The New Antiwar Populism

The War Party is running scared – and with good reason. Writing in the Washington Post, neocons Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly are in a panic that the rising “tea party” movement, which upended the Republican establishment at the polls, is about to abandon “the defense of freedom” in faraway Afghanistan in favor of rescuing what’s left of our freedom closer to home:

“Since World War II, a touchstone of American conservatism has been the defense of freedom. The freedoms of others were regarded as essential to secure and enjoy our own. In 2010, however, the conservative movement – and the party that seeks to represent it – is at a crossroads. One path continues in this direction; the other leads backward, seeking to defend freedom only at home. The choice conservatives make will go a long way toward defining America and the world, still more toward defining the future of the right.”

As the nation sinks into an economic depression that looks to rival and even exceed that of the 1930s, the cost of maintaining an overseas empire is taking a big bite out of the federal budget – economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the cost of the Iraq war at three trillion dollars and counting – and conservatives are beginning to wake up to the fact that being the world’s policeman can only end in national bankruptcy.

The Pletka-Donnelly tag team, however, will have none of this: Pletka is a longtime top official of the American Enterprise Institute, and was, you’ll recall, one of Ahmed Chalabi’s loudest promoters, going so far as to attack the Bush administration when her hero was charged with espionage – on behalf of the Iranians – and his headquarters in Iraq raided by US troops. Donnelly has long been the neocons’ go-to man for coming up with reasons why we always need more “defense” spending – because spending more on the military than all other nations on earth combined isn’t enough. It’s never enough, as far as the neoconservatives are concerned, and the rising dissent from this view on the right is abhorred by this duo as rank heresy:

“The road backward beckons in an almost Calvinistic call to fiscal discipline; austerity is its virtue even before national security in a time of war. Libertarians and Tea Party darlings such as Ron and Rand Paul and conservative stalwarts such as Tom Coburn have long inhabited this political territory. Members of the GOP vanguard such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and, possibly, insurgent Tea Party candidates are joining them.

“Thin threads bind these cloth-coat Republicans. Some simply wish to spend less; if that means under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan, so be it. To them, the Defense Department is another case of wasteful government and bureaucratic collusion that has, in Coburn’s words, ‘allowed the military-industrial complex to make things unaffordable.’ For others, doctrinaire fiscal conservatism blends easily with a renewed isolationism. As one GOP up-and-comer told us recently, ‘America has borne the burden of making the world secure for 60 years; it’s someone else’s turn.’”

Oddly, Pletka and Donnelly come off sounding like liberal Democrats – is trying to rein in spending at a time of severe economic crisis really “Calvinistic,” or just plain common sense? Yet it isn’t so odd when one considers the history of the neoconservatives, a political sect of which they are exemplars: the neocons started out as Henry “Scoop” Jackson Democrats, cold war Social Democrats who combined fervent anti-communism and interventionism with support for Lyndon Baines Johnson’s big spending “war on poverty.” The growing influence of antiwar forces in “their” party led them out of the Democratic Party and into the GOP, where they hitched a ride on the Reagan revolution and ensconced themselves in the conservative movement, which they soon began to dominate with their ideological ferocity and access to big money.

They never bought into the free market, anti-government radicalism of the traditional right, or the tea partiers of today: the decision to go into the GOP was motivated solely by their horror at the takeover of the Democratic party by anti-interventionist supporters of George McGovern in 1972. Indeed, the neocons’ house organ, The Weekly Standard, raised high the banner of “big government conservatism,” as Standard senior editor Fred Barnes proudly (and accurately) deemed it, which didn’t abjure spending like a drunken sailor – as long as big corporations and military contractors got the lions’ share of the goodies, and poor people got the crumbs, if that. This label gave way, during the post-cold war years, to “national greatness conservatism,” which combined the monument-building of the pharaohs with the megalomania that motivated Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol to proclaim in his foreign policy manifesto that the US should seek to establish a “benevolent global hegemony.” Where Alexander failed, the neocons would succeed.

