State of the Union

Introducing Our New Homepage

Two years after overhauling and expanding The American Conservative‘s website, our readership is bigger–and more engaged–than ever. Now we’re revamping the site to better reflect how you read it.

We’ve made some changes based on the feedback we received from you in our survey earlier this year. Here are three things readers should know about the new homepage:

1) It’s integrated and geared toward immediacy–we’re removing the blog silos on the homepage. The “State of the Union” blog will be folded into the rest of the site. Our freshest content (including blog posts and articles), curated by the editors, will appear at the top of the page. You can still read your favorite blogs and writers individually.

2) More than 30 percent of our traffic now comes from mobile devices. So we’ve optimized the site with responsive design to improve your reading experience on phones and tablets.

3) We’ve expanded our home for New Urbanism content. Going forward we will aggregate all relevant coverage from the “New Urbs” blog and elsewhere here. For more on this exciting project, read this.

Much like our mission to redefine the right–by goading, encouraging, and inspiring conservatives to think creatively about our country’s challenges–our website is an ongoing project. Thanks for being a part of this, and in advance for your feedback.

New Internationalism: Reax

Catherine Addington

Last week we convened some of the most significant thinkers in the country from across the political spectrum at George Washington University to address a way forward for American foreign policy, and to build on the emerging mainstream consensus that favors prudence, diplomacy, and the rule of law. If you attended or viewed the conference, we’d love your feedback.

Robert Golan-Vilella was there:

If there was an overriding theme to Tuesday’s event, it was about exploring the costs of the existing consensus strategy. Barry Posen, speaking about his new book Restraint, highlighted the problems posed by the incentives that this strategy gives to U.S. allies, who both free-ride on America’s defense spending and act more provocatively than they might otherwise, thinking that Washington will always have their back. A panel consisting of Adam Serwer, Marcy Wheeler and Conor Friedersdorf made the case that America’s pursuit of absolute safety from foreign threats had resulted in a security state that unacceptably impinged on its citizens’ civil liberties at home. And, of course, running throughout the conference was a recognition of the enormous costs in both blood and treasure of the past dozen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

What is needed instead, said Daniel McCarthy, editor of the American Conservative, is a “kind of counter-consensus.” It would be made up of a loose alliance of antiwar liberals and conservatives, realists and civil libertarians. It would seek to roll back many of the policies mentioned above, and replace them with an alternative model in which America spends less on its armed forces and uses military force only when its vital national interests—narrowly defined—are truly at stake.

Golan-Vilella wonders if even a foreign policy counter-consensus is desirable in the first place. Michael Dougherty, who participated in the conference, highlights the politics of Iraq, noting that Republicans simply need to admit they were wrong:

As panelists pointed out at the recent “New Internationalism” conference held by The American Conservative and (liberal-leaning) The American Prospect, popular opinion in England and the United States held Congress and the president from committing military resources to another regime change in Syria last year. The American people want a foreign policy that protects jobs, that promotes peace and prosperity. Four out of five Americans who Pew polled say that America should spend more resources concentrating on problems at home rather than abroad.

So let’s practice a little democracy at home and give the people what they want: a Republican Party that is chastened by Iraq.

If you missed the livestream last week, we’ve posted the entire conference to YouTube here, and by panel below. See C-SPAN’s coverage here.

Threats and Responses: How the U.S. can maintain stability in the long term without war, with William S. Lind, Daniel Drezner, Matthew Duss, and Daniel Larison.

The Case for Restraint: Barry Posen, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.

National Security State Overreach and Reform: Reclaiming civil liberties in the aftermath of the War on Terror, with Conor Friedersdorf, Marcy Wheeler, Adam Serwer, and Samuel Goldman.

Political Realities: Prospects for realism and reform in the Republican and Democratic parties, with Michael Cohen, Christopher Preble, John Judis, and Robert Merry.

Stay tuned–the conversation will continue in the coming weeks on Bloggingheads.

Catherine Addington

Catherine Addington

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LIVE: Watch the New Internationalism

The New Internationalism conference, produced by The American Conservative with The American Prospect and the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University, will be streaming live here from 8:30am to 1:30pm on Tuesday, June 17.

Note: The conference is now over. We’ve posted the full video below. You can access the segments that have aired on C-SPAN here. The discussion continues at Bloggingheads here.

Go here for last-minute registration, or to see a full agenda, including speakers and panel times.

Participate in the discussion yourself at our live blog and open thread here.

Six Questions for Tara McKelvey on Torture

Tara McKelvey is a features writer at BBC News in Washington. She is the author of Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. We asked her a few questions about the Senate torture report, Donald Rumsfeld, and her book 10 years after the Abu Ghraib scandal.

1) Have you been following the leaks from the Senate inquiry into CIA
torture of detainees’ post-9/11? What do you make of reports that the CIA lied to the government and the public about the scope and effectiveness of the torture program?

Yes. I’m not sure if I would say “lied.” I don’t think we know enough to say they’ve done that. They have kept a lot of things hidden, and people on the Hill are trying to convince them to say more.

If enough of it is declassified, what will the Senate report tell us?

Who knows. But one thing I’ve wondered about is the interrogation methods that didn’t get approved. The former top lawyer of the CIA said in his memoir, Company Man, that they vetoed one method. Given all that they did, I am wondering what they decided was beyond the pale.

2) We recently marked the ten-year anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Your goal was to get beyond the frame of the Abu Ghraib photographs, and Monstering provides an account of extreme disarray there: interpreters who weren’t tested on language proficiency, private contractors with sectarian allegiances, a prisoner to guard ratio of 75 to one, soldiers who were told that they could “do whatever they wanted” to the detainees. What was the most surprising thing you learned while reporting the book?

