Politics & Policy

Radicals Abroad

Why conservatives aren't conservative "over there."

About two weeks ago, George Will called this “Conservatism’s Moment of Truth.” In the immediate sense, the “this” he had in mind was primarily the war — which, for about three or four days, had slowed down enough to cause a firestorm of second-guessing and “What if?” scenarios. But Will was also referring to the entire operation in Iraq. Toppling a regime and trying to set up a lasting democracy in historically infertile soil is no small endeavor, and to believe — let alone to declare — that this can happen without terrible setbacks and unforeseen problems turns all of the assumptions of conservatism on their head. Conservatives, after all, are the people whose greatest gift is that of explaining why someone else’s new idea is bad.


Around the same time as Will’s column, there appeared in a slim magazine a deeply conservative critique of the “neocon” plan to democratize the Middle East. It was full of sharp, pointed objections and not a few sneers at the “radical” and “audacious” nature of this ideologically driven agenda of neocon imperialism. This conservative appraisal did not come from the right, however, it came from the left. Namely, it was offered by Joshua Micah Marshall in the pages of The Washington Monthly. Marshall, a.k.a. Paul Krugman’s political brain (a compliment to some, I’m sure), has written an assault on what he believes to be a grand “neocon” plan to democratize the whole of the Middle East. His analysis is at times very thoughtful, at other times frustratingly unsubstantiated, but always deeply, deeply conservative.

So, what do I mean by calling Marshall a conservative? Well, put simply, he is making the case against change. He opens with a hypothetical “nightmare scenario” in which America takes the fight to Syria and invites a nasty terrorist attack in response. He then writes: “To most Americans, this would sound like a frightening state of affairs, the kind that would lead them to wonder how and why we had got ourselves into this mess in the first place. But to the Bush administration hawks who are guiding American foreign policy, this isn’t the nightmare scenario. It’s everything going as anticipated.”

Marshall goes on to offer a glimpse of what could go wrong: new wars, terrorist attacks at home and abroad, rising oil prices, the Lebanonization of the entire Mideast, riots in the streets, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria, etc., etc. He correctly notes that all of these things are possible if the hawks’ plan goes south and they are possible if the plan works perfectly. He concedes that the neocon plan to create a positive domino effect throughout the Middle East — in which success builds upon success and the desert of Arab tyranny and Islamist fascism blooms with the flowers of democracy and the rule of law — might just be “crazy enough to work.” But, he counters later on, “do we really want to make the situation for ourselves hugely worse now on the strength of a theoretical future benefit?”

That, my friends, is about as conservative an argument as you are going to find. Raising the specter of real costs now for theoretical gains in the future is the Medusa’s head of conservative forensics: We pull it out of the bag to paralyze the enemy and freeze all forward momentum. Marshall might as well have invoked old Lord Falkland and proudly declared, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

Now, the tragedy here is of course that Marshall and the gang at The Washington Monthly get that old-time conservative religion only when it comes to defending the status quo of tyrannical regimes and dysfunctional societies abroad. When it’s a matter of looking inward to the domestic-policy front, there’s little reluctance whatsoever about laying down massive bets on “the strength of theoretical future benefits.” Racial-preference policies are predicated on the theoretical assumption that whacking the laws and traditions of fair play and equal opportunity right now will pay off handsomely in the future. Nationalizing health care is premised on the theory that massive costs now will pay off in the future. Gays in the military, gay marriage, the repeal of even modest censorship, women in combat, Title IX, hosts of regulatory schemes, and certainly much of the 20th-century liberal agenda all were or are based on theoretical hunches.

Again, what’s funny is that these guys are so eager to fix what really ain’t broke here at home, yet are profoundly reluctant to tinker with what’s clearly broken abroad. They don’t even call the risks they take at home “risks” — they call them “investments”! When you think about it, there’s more than a whiff of blame-America-first to an ideology that is so quick to see the need for major or even radical change in free, prosperous, and decent America but believes it to be arrogant and dangerous to push for radical change in totalitarian, poor, and cruel societies abroad. This, at bottom, is the argument of those who say we must “put our own house in order first.” If being the richest, freest, most successful nation in the history of the world doesn’t constitute having our house in order, our house will never be in sufficient order for us to deal with the world outside our borders — which is precisely what many on the left want.

The isolationists and antiwar guys on the right are a different story. Historically, conservatives worked from the premise that the world outside our borders is a dangerous mess and therefore we shouldn’t track any of their mud onto our carpet. Washington’s admonition against entangling alliances was based in a fear that the rest of the world would mess up the good thing we’ve got going here. I am infinitely more sympathetic to this view, because it at least recognizes the proper arrangement of sentiments, preferences, and interests: America is good, we want it to stay good, we must prevent others from making it bad.

The problem with this point of view is simple: Times change. Principles are forever but circumstances can fluctuate with the tide. Technology alters every major human equation. We would not argue about the ethics or morality of abortion if we didn’t know how to perform abortions. We wouldn’t worry about intellectual property rights on the web, if the web didn’t exist. And, if the only weaponry conceivably available to Islamic terrorists — or terrorists of any kind, for that matter — were Nerf bats and spitballs, and the only modes of transportation they could ever use were non-ocean-faring donkeys, the strategic argument for toppling Hussein and transforming the Middle East would largely evaporate overnight.

The moral or principled argument for toppling Hussein and liberating the region would, of course, remain relatively intact. Hussein would still be a brutal and cruel dictator worthy of being toppled. It would simply be more difficult to justify that we do the toppling, since he would pose no threat to us.

