If you take only one book to the beach this summer, let it be Patrick J. Buchanan’s Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency. Marshalling his considerable ability as a polemicist, his wide reading – and his remarkable insight into the ways of men and nations, gained over decades of service to two presidents and a place at the center of American public life – Buchanan draws up an indictment of the rising American Imperium written in the blunt and colorful prose for which he is famous.
Buchanan emerged as a central figure in the burgeoning opposition to our neoconservative foreign policy, starting in the early 1990s with his dissent against the first Gulf war. Why should American soldiers die for the Emir of Kuwait, he demanded to know, while trenchantly pointing out that it was Israel’s amen corner that was beating the drums loudest for war. A decade later the same drum-beaters, energized by 9/11, again beat their tom-toms furiously, this time urging us to “finish the job” – and again it was Buchanan who dared point out just who and what was behind the drive to war – only this time he had plenty of company in his assessment of the nature and motivations of the War Party.
Buchanan cites his 1999 book, A Republic, Not an Empire, in which he predicted “if we continue on this course of reflexive interventions, enemies will one day answer our power with the weapon of the weak – terror, and eventually cataclysmic terrorism on U.S. soil.” His 2000 presidential campaign was the occasion for an eerie premonition of our present predicament:
“Will it take some cataclysmic atrocity on U.S. soil to awaken our global gamesmen to the going price of empire?”
It is with what sounds like an audible sigh of weariness, and not any sense of vindication, that Buchanan opens his discussion of how we got here, and who brought us to this point in our history.
Buchanan believes that Bush was basically an empty vessel waiting to be filled, and I concur. He describes the neocon takeover of the Bush presidency as essentially an act of subversion: In election year 2000, the Republicans went after Madeleine Albright’s puffed-up conception of America as “the indispensable nation,” and Americans were offered by candidate Bush a “more humble” foreign policy. Contrasting this with Bush’s post-9/11 mindset, Buchanan is astonished – and, one can see, genuinely shocked – at a president whose public utterances reek so strongly of blasphemy:
“Using rhetoric that hearkened back to Christ Himself in the New Testament – ‘he who is not with me is against me’ – Bush divided the world: ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.'”
The growing disconnection from 9/11, the great diversion to Iraq – and threats directed at virtually every region in the Middle East – culminated in the rise of the Bush Doctrine, enshrining preemption as the central organizing principle of American policy. No nation must be allowed to threaten America’s global dominance on every continent, and the U.S. must be prepared to use military force if anyone so much as looks as though they might be contemplating a military challenge to our universal supremacy. This gives new meaning to the old Greek word, hubris, meaning an overweening pride. Not even Rome, or the British empire at its height, ever dared enunciate such a grandiose vision, and his commentary on this illustrates one delightful aspect of Buchanan as a writer, his playful sense of history:
“Had Britain adopted such a policy in the nineteenth century, Parliament would have asserted a right to go to war to prevent the United States from ever increasing its sea power to rival that of the Royal Navy.”
No doubt that would suit the extreme Anglophile wing of the War Party just fine, but for the rest of us Buchanan makes a trenchant and quite unanswerable point.
Pat the icon-smasher, who pulverizes the pious platitudes of the neocons and their liberal imperialist camp followers with a few well-placed sucker punches, is a delight to read: I could go on quoting for the rest of this column. Suffice to say that his is a searing indictment of the hypocrisy that abhors the terrorism of Osama bin Laden, but ignores the much more efficient and deadly state terrorism routinely meted out to conquered peoples. The victors, who write the history books, define who is a terrorist and who is a national hero. The founders of the Irish republic and the state of Israel, who rose to power using terrorist tactics – what are they?
Against the idea that we must “drain the swamp” of the Middle East and eradicate terrorism by implanting our conception of “democracy,” Buchanan replies:
“How can President Bush say we are not secure if the Islamic world is not democratic? The Islamic world has never been democratic. Yet, before we intervened there, our last threat came from Barbary pirates.”
Again, Pat’s mischievous sense of historical irony is wickedly employed:
“How would we have responded in the nineteenth century if Britain had invaded and occupied Washington until President Andrew Jackson abolished slavery and stopped his mistreatment of the Indians?”