How hard it was to give everyone their due. There is a German writer, Friedrich Hebbel, who once said: “In a good play…. everyone is right.” But when I interviewed Lynndie England, I had to keep reminding myself to give her the benefit of the doubt. A lot of people saw her as a monster, and I didn’t want to do that. Otherwise, I kept telling myself, I would be just like the people at the prison–the ones who didn’t see the detainees as fully human. But she was difficult to talk to–and she was at the prison when terrible things happened, and, anyway, I was surprised how hard that interview was.

3) What is the legacy of the scandal today as the U.S. winds down the War on Terror?

Obama outlawed torture. But years after he promised to close Guantanamo, it is still open. There is a place on the island called Camp 7 that is off-limits to virtually everyone, including journalists. That is where the people are who were once kept in the CIA’s black sites. That is one legacy of the scandal.

4) Monstering also addresses the elite policymakers (John Yoo, et al) who contributed to a climate of systemic abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. You conclude that instead of asking “how could this happen?” the question is really “how could this not have happened?” Several soldiers involved in the scandal, including Lynndie England, were sentenced to time in prison, but so many haven’t been held accountable. What do you make of this?

That it’s not completely surprising, but it still seems wrong. Putting soldiers on trial when they have committed crimes is not a slight against the military, but unfortunately some people think of it that way.

What policy measures have been put in place (by the army if not the CIA) to prevent future abuse?

Most people in the army were horrified by the abuses. They had rules in place before the Iraq war, and they are now making sure that the rules are followed more carefully. The worst abuse was carried out not by people in the military, though, but by people who worked for the CIA. They may have done tons of things to prevent future abuse, but they haven’t really talked about it.

5) Any thoughts on Errol Morris’s new Donald Rumsfeld documentary? Read More…

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Why the Syria Debate Matters

As the Obama administration moves toward a dramatic political solution in Syria, Robert Merry detects an inflection point in American politics, the public forcing a “major new direction in American foreign policy”:

In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.

To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.

It’s unclear what it will take for the “foreign-policy reawakening” to fully penetrate Washington, where many congressmen are openly relieved that a vote on the use of force in Syria has been postponed due to diplomatic breakthroughs (“For scores of Republicans and Democrats troubled by the optics of voting yea or nay, the delay was a godsend”). Moreover, Joshua Keating notes that the public has been in a “multilateralist mood” for quite some time.

In some ways this administration has transitioned away from unpopular full-scale interventionism by simply downplaying any prospect of American involvement as “unbelievably small.” In Libya, the scope of intervention was repeatedly minimized–the administration dodged a mostly apathetic Congress, claiming it was not involved in “hostilities”–while the president largely avoided even talking about America’s role and obligations in that country. But while some dinged the Syria address last week as unnecessary, it’s notable that the political moment now requires some overt grappling with the decision to commit force and a straightforward argument from national interests.

The Syria debate has revealed a certain prudence and realism among the American public. Perhaps the last-minute shift to real, creative diplomacy in this case will activate some fresh strategic thinking among the foreign policy elite. A major new direction indeed.

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Syria: Let’s Just Not Do This…

President Obama will not order strikes on Syria if Congress rejects the use of force, according to an adviser—and he will address the country on Tuesday evening to make the case. Politico notes that while if the vote happened today the administration would “lose big,” many Democrats in Congress will likely move to “yes” next week:

High-level congressional sources believe there is some time — but not much — for Obama, Boehner and Pelosi to turn things around. But any vote to authorize an attack on Syria will be extraordinarily close, according to people in both parties with direct knowledge of the political dynamics in the House Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus.

The Fix and ThinkProgress have the latest whip counts. And Mother Jones has a great running guide to the debate here. Meanwhile, Wired is tracking votes vis-à-vis political contributions from the defense industry.

As constituents (and even some unlikely neoconservatives), continue to express opposition and AIPAC goes “all out,” next week’s debate will be revealing. Congress is now more popular than intervention in the Syrian civil war—House Republicans might boost those numbers if they skip the incoherent rants about Benghazi and opportunism-flaunting to ask earnest questions about America’s long-term interests and role in brutal protracted civil wars in the Middle East.

Peggy Noonan, who seems to be somewhat confused about what is actually happening in Syria (“A strong, broad strike opens the possibility of civil war”), reflects on a watershed moment for democratic accountability in foreign-policy making:

There is something going on here, a new distance between Washington and America that the Syria debate has forced into focus. The Syria debate isn’t, really, a struggle between libertarians and neoconservatives, or left and right, or Democrats and Republicans. That’s not its shape. It looks more like a fight between the country and Washington, between the broad American public and Washington’s central governing assumptions.

I’ve been thinking of the “wise men,” the foreign policy mandarins of the 1950s and ’60s, who so often and frustratingly counseled moderation, while a more passionate public, on right and left, was looking for action. “Ban the Bomb!” “Get Castro Out of Cuba.” In the Syria argument, the moderating influence is the public, which doesn’t seem to have even basic confidence in Washington’s higher wisdom.

In related updates, Robert Costa checks in on Rand Paul:

Read More…

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Clarifying the War Powers Resolution

Before President Obama announced that he would in fact be requesting Congressional authorization for military action in Syria, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren made a succinct case for deliberation on KPCC, joining many of her colleagues actively seeking to do their jobs (LISTEN here). Lofgren, a Democrat, even posted the text of the War Powers Resolution on her website.

