Neoconservatism Versus Libertarianism

by , April 29, 2004

Oh, how the neocons are squirming, and turning somersaults over Iraq, a performance the sight of which would be almost a pleasure to behold if not for the steep price of admission. New York Times columnist David Brooks’ soddily defiant mea culpa – which we covered in the last installment of this column – was preceded by the editors of National Review, who claim to have now gotten “a glimpse of the abyss in Iraq,” as their editorial of April the 16th put it. In a line that begs the question “look who’s talking,” they had the nerve to complain that:

“Since the conclusion of the war, the Bush administration has shown a dismaying capacity to believe its own public relations,”

And, they complain,

“Every piece of good news has been hailed as turning the corner, even as the insurgency has remained stubbornly strong.”

This from a magazine that has consistently served as a conduit for administration propaganda, that constantly plumbed for war, and that, a year ago, ran an article by the classicist scholar and warmonger of note Victor Davis Hanson, in which he wrote:

“In general, the media has now gone from the hysteria of the Armageddon of Afghanistan to the quagmire of Iraq to the looting in Baghdad – the only constant is slanted coverage, mistaken analysis, and the absence of any contriteness about being in error and in error in such a manner that reflected so poorly upon themselves and damaged the country at large at a time of war. It is as if only further bad news could serve as a sort of catharsis that might at least cleanse them of any unease about being so wrong so predictably and so often. “

Whose analysis is “mistaken” now? Whose errors have damaged the country at large? Every bit of bad news, over the months, all the indications of impending disaster, have been routinely dismissed by National Review‘s writers as due to “media bias,” the consequence of an antiwar conspiracy to hide the real truth about our supposed success in Iraq.

Ah, but suddenly there appears an abyss….! I’d like to push Victor Davis Hanson and the editors of National Review into it head first.

The editors of National Review led a smear campaign against conservatives and libertarians who opposed the war, deeming them “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” and yet now these same people are repeating the arguments of Patrick J. Buchanan, Lew Rockwell, myself, adopting the paleoconservatives critique of “democratic” imperialism. Like Brooks, the National Review editorial makes some minor criticisms of the Bush policy as imperialism “on the cheap,” but the main problem, as far as they are concerned, is:

“An intellectual mistake made prior to the occupation: an underestimation in general of the difficulty of implanting democracy in alien soil, and an overestimation in particular of the sophistication of what is fundamentally still a tribal society and one devastated by decades of tyranny. This was largely, if not entirely, a Wilsonian mistake. The Wilsonian tendency has grown stronger in conservative foreign-policy thought in recent years, with both benefits (idealism should occupy an important place in American foreign policy, and almost always has) and drawbacks (as we have seen in Iraq, the world isn’t as malleable as some Wilsonians would have it).”

One can hardly find anything in this with which to disagree – except to note that one of the biggest and most energetic promoters of this mistaken Wilsonian tendency has been none other than National Review. What else is one to make of Michael Ledeen’s constant paeans to the glories of what he calls “creative destruction” in the Middle East, and countless articles in that magazine urging the extension of the war into Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and beyond? Wasn’t it Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, who infamously suggested the nuking of Mecca as a prelude to the occupation of Saudi Arabia. I suppose one could claim that the mindset of Lowry and his co-thinkers and fellow editors owes more to Dr. Strangelove than to Woodrow Wilson, but this hardly exculpatory. Second only to The Weekly Standard, none have been louder or more consistent in calling for war in the Middle East than National Review.

What is appalling is the utter dishonesty of their arguments: yesterday, Pat Buchanan was an “unpatriotic conservative” for making the very same arguments against the neoconservative’s democracy fetish as National Review now borrows and claims as its own. It was Buchanan, after all, who recently wrote:

“Bush’s world democratic revolution is Wilsonian imperialism, which contains an inherent and perhaps fatal contradiction. Imperialism means we decide the government a nation will have and how its foreign policy shall be oriented. Democracy means they decide. What do we do if we impose democracy on Iraq, and the Iraqis use their freedom to vote to throw us out and confront Israel and claim Kuwait as their long-lost province?”

