Grover Norquist is a bit of a punching bag for both the Hollywood–DC left and the neoconservative right. On the left, he’s often held up as an example of everything that’s supposedly wrong with the conservative movement and the GOP: his “no tax hike” pledge is excoriated by the Huffingtonpost–MSNBC–TPM axis of Obamaism as typical of “know-nothing” conservatism. On the neocon right, he’s viciously attacked as an “Islamist,” a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood far more dangerous than, say, Huma Abedin — in part because he’s an influential conservative married to an Arab woman. For both groups, he’s a bit of a Rasputin, with his weekly meetings of Washington-based conservative activists characterized as something between the right-wing equivalent of the Bilderbergs (or is that Bilderbergers?) and Opus Dei.
Now he’s gone and done something bound to induce paroxysms of rage — or disbelief — in members of both groups: he’s denouncing the newly-minted Republican ticket — particularly Paul Ryan and his infamous budget — for refusing to countenance cuts in the military, and he’s doing it in style. In a talk given at the Center for the National Interest (formerly the Nixon Center), he ripped into Ryan for refusing to consider cuts in the military budget.
First, some background: The Budget Control Act, passed in 2011, calls for “sequestration,” i.e. across-the-board cuts in both military and domestic spending in order to (eventually, in theory) balance the federal budget. The usual suspects have been decrying this, especially Republican hawks like Lindsey Graham and the powerful Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who want to increase military spending. Their solution? Close “tax loopholes” and end deductions to avoid sequestration. To our Washington grandees, any income they allow you to keep for yourself is a “loophole,” since they own you, body and soul — and they will close it if the alternative is giving up another war in the Middle East.
Norquist throws down the gauntlet at these spendthrift imperialists: “We can afford to have an adequate national defense which keeps us free and safe and keeps everybody afraid to throw a punch at us, as long as we don’t make some of the decisions that previous administrations have, which is to over extend ourselves overseas and think we can run foreign governments.” Washington can’t give marching orders to its own citizens with much effect, he averred, so why do we think we can do it in faraway Afghanistan?
He takes aim squarely at the Ryan budget, which has been adopted by the House GOP and is now at the center of the presidential campaign, characterizing it as typical of the Graham-McKeon spend-spend-spend mentality, which is an echo of the Bush years. Ryan’s proposed budget would increase military spending by $20 billion and is bereft of cost-cutting reforms. As Norquist put it:
“Other people need to lead the argument on how can conservatives lead a fight to have a serious national defense without wasting money. I wouldn’t ask Ryan to be the reformer of the defense establishment.”
Even in purely domestic terms Ryan’s budget is a farce: it projects a balanced budget in thirty years, and politically it’s a joke. He’s basically telling American voters they have to give up their Medicare and other benefits so that we can ensure the eternal prosperity of the military-industrial complex and maintain our overseas empire. And while Ryan is handing out goodies to the Pentagon, Graham and McKeon “are saying ‘can we steal all your deductions and credits and give it to the appropriators.’ The idea is that you are going to raise taxes on people to not think through defense priorities.”
Ah, but we know what are the priorities of politicians like Sen. Graham, he who hailed the “liberation” of Libya and his now agitating for overt US intervention in Syria. To the Grahams of this world, the slightest hesitation to meddle in the world’s many trouble spots is “isolationism.” In the US Senate, he and John McCain and Joe Lieberman function as the three harpies of perpetual war: whenever an opportunity comes up for increased American meddling, there is Lindsey the Conqueror, and his cohorts, butching it up for the cameras. He could care less about balancing the budget — unless it’s on the backs of little old ladies living on all the cat food their tiny Social Security checks can buy.
While the conventional wisdom in Washington is that sequestration would be a disaster, and that the cuts it would require would be “arbitrary,” as Josh Rogin writes in Foreign Policy, the reality is that there is so much waste and downright illegitimate spending in the military budget that the effect is bound to be beneficial. As Norquist says: “
“You will get serious conversation from the advocates of Pentagon spending when they understand ‘here’s the dollar amount, now make decisions. [Republican hawks] want to argue you have to raise taxes.”
“Here’s the good news. There’s a very small number of them. The handful of [Republicans] that support that are either not coming back or they don’t know yet that they are not coming back.”
Norquist, in his talk, endorsed a non-interventionist foreign policy and vowed to fight the effort to avoid sequestration by increasing taxes and leaving the military budget untouched.