Except it didn’t turn out that way. Energized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and in place at key points in the administration of George W. Bush, they did indeed succeed in getting us bogged down in seemingly endless wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan – and discrediting themselves in the process. When the country discovered they had been hoodwinked by the mirage of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” and the “cakewalk” promised by neocon armchair generals failed to materialize, the desire for change – any kind of change – swept the GOP from power. The conservative movement woke up, on November 5, 2008, to find a world in which eight years of neoconservative rule had led to bigger government on the home front and a foreign policy that made us less safe, more hated, and nearly bankrupt.

Aside from a generalized desire for “change,” the Obama-crats took the Democratic presidential nomination – and the presidency – largely on the strength of their candidate’s alleged antiwar credentials. Barack Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war was the line of demarcation that set his campaign apart from that of his main rival, Hillary Clinton. What his antiwar supporters didn’t know – or want to know – was that this opposition was based on his often-stated contention that we were fighting a war on the wrong front: Afghanistan, Obama averred, is the main battlefield in our generations-long “war on terrorism.” Iraq was merely a “diversion” – and, he suggested, we ought to go into Pakistan, if necessary, an idea that horrified even John McCain, who denounced it as “irresponsible.”

People believe what they want to believe, however, and the left fell into line behind Obama, who by this time had become a kind of cult figure around which liberals and self-identified “progressives” could rally after eight years in the political wilderness. What they didn’t notice was that shortly after his election, which was greeted by the right with despair, the “progressive” Center for a New American Security – the source of many high level appointments by the Obama administration – held a joint conference with Kristol’s newly-created “Foreign Policy Initiative," which hailed Obama’s decision to escalate the Afghan war. The participants busied themselves with the intricacies of CNAS’s new counterinsurgency doctrine – essentially a “nation-building” scheme to set up a semi-permanent colony in the wilds of Afghanistan, and extend the war further into the heart of Central Asia.

If the 9/11 terrorist attacks gave the neocons’ agenda of perpetual war a terrible momentum, the crash of 11/11 stopped them dead in their tracks. As the great financial houses came crashing down, along with the stock market and the hopes and dreams of ordinary Americans – who were to lose their jobs, their homes, and their capacity for hope in the subsequent fallout – so did the untrammeled hubris that had empowered the War Party for a decade.

In retreat, and discredited on the right as well as in the eyes of the country at large, these dead-ender neocons are lashing out at the alleged “Calvinists” of the tea party, who are threatening to take away their expensive toys. When Sen. Coburn (R-Oklahoma) attacks the military-industrial complex, he’s attacking their meal ticket: Pletka’s American Enterprise Institute, otherwise known as Neocon Central, owes its very existence to the willingness of major military contractors like Boeing and Lockheed to shell out big bucks. In the case of the neocons’ fervent defense of a bloated “defense” establishment, the key explanation is “follow the money.”

Donnelly, for one example, was the author of a position paper put out by the Foreign Policy Initiative’s predecessor, the Project for a New American Century, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” [.pdf] which called for more than doubling military spending. From PNAC to Lockheed-Martin, the nation’s biggest military contractor, was a natural transition for a policy wonk who promoted permanent war. From there Donnelly went to AEI, where he and Pletka spend a lot of their time worrying about the rebellion against rampant militarism in the conservative ranks.

Forced to pay lip service to the idea of fiscal sanity and the restoration of limited government, the neocon duo aver that “the road forward embraces small government and a renewal of private enterprise but sees an equally exceptional American enterprise abroad.” This awkward formulation, they assure us, “has been the mainstream position of conservatives and Republicans since 1945, expressed in Sen. Arthur Vandenberg’s rejection of ‘isolationism’ and embrace of ‘internationalism.’”

