Politics & Policy

Buckley’s Realist Foreign Policy

Is there no room for his views in today’s conservative camp?

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Conservatives who want to read libertarian conservatives out of the movement should reread some old copies of National Review first.

From Frank Meyer to William F. Buckley Jr. to George Will — indeed, to Ronald Reagan — there is a strain of libertarianism endemic to conservatism.

Meyer, in fact, averred that conservatism needed a dose of libertarianism. He argued that traditional conservatism actually comes out a bit stale without a twist of freedom. Virtue needs a dash of liberty to refresh and excite the populace.

On foreign policy, even National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., occasionally expressed views that today’s NRO writers might find heretical.

With regard to the Iraq War, Buckley came to believe not only that it was a mistake but that it was not a “conservative” approach to foreign policy. In fact, in discussing foreign policy Buckley sounded quite the realist.

In an interview with George Will on This Week in October 2005, Buckley was asked the following question: “Today we have a different kind of foreign policy. It’s called Wilsonian. And the premise of the Bush doctrine is that America must spread democracy because our national security depends on it. And America can spread democracy. It knows how. It can engage in nation building. This is conservative or not?”

Buckley responded: “It’s not at all conservative. It’s anything but conservative. It’s not conservative at all, inasmuch as conservatism doesn’t invite unnecessary challenges. It insists on coming to terms with the world as it is, and the notion that merely by affirming these high ideals we can affect highly entrenched systems.”

In a 2005 interview with Joseph Rago for the Wall Street Journal, Buckley said of conservatives who want to spread democracy, “The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous.”

In fact, according to Jeffrey Hart’s assessment , Buckley was quite strident in his belief that the Iraq War was inconsistent with conservatism. Hart wrote in a 2008 column that Buckley “saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement he had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide” by uncritically supporting the war.

As for neoconservatives, Buckley was, as always, succinct and insightful when he told the New York Times in 2004: “I think those I know, which is most of them, are bright, informed, and idealistic, but that they simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence.”

Buckley discussed neoconservatives in another interview two years later and said the following: “The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country.”

In his 2005 interview of Buckley, George Will put in his two cents about some conservatives’ belief that the Middle East could be remade in America’s image. “Conservatism seems to be saying government can’t run Amtrak, but it can run the Middle East,” he argued.

Reagan himself was sometimes castigated for not intervening around the world enough. According to Peter Beinart, Norman Podhoretz, one of the founding neoconservatives, wrote that “in the use of military power, Mr. Reagan was much more restrained” than his more hawkish fans had hoped.

So as today’s young aspiring Buckleyites sharpen their knives to carve up conservatives who propose a more realist and nuanced approach to foreign policy, they should realize they’re also pointing daggers at some of their own.

— Rand Paul represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate.


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