Old Guard Moving Aside at CPAC

“The United States has the reverse Midas touch – everything we touch turns to crap.”
Military historian Bill Lind, talking on American foreign policy to a standing-room-only crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.

Something unusual has happened at the annual CPAC confab in Washington. It’s looking less and less like the conservative revival tent of the days when the “Moral Majority” and Phyllis Schlafly’s counter-counter culture crusades set the tone, and more like a battleground for competing right-of-center ideals.

Even Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter –who first emerged in the ’90s as rock stars among right wing youth, are looking, well, a little played and misfit in the emerging milieu.

While I cannot speak for the first 30 years of CPAC, I know that in the last 10 years there has never been a display of friction among conservative attendees as witnessed in the halls and on stage at this year’s event. Libertarian youth, seemingly motivated by two issues – the government’s mishandling of the economy and its interventionist foreign policy – flooded the ranks for the second year in a row. But this year they were seemingly more accepted by the crowd, and by the growing Tea Party presence in the crowd, and they were able to influence the weekend’s events.

In what way? For starters, they were able to – for the second time in the last two years – push Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to the top of the CPAC straw poll for presidential contenders. But the libertarians also made news by staging a walkout of the main ballroom when former Sec. Def Donald Rumsfeld was given the “defender of freedom award” on Thursday. Those who remained, heckled Rumsfeld and former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared on stage to give him the award, and was called a “draft dodger” and “war criminal” in the ensuing outbursts. Sure, the hecklers were swiftly tossed out and booed while the majority of the crowd engaged in the requisite “USA! USA! USA!” to drown them out, but the fact any of this had transpired on the floor of the CPAC ballroom was somewhat extraordinary.

One could say it all began before the 2008 election, when Paul startled the GOP establishment by winning primary delegates, much more than the media favorites at the time, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, and snowballing the disaffection among libertarian-leaning Republicans, some of them now considered “Tea Partiers,” into a real live movement, if not cult status. As the GOP front runners poked fun publicly at Paul’s positions, particularly on foreign policy and war, his support grew. It blew up at the GOP national convention, when Paul’s base threw an alternative “Rally for the Republic,” attended by thousands of voters who more or less would have been card-carrying Republicans if the party had done its job right.

Since then, groups like the Campaign for Liberty have poured tons of resources into recruiting the college set for Paul’s cause. Tapping into their common sense attitudes about war and the social issues of the day – like say, getting government out of one’s personal business – plus their energy and sense of rebellion, Campaign for Liberty and groups like Students for Liberty have turned out more attendees to CPAC in the last two years than any of the tired GOP proto-presidents put together. According to Dave Weigel over at Slate, over 1,000 kids affiliated with Campaign for Liberty attended this year, and likely helped Paul take 30 percent of the straw poll.

Of course, one could point out, like Weigel did, that the organization spent a lot of money to get those kids to Washington. But here’s the fix: for the second year in a row, the students were willing to come, and more so, instead of just taking the ride, many actively participated. And loudly. As a result, the panel discussions, and even some of the speeches, seemed to be gelling more around an anti-interventionist spirit for the first time in recent memory. Thanks to a tanking economy, a losing war in Afghanistan, massive debt and a new spirit of limited government all around, criticizing the war machine at CPAC didn’t automatically qualify someone for sneers and jeers by the conservative elite.

Instead, panels like “Cut Pentagon Spending, Strengthen America,” “Should Defense Spending Be Open to Budget Cuts?” and “American Empire: Before the Fall,” were not only given prime real estate during Friday’s schedule but they were packed with attendees. It gave smart commentators like Bill Lind to make brazen comments like the one at the top of this column, and draw wild applause from the audience to boot.

“The invasion of Iraq was not conservative, it was anti-conservative,” Lind said to a burst of applause during the defense-cutting panel. And then carrying on with his argument against the ever-expanding Military Industrial Complex: “You will not reform the Pentagon until you stop the money flow.”

In years past, particularly after 9/11 when the Republican establishment pretty much wed itself to the Global War on Terror, one would have never a US Marine veteran standing up in front of a CPAC audience, calling out the military as bloated and antiquated in its thinking, and the war policies in Iraq and Afghanistan a mistake. On Friday, veteran Jake Diliberto, founder of Veterans for Rethinking Afghanistan, told a standing room only audience that the “national security apparatus that exists today is dysfunctional to the point that its doing more harm than good.” Earlier, he told Antiwar.com that “we have our own little civil war thing going on here in the conservative movement,” over war and national security, and it seems to playing out right there in the belly of the beast.

