Barack Obama is no conservative. Yet if he wins the Democratic nomination, come November principled conservatives may well find themselves voting for the senator from Illinois. Given the alternatives—and the state of the conservative movement—they could do worse.
Granted, when it comes to defining exactly what authentic conservatism entails, considerable disagreement exists even (or especially) among conservatives themselves. My own definition emphasizes the following:
a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on humane values;
a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history.
Accept that definition and it quickly becomes apparent that the Republican Party does not represent conservative principles. The conservative ascendancy that began with the election of Ronald Reagan has been largely an illusion. During the period since 1980, certain faux conservatives—especially those in the service of Big Business and Big Empire—have prospered. But conservatism as such has not.
The presidency of George W. Bush illustrates the point. In 2001, President Bush took command of a massive, inefficient federal bureaucracy. Since then, he has substantially increased the size of that apparatus, which during his tenure has displayed breathtaking ineptitude both at home and abroad. Over the course of Bush’s two terms in office, federal spending has increased 50 percent to $3 trillion per year. Disregarding any obligation to balance the budget, Bush has allowed the national debt to balloon from $5.7 to $9.4 trillion. Worse, under the guise of keeping Americans “safe,” he has arrogated to the executive branch unprecedented powers, thereby subverting the Constitution. Whatever else may be said about this record of achievement, it does not accord with conservative principles.
As with every Republican leader since Reagan, President Bush has routinely expressed his support for traditional values. He portrays himself as pro-life and pro-family. He offers testimonials to old-fashioned civic virtues. Yet apart from sporting an American flag lapel-pin, he has done little to promote these values. If anything, the reverse is true. In the defining moment of his presidency, rather than summoning Americans to rally to their country, he validated conspicuous consumption as the core function of 21st-century citizenship.
Should conservatives hold President Bush accountable for the nation’s cultural crisis? Of course not. The pursuit of instant gratification, the compulsion to accumulate, and the exaltation of celebrity that have become central to the American way of life predate this administration and derive from forces that lie far beyond the control of any president. Yet conservatives should fault the president and his party for pretending that they are seriously committed to curbing or reversing such tendencies. They might also blame themselves for failing to see the GOP’s cultural agenda as contrived and cynical.
Finally, there is President Bush’s misguided approach to foreign policy, based on expectations of deploying American military might to eliminate tyranny, transform the Greater Middle East, and expunge evil from the face of the earth. The result has been the very inverse of conservatism. For Bush, in the wake of 9/11, ideology supplanted statecraft. As a result, his administration has squandered American lives and treasure in the pursuit of objectives that make little strategic sense.
For conservatives to hope the election of yet another Republican will set things right is surely in vain. To believe that President John McCain will reduce the scope and intrusiveness of federal authority, cut the imperial presidency down to size, and put the government on a pay-as-you-go basis is to succumb to a great delusion. The Republican establishment may maintain the pretense of opposing Big Government, but pretense it is.
Social conservatives counting on McCain to return the nation to the path of righteousness are kidding themselves. Within this camp, abortion has long been the flagship issue. Yet only a naïf would believe that today’s Republican Party has any real interest in overturning Roe v. Wade or that doing so now would contribute in any meaningful way to the restoration of “family values.” GOP support for such values is akin to the Democratic Party’s professed devotion to the “working poor”: each is a ploy to get votes, trotted out seasonally, quickly forgotten once the polls close.
Above all, conservatives who think that a McCain presidency would restore a sense of realism and prudence to U.S. foreign policy are setting themselves up for disappointment. On this score, we should take the senator at his word: his commitment to continuing the most disastrous of President Bush’s misadventures is irrevocable. McCain is determined to remain in Iraq as long as it takes. He is the candidate of the War Party. The election of John McCain would provide a new lease on life to American militarism, while perpetuating the U.S. penchant for global interventionism marketed under the guise of liberation.
The essential point is this: conservatives intent on voting in November for a candidate who shares their views might as well plan on spending Election Day at home. The Republican Party of Bush, Cheney, and McCain no longer accommodates such a candidate.
So why consider Obama? For one reason only: because this liberal Democrat has promised to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq. Contained within that promise, if fulfilled, lies some modest prospect of a conservative revival.
