I‘ve always loved needling Bill Kristol and his neoconservative buddies as lefties in conservative drag: their whole “national greatness” agenda is such a dead giveaway that I often wondered how anyone to the right of, say, John McCain, could possibly be taken in by it. In column after column, I’ve exposed and excoriated the neocons as caring more about conquering the world than any merely domestic policy imperative: I even felt a strange affinity for them, and particularly Kristol, because the guys at the Weekly Standard truly care about foreign policy, albeit from a perspective that is the exact opposite of mine.
You see, they really really want to impose what Kristol calls “benevolent global hegemony” on the world, so bad they can practically taste it. That’s why the Standard gang has been rather, uh, promiscuous when it comes to presidential politics, first jumping on the short-lived Colin Powell bandwagon, and when that failed to get off the ground glomming on to George W. Bush. But when the Bushies failed to stand at attention while the little Lenin of neoconservatism imparted reams of unsolicited advice, Kristol & Co. turned to McCain, whose bloodthirstiness seemed to match even their own.
THEY CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION
What the neocons need, and depend on, the way a drug addict depends on his fix, is power presidential power. Only the President of the United States has the power to make their dreams of Empire come true; only he can send the troops in with a single command, without consulting Congress or even informing them. That is why they have been lusting mightily after a direct line to the White House: otherwise, as the old song put it, they can’t get no satisfaction.
The neocons famously described as “liberals who have been mugged” jumped ship on the left in the aftermath of the Vietnam war and the “McGovernization” of the Democratic party in the ’70s and early ’80s. They attached themselves to the tail end of the victorious conservative movement just as it was marching into Washington and unseating the liberal establishment, to which they had paid fealty for all the years of its unchallenged dominance. Over time, they had taken a number of widely disparate positions on domestic cultural and economic matters, from fuzzy-headed liberal to hardheaded conservative, but with a single constant: a vehemently aggressive foreign policy stance, one that led them to cheerlead each and every foreign intervention since the Vietnam war era. From Reagan’s heyday as the great “liberator” of Grenada, to Bill Clinton’s Pyrrhic “victory” in Kosovo, the neocons have in every instance acted as the vanguard of the War Party.
A SEA CHANGE
During the cold war, this had certain political advantages, especially for an ostensible conservative. But today, it is counterproductive politically, especially on the Right. The times, they are a changin’ this is a point I have been making ever since the early days of Antiwar.com and the inception of this column. Every couple of decades, the two ends of the political spectrum undergo a fundamental shift on the key issue of foreign policy, a switch in polarities that inverts their previous positions and causes a general political realignment. Now, finally, someone else has finally taken notice of this phenomenon.
TOLD YA SO
Peter Beinart, a senior editor of The New Republic, has been watching this re-polarization process unfold, as exemplified by The Weekly Standard‘s ideological acrobatics. In a two-part article, Beinart argues that Kristol & Co. are “trying to have it both ways” by endorsing Bush’s "huge” tax cut and wringing their hands over his “meager” defense budget. For how do we pay for the huge military buildup jointly supported by the New Republic and the Weekly Standard? Not only that, but the editors of this neo-conservative flagship, according to Beinart, don’t really belong on the right: they are really liberals, after all, because liberalism has now, for all intents and purposes, become the semiofficial War Party. We have been saying this all along.
Beinart’s advice to Kristol and his mini-faction is to “ditch the conservative movement altogether” and join (or, rejoin) the liberals. “Come on in, Bill,” says Beinart, “the water’s fine”! Beinart’s columns are kind of like public love letters, a political courting ritual that tells us much about the present state of American politics, and, most important, demonstrates the centrality of foreign policy in the evolution of domestic political actors.
Beinart avers that he and his fellow editors over at the New Republic really really like the Weekly Standard, while admitting that Kristol & Co. hardly find this thrilling. “Right-wingers assume that we admire The Standard because we see what its editors won’t admit: that under the surface, they’re not really conservatives at all,” writes Beinart, and, what’s more: “Those right-wingers are absolutely right.” Now, I have no way of knowing just whom Beinart has in mind: perhaps these anonymous rightists are too politically incorrect, too out of the “mainstream” to be named, but those of my readers who have been following this column for even a few months surely know that this has been a constant theme. I am glad to see that this view has finally received some acknowledgment, albeit indirectly: not only that, but I am absolutely delighted that the liberals have finally begun courting the neocons, declaring their love in public and in print. Who knows, perhaps Kristol who once declared that the conservative movement is “finished” may allow himself to be seduced with a few bars of “Bill Kristol, won’t you please come home?”
THE LONG MARCH
Of course, the Weekly Standard editor was never on the left; it was his father, Irving, the “godfather” of the neoconservative tendency, who started out life as a Trotskyist, and wound up becoming the most single influential conservative intellectual in America. But the generational saga is such a distinctly American art form, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t also manifest itself in the political sphere. The Long March of the neoconservatives, as I have repeatedly made the point in this column, is hardly over: a right turn was sure to be followed by a left turn, and now this has become so obvious that the left is sitting up and beginning to take notice.