David Cole, who also clears up arguments about the WPR’s putative loopholes, has more:

It is possible that the military action now being contemplated by the White House might qualify as “humanitarian intervention,” on the ground that it is designed to forestall further atrocities in Syria. Whether such a response in the absence of UN Security Council approval is permissible under international law is a matter of debate, although most legal scholars would argue that Security Council approval is required. But again, under our Constitution, there is no exception to the requirement of Congressional approval for humanitarian interventions. Any hostile use of military force in another sovereign’s territory without its consent is an act of war, and requires Congress’s assent.

If President Obama ignores this requirement, he won’t be the first. President Clinton ignored it when he gave NATO authorization to use US forces to bomb Kosovo. President Reagan did so when he supported the contras in Nicaragua’s civil war, and when he sent troops to Grenada. President Truman did so in Korea, which he called a “police action,” fooling no one. In fact, the reason Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution was that presidents had too often seized the advantage by unilaterally introducing troops, and only then, if at all, coming to Congress for authorization after the fact, when Congress had no real choice but to support the president.

The decision to intervene in Syria is, by all accounts, a difficult one. It is far from clear that it will do any good, and there is substantial risk that it will do harm. Polls show many Americans are against intervention. Iran has threatened to respond by attacking Israel. Assad may well have concluded that drawing in US forces will make him more popular, not less so, given attitudes toward the US in his country and the region. And it’s not clear that the forces currently fighting Assad would offer a less violent future for Syria if he is removed. President Obama, recognizing the risk of going it alone, has dispatched his emissaries to drum up support around the globe. But in view of the many risks involved, he would do well to seek support from Congress as well. That’s the red line the Framers drew, and the president should respect it.

Mother Jones helpfully breaks down where segments of Congress, including Republican non-interventionists and Democratic “doves” like Lofgren, stand on the use of force in Syria. The Washington Post is keeping track of vote counts here.

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Beyond Fox News

Peter Viereck reintroduced conservatism to modern America in 1949 with his classic Conservatism Revisited. “This was the book,” wrote George Nash in his seminal history of 20th-century conservative thought, “which, more than any other of the early postwar era, created the new conservatism as a self-conscious intellectual force.”

Viereck’s conservatism was pre-political, “more contemplative than activist.” In fact, he believed that to identify conservatism primarily in political terms would be self-defeating. He opposed the notion of a “conservative movement” before it even got off the ground.

He directed an early salvo at God and Man at Yale, which most of today’s conservatives consider a founding text of the movement (in most cases, without having read it). In a 1951 review published in the New York Times, Viereck took issue with the young William F. Buckley Jr.’s indiscriminate alarmism:

The author irresponsibly treats not only mild social democracy but even most social reform as almost crypto-communism. He damns communism, our main enemy, not half so violently as lesser enemies like the income tax and inheritance tax. Words will really fail you when you reach the book’s final ‘message’: trustees and alumni should violate the legally established academic freedom to ‘banish from the classroom’ not merely Communists but all professors deviating from Adam Smith!

As the movement coalesced over the next few years, Viereck’s wariness of economic materialism and “right-wing nationalist thought control” led coalition-builder Frank S. Meyer—a senior editor of National Review—to dub him a “counterfeit conservative.” Viereck returned the compliment. In a 1962 New Republic essay, “The New Conservatism: One of Its Founders Asks What Went Wrong,” he explained: “A scrutiny of the plain facts of the situation has forced our report on the new conservatives to be mainly negative.”

Click on the image to view the full graphic, or view the PDF version.

Click on the image for the full graphic, or view the PDF version.

That was Viereck’s last formal written pronouncement on the state of conservatism. Yet more than a half-century later, his views are making a comeback among independent, “post-movement” conservatives. Even more curious, Viereck’s disciples can be found not on the fringes but in the pages of The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, and The Atlantic, where Viereck was first published. For a new generation of writers and conservative thinkers, it is almost as if Viereck had set the tone of 1950s conservatism instead of Buckley.

Of course, the Viereck disposition was never meant for the high-pitched fervors of movement conservatism. Viereck himself accepted the New Deal and trade unions as “counter-revolutionary” measures and acknowledged the rootedness of both the American conservative tradition and our “moderate native liberalism.” “The Burkean builds on the concrete existing historical base, not on a vacuum of abstract wishful thinking,” he wrote. He warned against conservatism as a zero-sum political program, and he decried its adherents’ stubborn ambivalence toward McCarthyism as the movement’s “original sin.” He was equally uncomfortable with its later fixation on Goldwater: “Fortunately [Russell] Kirk’s positive contribution sometimes almost balances such embarrassing ventures into practical national politics.”

Above all, Viereck worried that a politically charged conservatism would degenerate into “a transient fad irrelevant to real needs.” A static conservatism “does real harm when it … enters short-run politics conjuring up mirages to conceal sordid realities or to distract from them.” He quoted a 1953 essay by philanthropist August Heckscher: “Conservatism at best remains deeper and more pervasive than any party; and a party that does claim it exclusively is likely to deform and exploit it for its own purposes.”


The Rise of Post-Movement Conservatism

For his part, Buckley perpetuated Cold War frenzy in National Review but also published cheerful and significant conservative thinking on literature and public policy. Among some dissidents, however—openly in the case of Viereck and quietly in the case of Kirk—there had always been a certain Burkean unease about NR’s partisan politics. As the movement doubled down on the GOP, its legions took groupthink to new and bizarre levels, placing party loyalty at a premium and backing wholeheartedly the Republican line.

