Giving the Boot to History
by Lee McCracken
January 7, 2003

The Wall Street Journal has recently been running a series of articles on "American Conservatism," the idea being to define what conservatism means in the 21st century. Apart from an article by the idiosyncratic British Tory philosopher Roger Scruton, all the articles so far have toed the Journal's neoconservative line.

The most recent installment is from Max "The Case for American Empire" Boot, a writer for the Weekly Standard who once complained that not enough American soldiers were dying in Afghanistan. Boot's article is an attempt to discredit any conservative opposition to worldwide war and imperialism by essentially reading all "isolationists" out of the ranks of true conservatives. He begins by trying to define "neoconservative." The term, he points out, once referred to liberals like Irving Kristol who began to have doubts about liberal utopianism and softness on communism. These disaffected liberals gradually migrated rightward and now occupy the mainstream of the official conservative movement and the leadership of the Republican Party.

Boot accurately points out that neocons are distinguished primarily by the importance they attribute to foreign policy. Formerly clustered around hawkish Democrat Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the neocons embrace what Boot calls "Hard Wilsonianism," that is, the use of armed might to promote "American ideals" around the world. These he distinguishes from "Soft" Wilsonians who want to spread American values, but prefer to use the "softer" means of international organizations and treaties.

The theme running throughout Boot's article is that necons represent the respectable mainstream of "conservative" opinion, and that anyone who questions the agenda of global interventionism is, by definition, not a real conservative (and possibly a fascist). Pat Buchanan and his anti-interventionist magazine The American Conservative come in for especially harsh treatment from Boot. He writes:

"Pretty much all conservatives today agree on the need for a strong, vigorous foreign policy. There is no constituency for isolationism on the right, outside the Buchananite fever swamps. The question is how to define our interventionism."

Note that being an interventionist means being "strong" and "vigorous," and so what if they're not the ones who will actually be doing the fighting. And notice the smearing of anyone opposed to interventionism as a denizen of the "fever swamps." Buchanan's ideology, according to Boot, was "last popular when Father Charles Coughlin, not Rush Limbaugh, was the leading conservative broadcaster in America." According to this strange logic, anyone who opposes war and intervention must be some kind of closet fascist, just like those noted anti-interventionists Hitler and Mussolini.

For someone claiming to be something of a historian, Boot seems to have a fairly limited historical perspective. For him the conservative tradition runs from the imperialist and "progressive" reformer Teddy Roosevelt, through the globalist utopian Woodrow Wilson, to Ronald Reagan, who used laissez-faire rhetoric, but whose policies were far more statist and militarist than many of his admirers like to admit.

It used to be that a conservative was someone devoted to the ideals and institutions of the American founding. Conservatives sought a return to limited constitutional government, decentralized political authority and "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none," in the words of Thomas Jefferson. Boot, on the other hand, wants the U.S. to intervene in other countries across the globe in order to "defend our values." This highfalutin rhetoric sounds noble until you think about what it actually entails in practice. "Defending our values" means carpet bombing cities, imposing harsh economic sanctions that result in the suffering of innocent civilians, and using the power of global financial institutions to foist our version of managed corporate capitalism on the Third World under the guise of "free trade." Using "American Might" to "promote American ideals" is a nice-sounding way of advocating systematic and brutal violence to get other people to do what we want.

Traditional conservatives, whom Boot is so eager to read out of existence, were less inclined to rise to the defense of abstractions like "values." Their affections were more likely to be tied to concrete people, places, and institutions than an abstract notion of "The American Way of Life." As Edmund Burke put it while reflecting on the Jacobin horrors of the French Revolution, "To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections." To this way of thinking, we should be ready to defend our homes, our families, and our property. This is the essence of both the libertarian non-aggression maxim and the traditional Christian doctrine of Just War. But it doesn't license aggressive violence in the name of "promoting our values." Such a never-ending crusade can only result in the destruction of liberty at home that conservatives have always cherished and sought to preserve.

Perhaps if Mr. Boot expanded his canon of approved conservatives, he would find wisdom in the words of "Mr. Republican" himself, Robert A. Taft:

"There are a good many Americans who talk about an American century in which America will dominate the world. . . . If we confine our activities to the field of moral leadership we shall be successful if our philosophy is sound and appeals to the people of the world. The trouble with those who advocate this policy is that they really do not confine themselves to moral leadership. They are inspired by the same kind of New Deal planned-control ideas abroad as recent Administrations have desired to enforce at home. In their hearts they want to force on these foreign people through the use of American money and even, perhaps, arms, the policies which moral leadership is able to advance only through the sound strength of its principles."

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Lee McCracken lives in the San Francisco Bay area. He has also written for and

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