The grassroots Right has turned against the neoconservative project of perpetual war and nation-building — without becoming non-interventionist. Can antiwar conservatives now find common cause with the “to hell with them hawks”?

By W. James Antle III

As President Barack Obama assures the country that the war in Iraq is winding down, a sigh of relief is emanating from the unlikeliest corner: the conservatives who have for more than seven years been the war’s staunchest supporters.

It’s not exactly that conservatives have had second thoughts about Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, the “cut and run” Democrats, or the need to project military power after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. What they have come to doubt, however, is those aspects of the Bush Doctrine that come dressed in Wilsonian garb.

However reluctant conservatives may be to question retroactively the justice of our Bush-era wars, many are beginning to wonder if our prolonged occupations and nation-building exercises are worth American blood and treasure. Are our recently acquired colonies in Iraq and Afghanistan, they might ask, merely children who will never grow up?

Some of this is mere partisan opportunism, as when Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele advised candidates at a Connecticut GOP fundraiser that they should disown Afghanistan — initially invaded under George W. Bush with near unanimous Republican support — as “a war of Obama’s choosing.” Translation: Let whatever goes wrong in Afghanistan be the Democrats’ problem for a change.

When Ann Coulter defended Steele against criticism from, among others, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, she took pains to distinguish Bush’s fine Republican war-making from Obama’s pusillanimous imperial time-wasting. This is unsurprising, as there is a long history of otherwise hawkish conservatives having distaste for what Bob Dole once described as “Democrat wars.”

Other mainstream conservatives are honestly starting to ask what we are accomplishing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is propping up Hamid Karzai or refereeing a political dispute between Nouri al-Maliki and Iyad Allawi really the great civilizational struggle between the West and radical Islam?

Many prominent conservative hawks are saying no. One naysayer is Washington Times columnist Diana West who has claimed, among other things: no, we are not winning in Iraq; no, the surge did not work; no, a comparable surge will not work any better in Afghanistan. She’s even willing to criticize Gen. David Petraeus, something that can get you in trouble with Republican writers of nonbinding congressional resolutions.

“Judging by the 99-0 Senate vote that confirmed Petraeus as Afghanistan commander last week, another Iraq is precisely what America wants,” West wrote, “as though Iraq were an American ‘victory’ worth the cost, human and monetary, of repeating.” West is not alone. No less a hawk than National Review Online‘s Andrew McCarthy complained, “We went [to Iraq] to topple Saddam; we stayed to build an Islamic ‘democracy,’ and the result is an Iranian satellite.”

“Nation-building is the most prominent — and most important — part of the neocon doctrine,” wrote Jed Babbin in the American Spectator. “And the decision to pursue it is the principal reason that we are losing in Afghanistan, Iraq is falling apart, and the real enemy — the terror-sponsoring nations — have grown stronger.”

None of these writers can accurately be described as a budding noninterventionist. But most conservatives who opposed the Iraq War from the beginning and favored no more than a limited mission in Afghanistan can agree with them on the following: neither Islam nor foreign lands can easily be reformed by either bureaucrats or the force or the force of arms; our interventions have produced something closer to sharia states than Switzerland’s; Iran is now more powerful in the region rather than less.

There have l0ng been three main foreign-policy tendencies on the American Right: old-style conservatives who agree with Randolph Bourne that war is the health of the state and therefore favor less military intervention abroad; neoconservatives who want to preserve the United States’ global hegemony and engage in armed proselytizing for democracy; and defense-minded conservatives who believe the U.S. should strike forcefully at its enemies whenever it perceives itself, its interests, or its allies to be threatened.

Roughly speaking, these groups can be described as the Jeffersonians, the Wilsonians, and the Jacksonians. Among rank-and-file conservatives, the Jacksonians are by far the largest group. In the postwar era, the Jacksonians have tended to align with the Wilsonians. But there is no reason why that conjunction is inevitable.

With the exception of Ron Paul and some Ron Paul Republicans, the Jeffersonians have no major political figure to speak for them. Yet the popularity of the Wilsonians was always greatly exaggerated. The invasion of Iraq and the mass conservative acceptance of the Bush Doctrine were made possible by al-Qaeda’s act of mass murder on 9/11.