Post-movement conservatives are not political operatives. Unorthodox writers like Ross Douthat, Andrew Sullivan, and Conor Friedersdorf can be loosely described as Burkeans. A few, including former Bush speechwriter David Frum and Reagan economic adviser Bruce Bartlett, were forced out of the movement for their apostasies. Those who have eschewed built-in movement career paths—a gig on Fox News! a talk show on AM radio!—and multiplatform merchandising opportunities face a dilemma. They must forgo the movement entirely or operate carefully at its margins, working toward a conservatism that is interested in much more than electoral success.

Perhaps because of their aversion to narrow-minded activism, these writers have been adept at incorporating a broader, more nuanced conservative sensibility into the mainstream. Friedersdorf, a libertarian-leaning writer who got his start as an under-blogger for Sullivan, happily advances a critique of liberalism and contemporary conservatism alike at The Atlantic’s website. His blog post “Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama” (on constitutional and civil liberties grounds) was shared by 174,000 readers on Facebook.

David Frum went independent in 2009 with the now defunct website FrumForum—a “gathering place for conservatives who still believe the Earth is round,” according to The New Republic—and was fired from AEI a year later for breaking with the party on healthcare reform. (He joined Newsweek/The Daily Beast after that.) In a 2011 essay for New York, Frum decried the “drying up” of conservative creativity and described the movement as a “going-out-of-business sale for the baby boom generation.”

“The problems that generate political movements are either solved or are shown to be unsolvable or just irrelevant because of passage of time,” Frum told The American Conservative. Continuing with the same ideas after that means “you become blind to reality around you. The conservative movement is increasingly removed from the concerns of future generations, which don’t use politics to memorialize old historical conflicts.”

“I don’t think it makes sense to use the phrase ‘conservative movement’ now,” he says, “when the conservative outlook almost entirely overlaps with the Republican Party, and in some ways is bigger than the Republican Party. A lot of the practices and habits that you develop when you’re a small faction become inappropriate when you get big.” The Procrustean movement, he wrote in New York, has become a “whole alternative knowledge system.”

The conservative media in particular—once the vibrant repository of philosophical debate and keen wit—has become bigger, more consolidated, and corporate. As former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough, who brings concerns about the debt and perpetual war to MSNBC and Politico, observed at a National Review Institute event in January: “the debate has been stifled. It has been stifled because we have created this conservative groupthink over 30 years that has become more and more narrow. A conservative groupthink that would allow all of our primary presidential candidates being asked if they would take a 10-to-1 deal on spending cuts to taxes, and everybody’s afraid to talk.”

The groupthink is so extensive that several conservative publications seem to exist only to promote the work of other, indistinguishable movement outlets. (One typical headline from the Washington Free Beacon: “Fox News Cites Free Beacon Report.”) Here the mission ranges from “use journalism to advance the movement” to “#war.” As one attendee at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual conference told Atlantic reporter Molly Ball last year, “You couldn’t get in an argument around here no matter how hard you tried.”

Conor Friedersdorf says that much of the movement media simply feels old—“not many new ideas being batted around there”—and points to a generational conundrum: “What everyone thinks of as great moments in the conservative movement—Buckley founding National Review, Goldwater, Reagan getting elected—all of those things happened before Rush Limbaugh, talk radio, and Fox News,” he says. “The movement is still generating revenue for its various projects but now has little to do with actually advancing conservative ideas.” For instance, he asks, “what has the Heritage Foundation accomplished since the mid-1990s to justify its level of expenditure?”

“We need a certain amount of icebreaking to create space,” Frum adds. “We’re way overdue for generational change in the conservative world. … The Reagan record is not a motivator for next generation of voters.”

Meanwhile, post-Reagan, post-movement conservatism has distanced itself from boomer nostalgia and isn’t constantly compelled to dangle its ideological credentials out of fear of retribution from readers. These conservatives are free to explore different premises while leaving party shibboleths behind, particularly when it comes to post-Great Recession economics and foreign policy after Iraq. They are certainly not beholden to the short-term trajectory of the Republican Party.

Friedersdorf’s former boss Andrew Sullivan has brought the conservatism of Michael Oakeshott to the pages of The New Republic, Time, The Atlantic, and Newsweek/The Daily Beast. In February he took his blog fully independent—and has raised more than $600,000 in digital subscriptions from readers. Sullivan makes the case for a conservatism of “no party or clique.” He turned to the example of Viereck in a recent blog post:

The conservative criticism of today’s GOP that I and others have engaged in is not new. It was there at the beginning of the ‘movement’ in the post-war period and has never really left. In other words, there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to explain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?

Certainly, Viereck’s comfort with “generous emotions” in the context of civil rights, and his recognition of the “shared liberalconservative base” as a rooted American reality, resonates with Sullivan, a committed Obamacon who was gay marriage’s earliest and most articulate proponent.

The deeply pro-life Ross Douthat takes on philosophical and cultural questions in the New York Times. James Poulos, who founded the “Postmodern Conservative” blog at First Things, is now a producer at Huffington Post Live and contributor to Forbes and Vice. Others, like Josh Barro, a sharp policy analyst for Bloomberg, resist the conservative label altogether. Barro calls himself a neoliberal.

Friedersdorf notes that the movement itself began as a meager upstart: “Alternative or dissident conservatism has a better chance” of succeeding “than America suddenly deciding that [National Review writer and historian] Victor Davis Hanson has been right all along.”


