When I was growing up in the early 2000’s, I just took it for granted that the Left was antiwar and the Right was militaristic. This perception pushed me to become a liberal in college before meandering my way into libertarianism through the Ron Paul campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Today I would consider myself a libertarian-leaning conservative or perhaps a conservative-leaning libertarian. But it was the myth that the Left was antiwar and the Right was hawkish that kept me away for so long. It took me some time to realize that the Left’s antiwar history was merely a myth.
This myth primarily comes from three things. The first was leftwing opposition to the war in Vietnam and the second was the leftwing opposition to the second war in Iraq. Finally, there is a contingent on the Left that is pretty much always antiwar, such as Glenn Greenwald. But others are really not so much against war, but just on the other side. For example, Jane Fonda’s escapades in Vietnam or the Communist Party of the United States.
A look back through American history quickly shows that at least the mainstream Left has been far more hawkish than the Right. Going all the way back to the Spanish-American War, progressive and feminist leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton said, "Though I hate war per se, I am glad that it has come in this instance. I would like to see Spain… swept from the face of the earth."
While the parties have certainly changed over the years, it’s first worth noting that the United States became involved in each of its four major wars in the 20th century under Democratic Presidents; World War I under Woodrow Wilson, World War II under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Korean War under Harry Truman and the Vietnam War under Lyndon Johnson. And while World War II was necessary to fight, could there have been a more pointless, bloody waste that the first World War?
Regarding the Republicans, Ron Paul first gained my interest in the 2008 presidential debates when he observed that,
"The Republicans were elected to end the Korean War. The Republicans were elected to end the Vietnam War. There’s a strong tradition of being antiwar in the Republican Party."
I should point out that he’s not referencing any dyed-in-the-wool libertarians here.
Indeed, as far as the general population was concerned, there was little difference in how Republicans and Democrats viewed the Vietnam war. According to Gallup, at the beginning (1965), 28 percent of Republicans opposed the war as compared to 22 percent of Democrats. Even by 1971, the percentages were about identical.
Even the Iraq war was not as partisan as many seem to remember. In 2002, only 19 percent of Democrats opposed it (as compared to eight percent of Republicans). A major gap didn’t start to emerge until early 2004.
Pretty much every major Democrat supported the war. The Washington Post and New York Times both supported the conflict. As did many noteworthy liberals such as Christopher Hitchens, George Packer, Jacob Weisberg, Thomas Friedman, Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias and Al Franken. Senate Democrats voted in favor of granting the Bush Administration authorization invade Iraq 25 to 20.
Barack Obama may have softly opposed the War in Iraq, but he was no peacenik while in office. As President he became the first two-term president in American history to be at war every single day of his administration. He bombed a total of seven countries, escalated the conflict in Afghanistan, overthrew the government of Libya and came within inches of attacking Syria. Even without a war, the Pentagon and CIA both supported the "moderate rebels" leading to a headline from The Los Angeles Times that perfectly encapsulates the foolish nature of our current foreign policy; "In Syria, militias armed by the Pentagon fight those armed by the CIA."
Regarding Libya, according to a Pew poll, more Democrats (33 percent) than Republicans (27 percent) believed the "U.S. has a responsibility to do something about fighting in Libya." Today Libya – which had been run by a brutal, but relatively functional dictatorship – is largely in ruins with open-air chattel slave markets spotting the landscape.
The conflict in Afghanistan has entered it’s 18th year and is the longest war in American? What can we really accomplish there? In Syria, if Assad – as terrible as he is – were to be overthrown, who would take his place? What are the odds it would not be a group like ISIS or Al Qaeda? And what on Earth are doing supporting Saudi Arabia’s brutal war against Yemen?
It’s time to come to terms with the fact that conservatives were hoodwinked into supporting a hyper-aggressive foreign policy after 9/11. It was the neoconservative elements within the Bush Administration that pushed the United States into a quagmire of endless interventions; most notably the Iraq War. A war we can now see was clearly a disaster; with thousands of American troops dead and tens of thousands wounded as well as tens of thousands of excess suicides, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi’s and trillions of dollars wasted. And for what? A bunch of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist?
We should remember that there really isn’t anything conservative (nor new for that matter) about neoconservatives. In fact, you can trace neoconservatives’ intellectual roots back not to John Locke, Edmund Burke or Thomas Aquinas, but to one Leon Trotsky. That is somehow not a joke.
Instead, we should recall what George W. Bush said when he was a presidential candidate in 2000, "If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us." Indeed, the 2000 Republican Party Platform criticized Bill Clinton and the Democrats for being too aggressive in their foreign policy, particularly regarding Kosovo (an intervention that most Republicans opposed and most Democrats supported).
This type of foreign policy harkens back to the Founders of this country whom conservatives rightly admire. It was George Washington who warned not to "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalships, interest, humor, or caprice" and Thomas Jefferson who reiterated "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."
Of course, I’m not arguing conservatives should be pacifists. There are times when war is required; namely to defend ourselves. And we should absolutely support the troops, particularly when they come home wounded. But such considerations aside, we should be very cautious when it comes to using that military. Indeed, while conservatives want a smaller government, we can’t forget the absolutely enormous size of the American military ($590 billion in 2017) and the tax burden that puts on the American citizenry.
Furthermore, wars have a very destabilizing effect on society. Conservatives know that government policies often bring about unintended consequences, but what could do this more so than war? While by no means all of the changes in American society over the last 100 years have been bad, it’s hard not to notice that many of the major social dislocations that uprooted various American traditions have taken place during or right after a major conflict. The late 1960’s is just one example. And if we look abroad, the changes of the 1960’s pale in comparison to the Bolshevik Revolution or the rise of the Nazis.
As for those grandiose "humanitarian interventions" or neoconservative delusions of grandeur in "remaking the world," war makes for a catastrophically poor instrument. Conservatives should see the idea that war can remake the world in America’s image as the utopian nonsense it is. As Russell Kirk wrote,
“Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent – or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster."
What could be more "utopian" than trying to forcibly bring democracy to the Middle East? Such a doomed idea really is a liberal project.
Andrew Syrios is a partner in the real estate investment firm Stewardship Properties. He has a Bachelor Degree from the University of Oregon with a degree in Business Administration and a Graduate from the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He writes for the Mises Institute and blogs at AndrewSyrios.com.