To appreciate that possibility requires seeing the Iraq War in perspective. As an episode in modern military history, Iraq qualifies at best as a very small war. Yet the ripples from this small war will extend far into the future, with remembrance of the event likely to have greater significance than the event itself. How Americans choose to incorporate Iraq into the nation’s historical narrative will either affirm our post-Cold War trajectory toward empire or create opportunities to set a saner course.
The neoconservatives understand this. If history renders a negative verdict on Iraq, that judgment will discredit the doctrine of preventive war. The “freedom agenda” will command as much authority as the domino theory. Advocates of “World War IV” will be treated with the derision they deserve. The claim that open-ended “global war” offers the proper antidote to Islamic radicalism will become subject to long overdue reconsideration.
Give the neocons this much: they appreciate the stakes. This explains the intensity with which they proclaim that, even with the fighting in Iraq entering its sixth year, we are now “winning”—as if war were an athletic contest in which nothing matters except the final score. The neoconservatives brazenly ignore or minimize all that we have flung away in lives, dollars, political influence, moral standing, and lost opportunities. They have to: once acknowledged, those costs make the folly of the entire neoconservative project apparent. All those confident manifestos calling for the United States to liberate the world’s oppressed, exercise benign global hegemony, and extend forever the “unipolar moment” end up getting filed under dumb ideas.
Yet history’s judgment of the Iraq War will affect matters well beyond the realm of foreign policy. As was true over 40 years ago when the issue was Vietnam, how we remember Iraq will have large political and even cultural implications.
As part of the larger global war on terrorism, Iraq has provided a pretext for expanding further the already bloated prerogatives of the presidency. To see the Iraq War as anything but misguided, unnecessary, and an abject failure is to play into the hands of the fear-mongers who insist that when it comes to national security all Americans (members of Congress included) should defer to the judgment of the executive branch. Only the president, we are told, can “keep us safe.” Seeing the war as the debacle it has become refutes that notion and provides a first step toward restoring a semblance of balance among the three branches of government.
Above all, there is this: the Iraq War represents the ultimate manifestation of the American expectation that the exercise of power abroad offers a corrective to whatever ailments afflict us at home. Rather than setting our own house in order, we insist on the world accommodating itself to our requirements. The problem is not that we are profligate or self-absorbed; it is that others are obstinate and bigoted. Therefore, they must change so that our own habits will remain beyond scrutiny.
Of all the obstacles to a revival of genuine conservatism, this absence of self-awareness constitutes the greatest. As long as we refuse to see ourselves as we really are, the status quo will persist, and conservative values will continue to be marginalized. Here, too, recognition that the Iraq War has been a fool’s errand—that cheap oil, the essential lubricant of the American way of life, is gone for good—may have a salutary effect. Acknowledging failure just might open the door to self-reflection.
None of these concerns number among those that inspired Barack Obama’s run for the White House. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama’s habit of spouting internationalist bromides suggests little affinity for serious realism. His views are those of a conventional liberal. Nor has Obama expressed any interest in shrinking the presidency to its pre-imperial proportions. He does not cite Calvin Coolidge among his role models. And however inspiring, Obama’s speeches are unlikely to make much of a dent in the culture. The next generation will continue to take its cues from Hollywood rather than from the Oval Office.
Yet if Obama does become the nation’s 44th president, his election will constitute something approaching a definitive judgment of the Iraq War. As such, his ascent to the presidency will implicitly call into question the habits and expectations that propelled the United States into that war in the first place. Matters hitherto consigned to the political margin will become subject to close examination. Here, rather than in Obama’s age or race, lies the possibility of his being a truly transformative presidency.
Whether conservatives will be able to seize the opportunities created by his ascent remains to be seen. Theirs will not be the only ideas on offer. A repudiation of the Iraq War and all that it signifies will rejuvenate the far Left as well. In the ensuing clash of visions, there is no guaranteeing that the conservative critique will prevail.
But this much we can say for certain: electing John McCain guarantees the perpetuation of war. The nation’s heedless march toward empire will continue. So, too, inevitably, will its embrace of Leviathan. Whether snoozing in front of their TVs or cheering on the troops, the American people will remain oblivious to the fate that awaits them.
For conservatives, Obama represents a sliver of hope. McCain represents none at all. The choice turns out to be an easy one.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His next book, The Limits of Power, will be published in August.