This week, when whistleblower website Wikileaks released over 90,000 classified documents portraying a dismal war in Afghanistan, the White House called editor Julian Assange and his organization a threat to national security. But it is this White House that is a threat to national security. Wikileaks simply helped prove it.
The war in Afghanistan is a disaster, something President Obama refuses to acknowledge and insists on continuing for no discernible reason. Afghanistan’s top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal voiced his frustration with the mindlessness of our mission and lost his post. His replacement, Gen. David Petraeus isn’t any clearer about our prospects than his predecessor or the president. Who truly puts the nation’s security more at risk? A government that continues to put soldiers in harm’s way with no clear mission or strategy, as the bodies, dollars and questions continue to pile up, or a website that insists the general public should know what their government is up to?
What was it specifically that the Obama administration found among some 90,000 documents that compelled the White House to declare Wikileaks a security risk, mere hours after their release? Did Obama hire an army of speed readers? Or how about the most significant stories to come out of the Wiki-leak: That we pay Pakistan $1 billion a year to help the Taliban; that drone attacks are far less effective than portrayed; that significant civilian deaths are being covered up. Which of these is truly a massive security risk, domestically or abroad? Or do these stories simply “risk” damaging this president’s reputation, or perhaps simply the administration’s preferred war narrative?
Truth be told, the real “risk” is that Wikileaks dared to report the actual news, or what the New York Times calls, “an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal.” Ironically, the pro-war, any war hawks in both parties who still refuse to believe that Islamic terrorists target the United States not for our “freedom,” but for what we do in their homelands, are now warning of potential blowback over what Wikileaks has done. You see, dropping bombs and occupying countries for years could never incite hatred—but actually reporting the truth about the war could spark a jihadist revolution, as if jihadists don’t already know what’s going on in their own backyard, something an organization like Wikileaks simply believes everyone else should know about too.
Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald has it right: “WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world… there is no valid justification for having kept most of these documents a secret. But that’s what our National Security State does reflexively: it hides itself behind an essentially absolute wall of secrecy to ensure that the citizenry remains largely ignorant of what it is really doing.” The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson writes, “What does it mean to tell the truth about a war? Is it a lie, technically speaking, for the Administration to say that it has faith in Hamid Karzai’s government and regards him as a legitimate leader—or is it just absurd? Is it a lie to say that we have a plan for Afghanistan that makes any sense at all? If you put it that way, each of the WikiLeaks documents… is a pixel in a picture that does, indeed, contradict official accounts of the war, and rather drastically so.”
It is no secret that that telling lies to make sure the “citizenry remains largely ignorant” of what its government “is really doing” is standard operating procedure for Washington, DC. Many Americans rightly see disingenuousness in their government’s selling of programs like, oh, I don’t know, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP)—something Obama originally told us would cost $700 billion but is now reaching $3.7 trillion due to housing rescue efforts—but it should also be stressed that such duplicity is just as regularly used in foreign policy. Granted, waging war is not identical to domestic politics, but the degree to which government uses supposed “national security” to deceive the public about what is truly happening overseas is something the mainstream media largely ignores. Wikileaks claims it went to great lengths to make sure nothing that might genuinely compromise national security was included in their release, and given that the White House can’t cite any specific risks and only issue blanket condemnations, it is reasonable to assume that Wikileaks has simply released information the administration would rather the public not know—not necessarily for safety reasons, but to save face.
Wikileaks or any other organization that knowingly releases classified information that might actually harm the soldier on the battlefield or compromise war strategy should be held accountable—but so should a government that continues to harm soldiers by putting them on the battlefield with no war strategy, clear mission or definable victory. Wikileaks has tried to hold the government accountable by more accurately informing the public about what’s really going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and hopefully the mainstream media will now follow suit. Our national security depends on it.
On a recent episode of the popular game show “Family Feud,” the contestants were asked to name something most commonly associated with San Francisco. Like Mormons to Utah or Dukes to Hazzard, everyone and their brother knows San Fran is a haven for homosexuals, but after saying “trolleys,” the “Golden Gate Bridge” and “Rice-a-Roni,” the feud ended with both families refusing to answer the obvious. After their defeat, the number three answer on the board was finally revealed and lo-and-behold, the survey said: “Gays.” The contestants pretended to be surprised. I couldn’t get over their cowardice. “Gays” would have been my first answer.
