?Reilly?s interview of Hillary. 

For journalist, the case is even worse. People like Buckley and Taki, with their class and their yachts, are the exceptions. Most journalists are rather non-glamorous, not-very-well paid, disheveled and unkempt types. (Sometimes this makes them endearing ?characters,? most times not.) While the liberals have their dream of the Great Society?the rational, transformative welfare order?many conservatives have always gotten their transcendency kicks in the realm of foreign policy. Out there one could find Power, and more importantly, Meaning, which could enchant the rather humdrum world of postwar America. Talk of ?strategic interest? often masks the fact that foreign policy has been the centerpiece of conservative identity politics. 


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