Buchanan wrote that in the beginning of April, but he had been saying it long before the wisdom of the principle ever dawned on the editors of National Review. In 1999, he outlined what he called a “New Americanism”:

“We need a new foreign policy rooted neither in the Wilsonian Utopianism of the Democrat Party nor the Pax Americana of the Republican think tanks and little magazines, a policy that reflects the goodness and greatness of this Republic, but also an awareness that we were not put on this earth to lord it over other nations. The true third way is a New Americanism that puts America first, but ‘goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,’ that defends America’s freedom, frontiers, citizens, security, and vital interests, but harbors no desire to impose our vision on any other people.”

Yet, for embracing this anti-Wilsonian skepticism, Buchanan was smeared by David Frum, in National Review, as a “defeatist” and I was attacked by Frum as a spoke on the axis of evil, who wrote that the paleoconservative critics of Bush’s war policy are “yearning for defeat.” He cites a piece by Eric Margolis, and then goes on to attack me:

“Raimondo was more explicit still on March 12, 2003. Speaking of the negative consequences he foresaw of even a successful American campaign in Iraq, he wrote: ‘It is a high price to pay for ‘victory’ – so high that patriots might almost be forgiven if they pine for defeat.’”

Having pushed America into the Iraqi abyss, Frum and his neoconservative buddies blame me for making the prescient point that the only direction we can go is rapidly downward.

Of course, they bear no responsibility. It’s the Iraqis’ fault – they aren’t civilized enough to appreciate their own liberation. The White House is to blame: The President isn’t sending enough troops, he isn’t spending enough money. It’s the Pentagon that’s at fault: the generals aren’t expending enough American – and Iraqi – lives. The solution, as the editors of National Review aver, is to hunker down and fall back on the principle of naked brutality:

“In light of recent events, however, we should downplay expectations. If we leave Iraq in some sort of orderly condition, with some sort of legitimate non-dictatorial government and a roughly working economy, we will be doing very well. The first step toward that goal is dealing harshly with our enemies.”

The National Review solution is blood and iron. They entitled their manifesto “An End to Illusion,” but whose illusions are they talking about? Theirs? Ours? Perhaps both. Reconciled to the reality – that our crusade in Iraq is a futile one – the last remnants of what had once been the conservative movement are reduced to the simple pleasures: “dealing harshly” with their perceived “enemies.” Especially their enemies on the home front.

And that, I’m afraid, is really the whole point.

What, one has to ask, was the purpose the Iraq war, if not to neutralize Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, or to punish him for his alleged links to Al Qaeda? Why are we in Iraq – and poised to enter into Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and the steppes of Central Asia?

The rising tide of bloodshed, the spiraling costs, the atmosphere of anticipatory terror in which we all live – what is it all for? I would suggest that, of all the items at the top of the neoconservative agenda – the defense of Israel, the elimination of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome,” the goal of “benevolent world hegemony,” as Bill Kristol describes the goal of American foreign policy, the defeat of an amorphous “terrorist threat” that seems to include any and all who resist the advance of American power – the real goal is much closer to home. What the neocons are after is the final overthrow of our old republic, and the completion of the transition to Empire.

I have spoken, today, of the neocons, short for neoconservatives, as if their identity and politics were not problematic. But who are these guys, anyway – and what do they believe? I have covered this topic not only in my columns, but in my first book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. (A book that is now, alas, out of print.) And so I won’t repeat myself here, except to say that this small but very influential sect of public intellectuals traces its origins to the radical left-wing of American politics. They started out as Trotskyites, morphed into Scoop Jackson Democrats, and, in the 1980s, found themselves in the right wing of the Republican party. Their theme, as long as the cold war lasted, had always been a bellicose foreign policy, animated by an obsessive hatred of their old enemies in the Kremlin. But with the implosion of the Red Empire, their raison d’etre was radically abbreviated: adrift in the post-cold war era, the neocon movement seemed to wither on the vine, and was fast losing ground to a new “isolationism” – that is, a new awareness that it was time to the U.S. government to start putting America and Americans first. The Republican leadership opposed the Kosovo war, and was critical of every one of Bill Clinton’s foreign adventures. Many conservatives were close to endorsing non-interventionism in principle.

Then came 9/11.

Their foreign policy, an unrestrained push for American dominance, had been a hard sell in the initial years of the post-cold war era, and their domestic agenda – dubbed “national greatness” conservatism, seemed far too grandiose for most. America, they argued, was enjoying what the columnist Charles Krauthammer called “the unipolar moment,” that is, unrivaled power on the world scene that caused the French to invent a new and slightly derisive label us: the hyperpower, i.e. a power that was so far above all others that it ascended to a whole new level. The US, argued Krauthammer, and others, had to seize this moment before it passed. Global hegemony was within our reach: we had only to reach out and grasp it. to realize all the dreams of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon combined.

