CPAC Devolving on Defense

Contrary to what some outsiders might believe, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference is not a big happy tent for conservatives. Rather, think of the vaunted “CPAC” as a veritable planet of partisan uniformity, to which its predominantly college-age participants instinctively flock each year, their behavior, language and dress code all working off the same operating system they would be the first to proudly brand, Reagan 4.0.

Take gay Republicans. In year’s past, the gay rights group GOProud was a sponsor and had a booth and a tolerated, albeit strained, presence in the conversation. The American Conservative Union, which built CPAC over its 39-year existence, took GOProud’s sponsor fees gladly, as part of the full spectrum of Republican interests within the movement. But when the whining in the hive hit media saturation point last year, the ACU responded by shoving GOProud back into the closet, disinviting the group for the 2012 confab. No more debate about whether free speech and equality means gay Republicans at CPAC anymore. Door closed.

A lot of folks would like to see the same fate for the anti-interventionist strain of their conservative kin at CPAC. Especially those who can’t seem to get their heads or their backsides out of 2001. For them, the recession is just another justification to armor-up and keep the war machine humming forever, not to mention rattling the sabers at Iran and Syria and against what one CPAC panelist called an “Iranian Revolution 2.0” across the Arab world.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, the same think tank that has hosted hawks Richard Perle, Fred and Kimberly Kagan, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Rubin, Danielle Pletka and Bill Kristol, spent her opening remarks on a CPAC panel whining that there were conservatives in their midst who actually want to cut defense spending. The horror!

“If there was a liberal political action conference — let’s just call it ‘LPAC’ — I doubt there would be a panel discussing ‘Social Security cuts, bad or good for America,’” Mackenzie lamented, referring to the faint beat of dissent among the war drums at this year’s CPAC (that’s exactly five panels and/or speakers sponsored by the Committee for the Republic about reining in spending and intervention, out of the nearly 200 other events scheduled at the three-day conference.)

“We’re at war with ourselves on this issue,” she charged. “It’s one thing we need to be aware about as a family — a family of conservatives,” she added portentously, as though it were time for some Corleone-style tough love against their wayward kin, presumably those who read The American Conservative and and support Ron Paul and just plain don’t “get it.”

According to a source who has his ear to the ground on these matters, CPAC organizers felt their social conservative base had been losing control over the conference in recent years (read: gays and Ron Paulites). They may have had a point — with the infusion of hundreds if not thousands of students supporting Campaign for Liberty and other libertarian groups, Ron Paul not only won the much-anticipated straw poll in 2010 and 2011, but last year his supporters were able to boo, shout, heckle and rattle both Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld as they took the main stage together. It was an unprecedented moment, taking place a day before Paul made a rousing speech, where he called for an end to overseas interventions.

This year, Paul came in fourth in the straw poll. Campaign for Liberty was noticeably absent, their usual full-of-hipster-swag presence leaving a huge gap in the libertarian element that kicked up all the dust in recent years. Seems they wanted to pour all their energies into Paul’s primary campaign (a Campaign for Liberty reader tells us it did not skip CPAC to support the Paul campaign, but to put “all its resources into federal and state legislative fights and educational efforts, as well as to plan for the next LPAC”). Paul, who has not won a primary so far, skipped, too, though the campaign trail didn’t stop the other Republican hopefuls still left from speaking at CPAC on Friday. Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, Paul’s son, delivered remarks on Thursday, but he generally kept away from defense issues and instead focused on supplying the usual anti-Obama red meat.

So what was left? One could say a very unsophisticated, if not completely hackneyed, supercilious approach to foreign policy and national security harkening back to the old post-9/11 days. Here the muscular meets the fear-mongering, leaving little by the way of constructive conversation struggling for oxygen somewhere in everyone’s afterthoughts. Evidence of this could be seen in the straw poll, where national security issues were so low on voters’ priorities they barely registered.

I asked Christopher Lawton, a self-described Paul supporter, if he felt out-numbered this year in his non-interventionist views. He was manning a booth in the cavernous basement exhibit halls at CPAC (nearby, The American Conservative and Committee for the Republic bravely competed with rows and rows of slick corporate kiosks and tables draped by scrubbed-faced twentysomethings hawking military prowess and American exceptionalism).

“One word — yeah,” he said, smiling. “The warmongers are in full swing.”

One might attribute this to a backlash against the Paul “taint” in the Republican primary process, he being the only one on the campaign trail today talking explicitly against escalating a war with Iran, and calling for an immediate end to military operations in Afghanistan. Attempting to cleanse CPAC of what they call the “isolationist” strain might have resulted in more steroidally interventionist offerings, thus the ham-handed attention given to Newt and Callista Gingrich’s documentary, “A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism,” and all of the jingoistic pandering to the military overall (it seems that reflexively and slavishly supporting war at CPAC is the only way to demonstrate support for veterans).

Lawton has another, not totally unrelated theory. “Our national pride has been so damaged and people are thinking so negatively, that they want to rally around some national identity, so bombing the hell out of Iran would sort of give us that Super Bowl mentality, something we could feel good about — it’s a very sad state of affairs.”