Norquist has said this kind of thing before, but it’s the timing that makes it significant. We’re at the starting gate of what promises to be a hard fought presidential election, and the Republicans have just rolled out their Achilles — only to see one of the most prominent leaders of the conservative movement take a few well-aimed potshots at him. And it’s over what is basically a foreign policy issue: sure, Grover frames it as part of his no-new-taxes crusade, but as Garet Garrett so presciently put it in 1952:
“A second mark by which you may unmistakably distinguish Empire is: ‘Domestic policy becomes subordinate to foreign policy.’ That happened to Rome. It has happened to every Empire. . . . The fact now to be faced is that it has happened also to us.”
Garrett’s was the premier journalistic voice of American conservatism at a time when the neocons (or their intellectual ancestors) were still hanging out with Leon Trotsky. It was a conservatism that understood the idea of limits, and looked to the examples of Rome and Britain as warnings to be heeded rather than exemplars to be imitated. By the time Garrett wrote the above cited words, that conservatism was already losing out to invaders from the left, neoconservative “intellectuals” migrating rightward who took with them their world-saving “internationalism” while ditching socialist economics.
Garrett’s pamphlet, little read at the time it was published, he entitled “Rise of Empire.” Sixty years later, that empire is not only fully risen, but it shows unmistakable signs of decline and imminent fall. We are facing more than a “budget crisis”: bankruptcy is staring us in the face. We must choose between pauperism and cutting back on a world empire that is an albatross hung ‘round our necks.
This has the neocons in a panic: they would go bankrupt rather than see the frontiers of empire contract by so much as an inch. However, they dare not declare such a perverse proclivity out loud. Instead, they join with the left in calling for tax hikes so that we can afford to send an armada to the Gulf and celebrate the destruction of yet another Muslim country. Yet even here, they lack the courage of their convictions: “The guys who are saying ‘we’re not going to cut Pentagon spending but we want to raise taxes,’ they aren’t making a sale,” says Norquist. “They are saying it’s not a tax increase. It is, it is, it is.”
Of course it is, but Norquist’s critique of the Republican war-hawks isn’t just a green-eyeshades view. He launches a full-scale frontal assault on the Republican wing of the War Party:
“Bush decided to be the mayor of Baghdad rather than the president of the United States. He decided to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan rather than reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That had tremendous consequences.”
He challenges Romney as well, disdaining the GOP standard-bearer’s pledge to maintain military spending at 4 percent of GDP. This formulaic approach needs to be abandoned and replaced, he says, by a realistic assessment of our legitimate defense needs. Only then can we come up with a reality-based military budget. “Richard Nixon said that America’s national defense needs are set in Moscow,” Norquist opined, “meaning that we wouldn’t have to spend so much if they weren’t shooting at us. The guys who followed didn’t notice that the Soviet Union disappeared.”
They didn’t notice because doing so would have disrupted the smooth functioning of what Murray Rothbard called the Welfare-Warfare State — the massive post-war inheritance of the New Deal, which simultaneously created a welfare state at home and an overweening US presence abroad — an empire of satellite nations, protectorates, and far-flung military bases.
The politics of this system is based on a trade-off between the “left” and the “right”: conservatives get massive military spending in exchange for going along with tax hikes and increased spending on domestic government programs — and liberals go along with it because there’s a pay off, and also because a great many are just as reflexively hawkish as any Republican.
The fiscal crisis is
dramatizing how this works — and, in the process, outing the
Lindsey Grahams of the GOP as closet tax-hikers. I just hope
Grover’s prediction that they “are either not coming
back or they don’t know yet that they are not coming back”
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
This is being published on the third day of our late summer fundraising campaign, and I think this particular column underscores what has been our main goal: to broaden and deepen the traditional “antiwar” movement. From the very beginning, Antiwar.com has been all about building a new anti-interventionist alliance that spans the ideological spectrum and defies the traditional categories of “left” and “right.” During the 1960s and ever since to say “antiwar” is to conjure the counterculture, and all the ideological and “lifestyle” baggage that goes with it. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but the whole idea of a movement for social change is to reach out to the great American majority — that “silent majority” Richard Nixon used to invoke. Today, the silent majority is the overwhelming number of Americans who are sick and tired of endless wars and want a reevaluation of our foreign policy of global meddling.
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