Politics & Policy

Silly-Putty Policies

The molding and re-molding of Buchanan's abstract rules for foreign policy.

Americans are a moral people. They will not sustain a foreign policy rooted in a cold pragmatism that averts its gaze from the tragedy of a little country to maintain cordial relations with its oppressor. Churchill said long ago: “The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion.”

What neocon mouthed this idealistic pabulum? Paul Wolfowitz? Bill Kristol? Doug Feith? Why, Patrick Buchanan, of course. In 1990, America’s most famous living “isolationalist” denounced President George H. W. Bush for not helping a tiny country threatened by a totalitarian regime.

Buchanan wasn’t talking about Kuwait, a tiny country famously invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that year, but about Lithuania, threatened by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

When wolves fed on Kuwait, Buchanan became the “cold pragmatist,” arguing that America should indeed avert its gaze from the tragedy of that little country. “There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in the Middle East,” Buchanan infamously announced in 1990, “the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”

Now, Buchanan has a new book out, Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War, in which he argues that a war-lusting Winston Churchill blundered horribly by making war on Nazi Germany, ostensibly to defend Poland from the Nazi wolf.

It would have been better, Buchanan argues, for Britain and the United States to have maintained cordial relations with the allegedly rational Adolf Hitler and let the Nazis have Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. This would have allowed Britain to keep its empire, Buchanan insists, and that would have been just grand.

But Buchanan is also the author of A Republic, Not an Empire. In that earlier polemic, he passionately insisted: “It is time to let go of empire.” The United States is a “completed nation,” meaning we are no longer in need of immigrants, international trade or the alliances that add up to imperialism in his eyes. Of course, Buchanan’s notion of a “completed nation” wouldn’t preclude us from getting rid of Puerto Rico and adding a few Caucasian provinces of Canada to our territory.

My point here is not to play “gotcha” with Buchanan’s writings. But Buchanan claims to be a man of abstract foreign policy rules — in his case, the notion that we must act from objective national interest. As a result, he has earned a strange new respect among antiwar liberals and self-described realists for his opposition to the war in Iraq in recent years. He is a man of principle, we’ve been told.

In reality, Buchanan is a wonderful example of how those who claim to follow a strict set of abstract foreign policy rules are often just disguising their own biases. A strict and objective application of our national interest isn’t the principle he’s upholding. No cold pragmatist he. Buchanan’s not following anything here other than the loyalties of his own heart.

Here’s another example of Buchanan’s inconsistency: America should help Croatia fend off Slobodan Milosevic because “Croatia is not some faraway desert emirate,” the America First reenactor explained in 1991. “It is a ‘piece of the Continent, a part of the main,’ a Western republic that . . . was for centuries the first line of defense of Christian Europe.” The following year, he argued that the beleaguered Bosnians should twist in the wind. Kuwait? Wolf fodder. Lithuania, not so much. Israel? Take a guess.

Buchanan is hardly alone in failing to apply his principles uniformly. Consider The New Republic. For years, the liberal magazine that once passionately advocated the invasion of Iraq has been backtracking furiously into the mainstream antiwar fold. And yet, in the wake of the Burmese cyclone in May, its editors argued that “even though our standing in the world has been severely diminished by Iraq, we should at least be debating intervention in Burma.” So much for the evils of “wars of choice.”

This is an old story. William Jennings Bryan was a hero of pacifists and anti-imperialists, even though he volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War, arguing that “universal peace cannot come until justice is enthroned throughout the world. Until the right has triumphed in every land . . . government must, as a last resort, appeal to force.” Then-Secretary of State Bryan cemented his antiwar credentials when he resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s “crusade” for democracy.

I’m a big believer in abstract rules, but when it comes to foreign policy, there is only one to which everyone adheres: America should be a good country and do what’s right. That’s the real meaning of the “national interest.” It’s fortunate for humanity that America’s and Britain’s definition of good and right in the 1940s differed with Buchanan’s creepy version of the national interest.

Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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