“A Revolt Against the Revolt Against Revolt”

Buckley’s insurgency challenged a crumbling, staid liberal establishment; now the counter-establishment he founded suffers from the same large-scale intellectual decline. It’s a scenario that Viereck half-foresaw in his review of God and Man: “some of us have preached a conservative ‘revolt against revolt.’ If the laboring mountain of the new campus of conservatism can turn out no humane and imaginative Churchill but merely this product of narrow economic privilege, then we might need a revolt against the revolt against revolt.”

Should the present revolt, if we can indeed call it that, heed the movement’s lessons and break the bondage of the Republican Party? In an essay for the Imaginative Conservative website, George Carey, a professor of government at Georgetown, put it this way:

A Burkean based conservatism cannot be true to itself if it is aligned permanently with either of our political parties. The most obvious considerations bear out this conclusion. On what basis can loyalty to an organization, lacking any abiding principles and seeking nothing more than electoral victory, be justified? … At this level, the party is effectively brain dead, beyond repair. …Instead of worrying about the trials and tribulations of the Republican party, for instance, we ought to repudiate it and move on.

Carey elaborated in an email: “Why is there this deep concern for a political party that has abandoned us? Does this linkage to party make these ideas more attractive? If the ideas are sound, why can’t they just stand by themselves?”

March/April 2013Indeed, conservatism is “deeper and more pervasive than any party,” a sensibility that is naturally incorporated into the mainstream. In Viereck’s words: “The answer is: children, don’t oversimplify, don’t pigeonhole: allow for pluralistic overlappings that defy abstract blueprints and labels.”

While the movement may continue its political huckstering for some time—in part because it is so profitable—the Republican Party has hit a wall. Meanwhile, the conservative temperament flourishes in scattered, improbable places. Could this fugitive existence be more authentic to conservatism?

Perhaps post-movement conservatism won’t accomplish much in practical political terms, but in nurturing a fertile intellectual tradition it may well do more good for the country than all the political campaigns of the last decade.

Maisie Allison is editorial director, digital of The American Conservative.

The Obamacon’s Dilemma

In 2008, a few prominent conservatives hoped that Barack Obama might upend entrenched baby boomer attitudes and partisan dogmas. Aghast at the Bush administration’s financial and military recklessness, 20 percent of self-described conservatives voted for the “most liberal member of the Senate.”

After four years, President Obama’s case for re-election seems more a defense of the status quo than the call for change that propelled him into office: massive (though slightly smaller) deficits, a frail economy, Congressional dysfunction, and drift to war with Iran. The Bush-Obama status quo has amounted to the propping up of unsustainable entitlement programs and permanent, almost casual interventionism, accompanied by the decay of civil liberties and the growth of executive power. To this Obama has contributed a few unwelcome innovations, such as enhanced drone strikes and the HHS mandate, and some innocuous proposals: half-measures such as tax breaks for manufacturing and hiring more teachers.

There is a strong conservative case against Obama, but Mitt Romney has not made it. If Obama now represents the status quo, Romney offers nothing better than a promise to restore the radical policies that created the current conditions. As Daniel Larison notes, Romney is more likely to start a war with Iran by his own admission. It is revealing that his most prominent national security adviser is not a foreign policy wonk but a former Bush PR operative. At a time when the rich have seen unprecedented financial gains, the GOP nominee’s policies remain highly skewed to the wealthy, with special attention to the financial and defense industries. Amazingly, he seems to embrace the worst aspects of the Bush administration at a time when most Americans (rightly) blame Bush’s policies for our deep economic woes.

To the extent that Obama still offers a brake on the reckless forces of plutocracy and war (the Sheldon Adelson approach), which Romney plainly intends to restore, the conservative is left with no true alternative. In fact, the president’s re-election depends on a consensus around hard truths, the acknowledgment that immediately after the economic crisis, maybe we didn’t “deserve” to have the best years ever. Obama’s re-election, in a landscape hostile to any incumbent, would signify a certain reckoning, some actual grappling with the complexity of the crisis at hand, and a realization that neither Republican flag-waving nor sloganeering for “hope and change” are substitutes for hard choices. In this sense, the re-election of Obama might represent a surprising and mature moment in American politics.

Read More…

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TAC Digest: August 28

Today on, Jim Antle reflected on Ron Paul’s legacy (Kelley Vlahos’s take here, Daniel Larison’s here), William Lind challenged the conventional wisdom on Syria, and Scott Galupo called out the GOP’s cynical strategy on Medicare.

Scott McConnell held out hope that Romney’s “inner realist” would suddenly appear, Larison poured cold water, and Rod Dreher contemplated the media elite.

RNC updates here and here.

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TAC Digest: August 27

Today on, Michael Dougherty imagined the GOP ticket that might have been, Scott Galupo downplayed the Romney-Ryan bump, and Samuel Goldman reflected on the politics of accents. Scott McConnell and Wick Allison complicated the Times‘s take on Republican factions.

Jordan Bloom and Michael Tracey reacted to Ron Paul’s farewell, Daniel Larison took issue with the GOP’s epistemic closure on foreign policy, and Rod Dreher braced for Isaac. James Pinkerton traced the school choice revolution, Mike Lofgren marveled at American plutocracy, and Philip Giraldi wondered if a ban on cell phone use while driving would have an impact.

