Scott McConnell is the editor of The
American Conservative, a magazine he founded with Pat Buchanan and Taki
Theodoracopulos in 2002. McConnell has a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University
and was formerly the editorial page editor of The New York Post. He has
been a columnist for Antiwar.com and New York Press. His work has been
published in Commentary, Fortune, National Review, The New Republic,
and many other publications.
Kevin Zeese: The views of "conservatives" on foreign policy and the use
of the military are broad, including Robert Taft-style isolationism, Dwight
Eisenhower's prudent internationalism, and George W. Bush's unilateral militarism.
As the editor of The American Conservative, magazine where do you see
the views of conservatives on militarism and foreign intervention? Where are
you on these issues?
Scott McConnell: You're right that there are now radically divergent views
among people who, for the most part, supported Reagan during the '80s. It can't
be denied that most "movement" conservatives support Bush's foreign
policy, by which I mean people tied in some way to the Republican establishment
and the larger number of people who identify with it. But there are significant
pockets of dissent, both among realists – prudent internationalists who on balance
would have found Eisenhower an excellent president – and among the heirs of
the old isolationist tradition. I've learned quite a lot from isolationists
in the past few years; they are invariably a repository of sharp insights and
good polemics. But I'm probably closer to the realist tradition myself. I basically
respect what the United States did after World War II to restore the Western
world. I don't think we could have avoided the Cold War, or the Second World
War. But after the Soviet Union imploded, I began to think it was time for the
United States to pull back and become (as I think Jeane Kirkpatrick said at
the time, before her neoconservative friends reminded her that she shouldn't
say stuff like that) a "normal country" again.
My own thoughts (because I had been a neoconservative, used to write for the
magazine Commentary, was comfortable and friendly with the Committee
for the Free World crowd) evolved fairly slowly, but by the late 1990s I
thought we should not be bombing Serbia (though it hasn't seemed to have turned
out disastrously), and I certainly opposed the attack on Iraq in 2003. Our magazine
is open to both the Taftian and Eisenhower perspectives, but we are, overall,
a minority faction within the conservative movement.
KZ: The Iraq war seems to be dividing both of the old parties. In my state,
Maryland, the most recent polls show that 52 percent of Republicans oppose the
Iraq war. Do you see a disconnect between the Bush administration's policies
on Iraq and the views of American conservatives?
SM: If you define conservative as a belief in some necessary link between a
country's past traditions and its present conduct, yes, there is a disconnect.
Many people have made the point that Bush's policies in Iraq are radical – this
great sense that you can remake the world for the good by military force seems
loony. Or if not loony, at least Jacobin, reminiscent of the French revolutionaries
so enthralled by their own notions of freedom that they sent their armies everywhere
to export it. To their surprise, they eventually found most of Europe resistant
to this type of liberation.
But that said, the belief that Bush's foreign policy isn't conservative at
all is something that makes sense to a certain number of intellectuals. Probably
a majority of Americans who call themselves conservatives – even if they don't
actually believe it is conservative to invade other countries to make them free
– at least so identify with the Republican Party that they are willing to give
Bush the benefit of the doubt.
A great deal of this is due to conservatives who have bonded with the Republican
Party on social and cultural issues and are willing to give the president leeway
in areas in which they assume that the president knows more than they do. The
52 percent figure you cite surprises me a bit, but perhaps Maryland has an unusual
KZ: In a recent issue an article in your magazine entitled "Twilight
of Conservatism," the author quotes Robert Nisbet, one of the intellectuals
of the American conservative movement, as saying:
"War and the military are, without question, among the very worst
of the earth's afflictions, responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions,
tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to.
In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true
individual initiative in the intellectual and cultural and economic areas, is
made impossible – not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse,
extinguished more or less at root. Between military and civil values there is,
and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proved more destructive
of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying
Could you comment on this sentiment? In particular, how do traditional conservatives
see the military-industrial complex? Are they concerned that the U.S. spends
as much as the whole world combined on the military? That the military
budget makes up half of our discretionary spending?
SM: I think Nisbet is right. War is almost always a destructive and revolutionary
force. I don't think it's always avoidable, and I recognize, without undergoing
paroxysms of guilt, that a lot of the power and wealth of the United States,
which we all have benefited from, are the fruits of war.
