October 20, 2000

George W. – Closet Buchananite

It looks like "neo-conservatives" care more about their taxes than they do about the future of the American Empire. Why else would they be so hostile to Vice President Al Gore? Gore is any interventionist’s dream candidate. There is no place on earth to which he is not ready to dispatch US troops. There is no country in the world whose electoral process he is not ready to undermine. There is no issue on earth that does not cry out for US leadership. There is no Israeli act of brutality that he would not defend with passion. There is no military outlay that he will not champion. Indeed, as a recent nauseatingly obsequious article in the New Republic pointed out, Gore "has proposed boosting defense expenditures over the next decade by more than $50 billion over the level the Texas governor recommends." Yet the "neo-conservatives" have embraced George W. Bush – no one’s idea of an imperial warrior. Evidently, the prospect of tax cuts has proved more alluring than forking over money to pay to station US troops in Pristina or Baku.

In a number of his pronouncements, Bush has violated the most fundamental axiom of "neo-conservative" doctrine. This states that the end of the Cold War was an event of relatively little significance, since the United States faces as many perils as it did before – perhaps even more. From "extreme nationalism" in the Balkans to weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Iran and Iraq to the abuse of "human rights" in China to a resurgent authoritarian Russia, the United States must confront enemies in every corner of the globe. But Dubya has criticized excessive US interventionism. He has also said that he opposes what he calls "nation building." This is very confusing. For Bush seems to have difficulties naming Clinton Administration’s initiatives that he objects to. Bombing Yugoslavia – he was in favor. His only problem with US policy was that it was not "ferocious enough." Sanctions against Iraq – he is in favor. His only problem with US policy is, again, that it is too half-hearted. Intervention in Colombia; bailing out US bankers in Mexico; bombing pharmaceutical factories in Sudan; underwriting Israel’s agenda in the Middle East – there is scarcely any ingredient of the US global program that Bush opposes. To be sure, like many "neo-conservatives," he lists Somalia and Haiti as mistaken interventions. However, Somalia and Haiti happened a long time ago. Moreover, neither intervention was terribly important. Besides, the objection is generally not based on principle. Getting bogged down in hellholes is every interventionist’s nightmare. It might turn the public against an imperial foreign policy.

Bush and Gore are pretty much in agreement on interventionism. But there are differences. Bush prefers to keep quiet about his intentions so as not to frighten anyone. And he promises to cut taxes. In the first debate in Boston, Jim Lehrer asked the two candidates: "How would you go about as President deciding when it was in the national interest to use US force?" Bush responded in straight-down-the-line Colin Powell terms: "Well, if it’s in our vital national interest, and that means whether our territory is threatened or people could be harmed, whether or not the alliances are – our defense alliances are threatened, whether or not our friends in the Middle East are threatened. That would be a time to seriously consider the use of force. Secondly, whether or not the mission was clear. Whether or not it was a clear understanding as to what the mission would be. Thirdly, whether or not we were prepared and trained to win. Whether or not our forces were of high morale and high standing and well-equipped. And finally, whether or not there was an exit strategy."

Talk like this could be expected to drive "neo-conservatives" up the wall. Their hatred for Colin Powell is as virulent as Madeleine Albright’s. In My American Journey, Colin Powell famously described the dreadful White House meetings he had had to endure on the subject of Bosnia. The hideous harridan would repeatedly call for the bombing of Serbs. "My constant, unwelcome message at all the meetings on Bosnia," Powell writes, was simply that we should nor commit military forces until we had a political objective…..The debate exploded at one session when Madeleine Albright, our ambassador to the UN, asked me in frustration, ‘What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?’ I thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board." Without doubt, Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Norman Podhoretz, Robert Kaplan would have asked Powell exactly the same question. Moreover, Al Gore would appear to be with them. To Jim Lehrer’s question he responded in an appropriately hectoring "neo-conservative" tone: "Now, just because we don’t want to get involved everywhere doesn’t mean we should back off anywhere it comes up. I disagree with the proposal that maybe only when oil supplies are at stake that our national security is at risk. I think that there are situations like in Bosnia or Kosovo where there’s a genocide, where our national security is at stake there." For years, these wretched, hysterical little magazines have tried to persuade us that America’s "national security is at risk" pretty much whenever anything happens anywhere that we disapprove of.

Bush stuck to his almost Buchananite line about the "national interest" in the second debate at Winston-Salem. Jim Lehrer asked the two candidates: "One of you is about to be elected the leader of the single-most powerful nation in the world, economically, financially, militarily, diplomatically, you name it. Have you formed any guiding principles for exercising this enormous power?" Bush’s response: "First question is what’s in the best interests of the United States? What’s in the best interests of our people? When it comes to foreign policy that will be my guiding question. Is it in our nation’s interests?" Dubya even had the temerity to add that "if we’re an arrogant nation" people around the world will "resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us." Lehrer, who has made it his life’s work religiously to adopt conventional opinions as his own, was a little dumbfounded. "Should the fall of Milosevic," he asked Bush, "be seen as a triumph for US military intervention?" Dubya responded: "I think it’s a triumph. I thought the President made the right decision in joining NATO and bombing Serbia. I supported them when they did so. I called upon the Congress not to hamstring the Administration." Lehrer probed further: "But you think it would not have happened – do you think that Milosevic would not have fallen if the United States and NATO had not intervened militarily? Is this a legitimate use of our military power?" Bush responded: "Yes, I think it is. Absolutely. I don’t think he would have fallen had we not used the force." Lehrer, of course, would never dream of asking the really important question: Where does the United States get the right to use armed force to decide who should be in power in Belgrade?

