Et Tu, Pat?

“If Bush loses, his conversion to neoconservatism, the Arian heresy of the American Right, will have killed his presidency. Yet, in the contest between Bush and Kerry, I am compelled to endorse the president of the United States. Why? Because, while Bush and Kerry are both wrong on Iraq, Sharon, NAFTA, the WTO, open borders, affirmative action, amnesty, free trade, foreign aid, and Big Government, Bush is right on taxes, judges, sovereignty, and values. Kerry is right on nothing.”

– Pat Buchanan, “Coming Home,” The American Conservative

This election is not a referendum on U.S. foreign policy.

Though most pundits consider foreign policy paramount at this moment, most Americans do not. When asked which issue is most important in determining how they will vote, majorities have repeatedly chosen social and economic concerns over national security, terrorism, and the war in Iraq. In a recent Time poll, for instance, terrorism and Iraq combined for 42 percent, while the economy, healthcare, “moral issues,” and other/unsure added up to 58 percent.

Bush and Kerry simply haven’t done much to differentiate themselves on issues of war and peace, which explains Pat Buchanan’s endorsement of Bush. Buchanan hasn’t dropped his opposition to empire; he just doesn’t see that issue on the ballot this year. Nor do I.

But when the votes have all been counted, the result will be one giant yea or nay on staying the imperial course.

How can this be, when the naked eye detects so little space between the contenders? As Buchanan notes,

“The only compelling argument for endorsing Kerry is to punish Bush for Iraq. But why should Kerry be rewarded? He voted to hand Bush a blank check for war. Though he calls Iraq a ‘colossal’ error, ‘the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he has said he would – even had he known Saddam had no role in 9/11 and no WMD – vote the same way today.”

On Iraq, Iran, the “War on Terror,” Israel, etc., Bush vs. Kerry looks less like a Venn diagram than White on White. Kerry calls to mind a child who has not yet mastered comparative adjectives: when Bush offers “bigger,” Kerry promises “biggerer.” And I don’t buy the esoteric reading of Kerry’s rhetoric many liberals are pushing: Oh, he’s just playing to the jingoes to get elected. I am completely open to the possibility that Kerry’s thrice purple heart is far darker than George Bush’s.

Resolved: both men deserve far worse than early retirement. As for the neocons, Buchanan’s anticipatory schadenfreude is not without its appeal:

“If Kerry wins, leading a party that detests this war, he will be forced to execute an early withdrawal. Should that bring about a debacle, neocons will indict Democrats for losing Iraq. The cakewalk crowd cannot be permitted to get out from under this disaster that easily. They steered Bush into this war and should be made to see it through to the end and to preside over the withdrawal or retreat. Only thus can they be held accountable. Only thus can this neo-Jacobin ideology be discredited in America’s eyes.”

But elections are not about meting out justice. Sadly, we don’t get to vote on which scoundrels to hang and which to behead. Rather, we get to vote on whether we shall be hung, or beheaded – and though some have survived the noose, no one has walked away from the guillotine.

Buchanan’s analysis shortchanges two pillars of conservative thought: history and human nature. Ten years from now – certainly 50 years from now – few will remember the vote-shifting significance (however real) of gay marriage, healthcare reform, Bush’s imbecility, Kerry’s flip-floppery, or even the economy. No, those inclined to study the election of 2004 will remember Iraq. This is partly because Iraq’s consequences will persist for ages, and partly because intellectuals (both pro-Bush and pro-Kerry) exaggerate the candidates’ differences on the issue. As preposterous as it sounds, Kerry, perhaps especially if he loses, will retroactively become the antiwar candidate.

Historical lessons, even faulty ones, matter. Precedents matter. And Bush’s reelection – no matter what he might actually do in a second term – will set a precedent from which the republic may never recover.

Picture this scenario: It’s the autumn of 1964. After the Tonkin Gulf incident of August, government and media investigations quickly establish the “provocation” to be either a fiction or a legitimate act of self-defense by the North Vietnamese. Suppose the American public is also privy to the evidence of government deceit that would only come out years later in The Pentagon Papers. Finally, imagine that LBJ not only launches a full-scale invasion of Vietnam on false pretenses before the election, but strongly hints he will expand the war to Laos, Cambodia, and China to boot. What if, under these circumstances, the American people had still returned LBJ to office?

Of course, these were not the actual circumstances of that election. Looking back, the voters of 1964 could honestly claim to have been duped by the government and media into thinking that LBJ was the candidate of peace and sanity. Though Johnson’s election allowed him to trample the Constitution, it was certainly not a popular mandate for scrapping the republic and has never been interpreted as such. But what will the voters of 2004 say? With endless evidence of Bush’s mendacity readily available – much of it from the president’s own allies and appointees – who can plead ignorance or naïveté?

Perhaps Buchanan and Robert Novak are right, and the president plans a quick withdrawal from Iraq and a major change of course after the election. (More on that in a moment.) Still, the lasting lesson of a Bush victory for politicians and bureaucrats will be this: Not only can they lie the country into wars of aggression – which they have known for years – but they don’t even have to cover their tracks. The American people succumbed to empire with their eyes wide open.

But these are worries for the long run, and as John Maynard Keynes famously put it, “In the long run we are all dead.” Judging by the public’s concern for our $7.4 trillion national debt, Americans apparently think the Sun’s demise is right around the corner. So, what should we expect of the very near future?

The notion that Bush will ditch the imperial project, while comforting, does not jibe with what we know of human nature, particularly as it plays out in politics. Success is affirmation, and the only real measure of success politicians have is reelection. Even from a market perspective, the Great Bush Conversion to non-interventionism makes little sense: why switch to New Coke when the old stuff is selling so well?

We’re talking about a man who interpreted his purely technical (though nonetheless valid) win in 2000 – without even a plurality, much less a majority, of the popular vote – as a blank check to pursue policies far different from what he had promised. (Remember that “humble” foreign policy?) With Iraq growing less sexy every day, who believes he isn’t tempted by the hussy next door? Four years of Michael Ledeen purring “faster, please” in his ear must be having some effect.

Wishful thinking aside, Bush isn’t going to dump the neoconservatives or the fundamentalists. They’re the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Bush coalition: without both, the group is nothing. The neocons need the fundies for grassroots support, and the fundies need the neocons to provide a secular cover for holy war. And though everyone knows Bush is a fundie, it’s time to concede that he wasn’t hijacked by the neocons – he is one.

None of this means that anyone should vote for Kerry, Badnarik, Nader, Peroutka, or even go to the polls, period. Of the two viable candidates, however, our only hope – and it’s slim – is that one will learn about the perils of empire from the other’s defeat. Make of that what you will.