Conservative Confusion on Iran

The process whereby the neoconservatives were able to hijack the Republican Party’s foreign policy has been dissected and analyzed frequently over the past two years. Perhaps more disturbing in the long term, however, is their success at hijacking the label "conservative." When broadcast journalists Brian Williams and Katie Couric describe someone as a conservative Republican, they are frequently actually referring to a neoconservative. When a Sunday morning talk show has a "conservative" on a panel to provide "balance," he is more often than not a neoconservative. This access to the media as the purported standard-bearers of conservatism has proven useful, as it enables the neocons to continue to have a major voice on policy in spite of being wrong on every major issue. It also empowers them to constantly spin and refine their story, exonerating themselves while fear-mongering that there are new dangers that have to be dealt with, more dragons to slay.

Most Republicans, like most voters, prefer not to think very much about what the "conservative" label means. Conservatism means supporting traditional ways of doing things domestically, i.e., not embracing radical change, and a strong defense policy overseas. Apart from that, there is not a great deal of refinement in the public’s view of conservatism. For many, a desirable defense and security policy is precisely what the neocons have created, a vengeful lashing out at the rest of the brown-skinned, non-Christian, ostensibly terrorism-fostering world using the maximum military force to complete the job. In line with that simplistic worldview, many self-described conservatives continue to defend President George W. Bush and his neocon foreign policy only because they believe it important to support a Republican president come hell or high water, not because they have considered the issues or the ups and downs of the policies that are being pursued. They take it on faith that Iran is bad and will have to be dealt with firmly, because, after all, that is what they are constantly seeing and hearing on television and reading in the newspapers, mostly coming from the same neocons who brought us Iraq.

But there is no free ride, politically speaking, and bad policies eventually result in a price paid at the voting box. As the Iraq war is now disapproved of by more than two-thirds of Americans and further involvement in Iran is equally unpopular, Republicans and conservatives will have to rethink American their foreign policy if they ever hope to regain majority party status. In so doing, they should return to the conservative principles that were delineated by the Founding Fathers, Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan prior to the hijacking of the conservative label under George W. Bush.

The first principle for conservatives is that war is a "last option" to be employed when all else fails and there is a direct and imminent danger to the United States. U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen are a precious commodity not be wasted in pointless wars, and our armed services are not an appropriate instrument for rebuilding or reforming other nations. Iran’s form of government is none of our business, and Tehran does not currently pose a level of threat to the American people that would justify military action. Ronald Reagan put it best: "The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise: the United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor." Barry Goldwater recommended that U.S. foreign policy "make it clear to all nations of this world that we have no desire to expand our territory or to impose our type of government or our way of life on any other people." Prior to George Bush, Republicans and conservatives have traditionally been reluctant warriors. In the last century, the First World War, Second World War, Korea, and the escalation in Vietnam all took place under Democratic administrations with considerable dissent from Republicans.

In line with a reluctance to go to war, conservatives have always believed that the first line of defense is diplomacy. Diplomacy supports the national interest without unleashing the unintended consequences that arise from warfare. As Russell Kirk put it, "A sound conservative foreign policy in the age which is dawning should be neither ‘interventionist’ nor ‘isolationist’; it should be prudent." Diplomacy between the United States and Iran has not really been tried but is being dismissed by both the Bush administration and presidential candidate John McCain as naïve. It is time to do the proper and prudent conservative thing, which means sitting down and talking to Iran, with no preconditions and with all issues on the table.

Conservatives also recognize that while the first victim in war is certainly truth in the media, the second victim is invariably civil liberties and the Constitution. War means armies, police, taxes, big government, and restriction of personal freedoms. It erodes fundamental rights and nearly always means intrusion into the private lives of citizens through laws that remain in place even after the foreign threat has disappeared. As James Madison wrote, ""If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. … Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 put it even more starkly, calling on Americans to avoid "the necessity of those overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty." If Iraq, Afghanistan, and the largely fictional global war on terrorism produced the PATRIOT Act, the Military Commissions Act, the loss of FISA court controls, and the unitary executive concept, it is useful to consider what a more serious war with Iran might bring. The United States does not need to dismantle more of the Constitution to fight yet another war of choice, because doing so will not make us any safer, only less free.

Fiscal responsibility, a strong dollar, and maintaining the economic well-being of the citizens are also traditional conservative agendas. The war with Iraq has been an economic catastrophe, coupled with a sinking dollar, spiraling debt, and surging oil prices. Much of the U.S. public debt is now in the hands of an adversary, China. A war against Iran will bring a terrible "energy shock" and will only make things worse for the average American. It could sink the U.S. dollar forever as the world flees from its use as a reserve currency. As Ron Paul put it, "The moral and constitutional obligations of our representatives in Washington are to protect our liberty, not coddle the world, precipitating no-win wars, while bringing bankruptcy and economic turmoil to our people."

Finally, conservatives traditionally understand that foreign and defense policy should ultimately benefit the United States and its people. The government should be empowered to protect American citizens against foreign threats and terrorism, not to create new terrorists through ill-advised interventions overseas. Our nation, which has always been respected for its fair dealing and its liberties, is now looked down upon by most of the world due to its bullying and intransigence. John Quincy Adams said that "America does not need to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Attacking Iran would unleash a new wave of international terrorism and would convince much of the world that Washington is intent on changing governments willy-nilly and exterminating Muslims. America does not need another 9/11. Referring to the terrorism problem, Pat Buchanan has written, "We need to remove the motivation for it by extricating the United States from ethnic, religious, and historical quarrels that are not ours and which we cannot resolve with any finality." George Washington put it another way in his Farewell Address, that the United States should "Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it. It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence." George Washington’s advice, once revered by all true conservatives, was good in 1796, and it is still good today.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.