And unconstrained by the rules of political correctness, no doubt “gays” would have been most people’s first answer. There’s nothing wrong or homophobic about noting that there are a lot of gay people in San Francisco, but like the mere mentioning of blacks or Jews in polite conversation, simply broaching certain subjects—particularly relating to minorities—these are things we are just not supposed to talk about, that is, unless one happens to be black, Jewish or homosexual. If either of those feuding families had an openly gay member, they might have won the game, but as for the rest of us, we have been trained well—and no doubt, political correctness now dominates much of our public discourse.
Political correctness did not hold sway when actor Mel Gibson went on his now famous phone tirade, spewing racist and violent language at his former lover, Russian pianist Oksana Grigorieva. Many observers agree that Gibson’s movie career might be over and after hearing the phone call, it’s easy to understand why—as you listen to this vile man verbally abusing the mother of his child in the harshest manner imaginable.
But what aspect of Gibson’s behavior is now being called a career-ender? That he was misogynistic? “30 Rock” star Alec Baldwin physically threatened and verbally abused his own daughter in a voice message that was released to the public and his career couldn’t be better. Was Gibson’s worst offense that he physically threatened a woman? Actor Charlie Sheen shot his ex-wife Kelly Preston in the arm, was recently charged with assaulting his third wife, Brooke Mueller, and yet his television show “Two and a Half Men” is about to begin taping a new season, with its main star in tow.
No, when you break it down, Gibson’s worst offense seems to be that he used racist language, even using the “N” word. The well-publicized phone call only reinforced the image of Gibson as a racist and homophobe, based on his past remarks about Jews and homosexuals, and his conservative Catholic creed certainly doesn’t win him any affection from the rest of the Hollywood set. Still, if my own father ever heard me talking to a wife, or girlfriend, or any woman, in the same hateful way Gibson did, he would slap me silly and rightfully so. The racism would not be condoned or go unnoticed, but in the grand scheme of my offenses, it would be an afterthought—and also, rightfully so. Would a black man, whose wife or daughter was treated in this manner, be more concerned that their abuser used the word “cracker,” or about the physical threats and abusive language specifically? Would a Jewish man react any differently? A homosexual man, in defending his sister or mother?
Gibson’s blatant racism is not to be excused, but what does it say about a society in which men can viciously abuse women, verbally or physically, with less damage to their career and reputation than if they use racial slurs? What does it say that director Roman Polanski can drug and rape a 13-year-old girl and Hollywood rallies to his defense, but Gibson is now—possibly permanently—persona non grata?
Political correctness is a hell of a thing. It’s the reason in old episodes of “I Love Lucy” the actors are always smoking, yet still sleeping in separate beds, while today having a cigarette on screen receives an R rating, but near soft-core pornography is commonplace. It’s hard to imagine comedies like “Blazing Saddles,” “The Jerk” or “Airplane” being made today, all full of racist and gay stereotype humor. This is not to say that genuine racism or homophobia should be promoted or even tolerated, only that the degree of offense we place on it today is perhaps perverse in its proportion, stifling speech and even art in unprecedented ways. What is socially acceptable to discuss continues to become narrower. And in the 1970’s or 80’s, contestants on Family Feud would have been much more likely to acknowledge the basic, glaring fact that plenty of homosexuals live in San Francisco.
Despite their various offenses, I remain a fan of Baldwin and Sheen’s work, and even Polanski’s, whose latest film “The Ghost Writer” is a solid political thriller. The same goes for Gibson and I would like to see more out of this great actor and director. His language in that phone call was deplorable, but far worse is his treatment of women, something that hasn’t seemed to affect the careers of many of his Hollywood brethren.
At root, political correctness represents a political morality—something that continues to trump old-fashioned, conventional morality in the most bizarre ways imaginable.
