The conservative movement is threatened by two things. First, the Left. Second, members of our own movement who would pervert it down one ideological rat-hole or another. I am willing to support paleoconservatives when I think their arguments have merit. As I wrote in my review of Pat Buchanan’s book The Death of the West, the paleocon position on immigration, “Stop!” is correct. I credit paleocons in general, and Mr. Buchanan in particular, with understanding that politics in our time is a game played for civilizational stakes. But then we come to a parting of the ways. For as his new magazine The American Conservative shows, reminding us that no-one can damn a man as effectively as himself, paleoconservatism includes some very dangerous and palpably false ideas. Since The American Conservative has been explicitly launched by eminent paleocons to give expression to their world-view, it is worth using its first issue to take the temperature of this philosophy. I find it distinctly chilling.
The quotations below are all taken out of context, but I hope I have not twisted any of them counter to their intended meaning. (The reader can verify this from a copy of the magazine, which is not yet on the web.) I realize that not all paleocons subscribe to all its views. I apologize for giving such prominence to its views on the contemplated war with Iraq at the expense of wider concerns, but this is the pressing issue of the day and it makes many essentials clear.
The core paleocon case against war with Iraq is dumb to the point of prolixity. Leaving aside their apocalyptic predictions of what will happen if we do to Iraq what we have done to Afghanistan, its essence consists, in the words of Auberon Waugh, roughly of this question:
“How can any intelligent person be expected to believe that a country of 15 million people, mostly impoverished desert dwellers, poses a threat to world peace?” (p.9)
Because it has weapons of mass destruction. As kids say, like duh. This theme of Iraq’s fundamental weakness as a nation, upon which paleocons stake a significant part of their case against the war, is so obviously irrelevant that one wonders how they can believe anyone will be convinced by it. It’s like asking how any intelligent person can believe that a tiny bug like an anopheles mosquito can kill you.
Paleocons generally have the courtesy, when they are not engaging in ad hominem attacks, of laying out their arguments in plain English, rather than in a primal scream of inchoate resentment like the Left. But these arguments don’t hold water, and for very simple reasons. Let’s look at one:
“The first question, of course, is why should the US attack Iraq, a nation that has not committed any act of war against America.” ( p.11)
Because they pose a threat of weapons of mass destruction against us. What else is there to say?
Next we encounter an inappropriate historical comparison:
“The Bush administration’s insistence on the right to intervene preemptively anywhere on earth recalls the old Brezhnev Doctrine of Soviet days.” ( p. 11)
For a start, this is just false history. The Brezhnev Doctrine had nothing to do with preempting attacks on the USSR, but was that socialism would suffer no losses, i.e. that the USSR had the right to invade to stop ideological change in its satellites. For a second, Bush is not claiming a right to intervene anywhere on earth. As Henry Kissinger has said, he is only claiming the traditional right to defend oneself, which takes the form of preemption only when the threat is such that deterrence cannot be relied upon and retaliation would be too late. If paleocons want to savage Bush policies that Bush doesn’t hold, fine with me, but it doesn’t prove Bush wrong.
Next we encounter disingenuous naiveté:
“Equally unclear is why the US refuses to seek diplomatic accommodation with Iraq rather than war.” ( p.11)
This reminds me of a woolly liberal I know who keeps insisting that, “conflicts should be resolved through diplomacy, not force.” Now let’s get one thing straight: diplomacy is speech about political power as it applies to international relations. It is not that power, and it does not do anything in and of itself. In particular, non-violent solutions tend only to work when the threat of violence backs them up. We can diplomat the guy to death and he’ll just laugh at us and keep on doing what he perceives to be in his self-interest. We’ve been through the Let’s-Make-A-Deal thing with Saddam already, and he has welched every time.
Paleocons may not be anti-Semites as such, but they certainly seem to have a bug up the butt about Jews in general and Israel in particular. One of their favorite ideas, at which they constantly hint but don’t quite have the guts to express, is that the contemplated war with Iraq is being imposed on the US by a Jew-dominated clique of neocon intellectuals and policymakers for the benefit of Israel. To take one quote:
“For administration hawks who view the Mideast mainly through the lens of Israel’s strategic needs, crushing Iraq is a high priority.” (p. 12)
Now look: no-one’s denying that Israel will benefit. But to eschew a war because a country friendly to the US will get something out of it is absurd. Should we have not fought WWII because Britain would benefit? There were certainly some cranky Irish- and German-Americans at the time who thought so. And those State Department WASPs have a dual loyalty, don’t you know? Should we have not fought in Vietnam because Australia would benefit? Should we not have defeated the USSR because India and China, which were not even friendly for this whole period, would benefit? Please. This is not an argument.