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Week in Review: August 20-24

Illustration by Michael Hogue

This week on, Daniel McCarthy delineated where intellectual conservatism went wrong, Scott Galupo wondered how a President Romney would frame his 2013 stimulus, and Scott McConnell homed in on the widening fissure between social conservatives and the GOP establishment. Jim Antle considered a maturing Tea Party, McCarthy excoriated Todd Akin’s redefinition of rape, and Michael Brendan Dougherty endorsed the conservative case for breaking up the banks. Robert P. Murphy argued that Paul Ryan’s ‘draconian’ budget is vastly overrated, Noah Millman chided Mediscaring on both sides, and elaborated on Obama’s small-“c” conservatism.

Michael Ostrolenk and Rep. Mick Mulvaney cut to the chase on defense spending, Samuel Goldman took issue with the NYPD’s utterly ineffective, Muslim-targeting ‘Demographic Unit,’ and Kelley Vlahos offered an overview of the (bleak) state of affairs in Iraq. Daniel Larison poured cold water on fears of future Chinese hegemony, and noted that Niall Ferguson seems to know even less about foreign policy than he does about the OMB’s report on Obamacare. Larison also discussed the illegality of a preemptive attack on Iran.

Goldman reviewed Chris Hayes’s new book on meritocratic elites, Rod Dreher lamented the conservative failure to make great art, and Ron Unz remembered Alexander Cockburn.

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TAC Digest: August 23

Today on, Michael Ostrolenk and Rep. Mick Mulvaney cut to the chase on defense spending, Ron Unz remembered Alexander Cockburn, and Kelley Vlahos offered an overview of the (bleak) state of affairs in Iraq.

Rod Dreher studied Appalachia, Daniel Larison eviscerated Paul Ryan on China and Russia, Scott Galupo took on Rick Warren’s “covenant of civility,” and Philip Giraldi worried about the consequences of cyberwarfare. Help Rod pick the cover of his forthcoming book “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” here.

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Do Voter ID Laws Disenfranchise the Poor?

In the second installment of the “Good Fight” series, Glenn Loury and Mark Kleiman address the voter ID question:

Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law was upheld today. Dave Weigel, who covered the trial, has more:

I saw the petitioners (against the law) give a strong case, focusing on the difficulty of getting hundreds of thousands of voters sorted out before a November election. The state based its argument on the 2008 Crawford case, arguing that you couldn’t possibly strike down a law just because some voters would be inconvenienced — voting is inconvenient! What does the state’s win mean, effectively? The ACLU will eventually take its case to the state Supreme Court, which (due to a scandal surrounding one member) is split 3-3, Democratic and Republican members. If the court splits on this law, the Simpson decision is reaffirmed.

Samuel Goldman recently noted that the “practical impact of these laws … is likely to be more limited than either advocates or critics believe.”

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Is Marriage Equality the Civil Rights Movement of Our Age?

Over the years The American Conservative has made occasional appearances on the “diavlog” site Bloggingheads (see Michael Brendan DoughertyNoah MillmanRod Dreher, and Daniel McCarthy). The site’s new series “The Good Fight” convenes thinkers from right and left for conversations about politics and ideas. TAC will be taking part, and in the spirit of civil yet spirited discourse, we’ll highlight segments from the series over the next several months.

In the debut installment, Daniel Foster and Amy Sullivan put the campaign for marriage equality in perspective:

On that note, Dan McCarthy recently explained why the right can’t win the gay marriage fight (Dreher’s response here). Millman’s Burkean case for gay marriage here.

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Memorializing Ike

The National Civic Art Society’s winning counter-entry.

Paul Goldberger reframes the debate — er, impasse — about the Eisenhower Memorial in the August issue of Vanity Fair:

For all that the war over the Eisenhower Memorial has been cast as a battle between modernism and traditional design, it’s really not that at all. The greatest memorials, whatever their architectural style, have conveyed a single, powerful idea with absolute clarity: the Washington Monument speaks of the singularity of the man who, more than any other, established the United States; the Lincoln Memorial of the democratic vision of the man who held it together. The Jefferson Memorial is weak because it fails to evoke Jefferson’s lively, inventive mind; the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a success because its wall of names conveys, with heartbreaking directness, the way in which individual losses join together to create a tragedy of monumental proportions for all.

This is an important point. Frank Gehry’s design fails not because it does something new, but because it is incoherent (though it is not quite, as the traditionalist National Civic Art Society claims, a “monument to nihilism”). And give Gehry credit for his first consideration, which deals directly with the memorial’s wasteland-context:

The memorial is to be built on a four-acre site in front of the headquarters of the Department of Education, a dreary modernist box a block south of the Mall, set behind one of the bleakest concrete plazas in Washington, a hostile expanse that opens onto a view of parked cars and traffic running along Maryland Avenue, which slices diagonally through the space as it runs toward the Capitol. Long before it selected Gehry, the Eisenhower Memorial Commission chose the site as “Eisenhower Square,” and proposed the idea of turning the four acres into a park that would have a memorial as its centerpiece, in effect honoring Eisenhower and solving an urban design problem at the same time.

Gehry says he was searching for a way simultaneously to set off the memorial quadrant from its surroundings and obscure the ungainly façade of the Department of Education, but not block views and light for those inside the building, so he needed something that would be both large and semi-transparent.

But Gehry’s unfocused, narrative-driven structure doesn’t work: amid “shocking” tapestries of woven steel, it portrays Eisenhower as a barefoot boy “looking toward the statues that represent his future accomplishments.” The NCAS is doubling down in opposition, and on Tuesday met at a reception on Capitol Hill to showcase top entries from its 2011 counter-proposal competition.

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Fall Interns Wanted

We’re now accepting applications for TAC’s fall internship. Interns gain experience in all aspects of producing the print magazine and website, including writing blog posts and articles, proofreading, conducting research, contributing headlines and story ideas, and managing social media accounts. Clerical duties, such as answering the phone and handling the mail, are also involved.