Edward Kenney agreed. He said he had no problem handing out invitations Friday to a pair of panel discussions hosted by the Afghanistan Study Group, which said in a September report that it was time to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. The group has culled its members from the moderate Washington foreign policy elite and could hardly be called “conservative.” However, at CPAC, “people are receptive,” Kenney told Antiwar.com. “Generally, people are more on the libertarian side.”

Of course that did not mean that the fear mongering, Islamophobic hawks who have been nesting in the conservative movement and at CPAC since 9/11 weren’t out there still guarding their roosts. While indeed, Afghanistan and Iraq are shopworn subjects, the “creeping influence” of Islamic sharia law on the west is a popular one, hitting all the right notes of this conservative audience (minus the libertarians): their fear of Muslims, the belief that Barack Obama is a secret, non-American Muslim, and the idea that we are fighting a war against insane killers who blindly hate us for our freedom, and not because of our failed foreign policies over the last 40 years.

Fittingly, there were two “Ground Zero Mosque” films being circulated to titillate conservatives who had spent their summers railing against the Park 51 Islamic Center in Manhattan. One, Sacrificed Survivors: The Untold Story of the Ground Zero Mega-Mosque, by PRB Films and the Christian Action Network, and The Ground Zero Mosque: The Second Wave of The 9/11 Attacks, produced by the Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) and American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), the director of which is none other than jihad hunter Pamela Geller. She hosted no less than two screenings of the film, which luridly appropriates gruesome footage of individuals falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11 – it was raining bodies, goes the narration – to generate outrage against a religious center than has yet to be built.

“That’s why it’s too soon to build mosques in general,” declared one audience member after seeing a clip of the film, according to TPM. Free pretzels and red meat – that was all the overflowing crowd at Geller’s panel apparently needed. “Moderate Muslims don’t exist,” said another.

CPAC stalwart and fellow jihad hunter David Horowitz, whose booth sponsored a creepy “Palestinian Wall of Lies” in the exhibition hall, used his speech to fuel a conspiracy that the Muslim Brotherhood was infiltrating, get this, CPAC. Suhail Khan, a board member of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, has been dodging Horowitz and Geller & Company for years on circumstantial charges that this Republican operative, who has worked as a Republican aide on Capitol Hill and in the Bush White House, is connected to pro-terrorist mosques in the U.S. Horowitz used the events in Egypt this week to continue his campaign against Khan, and Grover Norquist, another Muslim “sympathizer” that Horowitz’s gang can’t stand (video and transcript here).

“Over the last 10 years, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood has spread throughout our government,” Horowitz declared to a rapt audience in the ballroom.

Then there are the Republicans who want you to forget Afghanistan and Iraq and instead be convinced that most Americans are staying awake at night worrying about Iran, and that in general, they “don’t feel secure.” A poll issued by SecureAmericaNow.org, a group that had a hyperbolic 15-year-old girl channeling Liz Cheney serving as spokeswoman in the exhibition hall, charged that the majority of America sees terrorism as the greatest threat to our country, followed by Barack Obama himself.

“We must put these issues of national security back into the national agenda,” said GOP pollster and Secure America Now spokesman Pat Caddell, who issued the poll numbers in a ballroom panel on Friday titled “Public Attitudes Toward Security” (video here).

He and his panel-mates even managed to tie in rising public “anxiety” they found in their poll with the Park 51 mosque. “The mosque issue was really the first signal that Americans feel insecure,” said neoconservative columnist Joel Mowbray, who was moderating.

Really, it was the first signal that the right wing, enjoined by some factions of the Tea Party, were going to shift focus from warmongering overseas, an increasingly loser subject with conservatives, to fear mongering of the “terrorist menace” on the home front, just in time for the 2010 elections. Now, it’s onward to 2012.

This of course all clashes head-on with the aforementioned growing libertarian influence at CPAC.

Strong support, hooting and hollering, booing and applause for each other’s cause underscore that this battle for the direction of foreign policy and national security is far from over. But if the successful walk-out of a formerly revered Republican icon and the heckling of a neo-conservative ex-veep is any indication, young antiwar libertarians are fully and openly engaged for the long war, no longer at the margins, but on conservatives’ most hallowed turf.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.