Bush’s mild belligerence paled in comparison with Gore’s pompous sense of imperial mission. Spouting forth like some demented Marty Peretz clone in the New Republic editorials or a William Safire out of ideas for a column, Gore proclaimed: "I see our greatest national strength coming from what we stand for in the world. I see it as a question of values. It is a great tribute to our Founders that 224 years later this nation is now looked to by the peoples on every other continent and the peoples from every part of this earth as a kind of model for what their future could be….As soon as they have a change that allows the people to speak freely, they’re wanting to develop some kind of blueprint that will help them be like us more, freedom, free markets, political freedom." Here is imperial arrogance of staggering complacency – far beyond standard Presidential election bluster. According to Gore, every nation on earth wants to be like America. No evidence cited. Note the caveat "as soon as they have a change that allows the people to speak freely." Only when people are free are they ready to say that they want to be like Americans. What Gore really means, of course, is that only when people are ready to say they want to be like Americans, will we consider them to be free. The Wall Street Journal editorial page publishes claptrap like this on average three times a week. Robert Kagan has built an entire career as a "foreign policy expert" by endlessly repeating this point.

Clearly the "neo-conservatives" are less than excited by Bush. The worst moment came during the second debate. Bush actually declared: "I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be…. I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you." William Kristol indicated earlier this week that Gore might still win his support if only he would support Israel even more fervently than he already does: "Gore could break with President Clinton on the Middle East by declaring that the United States had gone as far as it could in playing the role of ‘honest broker’ between Israel and the Palestinians…. [The] events of the last two weeks have made it important for the United States to stand unambiguously with its democratic ally Israel, and for the United States to begin to hold Arab leaders like Chairman Arafat and Egypt’s President Mubarak accountable for their unwillingness to be partners in peace. Gore might suggest the possibility of reducing US aid to Egypt or to the Palestinian authority." Reducing aid to Egypt? What has Egypt done other than to follow slavishly the US and Israeli line?

The Wall Street Journal is also underwhelmed. Tunku Varadarajan wrote this week: "Aspects of Mr. Bush's foreign policy trouble me, and here’s why. He appears to be dogmatically opposed to ‘nation-building,’ as well as to be wedded to the belief that the US should be ‘a humble nation.’." Behind Bush’s rhetoric, Tunku sensed something dire: the "quasi-isolationism of Colin Powell." Bush had to abandon all this silly talk of the "national interest." "I regret Mr. Bush’s persistence with those bantamweight definitions of national interest," Tunku declared, "that came into vogue after the Cold War ended. I regret his reluctance to draw inspiration from Theodore Roosevelt – and from the latter’s willingness to intervene abroad in cases of ‘chronic wrong-doing’" Theodore Roosevelt is, of course, all the rage among "neo-conservatives" of the David Brooks variety. Their heads are filled with the nebulous notion of "national greatness." Since they have never defined it, one will have to assume that it means today what it has always meant. Bully small countries and then boast that you have killed dragons.

Text-only printable version of this article

George Szamuely was born in Budapest, Hungary, educated in England, and has worked as an editorial writer for The Times (London), The Spectator (London), and the Times Literary Supplement (London). In America, he has been equally busy: as an associate at the Manhattan Institute, editor at Freedom House, film critic for Insight, research consultant at the Hudson Institute, and as a weekly columnist for the New York Press. Szamuely has contributed to innumerable publications including Commentary, American Spectator, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, National Interest, American Scholar, Orbis, Daily Telegraph, the Times of London, the Sunday Telegraph, and The New Criterion. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Friday.

Go to George Szamuely's latest column from the New York Press.

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"Mr. Bush’s failure to offer ‘assertiveness’ as a policy option (or, perhaps, his conflation of the assertive with the arrogant), is his foreign policy’s central flaw," Tunku went on, "Why can’t the US be assertive? And why must it be assertive by stealth or by euphemism? Why can’t the US – tailoring its approach to the times in which we live – "teach [other republics] to elect good men,’ to use Woodrow Wilson’s robust words? The meanness of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy – the reason I find it so meager – is that it appears to have no place for a moral vision of America’s role in world affairs." So why is Tunku supporting Bush? After all, Gore is talking about the US being "assertive" and he has nothing if not "a moral vision of America’s role in world affairs." Indeed, the New Republic is being consistent in championing Gore and Lieberman.

The New Republic even recently brought up the saintly name of the late Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson. "Like Scoop Jackson," Lawrence Kaplan noted in a tone of appropriate piety, "and unlike many contemporary conservatives, Lieberman believes in using military means to advance America’s ideals, not just its economic interests." Lieberman, a delighted Kaplan continues, "called on the Bush team to use force in Bosnia as early as 1992, cautioning that Milosevic may ‘have to look down the barrel of a gun before he stops his aggression.’." Kaplan contrasts the "vigorous" and "robust" Gore/Lieberman foreign policy with the contemptible Republican one. "Among the congressional Republicans," he writes, "a toxic blend of libertarian zeal, isolationism, and Clinton hatred has yielded a critique of American foreign policy that recalls nothing so much as the old Democratic one."

There can therefore be only two explanations for the "neo-conservative" support for Bush over Gore, neither of which is terribly flattering. Either they know that Bush is adopting the pseudo-Buchananite pose for electoral reasons. Once he is in the White House, US interventionism will continue along its merry course. Or, alternatively, what really matters to them is tax cuts. They want an American Empire on the cheap. Since it is unlikely that Bush does not in some way share a certain Republican caution about foreign entanglements, the second explanation is probably the closest to the truth.

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