The Antiwar Right: Our Time Is Near

Neocons like Reihan Salam are worried that Republicans will soon "begin to abandon the president en masse over Afghanistan." As well they might be: Salam, a self-described advocate of "a Pax Americana foreign policy," and a fellow at the New America Foundation – a corporate-funded let’s-promote-"new"-but-safely-conventional-ideas, formerly headed up by James Fallows – knows his enemies, and is preparing to meet them, albeit not head on. Before the battle is joined, however, he wants to define the enemy – in his own terms, of course.

There are plenty of antiwar conservatives to cite, including politicians: the primary example being Rep. Ron Paul, whose presidential campaign mounted an amazingly successful challenge to the GOP Establishment – and, as a result, earned the undying enmity of the neocons. There are others: John Duncan, Republican of Tennessee, Rep. Walter B. "Freedom Fries" Jones (R-North Carolina) – whose stunning turnaround on the war provoked a neocon hissy-fit and an electoral challenge, both of which he survived – but Senor Salam chose Jason Chaffetz, a freshman Republican from Utah, perhaps because he’s the newest addition to a growing group. But also, perhaps, because it’s easier to characterize his "antiwar" views in a certain, limiting way.

"Among grassroots conservatives," Salam avers, "there is a growing sense that the U.S. military is too hamstrung by concern about civilian casualties and political correctness to wage an effective military campaign under Obama, which implies that there is little point in offering him political support." According to Salam, Chaffetz "makes this point explicitly," but this is not at all clear. Here is what Chaffetz actually says:

"We must redefine the Rules of Engagement: A politically correct war is a lost war. If we are going to sacrifice lives and resources in this fight, we must go in with everything we have. We must be committed to win. But then we must go home. Anything short of an all-out commitment to accomplish the mission puts too many American lives at risk."

Rather than saying that the strategy we’re pursuing isn’t bloodthirsty enough – a typically neoconnish criticism – Chaffetz appears to be advocating a Colin Powell-esque approach: go in with overwhelming force, or else don’t bother. The reference to political correctness may be a thrust at the new counterinsurgency doctrine recently adopted by the Petraeus-CNAS clique within the administration, the centerpiece of which is the goal of "protecting" the Afghan population from … itself. Go figure.

The Mao-quoting Anita Dunn isn’t the only admirer of the Great Helmsman in a position of influence in this administration: the top military strategists and advisors, centered around COIN theorist John Nagl, are committed to a strategic vision inspired by the Maoist concept of "people’s war," based on the concept of "clear, hold, and build" – that is, the old Maoist (or, really, Guevarist) concept of seizing a hamlet, village, or whatever, carving out a revolutionary "base camp," and building parallel structure of administrative authority and local services – e.g. Hezbollah in Lebanon (or the Chinese Communist forces in the struggle against the Nationalists.) Che Guevara famously attempted the same stunt in the jungles of Bolivia, and wound up a dead man.

In any case, this strategy of conducting a "people’s war" means our troops will be living close to the people we are pledged to protect: force protection is to be sacrificed in the name of securing and consolidating control over "liberated" spaces. Which means we’ll be taking a lot of casualties – and for what? That’s what Chaffetz, and a growing number of Americans want to know.

Salam elides the primary point made in the Chaffetz statement, and that is his first bullet point:

"First, we must define the mission: Our military is not a defensive force for rough neighborhoods around the world. They are trained to be an offensive, mission-driven military force to protect the United States of America. They are not trained to be nation builders or policemen. They are trained to be an aggressive machine that destroys and eliminates the enemy. Give them a mission and then get out of the way. They will accomplish the mission swiftly with outstanding results."

This isn’t about how we should accomplish the mission, but instead focuses on a more fundamental question: what, exactly, is the mission in the first place? If our war aims are to eliminate al-Qaeda, and possibly capture or kill the top leadership, that’s one thing. Fighting a protracted "people’s war" is quite another. Given the choice between withdrawal and an extended – and much wider – commitment, Chaffetz is choosing the former. As he puts it:

"Mr. President, it is time to bring our troops home. If our mission in Afghanistan is simply to protect the populace and build the nation, then I believe the time has come to bring our troops home.