This stunning revision of conservative history is the complete opposite of the truth: Vandenberg was one of the first RINOs, who – together with the Eastern establishment wing of the GOP, exemplified by Henry Cabot Lodge – allied with the Truman Democrats to keep wartime economic controls after WWII, maintain the level of taxation required to fund the growing welfare state as well as an enormous and growing “national security bureaucracy, and usher in conscription as a permanent policy. Like most Republicans in Congress, Vandenberg had been ostensibly opposed to interventionism, but did a turnabout when President Truman unveiled his “Truman Doctrine” which entailed aid to Greece, Turkey, and Iran in order to resist an alleged Soviet threat. On this question, the real leader of the conservatives in the GOP, Sen. Robert A Taft, was skeptical, but Vandenberg, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, took up Truman’s cause. As Ralph Raico points out,

“After the landslide Republican victory in the congressional elections of 1946, Truman had to deal with a potentially recalcitrant opposition. The Republicans had promised to return the country to some degree of normalcy after the statist binge of the war years. Sharp cuts in taxes, abolition of wartime controls, and a balanced budget were high priorities.

“But Truman could count on allies in the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, most prominently Arthur Vandenberg, a former “isolationist” turned rabid globalist, now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Truman revealed his new ‘doctrine’ to Vandenberg, the Republican leader advised him that, in order to get such a program through, the president would have to ‘scare hell out of the American people.’ That Truman proceeded to do.”

“If we desert the President of the United States at [this] moment,” thundered Vandenberg, “we cease to have any influence in the world forever.” Not to be outdone in the hyperbole department, Henry Cabot Lodge declared that rejecting Truman and his overblown “doctrine” would be a crime akin to treading the American flag underfoot. Some things never change.

Vandenberg, described by James B. Reston as “a big, loud, vain, and self-important man, who could strut sitting down,” and whose “written statements were masterpieces of confusion,” is an unlikely candidate for valorization. His much-touted “conversion” to interventionism was not the ringing declaration of principle Pletka and Donnelly make it out to be, nor did it have much to do with the conservative principle of limited government. While conservative Republicans rose in opposition to Truman’s proposed loan of $3.75 billion to bankrupt socialist Britain, in 1946, Vandenberg and a passel of northeastern Republicans supported the bailout. The “foreign aid” gravy train was beginning to flow, and the “internationalists” supported it under the very thin veneer of “national security” and anti-communism.

However, the real political and economic motivation behind this support was not hard to fathom: as the historian Justus Doenecke put it: “Representatives of the coastal states, with ties to commerce and international finance, undoubtedly backed the loan … in the hopes of gaining a thriving export trade.” Pressure from northeastern labor unions were a factor in garnering support from regional Republican congressmen, and “former isolationists in Michigan were undoubtedly influenced by those market-conscious automobile companies that dominated the state’s economy. Vandenberg himself commented as he endorsed the loan, ‘One out of five workers in my own State of Michigan normally depends upon export orders for his job.’”

Those dollars – extracted from the pockets of American taxpayers by the tax-happy Truman Democrats – would be poured back into the pockets of his constituents. Or so the theory went: in practice, however, it was quite another matter. The British couldn’t pay back the loan on even the most generous terms – two percent interest – nor could London afford to carry out the major trade concessions that were supposed to have been part of the deal. Vandenberg’s corporate backers among the automakers were disappointed, but there were other ways to make the new conservative “internationalism” turn a profit.

The neocons’ affection for Sen. Vandenberg is understandable, given their own penchant for “defense”- profiteering, but the rest of the conservative movement, and especially the tea partiers, are likely to find his “internationalism” – including Vandenberg’s enthusiasm for the United Nations, which he and Alger Hiss helped found – a rather tepid source of inspiration.

No doubt aware of this, Pletka and Donnelly team wheel out the time-honored icon of American conservative to buttress the case for an “internationalism” of the right:

“Washington’s chattering classes have tried to imagine a battle between the heirs of Eisenhower and Reagan. In this myth, Ike was a war-hardened vet who had the ‘political will and willingness . . . to make hard choices,’ as Defense Secretary Robert Gates intoned recently. Reagan, in this telling, was a profligate ‘supply-side’ quack who gave his defense secretary America’s credit card.”