Throughout the 1990s, Wilsonian neoconservatives called for regime change in Iraq, but they did not succeed in rallying the grassroots Right to the cause. The conservative base tuned out the PNAC crowd. Millions of conservatives voted for Pat Buchanan, who opposed even the first war with Iraq, in the 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential primaries—even as neoconservative commentators were writing essays attempting to purge Buchanan from conservative movement.

Grassroots conservatives were repulsed by American bloodshed during our humanitarian intervention in Somalia. They opposed using our armed forces to deliver groceries to Third World countries and restoring a dubious left-wing character to power in Haiti. They objected to the bombing of Serbia and canceled their subscriptions to the Weekly Standard when that magazine sided with the Clinton administration on military action in the Balkans.

The years after 9/11 were a Jacksonian moment hijacked by neoconservatives. While most American conservatives liked the idea that the we could increase others’ freedom by defending our own against despots overseas, very few of them wanted to go to war to build schools in Iraq or promote democracy. They wanted to pay back the people who murdered their countrymen and make sure that such an attack never happened again.

They trusted that George W. Bush was the man for the job and were patient when he talked about lighting a fire in the minds of men. But ordinary conservatives nevertheless agreed with the following sentiment expressed by John Derbyshire: “What matters most is not the fire in the minds of men, which will burn at some level for as long as there are men, but the fire that results when fissionable material undergoes a fast chain reaction.”

In a 2006 cover story for National Review, Rich Lowry dubbed such conservatives “to hell with them hawks.” Can the Old Right today dislodge this conservative majority from the neocons and persuade them to say to hell with the wars that don’t serve America’s vital national interests?

This will be difficult, but perhaps not impossible if certain common ground is emphasized: the belief that the armed forces should be used for strictly military purposes; a shared skepticism of nation-building and social engineering; the view that democracy in Muslim countries is at least as likely to unleash anti-American forces as contain or liberalize them. We can use our military to repel attackers, but we do not possess the knowledge to transform our foes into liberal democrats.

Outreach to the “Jacksonian” Right poses challenges. For starters, most of the Jeffersonians believe in some form of Just War theory. Jacksonians tend to reject any idea of limited war. In fact, one of their key objections to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the rules of engagement are too strict and civilian-friendly. Some in the paleoconservative universe would share that assessment; most would not.

The Jacksonians also have an expansive view of what takes to defeat radical Islam–and in some cases, they reject even the “radical” modifier. This means that while their eyes are opening to the futility of what the U.S. is currently doing in the Middle East, they remain ready to use military force against Iran and Syria and want to get tough with Saudi Arabia.

What is more, the Wilsonians have been remarkably adept at using arguments that appeal to Jacksonians: invoking American patriotism, stoking hatred of foreign tyrants, and applying Cold War lessons to a very different conflict. Jeffersonians have been hesitant to use arguments that resonate outside of their own circles and often get bogged down in debates about how bad regimes in Tehran or Baghdad really are.

Yet there are Jeffersonian arguments that might persuade the most hardheaded Jacksonians.

First: the United States is seldom going to pursue regime change without at least some form of nation-building. If you oppose the latter, you must be extremely reluctant to engage in the former.

Second: just as Islam cannot be reformed from the outside, the ancient religion of a billion people cannot be “rolled back” in the same sense as Soviet Communism — and rollback was not the main strategy employed in winning the Cold War. Militant Islam must be contained. A viable containment strategy cannot be sustained through prolonged occupations of Muslim lands.

Third: while U.S. support of dissidents in Muslim countries is to the good, we must proceed cautiously. We do not have the same level of knowledge about the internal politics of the Middle East as we did about Eastern Europe during the Cold War. We do not always know who our friends and allies are. There will also be cases where we discredit reformers by being associated with them.

A related point: we do not aid reformers by rallying people to the existing regimes. Just as bombing Poland would not have aided Solidarity, bombing Iran could actually set back the kind of political reforms we would like to see in Tehran. The idea idea that military action is the best way to liberalize other countries is daft.

Given the constellation of forces on the American Right today, this is all a bit of a long shot. But the present moment offers the first opening for a conservative foreign-policy debate since 9/11, and it would be foolish to let the opportunity pass without making every effort to take back the Right.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.

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