"We have successfully rooted out Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. Fewer than 100 Al-Qaeda operatives are operating in Afghanistan according to Retired General James L. Jones’ assessment of the situation. ‘I don’t foresee the return of the Taliban,’ he said in an October 4 Associated Press report. Jones, who is President Obama’s National Security Advisor, continued: ‘Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling.  The al Qaeda presence is very diminished. The maximum estimate is less than 100 operating in the country, no bases, no ability to launch attacks on either us or our allies.’

"Mr. President, we all recognize that we will still have to fight Al-Qaeda around the globe. So let’s bring home the tens of thousands who have fought so valiantly to protect America. Let’s instead use the best human and electronic surveillance available to allow our special forces to target and kill those who actually threaten us."

Chaffetz, in short, takes a position elaborated on by such critics of the war as Michael Scheuer, author of Imperial Hubris, and the former head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA – and by yours truly. My immediate response to the 9/11 attacks in this space, you’ll recall, was "Kill ’em – and get out." This is precisely Chaffetz’s position.

This minimalist approach is no less deadly: the difference is that it is focused, realistic, and saves lives, both American and Afghan. The idea is to treat the enemy as exactly what it is: not a nation-state, but a criminal conspiracy. Along these lines, Chaffetz cites the view of retired Marine Gen. Chuck Krulak [.pdf], who "has suggested ‘Hunter-Killer Teams’ with resources and rules of engagement that allow them to root out the enemy and suppress any Al-Qaeda entrenchment. I concur with the retired General. If the mission is to root out Al-Qaeda, we do not need to risk the lives of tens of thousands of troops to fulfill it."

Amen to that.

Ron Paul has said very much the same thing, on occasion, although his critique of the war, and the system that makes it possible, is much more comprehensive. Curiously, the words "Ron Paul" do not appear in Salam’s piece.

True, Paul is not approved by the Washington cognoscenti, and the neocons in particular are none too eager to lend him any more recognition than he’s already gotten, and yet this is still a curious omission in an article purportedly about the antiwar Right. It’s not as if Paul and his movement are invisible, or of no consequence, especially in Utah.

At the Utah GOP convention held in the summer of 2007, Paul came in second in the polling, behind Mitt Romney, and third in the primary. Utah has always been a libertarian stronghold, and the Paul organization, the Campaign for Liberty, is quite visible in the state, supplemented and energized as it is by a campus-based group, Young Americans for Liberty, which has two active chapters: together, these two groups have thousands of members and sympathizers in Utah.

The long term strategy employed by the Paulistas, with their explicitly "entrist" tactic, is to create a grassroots movement dedicated to, among other things, an explicitly anti-interventionist foreign policy, and they are finding a fertile field in precisely those sorts of voters who put Chaffetz in Congress and will keep him there next time around.

Chaffetz represents a growing trend, one that is in transition – but to what? While the leadership of the Republican party is passing resolutions [.pdf] requiring all candidates to support an interventionist foreign policy – question: will they be cutting off funding for Chaffetz’s reelection bid? – a look at the recent Pew poll results underscores the stupidity of such a policy. Forty-nine percent of Americans say the U.S. should start minding its own business – a trend the Pew pollsters label "isolationist" – and they aren’t all Democrats, not by a long shot. As Pew reports:

"Isolationist views have typically been more prevalent among Democrats than among Republicans, and that remains the case today. But the rise in isolationism is evident across partisan lines: overall, 49% say the United States should mind its own business internationally, up from 30% in 2002. Currently, 53% of Democrats express this view, up from 40% in 2002. Among Republicans, 43% agree the U.S. should mind its own business, up from 22% in 2002. Roughly half of independents (49%) offer this opinion, compared with 27% in 2002."

This bloggingheads exchange between Chris Hayes of The Nation and Matt Welch of Reason magazine has an interesting section about the political space – so far uninhabited, except by the Paul grouping – available for antiwar conservative-libertarian candidates to appropriate, either within the GOP or without. The "tea party" crowd may not be calling for the US to get out of Afghanistan, and they may disdain the idea that they’d ever be up there with Code Pink calling for withdrawal – but when they realize that Code Pink and the other "progressive" pro-Obama groups aren’t calling for withdrawal, and conservative leaders like Chaffetz (and George Will) are, those archetypal "little old ladies in tennis shoes" may take up where the counter-cultural Code Pinkos left off.