The interns will join our growing team in Arlington, Virginia from August/September through December, and receive a small stipend. College students or recent graduates who would like to apply should send a résumé and writing sample to [email protected] by August 1. We’ll post more information about our spring and summer 2013 internships in the coming months.

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Revisiting the Logic of Voter ID

Paul Gottfried’s column on the Pennsylvania voter ID controversy focuses on its political expediency, airing a counter-argument that isn’t actually a counter-argument but what might be the GOP’s second thoughts about ID legislation if they had them (the Republican Party can’t afford to alienate the affected demographics more than it already has – should this be reassuring?). To this he adds his inability to imagine a “situation in which Obama and Holder would refrain from challenging known Christian traditionalists and NRA lobbyists who are improperly registered to vote,” which sheds little light on the issue.

The counter-argument — focused on the fairness issue and the question of its impact — is that voter impersonation is not a systemic problem. But requiring millions of Americans to produce documentation that they do not have could be (for many of these voters, an ID can be costly to attain because of misplaced documents, misspellings, name changes, etc.). Regardless, the effect of ID requirements on turnout might not be as significant as Gottfried — and many Democrats — insist. As Samuel Goldman recently noted in his analysis on this blog:

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Theodore Roosevelt Builds an Empire

illustration by Michael Hogue

Journalist Gregg Jones offers a notable, if somewhat inelegant, reconstruction of Theodore Roosevelt’s career and this country’s embrace of empire between the years 1898-1902. Honor in the Dust shows how Roosevelt deftly maneuvered the U.S. and a war-weary President McKinley into a full-blown occupation of the Philippines, and how he managed the fallout. The conquest was a moral and historical disaster that Roosevelt—skilled in public relations—retooled for public consumption as the U.S. found itself in an unaccustomed imperial role.

As a student at Harvard, Roosevelt was steeped in the ideology of Anglo-Saxon superiority and grew infused with a sense of patriarchal purpose. Once a sickly, privileged child, he later went to extraordinary lengths to cultivate a tough Western identity. Roosevelt viewed military conflict as a chance to renovate America’s soft Gay Nineties image. He prized war as a source of meaning and redemption, and as Jones notes, loved it so much that he was eager to wage it himself. As always, appearances mattered: after resigning as McKinley’s assistant secretary of the Navy to lead a volunteer regiment in Cuba, Roosevelt commissioned what became known as his Rough Rider uniform. Brooks Brothers was the tailor.

If TR was on the prowl for new global responsibilities, the restless country was also ginned up for a fight. Americans wondered if they were missing out on the empire-building game, and they read their own revolutionary heritage into the Cuban fight for independence from Spain. The fatal—but likely accidental—explosion of the USS Maine near Havana in the winter of 1898 brought tensions to a head. President McKinley, a Republican who desperately wanted to avoid war, urged caution and ordered an investigation. But there wasn’t time to be certain, and Assistant Secretary Roosevelt had already laid the groundwork for campaigns against Spain in Cuba and the Philippine Islands.

Roosevelt’s vision for the Philippines, unlike the limited intervention in Cuba, was decidedly open-ended. He sought annexation and “pacification.” The young leader of the Filipino insurgency against Spanish rule, Emilio Aguinaldo, was assured that American interests were benevolent and short-term. As James Bradley established three years ago in his startling history The Imperial Cruise, Aguinaldo was initially wary of U.S. intentions, but he took the Constitution at its word: “I have studied attentively the Constitution of the United States, and I find in it no authority for colonies, and I have no fear.” But he soon figured out Roosevelt’s game and went into revolt against the new imperial power. He was captured in 1901.

In the U.S., the rhetoric of munificence flourished: America’s “little brown brothers”—William Howard Taft’s phrase—in the Philippines were simply unprepared for independence and self-governance. As the Republican attorney Albert Jeremiah Beveridge teased, it “would be like giving a razor to a babe and telling it to shave itself.” McKinley, who had cautioned against the “temptations of territorial aggression” in his first inaugural address, was ultimately persuaded by appeals to humanitarianism and his obligations as a Christian. Not that pragmatic reasons were ignored: abandoning the islands would be irresponsible given their strategic adjacency to East Asia. The Philippines were also ripe with resources, including coffee, tobacco, and wood.

Having faced an empire before, Aguinaldo and his army understood that they could not win a conventional war. Determined to protect their sovereignty, they resorted to unconventional means: Filipino soldiers would pose as farmers and villagers, waiting for “opportune moments to strike.” Meanwhile, U.S. military units arrived with “absolute ignorance of the Philippine archipelago in respect to geography, climate, people and general aspects of nature,” according to Major General Arthur MacArthur.

The Filipinos’ desperate bush-war tactics and  the U.S. military’s ignorance of the terrain created a formula for confusion and all-out guerrilla combat. Enemy troops were accused of “firing on ambulance litter bearers and Red Cross workers.” Endemic mistrust had disconcerting—and hardening—effects. Americans had a sense that the Filipinos were subhuman and dishonest. A reporter for the New York Evening Post wrote that U.S. troops “do not regard the shooting of Filipinos just as they would the shooting of white troops. The soldiers feel that they are fighting with savages, not with soldiers.”

In a staggering overreach, the American adminsitration targeted the entire island chain. Soldiers grew “callous and indifferent, willing at any time to take undue risks.” An “ethos of reprisal” took over. Almost at random, U.S. troops administered the “water cure,” a primeval version of waterboarding in which victims “experienced the simultaneous sensations of drowning and being burned or cut.” They burned fields and entire villages, massacring civilians and destroying crops and livestock. What began as a campaign for liberation deteriorated into an indiscriminate campaign of violence.