When Kentucky US Senate candidate Rand Paul said that if elected he would seek to join forces with Tea Party-minded senators like Jim DeMint (SC), and possibly current senate candidates like Mike Lee of Utah and Sharron Angle of Nevada, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) told the Washington Post, “We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples.” Warning of any such possible bloc of rogue Republican senators, Lott added “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”
You have to give Lott credit for his honesty. The long established process of becoming a respected Republican on Capitol Hill is for politicians to mouth conservative rhetoric in order to get elected, and then to advance their careers by supporting every bit of big government legislation favored by their party. If some honest conservative dared to criticize such behavior, talk radio and the right-wing media would always have that Republican’s back, pointing out that the Democrats were always worse, helping to insure that politician’s re-election. This scenario describes Lott’s entire career and it should be no surprise that he now works as a Capitol Hill lobbyist. Lott’s common brand of Republicanism, always masquerading as “conservatism,” reached new heights during the George W. Bush years and survives today as the rump of the Republican Party—members of which still offer no apologies for their past behavior.
When Tea Partiers now go after Republicans like Senator Bob Bennett, or give Senator Lindsey Graham holy hell at a town hall, mainstream pundits like to call the movement too “extreme” while scratching their heads and asking, “but aren’t these ‘conservative Republicans ?” Answer: No. They never were, and this is a truth grassroots conservatives finally seem to be waking up to.
When Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) announced she was forming a Tea Party Caucus in the House this week, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) was asked if he was a member, and replied with his best Sarah Palin impression, “you betcha!” But what kind of conservative, exactly, is Pence? What kind of conservatives are Rep. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) or Rep. John Cornyn (R-TX), just to name three names already associated, either implicitly or explicitly, with the Tea Party Caucus? Libertarian guru Lew Rockwell makes a good point, “Thanks to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews tonight, I was able to see the predators John Cornyn, Jeff Sessions, and Mike Pence refuse to say what they would cut from the federal budget. They blabbed, but refused to name one program to diminish. That is because the Republicans are as bad as the Democrats—they want a massive state to control and loot for them, too. They no more believe in smaller government than the non-NASA man in the moon. In power, the Republicans have always been terrible.”
And indeed they have. Is Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus a genuine manifestation of that movement’s power and influence, something that could possibly—and finally—bear conservative fruit? Or is it an attempt to do what Lott said must be done to any honest conservative who dares step foot on Capitol Hill, or as he put it “we need to co-opt them.” On one hand, Bachmann’s group forces Republicans who like to talk a good Tea Party game to explicitly endorse the movement, which could prove a testament to their conservative seriousness. On the other hand, men like Pence, Sessions and Cornyn could simply be just like Trent Lott—eager to court voters using the right-wing language of their day, in this case the Tea Party—but not so eager to carry out any actual conservative agenda. As late as 1996, a moderate GOP presidential candidate like Bob Dole openly called for the abolishment of the Department of Education at every campaign stop, something that was also a part of the official Republican platform. Today, supposedly conservative Republicans like Pence, Sessions and Cornyn cannot even come up with a single thing they would cut out of the federal budget while appearing on a liberal talk show, and a budget much larger than it was in 1996, at that. Is Chris Matthews that intimidating? Or are such “conservatives” not that serious?
It is worth noting that although candidate Rand Paul, a serious conservative by any measure, came up with the idea of a Tea Party Caucus in the Senate, his father, Congressman Ron Paul—the most serious conservative on Capitol Hill—has yet to join Bachmann’s group.
The effectiveness of the Tea Party is due in large part to the fact that it is not a creation of Washington, but to the extent that it is successful it might have to make inroads into the belly of the beast, whether by simply holding politicians’ feet to the fire, or even some politician’s going the full route of beginning to speak in its name. Time will tell, and Bachmann’s caucus could very well be a healthy and necessary reflection of the movement’s success—or it could be the Republican Party successfully co-opting another conservative movement. Conservatives should always welcome any new productive possibilities or useful allies. They should also remain vigilant.