This mindset was ready – nay, eager! – to embrace the post-9/11 principles of preemptive warfare and civilizational conflict, having formulated them long before. They moved with stunning speed to secure public support for policies that would normally be considered outrageous, and, while the nation was still numb with shock, started planning the Iraq war before the smoke had cleared from the skies over lower Manhattan.

Both Bob Woodward and former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, in their respective books, detail the story of how Cheney and Wolfowitz wanted to strike Iraq immediately after the World Trade Towers were hit, and the war planning began soon afterward, in November of 2001. Woodward details the testimony of Colin Powell, who was shocked to find that Cheney and his neocon minions had set up what Powell called “a separate government,” bypassing the elaborate system of institutional checks and balances, as well as congressional oversight, and manufactured the case for war out of whole cloth.

In a fascinating article in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described the mysterious origins and functions of a semi-secret Pentagon sub-agency, the “Office of Special Plans,” that fed raw intelligence of dubious provenance to a complicit White House and an even more gullible public, in what amounted to a systematic campaign of lies designed to push, cajole, and ultimately trick us into war.

This is all coming out now, and one big benefit to my job as editorial director of Antiwar.com is that I get to read the news of this as it comes off the wire. The neocons are – finally – getting their come-uppance. To which one can only add: Glory, glory, hallelujah!

But it’s too early to celebrate quite yet. The neocons may be discredited, that is, exposed as lying manipulators with a positively creepy obsession with bloodlust and a fixation on the Middle East. But they are far from defeated. Their main mission –getting us into Iraq – has succeeded. The United States is in there for at least a decade, if not more – and the terrorist threat is not ameliorated, but increased.

The sense that we are living in an emergency, in the midst of a crisis, is essential to the strategy of the neocons in gaining and keeping power. In the realm of foreign policy, it justifies our rampage through the Middle East, and all the aggressive posturing that they love. The end of history is postponed indefinitely.

It is on the home front, however, that the real battle is being waged, and it is on this battleground that the neocons show their true colors, coming out of the closet, so to speak, as what Claes Ryn and Paul Craig Roberts describe as “neo-Jacobins.” The original Jacobins were the most radical – and bloodthirsty – faction of the French Revolution, and when they gained power they set up the guillotine in the public square, created a police state, and launched a furious pogrom that ended only when Robespierre met his end on the very guillotine to which he had condemned thousands.

As the Robespierre of the neocons, George W. Bush is leading the charge to abridge if not abolish the Bill of Rights – and sweep away the last remnants of constitutional government in America. Pushing the lie that our government didn’t have the authority or the resources to stop a terrorist conspiracy that was years in the making, Bush not only wants to renew but to extend the odious “Patriot” Act, which translates the principle of preemptive war to the domestic scene. Government snoops can now read your email, as well as your snail mail, secretly search your home, lock you up without pressing any specific charges and hold you indefinitely – all without judicial oversight, which is merely perfunctory mandates acquiescence in the name of the “national emergency.”

The state of permanent emergency, created by a foreign policy that makes enemies aplenty, justifies, in turn, a rollback of civil liberties on the home front – and, of course, crushing taxation. War is the health of the State – this libertarian maxim, originally penned by the great turn-of-the-last-century classical liberal , Randolph Bourne, is grimly illustrated by recent events.

This is why libertarians oppose the war plans of our leaders, and why libertarianism is the polar opposite of neoconservatism. The tendency of war is to centralize economic and political power, to intrude the long arm of government into every sector of the private sphere, to militarize and regiment society and enforce uniformity of thought. George W. Bush’s program of perpetual war, in effect, means the overthrow of our old republic. In sounding the call to do battle against an amorphous and omnipresent enemy that cannot be defeated for at least a generation, he is sounding the death knell of the America political idea, which is of a government strictly limited by custom and the Constitution.

We are the last defenders of that idea left standing.

I say we, and let me take a moment, here, to explain where I’m coming from. I was a libertarian before there was a libertarian party, recruited to the movement in the days when libertarianism existed as a small but energetic faction of the larger conservative movement. We didn’t have any magazines, or any thinktanks – aside from the relatively small Foundation for Economic Education – or any real national group. All we had were a few newsletters, most of them mimeographed, not printed, and a large group of us, mostly students, were in the conservative Young Americans for Freedom (known as YAF), where we were a vocal and visible presence.