But I've come to think the over-armament of the United States, and the concomitant
belief we can have a military option in dealing with almost every global problem,
actually poses a threat to our well-being. It's undeniable that terrorists have
potentially more power to kill and maim than they have in the past, and the
more we are involved militarily in the world – occupying other countries, or
attacking them, the more people will see us as the cause of the their problems,
and the more they will think that hurting us will help solve them.
So while I don't necessarily believe that our military budget (still a much
smaller portion of our budget than it was during the height of the Cold War)
could be so transferred to solve all our social problems, I think the idea of
America as the world's only superpower – an idea that is the consequence of
our comparably huge amount of military spending – actually detracts from our
KZ: I found your editorial "The
Weekly Standard's War" to be particularly interesting: it highlighted
the conflict between conservatives and neoconservatives, and the competition
between The American Conservative and The Weekly Standard. What
are your views on this conflict and competition?
SM: The battle between different elements of conservatism is in part a battle
of ideas. I think if you took our magazine's views on, let's say, foreign policy,
immigration, and the economy – and put them alongside the positions of The
Standard, and presented them in a sort of blind taste test to the delegates
at the last Republican convention (as an example of a sample of politically
engaged and active conservatives), we'd do pretty well. (We are for lower rates
of immigration, and more skeptical about free trade than the Standard.)
But it's not only a battle of ideas, it's also an institutional battle. And
the neoconservatives (represented by the Standard) have about 20 times
the institutional heft of traditional conservatives. They control a great number
of think tanks and other magazines and newspapers; they can pay a lot of salaries,
which means that for a great deal of neoconservatives, ideological politicking
can be a career, rather than an avocation you might engage in with the time
left over after your day job. That gives them a large advantage. I don't really
know the answer to this, but the success of the neoconservatives in building
institutions, which in effect means finding people who have made a great deal
of money to fund them, far outstrips their ability to make cogent arguments
for their case – and the latter is not inconsiderable.
KZ: In your recent obituary of Eugene McCarthy, "Peace
Candidate, '68 Vintage," you describe McCarthy as an "accidental Buchananite."
He is viewed as a liberal by many. How do you see him? What did you mean by
that phrase? Do you see connections between the Left and the Right in the United
SM: After I wrote the piece, I saw a quotation from Norman Mailer who described
(in 1968) McCarthy as the most conservative man to run for president in his
lifetime. During that time – much like today, it was "liberals" who
opposed the Vietnam War, conservatives who backed it. But under the surface
there were powerful cross currents – both small-government conservatives who
opposed the war, and liberals (the future neoconservatives, for instance) who
were beginning their march to the Right. There were pro-war socialists – Carl
Gershman and Joshua
Muravchik, for instance, who have since emerged as leading neoconservatives.
McCarthy always had a somewhat conservative sensibility, which perhaps impeded
him as a candidate. He had no talent as a populist, made no effort to flatter
"the people" in his campaign, which is why the Left never was as comfortable
with him as with Bobby Kennedy (who actually was a latecomer in opposing the
war). I didn't follow Gene's career much after 1968 – but in the '90s became
aware of him as a fellow immigration restrictionist, one of those who for a
variety of reasons (environmental, impact on the class structure, distrust of
rapid demographic change) thought we should slow down our immigration rates.
Late in life, he wrote a book about this, and said some nice things about Pat
Buchanan during the 2000 campaign. He seemed to have, at least in part, one
of those traditionalist sensibilities that is skeptical of change. For instance,
I remember a piece he wrote in The New Republic, perhaps in the 1980s,
in which he mocked the notion of playing baseball on artificial turf, describing,
in a humorous way, how it altered and corrupted the game. There are good arguments
for that, but also just an aspect of the conservative esprit – that there
is a kind of natural legitimacy about the way things are, and [they] ought to
be changed at their peril. Now obviously, Gene was not resistant to all change.
I suspect he was liberal on most social issues; he was, after all, elected as
a Minnesota Democrat, in one of the most progressive regions of the country.
But he was a traditionalist. He clearly would have found it difficult to explain
why it is "conservative" to show contempt for the natural environment
which God has given us – but that is something I don't understand about most
modern-day conservatives either.