I’m often asked, “Jack, why do you talk about foreign policy so much?” That’s simple—because foreign policy is unquestionably the most significant divide on the American Right. In fact, until mainstream conservatives rethink this issue, any desire for smaller government will continue to be in vain.
Recent political history highlights this constant obstacle. In the 2008 presidential election, how could so many conservatives hold their noses to vote for John McCain? That’s easy—despite McCain’s sponsorship of amnesty for illegal aliens, enacting campaign finance reform, his support for TARP and virtually all of George W. Bush’s big government agenda, the senator was still seen as “strong” on national defense. How could so many conservatives ignore Ron Paul during the Republican primaries, whose conservative platform was arguably purer than that of any Republican presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater? That’s easy too—by opposing the Iraq war, the congressman was viewed by his party as being “weak” on national defense. At the 2008 Republican National Convention, hawkish liberal Democrat Joe Lieberman was given a prime time speaking role and Paul wasn’t allowed inside the building. Talk host Sean Hannity regularly referred to Lieberman as his “favorite Democrat,” but usually referred to Paul begrudgingly and disparagingly, if at all.
But this once rigidly enforced division has since become blurred, not-so-coincidentally as Obama continues to pick up where Bush left off. First, Paul’s profile and influence has risen significantly since 2008, within the GOP and beyond. Obama’s exorbitant spending has helped shift rank-and-file Republicans’ focus from war-at-all-costs to cost-cutting, something reflected most explicitly by the Tea Party. Popular mainstream conservative pundits like George Will and Tony Blankley now openly question the wisdom of carrying on in Afghanistan. When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele dared to challenge Obama’s “land war” in Afghanistan, the pro-war, any war hardliners who rallied around Bush and McCain—from neoconservative pundits like Bill Kristol to their politician advocates like Senator Lindsey Graham—publicly excoriated the RNC head. Popular conservative pundit Ann Coulter not only defended Steele but harshly attacked Kristol and the neoconservative agenda of “permanent war.”
Praising Coulter, MSNBC conservative talk host Joe Scarborough noted:
“When Ann Coulter comes out criticizing Republican foreign policy… you know a real debate’s about to begin in the Republican Party. The party has been the party of endless wars, now, for the last five, six, seven years, with George W. Bush promising to export democracy across the globe… You know for too long you’ve had John McCain, and you’ve had Bill Kristol, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman define what it meant to be a Republican when it came to foreign policy, when in fact the Republican Party historically has usually been for restraint, accused of being ‘isolationists’ in the past, now it seems like a small group of people want to fight every war in every corner of the planet and it’s just not good for the party.”
The MSNBC host’s assessment is a good synopsis of the foreign policy insanity that has long handicapped any serious chance of conservatism taking root within the GOP, something the “small group of people,” or neoconservatives, that Scarborough notes, have always known well—which is precisely why they worked so hard to redefine conservatism as support for perpetual war. If during the Dubya years, “conservatism” meant support for endless global military adventures then the expansion of government power and spending necessary to sustain such a project was justified in the minds of right-wingers, and usually on “patriotic” grounds. Does this not aptly describe the last Republican administration and it’s almost singular appeal to conservatives? This narrative was also supposed to carry McCain with GOP voters in 2008, who had planned to run primarily on a “national defense” platform until the economy dictated otherwise.
To lose this issue, or to give any ground whatsoever to foreign policy dissenters on the Right, is exactly what the old Republican guard fears most—and it is also the issue which prevents the GOP from becoming a conservative party in any substantive manner. This is true, not only from an economic and size of government standpoint, but in terms of actual defense and national safety, as so many on the Right continue to ignore the overwhelming evidence that an Islamic threat exists primarily and precisely because of what we do around the world, not “who” we are, or simply what we believe. How many Americans today honestly believe Afghan resisters fight back simply because they hate our “freedom?” How many Americans honestly believe that us fighting them “over there” does anything to prevent terrorists’ ability to strike “over here,” as evidenced by the occasional car or shoe bombers?