IS THAT A THREAT, OR A PROMISE?
Bill Kristol once threatened to leave the Republican party over its “isolationism” on the issue of our Balkan intervention, and I responded that I hoped we could take him at his word. We can only hope that this picture-perfect romance with Beinart and the New Republic begins to blossom and that Kristol emboldened by this series of love letters from the left will finally come out of the closet, so to speak, as a card-carrying liberal. In any case, Beinart makes a key point about the vast gulf that separates the neocons from the conservative rank-and-file:
“The Standard (like TNR) supports missile defense because it could allow the US to intervene internationally without being deterred by rogue states. Most conservatives support missile defense because it offers America an excuse to expend less blood and treasure abroad. The Standard wants more money for military salaries and benefits because they think we owe it to the soldiers we ask to go to war. Most conservatives want that spending because they see the military as a partisan interest group they must keep happy both through pay increases and by opposing the kinds of foreign deployments most soldiers and officers despise.”
MILITARISTS AGAINST THE MILITARY
This last point is particularly telling. What’s refreshing about Beinart is that he is willing to admit what Kristol and the neocons would never acknowledge: that the military itself is the greatest obstacle to our foreign policy of endless meddling in the affairs of other nations, a testament to the utter recklessness of interventionism. Here, the Left’s contempt for the military takes the residual form of disdaining them as amoral and rather thickheaded, reluctant warriors who will opt for pay increases over foreign deployments the way children prefer candy to broccoli. Beinart continues:
“In other words, for most conservatives, Bush’s defense budget which has lots of money for missile defense and for troop salaries, housing, and health care, but nothing to improve military readiness is just fine. The guys at The Standard worry that because of Bush’s budget America might eventually have to withdraw from the Balkans, and couldn’t fight another war in the Gulf. But most Republican congressmen would be thrilled to see the U.S. leave Bosnia. I doubt many of them would have much appetite for taking on Saddam again either."
Well, we can only hope when it comes to that last: from my own anti-interventionist perspective, this seems unduly optimistic, but I am happy to be persuaded. As for the rest of Beinart’s remarks: has there ever been a clearer exposition of the lines of demarcation that separate the post-cold war left from the right of the new millennium?
Beinart’s insight that the conservative imperative to cut government spending is inconsistent with the imperial impulse reflects the thesis of John T. Flynn, the Old Right liberal-turned-conservative (and former columnist for the New Republic), who was FDR’s great antagonist. That “country squire in the White House,” as Flynn called him, was trying to spend his way out of the great Depression but, ultimately, he ran up against resistance from conservatives. FDR turned to war preparations in order to win over key conservative support for his program of big government. The President had gone as far as he could go in imposing a vastly empowered central authority on the American people, said Flynn:
“When this point is reached in spending programs, there is always one kind of project left that breaks down resistance which particularly breaks down resistance among the very conservative groups who are most vocal against government spending. That is national defense. The once sure and easiest way to command national assent from all groups is to ask it for national defense.”
RISE OF THE WELFARE-WARFARE STATE
This was the great victory of the New Deal, and its successor regimes: neutralizing conservatives by shrinking the spectrum of “respectable” opinion. FDR’s great ideological achievement was the creation of a political consensus that spanned the distance between permitted extremes. This consensus consisted of bi-polar support for the welfare state at home, and for a policy of global intervention abroad: in short, the Welfare-Warfare State. This arrangement was supported, in its essentials, for as long as the cold war lasted. Although the liberal left and the ostensibly conservative right quibbled over small details, they agreed on the basic expansionist formula: big government at home, coupled with empire-building abroad. But then the Berlin Wall fell and, with it, the Rooseveltian consensus.
BIG GOVERNMENT AND GLOBALONEY
The implosion of communism and the end of the cold war also pulverized the New Deal consensus, and gave rise to a powerful opposition current whose growth and development has been chronicled in my works, not only in this column but in my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. A current on the Right began to rediscover its Old Right roots, and returned to the foreign policy of the Founding Fathers, disdaining entangling alliances and seeking to avoid war, where possible, rather than provoke it. The opposition of a vocal group on the Right to the Gulf war, followed by the almost universal rejection by conservatives of the Kosovo aggression as in any way a “just” war, is a trend that has culminated in a near-total victory for the anti-interventionist cause. Today, “globalism” is as much of a bogeyman on the right as communism used to be. The post-New Deal arrangement, then, is beginning to break down, because the treason of the conservatives is finally coming to an end. The right, it seems, has woken up, and, finally, made the connection between big government and globaloney. Only Bill Kristol and his little band of neocons haven’t quite gotten it, as yet.