Paleocons’ need to sustain invalid arguments leads them to some conclusions that are simply bizarre, though consistent with their train of argument. One article, for example, has an extended encomium to Saddam Hussein. Here’s my favorite section:
“However brutal and aggressive, Saddam Hussein has also been Iraq’s most effective ruler since 1957. It was Saddam who transformed Iraq into a modern, industrialized nation with one of the Arab world’s highest standards of education and income.” (p. 13)
One could write these words about Hitler or Mussolini! If that kind of government is OK, why in hell have we been wasting our time with a constitutional democracy for 200 years? Let’s just have a dictator who gets things done, and ignore the exterminations, the aggressions, the brutality, the injustice. We can even ignore the kitschy parades and the knock on the door at 3 A.M. Not to mention the mausoleum stage-set architecture and the posters of the bastard’s face everywhere. And they’re not talking about the man as the lesser of two evils or as a bulwark against a worse enemy, the way one might discuss King Fahd or Gen. Pinochet. This is a positive endorsement of his achievements.
When challenged on their isolationism, paleocons tend to insist that they’re not really isolationists, just critics of promiscuous interventionism. But Mr. Buchanan is occasionally more honest, as when he says,
“Most of us ‘neo-isolationists,’ a disparate, contentious lot, are really not ‘neo’ anything. We are old church and old right, anti-imperialist and anti-interventionist, disbelievers in Pax Americana.”( p. 7)
This seems to confess the isolationist charge, but what’s scarier is that he’s not just against empire, but explicitly against our greatest international achievement: the Pax Americana.
Lest anyone be blasé about it, let us remind ourselves that the alternative to pax is bellum, war. Without Pax Americana, there would, as a simple historical fact, either be war or its brutal aftermath in Europe, East Asia, the Middle East, and probably a few other places besides. Millions, if not tens of millions, of people would be dead or living under tyranny. The tyrants would, if history is any guide, almost certainly be plotting to attack America next. If you can be indifferent to all these things, then maybe paleoconservatism is right for you.
The magazine also contains a bizarre suggestion that shows just how loopy and irresponsible their geopolitics can get. It reads,
“But I believe that we Britons have for too long cleaved to the United States of America and ought now, with good grace, cleave instead to the United States of Europe.” ( p.9)
Leaving aside the issue of why a magazine that pretends to American nationalism should be arguing the national interest of a foreign country, here they are positively endorsing the notion that our best ally should abandon us. Uncle Sam’s pet bulldog has been invaluable to us for 60 years – can you imagine invading Normandy from the East Coast of the US, rather than from the South Coast of England? Do you think our air force would have been happy with its bases on the European mainland where they could be overrun by Soviet tanks? It will presumably remain so. Other than Canada, Israel, and a few others, Britain’s the only reliable friend we’ve got. It’s now being told not just to dump us, but to join the tyrannical EU superstate. What a great deal for America. (Frankly, I am grateful that Britain’s Special Relationship with America is one of the few serious roadblocks to her being swallowed whole by the Holy Belgian Empire.)
One comes to suspect that paleocons, who criticize the exertion of American power, become in the end like Noam Chomsky: hostile to the idea of a powerful America as such. Under this assumption, it makes perfect sense for them to want to strip us of effective allies.
Even the valid ideas in The American Conservative are compromised. Take this quote, for instance:
“So much of what passes for contemporary conservatism is wedded to a kind of radicalism — fantasies of global hegemony, the hubristic notion of America as a universal nation for all the world’s peoples, a hyperglobal economy.” (p.3)
This is quite true, and captures fairly nicely the neoconservative creed. But we’ll be stuck with that creed forever if the alternative is the isolationism and protectionism that Mr. Buchanan, and presumably his magazine, stand for. Politics is about choosing between real alternatives, and if paleocons define the alternative to the present mess, then people will choose that mess. Thus they are helping the opposition by setting up a false choice in which the conservative alternative must lose.