Ex-CIA specialist Philip Giraldi notes, “(Tea Partiers) fail to understand that it is precisely the interventionist defense and foreign policies that are driving the bad things they see in government.” Indeed, and as Bush and his wars doubled the size of government, Obama now triples it in the same manner. When it comes to national safety, sound economics and limited government principles, the Republican Party has enthusiastically supported a foreign policy antithetical to each, and some now expect the Right to mindlessly continue supporting Obama’s similar policies. This issue has prevented the advancement of genuine conservatism more than any other and that some prominent figures on the Right are finally beginning to question it is encouraging. More must join them.
The NAACP accusing anyone of “racism” is like Mel Gibson accusing his wife of being abusive—at this point, the first impulse is to cast a critical eye on the accuser. When the nation’s oldest civil rights organization passed a resolution recently condemning the Tea Party for supposedly harboring racists, they likely changed few people’s opinions about that movement. In fact, in the minds of many Americans, the NAACP calling people racist probably isn’t even considered anything new or newsworthy—it’s simply what they do.
This is not to say that the NAACP doesn’t believe its own press. Though the NAACP’s recent resolution asked Tea Partiers to repudiate the “racist elements” in their midst, you don’t have to listen long to president Benjamin Jealous, or old race-huckstering standbys like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, to realize that such “civil rights” leaders’ perception of Tea Party racism isn’t relegated to a few crazy slogans or signs. Their view of grassroots conservative is in line with what the larger Left, as evidenced by the columns of the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman, or the words of pundits like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, all believe about not only the Tea Party, but the GOP and any other white folks who dare to organize outside the Democratic Party. That Republican Congressman Joe Wilson would yell “you lie!” at Obama, has mostly to do with the president being black, insists Dowd. Conservative anger over the president’s national healthcare plan, is obviously racial in origin, says Krugman, Matthews and Olbermann. That conservative whites must be racist or are at least in league with them, is nothing new for the Left—and certainly nothing new for the NAACP.
Ironically, when liberals subscribe to such caricatures of white conservatives, it makes them every bit as goofy as the wackiest Tea Partier. Ask a Tea Party guy holding a sign portraying Obama as a Nazi, or Nancy Pelosi as Satan, whether or not he believes Democrats are all socialists who might destroy the country. We already know the answer. Now ask a gathering of liberals whether or not Tea Party folks and their allies in the Republican Party are all racists who might tear down the country. We already know the answer there as well. Matthews dedicates every episode of “Hardball” to this premise. The NAACP issues press releases about it. For such conservatives Obama is the root of all evil, and such liberals believe the same about anyone who opposes this president, with both groups ascribing their own extra-sinister attributes to their political enemies (racist, socialist) to pepper an already established, mostly emotion-driven hatred. So much of today’s politics isn’t over policy differences, per se—but political identity.
This brings us to the most deplorable and encouraging aspects of the Tea Party—none of which has much to do with race. The Tea Partier who honestly believes that America has just now reached the breaking point due to the ascendancy of Obama and the Democrats is really just the partisan Republican of old, and has now simply expanded his yelling activities beyond the TV in his living room. This perception of the Tea Party, coupled with the belief that such protesters also have hoods and robes stuffed away in their closet, is, by-and-large, what the Left believes. To the extent that this is true, this type of Tea Party is worthless precisely because it will fade away the moment Republicans start spending us into oblivion again.
But rejecting the old partisanship that has long characterized American politics is exactly where the Tea Party is encouraging. How many Tea Party folks now defend the big spending, budget-busting George W. Bush years? Sure, they will point out that Obama is spending more, and they will admit to voting for Dubya—but a significant portion of Tea Partiers will not defend him. Talk radio might still defend Bush, and Republican politicians who marched in lockstep with the last administration try to stay as quiet as possible about it—but the Tea Party base? Republicans like Bob Bennett in Utah and Bob Inglis in South Carolina, formerly thought of as “conservatives,” were rejected by their angry constituency, precisely for their complicity in the big spending associated with Bush. For decades, the mainstream conservative philosophy has been “those damn Democrats!” Today’s conservatives are more likely than ever to damn Republicans too.