Overt racism, which became an organizing principle of sorts, was bound up with torture and systematic abuse. As one American soldier wrote home, “I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.” African-American soldiers, sensing in empire an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and fitness for citizenship, confronted a baffling landscape: according to Jones, “nigger” was an epithet so repeatedly and “vehemently expressed that it quickly transcended language barriers.”

Jones suggests that American policy in the Philippines after the fall of 1900 aimed at extermination, if only by default. McKinley, who anticipated that his campaign for reelection would be a referendum on the muddled occupation, enlisted Roosevelt as his running mate. When McKinley defeated the anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan, he interpreted his victory as a “clear mandate” to stay the course, even as he understood that the public was no longer infatuated with conquest. Roosevelt—who would become president following McKinley’s assassination a year after the election—had tried to convince voters that the war was already won.

What ended up as an occupation plagued by dishonorable conduct did not start out that way. During the first two years of conflict U.S. commanders periodically reminded their troops to treat the Filipinos humanely. But domestic politics caused these concerns to evaporate in the fall of 1900, when McKinley’s rush to get the war over with morphed into open season on Filipino fighters and civilians alike. Indeed, Jones’s evidence points to the top-down sanctioning of illegal conduct. In 1901, General MacArthur advised his soldiers to “create a reign of fear and anxiety among the disaffected which will become unbearable.”

At this point Americans no longer bothered to take Filipino prisoners alive and carried out summary executions. After a tour of the islands in 1901, one Republican congressman lamented: “The good Lord in Heaven only knows the number of Filipinos that were put under the ground. … Our soldiers took no prisoners, they kept no records; they simply swept the country, and wherever and whenever they could get hold of a Filipino they killed him.” One army general instructed his soldiers to turn a province into a “howling wilderness.” The Philippines conflict normalized torture, looting, arson, pillaging, and rape of native women as a strategy for insurgent “punishment.” It was, in historian Paul Kramer’s words, “a war without limits.”

Meanwhile, a strong contingent of anti-imperialists—including Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie—moved to put an end to the war crimes. A Democratic senator channeled William Graham Sumner: “Spain has had her revenge, for we have become the imitators of her most famous iniquities.”

A distraught Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, once considered the conscience of the Republican Party, anchors Jones’s account of anti-imperialism. Hoar, who was something of a civil rights activist, pushed the administration to investigate American abuses. In a speech on the Senate floor in 1902, he lamented:

You have sacrificed nearly ten thousand American lives—the flower of our youth. You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established reconcentration camps. … You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture.

According to the prominent anti-imperialist Moorfield Storey, the almost nihilistic culture of lawlessness in the Philippines occupation produced a ratio of five dead to every one wounded—the Civil War’s ratio in reverse. In his account of the violence, “Marked Severities” in Philippine Warfare, Storey delineated specific methods of American torture—including the water cure,  “spread eagle,” and “hanging act”—and argued that the military and the government had condoned and even institutionalized war crimes and later made efforts to cover them up. Only three officers were reprimanded for abuses, and their penalties were negligible. Storey writes, “even an army judge advocate like Captain Glenn ordered such a water cure and, on being court-martialed and found guilty, was sentenced to pay a fine of fifty dollars, which is one half the fine that may be imposed for spitting on a public street car in Boston.”

Roosevelt was miffed by the backlash as war-crimes scandals transfixed the nation. Concerned about public perception, he toyed with the idea of a special commission to prosecute the “water cure crowd.” But ultimately he attributed the abuse to a few bad apples and doubled down: “We are not taking a single step which in any way affects our institutions or our traditional policies.” (He looked to the “pacification” of the American frontier as one such tradition.) He also dismissed the notion that the water cure did “serious damage.” Perhaps he was convinced by one colonel who claimed that the practice inadvertently treated dengue fever.

Jones writes that Roosevelt “relished conflict and upsetting the status quo,” and as a politician he was constantly inventing and remaking reality. While Jones suggests that Roosevelt was to some degree humbled by the debacle in the Philippines, his public-relations prowess ensured that his successors were not. (Roosevelt only mentions the Philippines nine times in his carefully-packaged autobiography.) Nevertheless, under Roosevelt’s leadership the islands were forced into submission, and the war “sputtered to a close” in the summer of 1902. The Filipinos would not win their independence until after World War II.

Though Jones’s extensive synthesis of primary sources is impressive, Honor in the Dust suffers from bouts of melodrama and heavy-handedness. (In his prologue, Jones imagines a session of water torture: “Oh, how it hurts! … I will tell the americanos what they wanted to hear.”) The book also suffers from a meandering narrative, though perhaps that more than anything reflects the impulsive and frenetic nature of America’s imperial outburst during these years, from the beaches of Hawaii and Guantanamo Bay to the Imperial City in Beijing.

Roosevelt was a master of coloring reality. The closest he came to admitting error was to acknowledge to a friend, “In the Philippines our men have done well, and on the whole have been exceedingly merciful, but there have been some blots on the record.” Blots, indeed. In a recent interview with Time, Jones’s conclusion was similarly understated: “This wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt’s finest hour. Many things he did regarding the Philippines and the war-crimes revelations in 1901–02 were not admirable.” At least Roosevelt conceded in the end, “torture is not a thing we can tolerate.”

Maisie Allison is a researcher for Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish at The Daily Beast.