Eight years ago George W. Bush was elected president
after promising to implement a more "humble" foreign policy. He reacted
against the Clinton administration's preference to intervene militarily when
there were no conceivable American interests at stake – Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia,
Kosovo – and advocated a more traditional and limited U.S. role in the world.
However, 9/11 provided neoconservatives, who manned many of the administration's
top foreign and military policy posts, an opportunity to implement one of the
most aggressive international agendas ever. President Bush proved to be an open
door for the "war at every opportunity" crowd, and soon acted like
a true believer. Much of the conservative movement signed on, trading its soul
for a mess of pottage.
The administration attempted social engineering abroad that it knew couldn't
work at home, as if naïve and ignorant American policy-makers could transcend
history, tradition, ethnicity, religion, geography, and culture to remake foreign
societies. It was nonsense, but in Iraq the U.S. paid a terrible price with
thousands of dead and tens of thousands of wounded and maimed Americans, and
hundreds of billions of dollars wasted. Even greater was the cost to Iraqis:
tens or hundreds of thousands killed, more injured, and millions displaced from
their homes, as well as a devastated society.
For the neocon true believers, however, the problem was too few, not too many,
wars. Invasions of Iran and Syria should have followed that of Iraq. North Korea
deserved a few bombing runs. Washington should have stood up to Russia over
Georgia, whatever the cost. There were abundant targets for humanitarian intervention,
such as Darfur.
Sen. John McCain embodied the neocon hopes of a war on every continent. And
the Republican Party, battered on the economic front, attempted to win the election
by focusing on foreign policy. GOP apparatchiks warned that the world was dangerous
as they campaigned for a candidate determined to put Americans at risk around
the globe. The Republican Party pushed for a permanent occupation of Iraq, more
military spending, expanding NATO to the Caucasus, increased confrontation with
China and Russia, and an even larger role for America as the world's global
policeman and 911 operator. The policy was unlimited government with unlimited
duties, a perversion of what conservatism, and the Republican Party, once purported
to stand for.
Now the neoconservative dream lies in ruins. John McCain was solidly defeated,
Democrats picked up Senate and House seats for the second congressional election
in a row, and GOP losses extended to the state and local levels. The Republican
Party brand stands for big government, needless war, wasteful overspending,
corporate bail-outs, executive abuses, and economic failure. Why would any sane
citizen vote for the GOP? In 2008 the Republicans had no positive agenda. All
they could argue was that Barack Obama posed a uniquely dangerous threat to
all that Americans held dear – a difficult claim to make after eight years of
GOP misrule under a stubborn and ignorant President Bush and an irresponsible
and unprincipled Republican Congress.
With the election behind them, the conservative movement and its Republican
Party allies must decide on their future.
They have much to atone for on domestic policy. Wild spending, simultaneously
expanding Medicare's unfunded liabilities by trillions of dollars and pork barrel
spending by billions of dollars, demands repentance. Pushing exorbitant and
unconditional bailouts of the housing industry, bankers, Wall Street, and the
auto industry requires more time in political purgatory.
The Bush administration, with the enthusiastic support of Republicans in and
out of Congress, also trashed the Constitution and sacrificed civil liberties,
even when doing so made Americans no safer. The supposedly conservative administration
pushed for unrestrained executive power, undercutting the constitutional system
of separation of powers, checks and balances, and accountability in government.
Conservatives need to rediscover their tradition of resisting government encroachments
on individual liberty and executive branch encroachments on the legislature.
Finally, genuine conservatives must toss overboard Wilsonian warmongering dressed
up as democracy promotion by the neocons. Early American leaders vigorously
defended America, but their focus was on protecting the U.S. – its people, territory,
liberties, and constitutional system. There were to be no glorious crusades
with other people's money and other people's lives, no illusions that America
could fix the problems of the world, no sacrifice of republican values in pursuit
of imperial ends.
Conservatives once understood that war is the ultimate big government program,
the "health of the state," as Randolph Bourne put it. They opposed
high military spending, large military establishments, pervasive government
secrecy, and foreign entanglements. If they found a conflict to be unavoidable,
they prosecuted it fiercely and then returned to peaceful pursuits. In short,
they were nothing like today's neoconservatives, who believe in perpetual war
on behalf of global empire, ever higher military outlays at a time when America
already spends as much as every other power on earth combined, and stationing
hundreds of thousands of American military personnel on hundreds of bases around
the world. Big government conservatism in all of its manifestations is a perversion
of conservatism's historic tradition.
If conservatives do not return to this tradition, they deserve to long wander
in the political wilderness. If conservatives lead, the Republican Party is
likely to follow. If the GOP does not, it should be abandoned without tears.
Perhaps the greatest failure of the political system today is the lack of leaders
appealing to the large number of Americans opposed to a policy of empire. When
an outsider, such as Sarah Palin, makes an appearance, she is quickly co-opted
by the neocons. Whatever Gov. Palin's original beliefs, Sen. McCain's would-be
warrior staff tutored her that U.S. foreign policy should be centered on Israel
and that there is no country, nuclear-armed Russia included, that does not deserve
to be thrashed by Washington.
The only way to change this dangerous dynamic is for those who believe in limited
government and individual liberty to use their votes to punish war-mongers in
either party. In 2008, for instance, Sen. McCain's militaristic foreign policy
views far outweighed his marginally better positions on economics – a subject
about which he admitted knowing little.
And given the current ascendency of liberals within the Democratic Party, foreign
policy offers an opportunity for the Right. President-elect Obama risks creating
the third Clinton administration, given his foreign policy advisers, weighted
towards Clinton administration retreads, as well as the appointment of Rep.
Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton aide, as chief of staff. Rather than attempt
to outspend the Democrats on defense and promote even more frivolous interventions
than those advanced by the acolytes of Madeleine Albright, conservatives should
offer a genuine alternative: republican noninterventionism. Defend America,
but turn military responsibilities over to rich allies in Asia and Europe and
avoid involvement in tragic but irrelevant Third World conflicts. Stand for
the Constitution and defend republic over empire against Wilsonians on the Left
Could a party have more deserved electoral disaster than the GOP? It avoided
a wipe-out on Tuesday, but the Republicans will not soon again contend for power
unless they learn from their disastrous mistakes over the last eight years.
And none of those mistakes was more important than foolishly and frivolously
inaugurating a wholly unnecessary war in Iraq. Never again, the Republican Party
should say. Otherwise it deserves to be kicked into history's great trashheap.