Not-so-coincidentally, Republicans Bennett and Inglis now denounce the “extremism” of the Tea Party movement, in a manner similar to the NAACP and the Left. But what the Tea Party primarily represents—a genuine concern over government spending and debt—is a message popular far beyond the actual movement, something the establishment of both parties now sense. Says a Republican establishment now scared of its own base, “they’re extremists!” Say liberals scared of a conservative uprising, “they’re racists!” But both sides are still reluctant to call the Tea Party “serious,” something our leaders secretly fear and are equally as reluctant to admit.
During the Bush presidency, William Kristol’s Weekly Standard closely mirrored the administration’s agenda, not only in the magazine’s unwavering enthusiasm for war with Iraq, but in trying to make connections between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, assertions that should now be considered at least as wild as those who believe 9-11 was an “inside job” carried out by the United States government. Kristol, whose magazine once ran a cover story on the supposed “connection” between Saddam and Osama, likely considers the so-called “9-11 Truth” movement a collection of conspiracy-minded kooks, but in the mid-2000s the same could be said of the Weekly Standard, which perpetuated its own conspiracy myth to promote a war that Americans likely would not have supported otherwise.
But support it Americans did, particularly on the Right where everyone from the president and vice president down to talk radio either explicitly said or heavily implied that there was a connection between 9-11 and Iraq. Working in talk radio, I still receive the occasional phone call from listeners who believe this nonsense.
And I still get plenty of phone calls from conservatives who honestly believe we must stay in Afghanistan at all costs. When Kristol called for Michael Steele’s resignation after the Republican National Committee Chairman dared to raise questions about the wisdom of our war in Afghanistan, it reminded me of just how much influence—and damage—neoconservatives have exerted on the larger conservative movement. During the Bush years, if Steele had voiced such criticism, he likely wouldn’t have survived, as there was no room for debate on foreign policy—or the size of government, the national debt, increased executive power—the very things the Tea Party raises hell about today. As an illustration of the significant difference between traditional and neo-conservatives, during the 2004 election, the New York Times‘ David Kirkpatrick reported that Kristol said he’d take “(John) Kerry over (Pat) Buchanan or any of the lesser Buchananites on the right. If you read the last few issues of The Weekly Standard, it has as much or more in common with the liberal hawks than with traditional conservatives.”
Curiously, at the same time Kristol was calling for Steele’s head—and high profile conservatives like Ron Paul and columnist Ann Coulter were defending him—Sarah Palin sided with Kristol. Writes the Huffington Post’s Thomas Z. Dengotita, “Tea Party darling Sarah Palin has issued a major foreign policy statement on her Facebook page taking a generally hawkish neocon line. She wants, for example, to eliminate the withdrawal timetable for US troops in Afghanistan and presses for support of that war, along with other aggressive measures. This puts her with Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol and other conservatives who are demanding Michael Steele’s resignation for knocking the war.”
Palin’s stance poses a challenge to the Tea Partiers and the larger conservative movement. Is the Right finally serious about limiting government and reducing spending, which must include at least addressing the fact that our now bankrupt country has a larger military budget than every other nation combined, or will conservatives simply revert to the same old, Bush-style, Kristol-approved and Palin-suggested, neocon statism? Kristol freely admits that he would prefer a pro-war president John Kerry, or Obama, than a figure like Buchanan, Paul or any traditional conservative who might question American foreign policy. Ann Coulter asks, rightly, “Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney have demanded that Steele resign as head of the RNC for saying Afghanistan is now Obama’s war — and a badly thought-out one at that. (Didn’t liberals warn us that neoconservatives want permanent war?)… I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense, but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too.”
Coulter makes the distinction that Palin and her adviser, Kristol, ignore—that there is a difference between support for a strong national defense and support for nonsensical permanent war. Neocons have successfully equated the two in the minds of many conservatives, and that right-wingers like Coulter, Buchanan, Paul, columnist George Will, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, and of course Steele, would dare question the Bush/Obama foreign policy consensus, is completely unacceptable to Kristol’s camp.