We saw how the George W. Bush of our era – Richard M. Nixon – escalated the war in Vietnam even as he instituted wage-and-price controls. The Republicans, we learned back then, were the party of war and Big Government – and the two inevitably went hand-in-hand. Today, history is repeating itself – and, if the first time was as tragedy, then the second time is farce of truly monumental proportions.

Although I am no longer a member of the Libertarian Party, I was active in the party for roughly a decade, from the presidential campaign of Roger MacBride to that of Ed Clark, the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties, and so being invited to speak here is, for me, a special treat. It gives me the chance to say what I have always wanted to say to my – well, I won’t say comrades, because that word has unfortunate historical connotations – but you get the idea. And what I want to say is this:

This country needs a strong libertarian party, a party of liberty, as never before in its history. Perhaps not since the first American libertarians decided they’d had enough of the English King and decided to venture out on their own. Whether we have to take the course they took, at Lexington and Concord, and take back our country from a conniving cabal through means not limited to the ballot box remains to be seen. That, however, is the worst case scenario, and, I am more of an optimist, by nature, than that.

The American people are not easily pushed around, or at least not so easily as the neocons seem to think The conniving cabal that pulled off a veritable coup d’etat, and dragged us into war, is now being exposed, and one thing they don’t like is the spotlight. That is one of Antiwar.com’s greatest achievements, I am proud to say: the perfidious role of the neocons, formerly obscure, is now common knowledge.

My very first article posted on Antiwar.com, back in the early 1990s, was a screed exposing their key role as the sparkplug of the War Party, the energizing factor behind the push to involve us in conflicts from Kosovo to Cairo. Back then, hardly anyone knew what I was talking about. Today their history as the troublesome catalyst for much of the conflict in the world is well-known. While the neocons deny their own existence, generally, and deride such political folklore as a “conspiracy theory,” and worse, the degree to which our present peril has been traced back to them was brought home to me the other day when I was talking politics with my mailman.

“Oh, this war,” he said – it was all the handiwork of “those neocons!”

Yes, the world doesn’t want for bad guys, these days. There seems to be an oversupply of evil on the market. But who are the good guys? Or, rather, where are they?

For the most part, I am sad to say, libertarians have not played the key role they ought to be playing during this crucial time. As we face the greatest threat to our liberties since the Alien and Sedition Acts, and the machinations of the Federalist Party, a few have played exemplary roles as individuals. I am thinking here of people like James Bovard, whose book, Terrorism and Tyranny, has done much to expose the statist agenda behind the War Party’s fulminations. I am thinking of Karen Kwiatkowski, whose inside account of the shenanigans engaged in by the Office of Special Plans preceded the revelations of Richard Clarke and Colin Powell via Bob Woodward. I am thinking of the dedicated staff and governing board of Antiwar.com, which gave libertarians a platform from which to address an audience of 50,000-plus daily.

But as an organized movement, a party – the party of liberty – libertarians have taken no leadership role in the fightback. At a time when libertarians ought to be providing political as well as ideological leadership to the variegated forces that oppose this war, our voice has sometimes been equivocal. The Libertarian Party has acted as if all issues are equally important, and given the question of war and peace no more attention than they would the privatization of garbage collection or the abolition of local sales taxes. If any war has seemed to concern them above all others, it is the so-called “war on drugs.”

In short, libertarians have good ideas, but they lack any strategic sense. They don’t know how to prioritize, and often they just refuse to. A good example is the decision to invite noted warmonger and Bush defender Neal Boortz as a major speaker at the LP National Convention – on the grounds that his general opposition to government regulation, and especially gun control laws, overrides (or renders irrelevant) his disagreement with the official position of the party on the war, the “PATRIOT” Act, and the growing prospect of future overseas conflicts.

This is a grave error, one that will ensure that the great opportunities presented by the current crisis will pass us right by. We aren’t Republicans, and haven’t been since Nixon bombed Cambodia, cut the last links between legal tender and gold, and ushered in the era of Republican Big Government, and we have to stop pretending otherwise. Of course, we aren’t Democrats, either, but their constituency – antiwar, pro-civil liberties, anti-neocon – is clearly up for grabs. John Kerry is positioning himself to the right of Bush on foreign policy: he not only refuses to call for an exit strategy in Iraq, but talks about how we’re “trying to do it on the cheap.” We have to really get in there and “nation-build,” he says. But the whole point is that it isn’t our nation to build.