Despite doggedly holding to an extreme isolationist position on war with Iraq, The American Conservative is wimpy on other important issues, including, unbelievably, Pat Buchanan’s signature issue: immigration. We can dispense any hope that paleocons are reliably tough-minded allies against the worst vices of liberalism, or that they have the guts to stand up to political correctness. Consider the following astonishing sentences:
“We believe that America has gained and still does from new immigrants. But, after two decades of intense immigration, we also believe that the nation needs a slowdown to assimilate those already here.” (Buchanan & co-editor Taki, p.3)
“Be that at it may, every vibrant country such as the United States needs immigration, but it needs to be controlled.” (Taki, p.31)
This kind of mealy-mouthed, apologetic, back-pedaling, softball, meaningless criticism could have appeared in The New Republic. What’s the point of the notorious abrasiveness of the serious Right if it can’t do better than this? As I have written, simple respect for our own laws requires not a slowdown in immigration, but 10-15 years of substantial net emigration, simply to repatriate those who are here illegally. We don’t need a reduction in the rot, but its reversal. Immigration is not a good thing that we have too much of. It is, with very limited exceptions, something that simply confers no benefit on this country anymore, as I have documented in a series (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11) of articles.
I have the feeling that Mr. Buchanan and his friends have deliberately soft-pedaled this issue because of their existing reputation as Huns. This is precisely the problem with these people: because they push so hard on things that do not matter, they have to pull back on things that do. This is precisely the way not to engage in politics.
However tough we must be on the bad positions, however, ours is fundamentally an argument among friends: we are all conservatives and, at the end of the day, regard each other as opponents but not the enemy. One of the corollaries of this is that we don’t get into bed with the real enemy, the Left, in order to score tactical points. We may print articles by intelligent leftists like Christopher Hitchens when they have something useful to say, but we don’t print their attacks on our side. In particular, however much we may criticize the Republican party for failing to live up to its own conservative ideals, we do not print things which constitute naked attacks aimed at discrediting the Republican party as such. Therefore it is very disturbing, and indeed bordering on political treason, to find The American Conservative printing articles like one it carried by Kevin Phillips, a formerly acute conservative writer who has descended into the muck of crude economic populism.
Mr. Phillips’ article, entitled “Why I Am No Longer A Conservative,” contains some insightful remarks about something I have written about: the fact that we increasingly have not a capitalist society, but a corporatist one in which the free market is manipulated by government to benefit those who can bribe it to do so. He rightly decries corporate welfare. But as I said, corporatism represents a degeneration from capitalism, and while it is very hard to roll back, we would be better off with a more authentic capitalism in this country, not with a further expansion of the redistributionist state. Real capitalism, if we could get it, would cure most of the corruptions of corporatism in this country.
But Mr. Phillips misses this. He thinks the essence of corporatism is government-sponsored upwards redistribution of wealth and that the answer is redistribution downwards. So does Ralph Nader. He condemns the Republican party as being as corrupted by special interests and wedded to an outdated ideology as the Democrats used to be. This is a preposterously exaggerated conclusion, based on forgetting everything we should have learned since 1960 about the failure of redistributionism and the superiority of free enterprise. Phillips entirely ignores, or cavalierly dismisses, our economic gains since Reaganomics. His position is something that no conservative of any stripe can rationally accept. If our enemies deserve to win, what in hell are we doing? At least Mr. Phillips has the honesty to admit that this takes him out of our camp. The magazine he writes in does not.
One gets the feeling that in their hearts, paleocons don’t really care if the Republican Party does lose. Mr. Buchanan, of course, is no longer a Republican, having run for president, and nearly cost G.W. Bush the election, in 2000 as candidate of the Reform Party. But these third-party dreams are absurd. They are destructive of the only party that has any chance of imposing conservative values on America. If paleocons continue endorsing them, they are objective allies of the Left.
They are Al Gore’s useful idiots.
Note: I would like to end on a happy note, so I shall concede that J.P. Zmirak, who also writes for us, produced in his devastating Uncle Screwtape review of Gary Wills’s willfully dishonest book Why I Am a Catholic one of the wittiest pieces of writing on religion I have seen in years. Wills must be fuming, though I doubt he reads The American Conservative.