The neocons’ reasons for staying in Afghanistan are about as legitimate as their reasons for invading Iraq, and they will undoubtedly continue to tell any lie necessary to protect the notion that perpetual war somehow equals a “strong national defense.” Conservative talk radio has been predictably silent about the Steele controversy and the reaction to it, mostly because hosts like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and their mimickers have been in the neocon camp for so long they likely don’t know how to address such foreign policy questions being raised on the Right. Kristol, no doubt, hopes Palin can put a stop them being raised. And while everyone continues to wonder whether Sarah Palin will run for president—neoconservatives are happy just to have her run interference.
To neoconservatives, the thought of a Republican questioning American foreign policy is like a man questioning a woman about her weight—they’re just not supposed to do it. When last week, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele dared to question President Obama’s wisdom in continuing to fight a land war in Afghanistan, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol immediately snapped back, “There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican party.”
Perish the thought. You see, the RNC chairman can question Obama about healthcare, climate change, stimulus, immigration, financial overhaul, his birth certificate, his wife’s fashion sense, his vacation schedule, but when it comes to arguably the most expensive, expansive and enduring aspect of our federal government—foreign policy—heaven forbid any Republican dare challenge this Democratic president.
The reason Kristol and his neocon pals (Liz Cheney, Charles Krauthammer, Lindsey Graham, John McCain) are now calling for Steele’s head is not because they merely disagree with the RNC chairman—but because he committed heresy. Neoconservatives, in conjunction with their allies on talk radio and in the mainstream press, have worked hard for years to make sure the only questions Republicans should ever ask about war are “where?” and “when?,” and never, “why?” or “what for?” Steele asked the latter, and in doing so undermined the single-issue orthodoxy demanded by George W. Bush’s GOP, beloved by neoconservatives and rightly described by many as the “War Party.” Pat Buchanan nails it: “This campaign to censure and remove Steele is designed to censor debate and stifle dissent on Obama’s war policy, as long as Obama’s war policy closely tracks the agenda of the War Party.”
Steele is being attacked for the same reason the GOP establishment tried to shun presidential candidate Ron Paul during the 2008 election. Candidates like McCain or Mitt Romney never had a particular problem with Paul’s limited government message, and in fact, in this current Tea Party environment, both politicians now try to mimic it. But when Paul called for bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—something a majority of Americans, both then and now, still support—Paul immediately became persona non grata. As Brad Pitt told Ed Norton’s character in the 1999 movie “Fight Club,” “The first rule of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.” In the “fight club” that was the GOP in 2008—a party-wide fetish for fighting endlessly in Iraq, Afghanistan, possibly Iran—Paul dared to talk about fight club, thus breaking the Republicans first and only unbreakable rule.
But in 2010, does the rule still apply? Not surprisingly, the only major Republican leader to come to Steele’s defense has been Paul, whose influence has grown significantly since the last presidential election. The American Conservative’s Sean Scallon notes that the mere fact that Paul’s defense of Steele has been given so much media attention—coupled with the fact that Steele is not being forced to resign—“show(s) that Paul, after being laughed at, scorned and booed in GOP debates about his views three years ago, is now recorded far more respect in the party and in the media and his views have at least a subtle influence. The neocons attacks upon Steele only showed their fear of this influence.” A recent Politico poll even showed the Tea Party movement to be split between its allegiance to the libertarian Paul and the more social issues-oriented Sarah Palin.
Here’s what the pro-war, any-war Right fears most—that a Tea Party movement with zero tolerance for government spending might also turn a critical eye toward the neocons’ eternal pet project of perpetual war and American empire. If Obamacare and its $1 trillion price tag really got the Tea Party brewing—what might happen if grassroots conservatives finally realize that our foreign policy costs far more? In the neocons’ mind, Steele committed the unpardonable by raising such questions among Republicans, foolishly talking about fight club at the same time Paul’s antiwar voice gets louder in proportion to his influence. Paul’s defense of Steele was something that had to burn neocon ears: “Michael Steele has it right and Republicans should stick by him.”
