U.S. vs. Them

U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security
J. Peter Scoblic
Viking, 2008
350 pp.

From what stems the disastrous course of U.S. foreign policy? J. Peter Scoblic, an editor at the New Republic, argues that labels are easily applied but explain little: "calling the Iraq war a unilateral, military adventure justified by cherry-picked intelligence may be an accurate assessment, but it does not tell us why the Bush administration pursued such a war. Why was the administration inclined toward unilateralism, militarism, and deceit?"

He argues, in a measured and usually persuasive book, that the Bush administration’s policy results naturally from modern conservative philosophy. He writes, "Cold War conservatism, initiated as a response to the perceived excesses of liberalism at home and the dangers of communism abroad, combined exceptionalist ideas into a particularly extreme form at a particularly fraught time."

The result was a good versus evil, us versus them approach that ignored international complexities. This policy was inadequate even during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was an evil empire, and is even less effective today. Indeed, in Scoblic’s view, the administration "has exacerbated the threat we face from nuclear terrorism," with its one success, Libya, being "achieved only because it violated the very principles that have guided the rest of its policies."

There is, of course, an older conservative foreign policy tradition. The principle of nonintervention in foreign affairs and wars goes back to America’s founding. Although the U.S. was aggressively expansionist on the North American continent, it did not engage in overseas conquest until the Spanish-American War of 1898. The traditionalist reaction to America’s foolish entry into World War I generated strong opposition to U.S. involvement in World War II. However, the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president and death of Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft effectively destroyed what remained of non-interventionism as a political movement. Eisenhower was a cautious activist, but he was no Taft.

Moreover, Scoblic points to "the rise of the new conservatism," namely the right shaped by William F. Buckley and others like him. Reading about the growth of the Cold War Right, and its reaction against Eisenhower’s more moderate conservatism, reminds one just how radical was this "new conservative" vision. For instance, Buckley contended that Ike had a "deficient understanding" of communism. Buckley and his allies wanted liberation, not containment; they wanted preventive war, not deterrence. This philosophy mattered, writes Scoblic, because "the conservative movement was about to move from the intellectual fringe to the political mainstream, enabling it to translate theory into action."

Of course, it took time before this Cold War conservatism dictated policy. Barry Goldwater was a dynamic standard-bearer of the more aggressive, unilateralist conservatives, but he went down to defeat in 1964. Richard Nixon won in 1968, only to quickly fall out of favor with the Right. Observes Scoblic: "The hard-line anti-communist they had elected president seemed to have been replaced with a liberal doppelganger."

Conservatives then had to endure the disappointing presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Around this time the neoconservatives emerged, many of them behind Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson (D-Wash.), the leading welfare-warfare state advocate on Capitol Hill. They organized against what they saw as the growing Soviet menace, creating the Committee on the President Danger and lining up behind Ronald Reagan.

Despite his public image, Reagan was a complex figure who "epitomized the libertarianism, traditionalism, and anticommunism that had fused in the 1950s to create the modern conservative movement," writes Scoblic. "Reagan also capitalized on the Right’s grassroots nationalism, matching its fear of Soviet evil with an idealized view of American good."

Reagan seemed like a perfect match for hard-line conservatives, especially neoconservatives, and Scoblic documents how Reagan’s policies began on the hawkish side. But Ronald Reagan, despite scathing denunciations by the Left tagging him as a cowboy and warmonger, was horrified by the prospect of war, especially a nuclear exchange that could destroy much of human civilization. He shifted course, enduring more than his share of epithets from the hard Right. It is worth remembering what neoconservatives said of the peacenik Reagan when they attempt to appropriate his legacy today. "Reagan’s status as a pariah of the conservative movement changed after the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended, and the Soviet Union broke up," writes Scoblic.

The end of the Cold War created the possibility of a serious conservative crackup. The neoconservatives naturally saw the collapse of America’s hegemonic opponent as an opportunity to micro-manage the rest of the world. Notes Scoblic, they "embraced democratization as the logical ideological successor to anticommunism." But not all conservatives were enthused about expanding government and sacrificing liberty at home in order to engage in dubious crusades abroad. Pat Buchanan represented the small government anti-communists who wanted to turn inward. And then, writes Scoblic, "somewhere between neoconservative messianism and Buchananite isolationism, nationalist conservatives were fashioning a more restrictive view of U.S. involvement abroad, redefining conservatism as ‘realistic’ – by which they meant not Kissingerian but antiutopian." Vice President Richard Cheney and former UN Ambassador John Bolton well represent this faction.

