The American People Render Their Electoral Judgment: Time to Finish Off the Neoconservatives

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 and Right.

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.

Read more by Doug Bandow