Americans don’t want an Empire on which the sun never sets: they broke away from such an entity on the occasion of their birth as a nation, and it isn’t in their character to want one of their own. Opposition to this war, and the foreign policy that made it inevitable, is running high: more than half the people oppose it. Yet both “major” party candidates support the war, the “nation-building,” the pernicious idea that we can or should “pay any price, bear any burden,” as John F. Kennedy put it during the cold war era – pernicious because the price is our liberty, our unique identity as Americans.

Ralph Nader shows some promise: he has started out his campaign by attacking Bush as a “messianic militarist,” and calling for “a date certain” for a US withdrawal from Iraq, suggesting that we set a deadline of six months from now. This is derided by the “majors” as hopeless radicalism, and both Bush and Kerry denounced it as irresponsible, yet it is a stance taken by as much as half the voters, whose position goes unrepresented by either of the two parties.

Where is the Libertarian Party in all this? If the LP is going to survive well into the 21st century, it must make a focused and energetic appeal to antiwar sentiment, and the growing number of voters for whom this is the most important issue, some 35 percent. But Nader is stealing what ought to be our thunder. While the LP engages in a protracted internal discussion and nominating procedure, Nader is already on the campaign trail, tying up the third party vote.

Okay, so the presidential sweepstakes is largely symbolic, a publicity-generating device which is supposed to benefit local candidates. But what kind of local races is the LP running? In California, where I’ve lived for the past 30-plus years, the party is fielding a full slate of candidates for … local Water Boards, local Community College Boards, and a host of other obscure elected offices – hardly the sort of races that lend themselves to discussions of foreign policy. But why not run for Congress, in races where both “major’ candidates represent the two-party consensus on the war and our interventionist foreign policy? During the Vietnam war era, independent peace candidates running in general elections as well as Democratic primaries gained a real electoral foothold and, with a little sustained effort, might have cultivated a solid political base.

Certainly the Libertarian Party represents nothing if not a sustained effort. What is lacking is political imagination, and a basic strategic sense. For over 30 years, the LP has held high the banner of liberty every election season, hoping against hope that, this year, they’d make the big breakthrough and garner national attention. It has yet to happen, but if it ever does, it is bound to be in a time of tumult very much like the year 2004. The opportunity is there, but is the leadership?

The answer is not yet clear.

Outreach – it’s on the agenda at all the national and state LP committee meetings, but it has no living embodiment. The primary party publication, the LP News, a monthly newspaper, is typically devoted to the arcane world of the party itself: so-and-so did this, that party official said this, blah blah blah, of no possible interest to anyone unless they are already a member – and to a precious few of those.

To read the LP News, you’d never know there was a war on, You’d never know that this has been the bloodiest month of the war so far, with the prospect of more looming as an immediate likelihood. In the literature and public pronouncements of the LP there is scant mention of the most important issue we are all facing, and that is the question of war and peace.

Most people don’t sit down and decide which ideology to adopt, like buying a new suit and trying on different styles systematically and consciously. People are rarely recruited into an ideological movement on the basis of pure abstractions. What actually occurs is that they gradually come to accept its precepts and authority as they see the power of its ideas in action.

There is only one way forward for the libertarian movement, and that is as the catalyst of a mass-based, non-leftist antiwar movement, fiercely dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and organized outside the two “major” parties – albeit not without making inroads on each. We also have to begin to recruit from the Left as well as the Right. Young people today are not attracted to Marxism, but to anarchism of the left-wing variety. The question of how these young lefties are going to achieve a society that is at once property-less and State-less is a conundrum that ought to baffle them, if only it is brought to their attention. Unfortunately, they never get to hear such arguments, since libertarians are so busy playing footsie with Neal Boortz and the Republicans.

Libertarianism, as it comes of age politically, is bound to reassert itself as an ideology that goes beyond “left” and “right.” These archaic categories, based on the seating arrangements in the French Parliament circa 1790, serve only to mask the real ideological divide in this country – but that is another lecture altogether, and, I fear, a much longer one ….

Read more by Justin Raimondo