The Corner

Bush, The Gladstonian Liberal

Andrew Sullivan writes:

KERRY’S CONSERVATISM: Matt Bai’s piece in Sunday’s NYT magazine has generated a lot of ink. From the coverage, I expected to read in it a parody of 1990s liberalism but that’s not what I found. It’s clear Kerry believes that countering Jihadist terrorism is primarily a matter of international police work, alliance building, terrorism, monitoring financial transactions, use of special forces and special ops. But Bush believes all this as well. It’s just that he also believes in the transformative effect of regime change and democratization in the Arab world, and Kerry appears to be a skeptic in this respect. Count me with Bush on this one (with a few reservations). But notice this irony: Kerry’s is clearly the more conservative position here. Conservatives have traditionally been doubters with regard to the transmission of Western values easily onto non-Western societies. They certainly don’t believe it can happen overnight. Bush is therefore running as a Gladstonian liberal in foreign affairs, which is why it’s strange to hear some conservatives writing as if Kerry’s candidacy is the equivalent of Armageddon.

Sullivan’s point is well-taken (even if it’s part of his long roll-out for his announced voting for Kerry). But I think this conservatives-are-hypocrites for wanting regime change theme is way overplayed, by Buchanan, by Peter Beinart and now by Sullivan, to name a few. Conservatives in America have long taken the view that we must do what is necessary in foreign policy, not what is nice. This is the hinge upon which conservatives have swung from ideological anti-Communism to Nixonian realism. Modern American Liberals have argued that we should do what is nice — or morally necessary — and not merely what our narrow national self-interests require (older liberals, however, could be fairly bloodthirsty).

If conservatives were “Gladstonian liberals” for trumpeting democracy in Poland to El Salvador in the 1980s, then color me Gladstonian. Also: was Vietnamization “conservative” or Gladstonian?

Also, it seems to me that Kerry is “conservative” not in any ideological sense and barely in the tempermental sense. His conservatism — as Andrew seems to be defining it — is marked by a lack of enthusiasm for making a big fuss about anything. After all he did vote for the war and regime change (under Clinton), he simply objects to the mess caused by actually following through. In the world we are living in, such an attitude is the mark of denial, not conservatism. And, again, modern conservative foreign policy (which, contra Frank Foer, has never been as defined or uniform as conservative domestic policy) has always staked its ground on what is necessary.

I know a lot of conservatives who support this war. I know very few who make the case for the war solely on the grounds of how nice it would be to make Iraq democratic. All of them, to one extent or another, argue that what is nice has converged with what is necessary. I think this theme goes all the way back to Burke who, after all, supported regime change in the American colonies.

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