We are then treated to some pretty dubious statistics, which treat military spending as a percentage of GDP – a ruse that big spenders always use to justify whatever boondoggle they want to put over. This expenditure, they argue – whatever it might be – amounts to “only” a small percentage of GDP – this is how “foreign aid” is routinely justified, for one example – but the reality is that this measure includes all government spending without subtracting the debt governments incur to finance the spending. In short, the productive sector – i.e. the private sector, the true source of all wealth-producing economic activity – is much smaller than the bloated “official” government GDP totals. This is statistical sleight-of-hand any real conservative will surely see through. What this means is that the percentages cited by Pletka and Donnelly – military spending at 10 percent under Eisenhower, and 5.8 percent under Reagan – are actually much higher. Today, under the “stimulus”-happy Obama administration, as we pass from recession to full-fledged depression and the productive sector shrinks, the real percentage is astronomical – and rising.

Another problem with pulling Reagan out of a hat is that it’s no longer “morning in America” – not with the economy in free fall. If one is a fiscal conservative, it’s more like twilight – but then, again, the neocons aren’t conservatives in any meaningful sense of the term. They are radical Jacobins [pdf], as professor Claes Ryn rightly calls them, whose hubris is the polar opposite of the conservative temperament. Yet Pletka and Donnelly have the gall to declare that “nothing less than a fight for the soul of conservatism is underway.” Well, yes, it is indeed, but the heirs of Arthur Vandenberg – and Scoop Jackson – have no valid claim to the conservative mantle, which is why they are losing.

The neocon mandarins of AEI are fighting a rearguard action against those “many young-gun conservatives” who are “from another school.” Yes, they are indeed from another school – they are Old School conservatives, who think the concept of “big government conservatism” is an oxymoron, and who aren’t fooled by the Pletka-Donnelly funny numbers which tell us “defense is not the source of the deficit.” Government spending is the source of the deficit, and of the economic crisis currently shaking our world – and military spending, including veterans’ benefits and the “defense” portion of the interest on the debt, accounts for 54 percent of all federal spending.

We can’t have an empire, and a balanced budget at the same time: it is one or the other. A return to fiscal sanity means we need real change in our foreign policy. That’s what the battle for the conservative soul is all about. The neocons are counting on their evaluation of the tea partiers as “Don’t Tread on Me nationalists” rather than “budget balancers,” but this calculation comes up short when one takes into consideration the central meme of the tea party movement: that it’s the federal government which is treading on us all and sucking the life blood out of the economy – while the Pletkas and Donnellys grow fat on corporate contributions and government contracts.

What’s important to note here is that there is a widening split on the American right, between the ultra-nationalist “big government conservatives” who have dominated the movement since the days of Arthur Vandenberg, and the “Old Right” which is so old that it’s new, and is making a comeback in a major way, much to the chagrin – and panic – of the neocons.

On the left, too, a split is developing, between those who support Obama’s wars – the so-called “national security Democrats” over at CNAS – who are buddying around with Bill Kristol, and the traditional left which opposes interventionism and wants to keep our tax dollars in this country. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat who supported the neocons’ wars, was driven out of his party by anti-interventionists, and it’s no accident that he, too, constantly invokes Vandenberg’s shade as a rationale for his pro-war, big-spending stance: the neocons, no matter which party they formally adhere to, are nothing if not consistent. As I put it in a column published at the tail end of 2005:

“The Democrats, according to Lieberman’s logic, must be 21st-century Vandenbergs: Politics, as the turncoat Vandenberg put it, must ‘stop at the water’s edge.’

“What this really means, and always has meant, is that all debate must end: it’s okay, as Lieberman says, to discuss “tactics,” but the fundamental premise that we must be in the business of “regime change” throughout the Middle East and the world must never be challenged. This is Lieberman’s niche in the neocon division of labor: he exists to quash any and all signs of dissent that might crop up in the Democratic Party when it comes to foreign policy. He is, in effect, charged with policing the party for any signs of dreaded ‘isolationism.’”