Steele is no Paul, and even though his questioning of Obama’s policy in Afghanistan contained much truth, the RNC chair backed away from his comments as fast as his critics jumped on him. As Buchanan notes, “While Steele has spent every waking hour since his words hit the airwaves explaining, and declaring his commitment to victory, of far more interest is the alacrity with which neoconservatives piled on the chairman.”
Of far more interest indeed. Will the GOP finally become a conservative party that questions the size government in its entirety, or will it remain the same, old neoconservative party it was under Bush, forever expanding the size of government to support an exorbitant foreign policy that no one is ever allowed to talk about? Two things are for sure: You can bet that Ron Paul—to the neocons chagrin—will keep talking about it. And you can bet that Michael Steele—under strict neocon orders—will probably never bring it up again.
In Sunday’s New York Times, Senator Lindsey Graham made clear his opinion of the Tea Partiers, saying their movement was “unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country.”
Graham actually makes a very good point.
One of the defining features of American conservatism is not simply a dislike for big government but a wholesale rejection of the modern state, with many on the Right considering the current federal bureaucracy to be grossly unconstitutional and unrepresentative of the Founders’ intentions. Unwittingly, Graham made this point himself when confronted by angry Tea Partiers at a town hall meeting in his home state of South Carolina last year, telling The Greenville News, “They’re a political fringe group … . They believe that Medicare is unconstitutional and student loans are unconstitutional. I’m the conservative in the room.”
Try squaring Graham’s supposed “conservatism” with that of the man who many have considered its American standard bearer, Barry Goldwater. A half century before the Tea Partiers started making noise, Goldwater made clear that a primary task for conservatives is to stress what government should not do, writing “I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel the old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
To question whether programs like Medicare or student loans are unconstitutional may be “fringe,” but it’s also conservative, if a figure like Goldwater still has any claim on that label. What is Graham’s claim? The NYT’s story notes “On four occasions, Graham met with Tea Party groups… in Charleston, Graham said he challenged them: ‘What do you want to do? You take back your country—and do what with it?”
Graham’s challenge illustrates his uselessness. What, exactly, is Graham uncomfortable with our government doing? What current federal intrusiveness is Graham looking to seriously challenge or roll back? While it may be true that the relatively new Tea Party movement often exhibits philosophical immaturity, it also represents a growing and popular disenchantment with the status quo, something reflected in polls that continue to track the low favorability of both political parties.
The NYT’s article is primarily a flattering portrayal of a senator who prides himself in protecting establishment interests, making sure the center always holds, and that politics as usual remains usual. Graham believes the current Tea Party anger is unsustainable and he may be right—as he simultaneously fails to realize that such anger is born of an increasing belief amongst Americans that our current national trajectory is unsustainable and that we might be descending into bankruptcy, economically, politically and perhaps morally. The NYT’s story begins, “The Obama Administration Courts Him… The Tea Partiers Shun Him… Lindsey Graham is Right Where He Wants to Be,” and no doubt he is. The story then declares Graham “This Year’s Maverick,” which is absurd. A real maverick might be someone who dares to challenge conventional wisdom, perhaps even tackling sacred cows like Medicare or students loans. Goldwater was a maverick whose radicalism resulted in a landslide defeat. Graham is an establishment man dedicated to making sure no actual mavericks—or conservatives—get anywhere near the reins of power. “Ron Paul is not the leader of the Republican Party” a defiant Graham told an angry audience at a town hall last year.
I have long called myself a conservative, something that has always meant much more than the partisanship most mainstream conservative pundits obsess over, and certainly something more substantive than the Republican Party’s typical offerings. I essentially agree with Goldwater—that if it’s not in the Constitution, our government has no business doing it. For the first time I can remember, it seems that more conservatives than ever are closer, or at least willing to consider getting closer, to this very elementary, yet admittedly radical position of supporting true constitutional government. For conservatives, a “coherent vision for governing the country” should start with an admission that there should be much less government.
Any conservative today who does not want to rethink or reexamine our current state of affairs is not serious. Graham wants to rethink and reexamine nothing, but does take great pride in serving elite interests, facilitating deals for the current administration as much as he did the last one. How this makes him a maverick remains clear only to the NYT’s. How it makes him conservative remains clear only to him.