Poor Eliot Cohen: one of the principal architects of the Iraq war, and chief ideologue of Bushism in foreign policy – remember the “freedom agenda”? – he’s miffed that “This campaign shows that the foreign policy consensus that has framed this country’s work overseas since 1950 is in peril.” His ire is directed at Donald Trump, but he’s more than a little annoyed at the left-wing of the Democratic party, which is also showing signs of messing around with the Sacred Consensus. How dare these miscreants challenge a “consensus” that brought us a whole series of outright military defeats, from Vietnam to the Iraq war, and cost us tens of thousands of lost lives and an incalculable amount in dollars! Egghead “intellectuals” like Robert McNamara and Cohen know a lot more about foreign policy than the denizens of flyover country, such as one Merle Haggard, who advised us in one of his ditties:
get out of Iraq and get back
And let’s rebuild America first.”
Of course, Haggard didn’t know that – as Cohen helpfully points out – he was invoking a “notorious movement” that “included not only traditional isolationists but also Nazi sympathizers.” It’s a good thing we have Cohen around to set us straight: otherwise we might all be turning into little Hitlers when we think we’re just opposing yet another chickenhawk-inspired war.
More seriously, Cohen’s vaunted “consensus” is an illusion. No one asked the American people if they wanted to be the world’s policeman. What Cohen means is that all the Serious People in the Washington Beltway, and the concrete canyons of New York City, agree that other peoples’ sons and daughters ought to be sent abroad to fight foreign wars in which America’s real interests are tenuous if not nonexistent. Outside of that circumscribed world, the “consensus” breaks down.
The politics of American foreign policy are governed by the tides of partisan warfare, the ebb and flow of the eternal struggle between “left” and “right.” Which means that, every decade or so, the political spectrum switches polarities: witness the transformation of the “isolationist” Old Right of the 1940s into the warmongering conservative movement of the cold war era. A similar case of role reversal occurred on the left in the 1990s, when the previously “antiwar” liberal wing of the Democratic party allied with the usual neoconservative suspects to bring us the US invasion of the Balkans – and it was conservative Republicans in Congress who threatened to withdraw funding from Bill Clinton’s conquest of Kosovo.
This news caught neocon grand strategist Bill Kristol vowing to walk out of the GOP if it succumbed to “isolationism”: for some reason, the end of the cold war did not possess most conservatives with the urge to “crush Serb skills,” as Kristol so memorably put it in the Weekly Standard.
9/11 derailed the developing anti-interventionist consensus on the right, no doubt about it, but the Republican ascendancy also played a role: with George W. Bush in the White House, and in the tender care of his neoconservative duennas, the stage was set for a solid decade of war.
Now that the partisan pendulum has swung the other way, however, and the Democrats control the foreign policy dashboard in the Oval Office, the anti-interventionist instinct encoded in the DNA of every authentic conservative is reasserting itself.
The seed was planted by Ron Paul and his movement, and is springing up in the oddest places. Remember when Kristol demanded that Michael Steele step down because the GOP chairman had dared call Afghanistan “Obama’s war”? None other than Ann Coulter replied:
“Republicans used to think seriously about deploying the military. President Eisenhower sent aid to South Vietnam, but said he could not "conceive of a greater tragedy" for America than getting heavily involved there. … But now I hear it is the official policy of the Republican Party to be for all wars, irrespective of our national interest. What if Obama decides to invade England because he’s still ticked off about that Churchill bust? Can Michael Steele and I object to that? Or would that demoralize the troops?”
Okay, so Ann is a provocateur: it’s her nature. But what about Haley Barbour? A more solid pillar of the Republican establishment would be hard to imagine – so when he begins to voice doubts about our apparently perpetual occupation of Afghanistan, as he did way back in 2011, it was time to sit up and take notice: in answer to a reporter’s question about whether we need to downsize defense in general and our presence in Afghanistan in particular, Barbour said we should certainly consider it: “What is our mission?" Barbour said. "How many Al Qaeda are in Afghanistan. … Is that a 100,000-man Army mission? I don’t think our mission should be to think we’re going to make Afghanistan an Ireland or an Italy.”
Then came Obama’s Libyan adventure, when the reflexive interventionism of the right finally began to wear off, and a great many conservatives started coming to their senses, like drunks coming off a long binge. Writing on Andrew Breitbart’s “Big Peace” web site, which was specifically created by the Internet media mogul to mock the peace movement during the Bush years, one Charles C. Johnson condemned the Libyan war as a war for oil – not for us, but for our French and British allies, who have duped us into starting a conflict that benefits us not at all:
“What does this have to do with America? Absolutely nothing. But don’t expect our government – or our media – to understand that. To defenders of our military adventurism that we have no national security or strategic interest is the very reason that we have to be involved.”
Ever since the first Gulf War, paleoconservatives defined themselves, in part, in terms of their opposition to our foreign policy of global intervention, particularly in the Middle East. The angular anti-interventionism of a Pat Buchanan, or Ron Paul, served to isolate them, at first, from the conservative mainstream – but now the tide has truly turned. This is why the Eliot Cohens of this world are beside themselves and he and his fellow neocons are readying themselves to migrate back to the Democratic party, where they started their ideological hegira so many years ago.
The Iraq debacle, the ten-year futile crusade in Afghanistan, and the Libyan disaster have discredited the neoconservatives and their dogma of perpetual war. We are back to where we were in the immediate post-cold war era: with conservatives reverting to their temperamental indifference to the fate of faraway peoples, and refocusing on the financial and spiritual crisis that threatens us on the home front.
To those of us who have been fighting this battle for years: it’s time to redouble our efforts. The interventionist consensus on the right has been broken, and conservatives are harkening back to their roots – to the Founders – for proper instruction in the foreign policy field as well as in matters domestic. As they used to say in the Sixties, it’s time to “seize the day” and take the fight to the enemy’s castle: this is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.