With Lieberman policing the Democrats, and Pletka and Donnelly policing the Republicans, the idea is to stamp out any and all debate over the fundamentals of US foreign policy. Yet that debate is coming, whether they like it or not, and it looks like neither Lieberman and the tiny clique of “national security Democrats,” nor the neocons and their fast-shrinking constituency, have the political weight to stop it.

Lieberman wound up a pariah in his own party. The neocons, too, are fast approaching pariah status. Oh, they try to mount an argument in favor of the political utility of warmongering, albeit without much success. Pletka and Donnelly cite a rather biased-sounding Gallup poll, which asked respondents whether “national defense is stronger than it needs to be.” Isn’t it just like a “big government conservative” to equate throwing money at a government program with “strength”? A more accurate reading of the public mood was taken by the Pew polling organization, which noted, in 2009, that “for the first time in more than 40 years of polling, a plurality (49%) says the United States should ‘mind its own business internationally’ and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

This is the majority opinion in America, and it is high time both conservatives and progressives noted it – and took action. Against the Vandenbergian faux-“conservatives,” and the Vandenbergian fake-“progressives,” there is an opening for anti-interventionists of both the left and the right to challenge the Washington establishment and bring America home.

I would also note that the Pew poll cited above revealed that the elites, embodied by the membership of the Council on Foreign Relations, disagree emphatically with the majority of ordinary Americans: they are all for minding everybody else’s business but our own. Indeed, not a single CFR “expert” thought minding our own business was even an option.

This radical split between the people and the elites is reflected across the board, politically, on virtually every issue: it is fueling the populist rebellion brewing in the country, which is threatening to throw out incumbents en masse and raise up a whole new generation of political leaders. Disgust with politicians, with crony capitalism, and with the two political parties which constitute the “left” and “right” wings of the War Party, is the zeitgeist of the new era.

An antiwar movement that unites these elements can and will forge a mighty instrument on behalf of peace, and lead us out of the dead end of imperialism which has brought us to the edge of financial – and moral – bankruptcy. This is what the neocons fear the most. They know their time is up. But before a popular mass movement can take off, one that can reclaim and renew the foreign policy of a free nation, the arbitrary divisions and sectarian fixations of both conservative and liberal anti-interventionists must be dispensed with, which is why a single-issue focus is so important.

The War Party would like nothing better than to divide us, to separate out the “tea partiers” who question the expense of empire from the progressives who oppose Obama’s wars, and set them one against the other. This is how they’ve managed to maintain their dominance in spite of the views of the American majority. “Divide and rule” is an old game indeed, and they know how to play it. However, even that gambit is wearing a bit thin, as the crisis looms ever larger – and we are faced with the spectacle of a mighty “empire” with a standard of living that is falling, precipitously, to the level of the Third World.

Contra Vandenberg and the neocons, politics cannot and must not stop at the water’s edge: American foreign policy ought to be the concern of every citizen, and the debate is just beginning. If we are to win that debate, anti-interventionists must defy the old paradigm of “left” versus “right,” mount a challenge to the elites who think they have an unlimited mandate, and forge a new American consensus around the idea that minding one’s own business is the only way to survive and prosper in a dangerous world. The unintended – and intended – consequences of a foreign policy that is motivated to right every wrong and fight every battle will continue to be visited upon us in ways we can only begin to imagine. It’s time to bring our elites up short, restrain their world-saving – and self-interested – delusions, and bring America back to the foreign policy of the Founders.

In their panicked screed against “isolationism,” Pletka and Donnelly denounce conservative opponents of global intervention as “a combination of George McGovern and Ebeneezer Scrooge,” to which one can only reply: better McGovern and Scrooge than Vandenberg and Darth Vader.


Today’s column will appear shortly as a chapter in a new book to be entitled ComeHomeAmerica.US, an anthology of essays by both conservative and progressive writers and activists. Watch this space for the release date and ordering information.

We’re still organizing my schedule for the fall lecture tour, so there’s time to organize an event on your campus or local organization. Topic: How we can stop the War Party and why we must. If you would like me to speak before your group, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with our staff: write, or call the office, at: 510-217-8665.

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].