The reaction to Chaffetz’s commentary has been disappointing. Among those one would think would be trying to encourage him, such as The American Conservative‘s foreign policy blogger-in-residence Daniel Larison, the response had been oddly hostile: Chaffetz, it seems, comes to the right conclusion, but for the wrong reason. And he doesn’t really come to the right conclusion, at least by Larison’s standards, as it turns out: Larison accuses him of wanting to turn Afghanistan into a "shooting gallery."

This is nonsensical – Chaffetz is in favor of precisely the sort of limited police action Larison himself comes out for in the same post. Weirdly, Larison writes: "As anyone can see, I am defending the proposed war plan against Chaffetz’s insipid criticisms, and I will be defending the war plan in my next column." So Chaffetz wants out, Larison is "defending the war plan" – which is to stay in for the next three to five years, and mount a full-fledged counterinsurgency campaign – and Chaffetz is "pro-war and wrong"? Maybe it’s all that incense, but Larison needs to go outside, and take a deep breath of fresh air: maybe that will clear his head.

Salam, taking his cues from Walter Russell Mead – one of the founders of the New America Foundation, by the way – characterizes Chaffetz as a "Jacksonian," i.e. when it comes to war, the Jacksonian prefers to strike out at the enemy with full force, or else refrain from doing battle. Yet this overemphasizes one aspect of Chaffetz’s position, and minimizes where it diverges from the Bushian-neocon position in a major way. The Bush-neocon position insists that the "war on terrorism" is more akin to World War II than to a conflict which can be handled by Gen. Krulak’s "hunter-killer teams."

True, Chaffetz does warn against the alleged danger from Iran, but when it gets right down to it would he be willing to go to war with the Iranians? Somehow I doubt it, especially when he goes on to say that massive debt is the "greatest danger" facing our nation. "Jacksonian" or not, I doubt Rep. Chaffetz would be happy with $200 a barrel oil prices and the subsequent spike at the pump.

Unlike Larison, I am willing to give advocates of withdrawal such as Chaffetz the benefit of a doubt, for two reasons. One, it is clear that a great many conservative Republicans are undergoing a transition: faced with the consequences of eight years of dangerous and debilitating militarism, some are beginning to question the basic premises of interventionism, as Chaffetz does with his insistence on limiting the goal of the "war on terrorism" to simply taking out al-Qaeda.

Which brings us to the second reason for cutting Chaffetz a little slack, and that is the political importance of an emerging anti-interventionist caucus in the GOP, especially at the congressional level. The political rationale for Democratic hawkishness is always that the Republicans will supposedly beat up on Obama and the Democrats in Congress if they show "weakness." With a strong anti-interventionist tendency in the GOP, the Democratic Leadership Council and its "centrist" allies will have to come up with a different excuse.

Yes, it’s true that politics in Washington is all about partisanship, and to be against this president and his programs is to at least call into question the conduct and motivating principles of his foreign policy – and anti-interventionists shouldn’t hesitate for one moment to take full advantage of this. During the run up to the second world war, Republican opposition to FDR"s strenuous (albeit largely covert) attempts to drag us into the European side of the conflict provoked antiwar sentiment on the Republican right. The group that came together to oppose the Rooseveltian program of war abroad and a highly-centralized, semi-socialist state at home – those we call, in retrospect, the Old Right – came from very disparate points on the political spectrum: the Hooverites, Liberty Leaguers, and Taft Republicans on the right, and on the left disillusioned old-fashioned liberals like the journalist John T. Flynn, and anti-war, anti-Washington Midwestern progressives, such as Senator Burton K. Wheeler, of Montana. Together, they built the biggest antiwar movement in American history, the America First Committee, which, at its height, had 800,000 dues-paying members, and a large activist contingent.

This is the model we should emulate when building a contemporary movement against our policy of perpetual warfare. It will take a broad-based coalition, one that spans the political spectrum and allows for a high degree of variety, to stand against the Empire. But if we’re going to have our old Republic back, it will be a battle worth fighting.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].