Buchanan lays out the case against Bushian imperialism in terms that are sure to enrage the neocons, who rail that any attempt to explain what motivated the 9/11 terrorists is necessarily an apologia for Osama bin Laden. But that is nonsense, says Pat: one must know one’s enemies, or else be defeated by them, and Buchanan the patriot is determined that a huge foreign policy miscalculation – the invasion and occupation of Iraq – will not bring down the country he loves. “Interventionism is the problem,” he writes,
“America’s huge footprint in the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia led straight to 9/11. The terrorists were over here because we were over there. Terrorism is the price of empire. If you do not wish to pay the price, you must give up the empire.”
Instead of giving up what dragged down Rome, Byzantium, and Britain, too, the President of the United States concocted
“An American version of the Brezhnev Doctrine, wherein Moscow asserted a right to intervene to save Communism in any nation where it had once been imposed. Only we Americans now assert a right to intervene anywhere to impose democracy.”
Describing the neocons as “the boat people of the McGovern revolution” in the Democratic party, Buchanan chronicles their journey from left to “right,” and their hijacking of the conservative movement. He details the rise of the “Vulcans” in the Bush administration’s foreign policy councils, underscoring the key role played by Paul Wolfowitz, who started out as an aide to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Boeing), in the 1960s, and wound up the main theoretician of the neoconservative faction within the Reagan administration. Wolfowitz’s views became controversial after the Washington Post cited a 1992 memo in which Wolfowitz proposed going to war with the Soviet Union … over Lithuania.
The rationale for this batty battlefield plan – that no one must be allowed to assert their hegemony in a regional theater – became the operative principle of U.S. foreign policy in September, 2002, when Wolfowitz and the neocons were once again installed in the Pentagon, and the U.S. government issued a document entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States.”
The honeycombing of the U.S. national security bureaucracy with neoconservatives who put Israel, and their war agenda, first, and American interests last, is amply documented. Buchanan not only cites the frequently cited “A Clean Break” document as evidence that the conflation of American and Israeli interests lies at the heart of the neoconservative agenda, he also ploughs new ground with separate screeds authored by Deputy Defense Secretary for Policy Douglas Feith and David Wurmser, Middle East policy chief for the Office of the Vice President. The former is a radical supporter of Israel’s ultra-nationalist Likud party, who urged then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to re-invade Palestinian land even though “the price in blood would be high.” The latter called on the U.S. to:
“Broaden the conflict to strike fatally, not merely disarm, the centers of radicalism in the region – the regimes of Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Teheran, and Gaza. That would establish the recognition that fighting either the United States or Israel is suicidal.”
To the neocons, the interests of America and Israel cannot – must not – ever diverge, and with Feith and Wurmser ensconced in the highest echelons of the U.S. government, they are now in a position to implement their views, and they have been doing so – with horrific results. Buchanan, for his part, asks if we really want to make war on a billion-plus Muslims worldwide. Are Arabs to be our bitter enemies in a “civilizational” war to the death?
Buchanan shows how the small clique of neocons in this administration moved within hours of the 9/11 terrorist strike to divert the president’s anger, and the nation’s, toward Iraq, rather than Osama bin Laden. He strongly implies that the neocons exercised a thinly-veiled threat to abandon the president if he didn’t take immediate action against Saddam Hussein:
“Nine days after an attack on the United States, this tiny clique of intellectuals was telling the President of the United States and commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces that if he did not follow their war plans, he would be publicly charged with a ‘decisive surrender’ to terrorism.”
Buchanan tells the story of a president who was deceived into war, lied to by his own top advisors, and then led down the garden path by a bunch of war-maddened ideologues. I would tend to agree, but would add that this view would be strengthened by an analysis of why this course has been politically advantageous to the president and his party, particularly as it relates to the role of the Christian fundamentalist foot-soldiers who play such a vital role in the GOP electoral machine.