The neoconservatives and nationalists came together under President George W. Bush and gave America the Iraq war. But why Iraq, asks Scoblic, when both North Korea and Iran had more advanced nuclear programs? He devotes a chapter to the question and offers a plausible answer, though we won’t know for certain unless President George W. Bush reveals his thinking.

Writes Scoblic:

"What truly made Iraq unique, then, was not only that it epitomized the failure of containment, but also that it offered the possibility of redemption through military rollback – a morally pure solution to an ugly problem. It allowed us to go on the offense rather than simply managing a problem. It eliminated the root evil, rather than demanding some sort of coexistence with it. In some ways, then, the preferred means of policy dictated the preferred ends of policy. If Iraq did not fit the precepts of conservatism any more closely, it better fit the ramifications of those precepts. In short, Iraq was the most invadable member of the axis of evil."

Of course, the results of administration policy turned out rather different than expected. Iraq turned into a national charnel house rather than an example of American-style democracy along the Euphrates River. North Korea reprocessed enough nuclear fuel into plutonium to make an additional ten nuclear weapons. Iran apparently moved ahead with its nuclear program as its geostrategic position strengthened. Pakistan proliferated around the globe while growing increasingly unstable politically. Osama bin Laden remained at large and Afghanistan’s security deteriorated. Russia asserted itself in the Caucasus.

The results were bad by any measure. Scoblic focuses on the question of nuclear proliferation and risk of nuclear terrorism. On this score, the world situation has significantly worsened under the Bush administration.

Ironically, though Bush has not adjusted his foreign policy as dramatically as did Reagan, the current president has flipped. Writes Scoblic: "Despite his intransigence on Iraq, Bush’s foreign policy began perceptibly to change. The president still saw the war on terrorism as a Manichaean struggle," but he replaced both advisers and policies. Pained squeals from neoconservatives grew as loud as they had been under Reagan. Nevertheless, overall Bush’s policy remained aggressive if not quite so unilateralist.

Scoblic attempts to explain the political appeal of a good vs. evil, us vs. them approach in psychological terms. While plausible, it remains a stretch. It isn’t difficult to understand the results of the 2004 election in terms of an unattractive challenger who on critical issues sounded like a me-too candidate, voting for the war before voting against it, for instance. Moreover, there is nothing inherent to conservatism that leads to George W. Bush’s or John McCain’s foreign policy. Libertarians, paleos, and traditionalists may constitute a minority in conservative ranks, but they are still active and all lay claim to the conservative tradition.

U.S. vs. Them closes with Scoblic arguing that proliferation represents America’s greatest security challenge. As a result, he contends, there is a "need to reaffirm the nonproliferation regime, strengthen that regime through our own actions, and lead others in forging a new compact that will stymie states like Iran and confound would-be nuclear terrorism."

Logical and important goals, and well worth pursuing. But proliferation is not necessarily the gravest threat facing America today. A renewed rivalry with a nuclear-armed Russia is a potentially significant danger. The possibility of a future clash with a rising, nuclear-armed China is a threat more in the future. The potential of being dragged into war by irresponsible alliance members or less formal friends, such as Georgia, seems like an increasingly serious possibility. There will be tradeoffs, even when it comes to proliferation. Might a nuclear-armed Ukraine be better for the U.S. than an American defense guarantee for Ukraine? Should Washington threaten to use nuclear weapons against China to defend Japan, when the latter could easily create a modest deterrent?

Both unilateralist neoconservatives and multilateralist liberals embrace near-absolute nonproliferation and place almost all security responsibilities on the U.S., though perhaps for different reasons. Neither perspective is satisfactory. There are better alternatives that conservatives and liberals alike might embrace: cooperative noninterventionism, for instance, in which the U.S. generally avoids military involvement in foreign quarrels but works with other states politically, economically, and culturally. Or "ethical realism," as John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven have proposed, leavening a sensible caution of overseas involvement and tough-minded calculation of national interest with moral considerations.

Scoblic closes with an argument over what our foreign policy should be, but the focus of his book remains on why today’s conservatives have given us today’s foreign policy. Well-researched and well-written, it will enlighten anyone seeking to understand today’s foreign policy mess. We still might not know why George W. Bush did what he did, but we better understand where his philosophy came from and why others advocated the policies that he adopted.