We now live in a world where Baghdad is only slightly more than a few hours away. The threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into a few hands is more of a threat than any standing army with conventional tanks and planes. Indeed, as our staggeringly lethal military has so ably demonstrated, the number of people eager to kill us is no longer the primary issue. Only the delusional jihadists think a traditional war between Islamists and the rest of the world could possibly result in anything other than a lot of very, very sorry — and mostly dead — Muslims (see “Wanting a War They Can’t Win“). This has been demonstrated once again just recently by these Syrian and Egyptian fighters who’ve volunteered to defend Iraq. Racing into Baghdad to repel the infidel invaders, they might as well have volunteered to leap headfirst into a wood chipper.


Marshall, who was once counted as a hawk, seems to have lost his nerve. Judging from this article, he’s become something of a foreign-policy reactionary, preferring that we swat the bugs one at a time, as they come to us, rather than drain the swamp once and for all. It’s certainly a venerable position, but times have changed. Islamic fanaticism, modern technology, globalization, and weak states together make for a new equation and the old math simply doesn’t work any more. I don’t want to get into that argument again, but if you do here are two good articles — by Phillip Bobbitt and Robert J. Lieber — which pretty much lay out how I see the issue.


And now I see Stan Kurtz has tackled Marshall head-on today in NRO, so I will cut my comments about Marshall’s essay short. But I must say that what makes Marshall’s argument reactionary, rather than merely conservative, is the paranoid tone running through it. Marshall doesn’t sound like a John Bircher fretting that Ike is a Communist, but he does buy into this notion that ideologues are secretly running the place, and pushing a president without a mind of his own into following a radical agenda. Moreover, Marshall’s also just wrong on the facts. Bush followed Colin Powell’s advice — not Paul Wolfowitz’s — on the issue of going to the U.N., for example. And it looks like Bush is listening to Blair and Powell more than he’s listening to Bill Kristol on the issue of the U.N.’s role in a postwar Iraq. I know Marshall & co. don’t think Bush has a brain, but they need some evidence if they’re going to assert that he blindly does the bidding of the perfidious neocons. Marshall also claims that there’s been no debate about Bush’s larger foreign-policy ambitions, which flies in the face of the facts. I recall quite a kerfuffle over the “Axis of Evil” speech and the announcement of Bush’s new strategic doctrine of preemption.

Not only does he get the past wrong, Marshall asserts with confidence that certain things will happen in the future and then condemns the president for them, saying Bush is breaking “new ground in the history of pre-war presidential deception.” Well, not yet. Personally, I’m furious with conservative Earth Firsters for refusing to join Star Fleet in 2408, but I’m not blaming Bush for that either.

Oh, one more thing: Even if Bush is being led around by all of these bagel-snarfing Rasputins who want to stifle debate, there is this other thing coming up which might foil the neocons’ plan. It’s called an election. In our system, even if our leaders let their ambitions drive them to pull a fast one on the public, there are other folks with competing ambitions who cry foul or, as in the case of John Kerry, call for domestic regime change. It’s all in the Federalist Papers. You could look it up.

Indeed, this all highlights why I think the word neocon makes so many people a bit goofy. Sounding more conspiratorial than the conservatives who (rightly) bemoaned the betrayals at Yalta, Marshall insists that Bush’s schemes are being hatched without debate and discussion — even as he uses the neocons’ own words in the debate and discussion as proof that no such discussion exists. Which begs the question: If this is a secret plan, how did Josh Marshall stumble on it? Marshall’s proof that there is a secret plan afoot actually derives from on-the-record quotes and public statements.


Okay, enough about Marshall. I want to touch on this point made by George Will. He is right that conservatives could flesh out the future a bit more. Many on NRO, Michael Ledeen for example, have been making the case for quite a while that we are in what amounts to World War IV, to use Jim Woolsey’s phrase. Andrew Sullivan, Bill Bennett, and certainly our friends at The Weekly Standard have made similar cases. Liberal critics of Bush’s foreign policy have denounced it as “radical” and “unconservative.” And to a certain extent that’s true. It is radical and it is not conservative — in the small-c sense — to up-end apple carts across the globe.

But philosophically, there is nothing “un-Conservative” about what President Bush and the rest of us are proposing. Conservatism means to conserve that which is valuable. Inherent to that concept is protecting and defending such valuables from brigands and barbarians. As Friedrich Hayek noted, conservatives in America are defenders of liberty because we want to conserve — i.e., protect — those institutions which guarantee liberty. For example, Pim Fortuyn, the assassinated anti-Islamist Dutch politician, wanted to protect freedom in the Netherlands, which is why he wanted to stem the Islamification of his country. Similarly, because we cherish liberty and the rule of law at home, it may be necessary to impose it abroad. If you want to preserve freedom and prosperity at home you just might have to adopt a radical agenda of creating freedom and prosperity abroad in order to do that. If you believe your own house is in order, there’s nothing un-conservative about making sure vandals don’t set it ablaze. In other words, there’s nothing hypocritical or inconsistent about being an inactivist at home and an activist abroad.

“Sometimes,” writes Will, “American conservatism seems to suggest that freedom is defined merely by the absence of things — particularly, bad government measures. The radical inadequacy of that idea will be clear once Saddam Hussein’s regime is destroyed. A free society is a complicated social artifact” which requires numerous written and unwritten laws to keep it functioning. We’ve built such a social artifact. It’s not perfect, but it’s worth defending against the alternatives. And if that makes me a conservative at home and a radical abroad — so be it.


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