He also gets in several digs at the neocons, his bitter enemies, citing Russell Kirk‘s opinion of them as “often clever, never wise” – ouch! – and bringing up Francis Fukuyama’s vigorous dissent from his former allies’ support for the Iraq war. In replying to the neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who declared that “Even Rome is no match for what America is today,” Fukuyama suggested that the former psychiatrist-turned-laptop bombardier has become “strangely disconnected from reality.” How that must rankle the neocons, such as Norman Podhoretz, who has recently taken out after Fukuyama, formerly one of his favorites, in a gargantuan essay of such oppressive length and subject matter – the inevitability and bright promise of launching “World War IV” against the Muslim world – that it seems intended to bury him in an avalanche of vituperation. If the neocons hate Buchanan, they surely hate their own apostates more.
Buchanan’s survey of the Islamic world and the history of the Arab peoples is a panoramic albeit tightly condensed summary of a worldview that seems all the more alien precisely because of its parallels and antecedents in our own traditions. I found myself mesmerized by his spirited defense of the Crusades, and his citations of pro-Crusader Catholic historians, and also frankly shocked by it – until I got to the punch-line:
“If Mecca were overrun today by infidel armies, would not Muslims be justified in conducting a jihad to liberate their holy city? Would devout Muslims be ashamed of such a war, or apologize for having waged it?”
Unlike some “libertarian” deep thinkers who immediately reacted to the 9/11 attacks without reference to the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, Buchanan answers the question “why do they hate us” with refreshing honesty, bluntness, and daring. The 9/11 hijackers “did not fly into the World Trade Center to protest the Bill of Rights. They want us off sacred Saudi soil and out of the Middle East.”
Like the author of Imperial Hubris, Michael Scheuer, Buchanan concludes that the policies we are pursuing are helping al-Qaeda and the more extreme fundamentalists, and winning a generation of hearts and minds to militant Islamism. He is also convinced that their long-term strategy has a good chance of success, given the advantage we have handed them by invading Iraq and multiplying their mass base a thousand-fold:
“Terrorists are picadores and matadores. They prick the bull until it bleeds and is blinded by rage, then they snap the red cape of bloody terror in its face. The bull charges again and again until, exhausted, it can charge no more. Then the matador, though smaller and weaker, drives the sword into the soft spot between the shoulder blades of the bull. For the bull has failed to understand that the snapping cape was but a provocation to goad it into attacking and exhausting itself for the kill.”
Will America exhaust itself in a series of futile lunges in the Middle East, rampaging through Iraq, Syria, Iran, and god-knows-where-else, until, bankrupted and bleeding, the imperial hegemon stumbles – and fails to get up? Or will the impulse represented by Buchanan’s book – the tendency of Americans to distrust and rebel against ideologues and liars, especially when they come to inhabit the highest seats of government – triumph in the end?
We’ll see, won’t we? Buchanan, for all his dark predictions and parables of imperial decline, is full of hope. I am not so optimistic, but am willing – nay, eager! – to be proved wrong. So let’s get this book to the top of the bestseller list at Amazon, the New York Times, and every other measure of success that matters.
One caveat: I cannot vouch for all of the views expressed in this book, especially the chapter entitled “Economic Treason,” with which I have profound differences. But in the Old Right that is newly revived due in large part to Buchanan’s efforts – most notably, The American Conservative, which he co-edits, and for which I am a contributing editor – we are allowed to disagree. Unlike in the neocon-dominated “official” conservative Establishment, where war-worship, leader-worship, and lock-step ideological conformity on even the smallest issues has imparted to the movement a certain Stalinesque quality.
I don’t agree with Buchanan on trade policy, nor do I endorse his views on homosexuality or transubstantiation, but I can tell you this: no one writing today is more effective than Pat in demolishing the arguments and characterizing the true motives of the War Party.
Strike a blow against the Empire – and for the restoration of our old Republic. Buy this book – and give it to your friends.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
One more caveat on the Buchanan book: Pat avers that the Bush administration has had its fill of Iraq, and that we are on the way out, with Fallujah marking the “high tide of the American empire,” and no more wars on the Republican agenda. He makes a good case, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. After 250 pages of countless examples where Bush has sold out the principles of conservatism, the views of the Founders of this country, and the requirements of common sense, Pat’s half-hearted appeal to conservatives that they ought to stick with the president and the GOP are not particularly convincing. But, then again, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.