If that’s the case, being at CPAC this year must have been Chicken Soup for the Soul or better yet, a pep rally in an echo chamber. Finding it difficult to square your new fondness for a constitutionally limited government with the gargantuan military industrial complex? Never fear. AEI’s Eaglen, flanked by three ex-military men and Jihad hunter Frank Gaffney, told us the projected $487 billion in defense cuts over the next 10 years (and those are cuts are to increases in the budget mind you, as cooler heads have long pointed out) will not only destroy our economy, but ruin our communities, and harm our troops, too. If you support muscular defense spending, in other words, you support America.

Mackenzie appeared most perturbed that the U.S. will be “advertising our weakness” and be “just like everyone else” if and when the administration “abandons” its ability to fight two major ground wars at the same time. Meanwhile, Gaffney, ever the minstrel of sweetness and light, warned that Iranian-sponsored terrorists are ever-present in our hemisphere, and the administration is cutting defense at a time when the world is more dangerous than ever. Anyone who thinks cuts won’t harm America, “don’t know what they are talking about,” he told a standing room-only audience filled with nodding heads and compliant faces.

Certainly Loren Spivack, who wrote a charming play on the Cat in the Hat with Obama as the Cat called “The New Democrat” (cue Ted Geisel rolling, rolling in this grave) “gets it.” He told us we are pretty much too poor to defend ourselves, thanks to Obama.

“(The government),” he said, “is doing a million things that it ought not to do, and is leaving us precious little resources to do what we need to do to defend ourselves.”

Against whom, prey tell?

Meanwhile, don’t much care for the nuances of foreign policy? That’s okay, because at CPAC, most discussions devolve into alarmist variations on Muslims here in America and everywhere else on the planet planning to establish a Caliphate, with Jews and Christians first on the list for systematic persecution.

“Is the ‘Arab Spring’ Good or Bad for America?” asked one Thursday panel. Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who unsuccessfully ran for the GOP presidential primary in 2008, sounded almost Paulesque when he told the crowd that a “helpful hand” should be offered, but not forced upon, the nascent democracy movements in the Arab world.

“I know this — I think the United States can have over-confidence in the use of force,” he said, with all the tact necessary for this particular audience. He tread softly. “I am not a isolationist and I am not an neoconservative. But I think intervention can create a negative reaction among people.”

“In my view the most important mission for the people of the United States is to repair our economy. We cannot deal with the international challenges that are unpredictable and unforeseeable in the future if we are not repaired.”

A small smattering of applause could be heard from somewhere in the corner of the room.

But what host Cliff May, another neoconservative warhawk from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies really wanted to know was, is “Arab Spring” an appropriate moniker for what is going on in the Arab world?

“Is ‘Islamist ascendency’ too strong a phrase?” he asked puckishly.

He was smiling, but David French, senior counsel at the Pat Robertson-founded Center for Law & Justice, wasn’t. At one point obliquely referring to Gilmore’s take on things as “naïve,” he warned that “this is no velvet revolution,” but an “Arab revolt,” which has accelerated Christian persecution and anti-Semitism all over the Middle East.

“You’re beginning to see the negative implications of a Middle Eastern culture, that is the problem. And if you have a culture that is seething with anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and aligns itself with radical Islamists … then this is bad for America,” French said, predicting that in the short-term, radicals will take over places like Egypt and in Syria (though he insists President Bashar al-Assad must go), before “the people say enough.”

“I shudder to think what that means to us in the short term.” What could it mean David? “A much larger emerging Iranian Revolution 2.0” across the Arab world, “filling stadiums with people calling for new holocaust.”

No surprise it is these remarks that got the most applause, just like Michele Bachmann’s earlier CPAC criticism of Barack Obama’s foreign policy in respect to Iran and Israel. She blamed the president for allowing Iran to become the “epicenter for global jihad,” and appealed to the already willing crowd to save Israel from its enemies, unlike Obama, who she accused of “putting Islamic outreach over Israel.”

Clearly for this audience, boiling down complicated foreign policy and national security issues to these familiar tropes is the way to go. Especially since Obama has been anything but an “antiwar” president. He’s gone out of his way to engage an aggressive war in the Muslim World, killing thousands — “jihadis” and civilians alike — in drone strikes across Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. He has expanded the reach and resources of U.S. Special Forces and the CIA in dozens of countries across the globe and has maintained the prison at Guantanamo Bay. It’s hard, I think, to argue against that directly.

On the brighter side of this grim picture, beyond the other depressing CPAC discussions, like “Does Hollywood Still Embrace American Exceptionalism?” or “What Would a Reagan Foreign Policy look like” (by John Bolton) or “Islamic law in America: How the Obama Justice Department is Selling us Out,” there were promising exceptions, like Constitutional scholar Bruce Fein taking on the role of John Quincy Adams in “America & its Wars: John Quincy Adams vs. James K. Polk.”

So maybe hipster swag isn’t everything. Non-interventionist conservatism was never about one man, one candidate anyway. All it can do now is to quietly burrow in for the long haul, at least until the door to CPAC closes completely.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

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