When conservatives used to bash Bill Clinton their arguments usually centered on one thing — Monica Lewinsky. He lied to the American people! Clinton disgraced the office of the presidency! “Slick Willie!” Much like the popular culture they often claim to abhor, conservatives tend to focus on the personalities in politics rather than policy.
I never cared much about Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky. My greatest problem with our 42nd president was that he wasn’t much different from the 41st or 43rd. Under Clinton, the size of government grew, our worsening illegal immigration problem was ignored, the U.S. needlessly punished the citizens of Iraq with sanctions and bombings and we foolishly intervened militarily in places like Kosovo, Somalia, and Haiti. Like his predecessor and his successor, Clinton simply maintained and expanded the already established American empire he inherited.
And yet in 2000, conservative reaction to the Clinton administration had the Right singing a much different tune on foreign policy.
Consider the language then-candidate George W. Bush thought necessary to appeal to his GOP base and voters-at-large during the 2000 presidential campaign. Attacking Clinton’s military adventures, Bush said during a debate with Al Gore: “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say ‘this is the way it’s got to be… I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ‘ugly American’ is for us to go around the world saying ‘we do it this way, so should you.” Criticizing Clinton’s military debacle in Somalia, Bush said “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called ‘nation building.” When asked how people around the world should view the US, Bush responded “It really depends upon how our nation conducts its foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, they’ll respect us.”
And Bush wasn’t alone. Consider the words of conservative talk host Sean Hannity toward Clinton’s foreign policy. Said Hannity in 1999 concerning Kosovo: “It seems that we’re talking about a very ill-conceived military action here. And now the question is, do you go in further and deeper, or do you pull back and rethink what the strategy’s going to be here, because there has really been no stated goal, mission, or objective… I say, back out of it, because innocent people are going to die for nothing. That’s why I’m against it.” When Clinton compared Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to Adolph Hitler, Hannity asked “Is the president purposefully using propaganda and hyperbole to garner the American public for support?”
After 9/11, warnings from the Right about “nation building,” or support for a more humble foreign policy evaporated, along with any concern for limited government. Being the world’s policeman, or what Bush once called being an “arrogant nation,” “around the world” would come to define the Bush presidency. Even worse, for most of the last decade, being a conservative simply meant being pro-war and Bush ended his second term as the biggest big government president since Lyndon Johnson, much less Bill Clinton.
As Obama continues to spend even more than Bush and steps up US efforts in Afghanistan, the political environment on the Right is far closer to 2000 than 2003. In 2003, conservatives quickly became comfortable with Bush’s statist agenda because they were so enthusiastic about his invasion of Iraq. As this decade ends, conservatives are outraged by Obama’s spending and many are beginning to voice serious reservations about his end game in Afghanistan. Conservative columnist George Will, who was once one of Bush’s greatest supporters on Iraq is now one of Obama’s greatest critics on Afghanistan. Lest anyone think this hypocrisy is unique to Republicans, Democrats who once despised the belligerent neoconservatism of Bush-Cheney have now largely embraced that exact same foreign policy, only repackaged as Obama-style, liberal internationalism. When it comes to being antiwar under Obama-the Left is now completely useless.
And the Right may be as well. But conservative skepticism about Obama’s war coupled with widespread grassroots outrage over spending, makes the possibility of a genuine and comprehensive anti-government, anti-empire, “America first” movement, once again, at least tenable. The ingredients are there. What good did it do conservatives to elect George W. Bush, who was worse on both domestic and foreign policy than Bill Clinton? Obama is already proving to be worse than Bush. With each successive administration, government keeps getting bigger, our debt gets larger and our military stretched greater, for reasons that are vague at best. Americans may indeed be ready for a serious “change,” especially as they begin to realize Obama ain’t it.
It does not take a genius to figure out that railing against big government at home while championing it abroad doesn’t make much sense — one cancels out the other. But it might take a Democratic president, as it did a decade ago, to convince conservatives to question — and finally reject — both the welfare state and the warfare state for good.