Despite the bellicose rhetoric that emanates from much of the Right, opposition to the interventionist policies initiated by George W. Bush is hardly confined to libertarians and the political Left. It includes traditional conservatives—those conservatives who take their bearings from Burke and Tocqueville, who regard society as both fragile and complex, so complex that no one individual or group can ever presume to comprehend its intricacies.
Traditional conservatives are convinced that global interventions, aside from the attendant loss of life and enormous expense, hold little hope for success since the ingredients for a stable democratic order are seriously lacking in the nations we seek to reform. Key variables include vibrant and healthy intermediate social institutions and associations to serve as effective buffers against an omnipotent government; a decentralized political order in which the principle of subsidiarity is honored; deeply held convictions, religious or customary, that provide meaningful distinctions between state and society, thereby establishing limits to the range of governmental authority; and a recognition of rights with corresponding responsibilities.
While elements of traditional conservatism find expression in classical thought—Aristotle comes immediately to mind—in the American context they are found particularly in the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More and, after World War II, in the major writings of Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Robert Nisbet. Today, the principles of traditional conservatism inform the works of Peter Stanlis, Bruce Frohnen, and Claes Ryn, to name but a few. And until a relatively recent date, those who embrace traditionalist principles and values found a friendly home within the Republican Party.
The steadfast opposition of traditionalist conservatives to the War on Terror initiated by a Republican president stands in sharp contrast to the stance they assumed during the Cold War, when they justifiably earned an image as hardliners implacably committed to the elimination of the Soviet Union and willing to take bold measures to ensure this end. How can these seemingly inconsistent positions be reconciled?
From my perspective, as a politically aware traditional conservative during the entire Cold War era, the obvious answer is that traditionalists believed that the Soviet Union posed an unprecedented threat to the very existence of Western civilization, whereas the stakes involved in the War on Terror are nowhere near as monumental. While the Cold War called for an active and, at times, militant interventionism, handling our present difficulties requires different and far less drastic measures.
There is a dimension to the traditionalists’ perspective of history that explains why they believed the Soviets posed such a historic threat. Simply put, most traditionalists have long perceived our intervention into World War I as a colossal mistake, which initiated a chain reaction that produced World War II, which in turn set the stage for the Cold War. The traditionalists’ inherent aversion to interventionism is readily seen in their longstanding and well-documented rejection of Wilson’s version of American exceptionalism and in their derision of his vision of America as a “redeemer nation” with divinely ordained missions. Nevertheless, while holding that we should not have intervened in World War I, traditionalists came to conclude that we could only extricate ourselves from its disastrous consequences through intervention. Once free of the wreckage caused by Wilson’s war, however, traditionalists believed we could turn away from interventionist policies and chart a new course.
Writing in 1988, Robert Nisbet contended that since the First World War, the United States had been engaged in what amounted to “a virtual Seventy-Five Years War.” With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, traditionalists had every reason to believe that long war had finally come to an end. They welcomed this liberation. Not only did it open up the possibility, consonant with conservative thought stretching back at least 50 years, that we could significantly reduce our role in the world, it also allowed us a freer hand in formulating our foreign policy on the basis of genuine American interests. Above all, the Soviet collapse seemed to reduce considerably the risk of war. But this new and more limited foreign-policy vision was blotted out at its inception by far grander visions of a New World Order.
To traditionalists’ dismay, Nisbet’s “Seventy-Five Years War,” far from ending, will soon become the “Hundred Years War”—with no end in sight. How did this come to pass? How could a Republican administration have played such a major role in this renewed adventurism with so little resistance from within the party, particularly its congressional wing? And why have criticisms of this conservative turnabout had so little impact? After all, the doctrines used to justify our invasion of Iraq—derivatives of Wilson’s vision of American exceptionalism—had been virtually the exclusive domain of the Democratic Party.
There is no simple answer. Certainly party loyalty comes into play. As I learned much to my consternation at Philadelphia Society meetings, even individuals receptive to traditional conservative views felt the need to support Republican policies and office-holders when they came under attack from Democrats. No doubt, among the Republican members of Congress, the lure of party loyalty was even more imperative. They feared that dissension would threaten their careers. Above all, they didn’t want to endanger the party’s chances of retaining the presidency, the gem of all elective offices given its unrivaled power to dispense wealth and honors.
Neoconservative dominance within the Republican Party is, undoubtedly, another major factor. Not only did these latecomers secure high positions in George W. Bush’s administration, they came to dominate major think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and even, to a significant extent, the liberal Brookings Institution. These institutional perches, combined with neocons’ disproportionate presence in the prestige media, rendered traditionalists and other dissidents voices in the wilderness. In stunningly swift order, the mark of “real” conservatives came to be their uncritical support of interventionist policies. Indeed, in important sectors of the political landscape, traditional conservatives are not even considered conservatives anymore.
But the single most important factor accounting for the lack of dissent within Republican ranks is the mentality created and nourished by the Cold War. During that era, individuals were habituated to think in terms of a determined enemy, an “evil empire” intent upon imposing a totalitarian order. In keeping with this state of mind was an unquestioned acceptance of aggressive foreign interventions. American exceptionalism supported and justified our militant policies. If the U.S. was “the last best hope of mankind,” our crusades were inherently righteous.
Though the Soviet Union collapsed, the mindset that had been nurtured over a period of 40 years was so ingrained in our political culture that it simply could not be uprooted overnight. Nor were we given much time for reorientation, for American intervention scarcely stopped, resuming swiftly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union with the first Gulf War, whose presumed purpose was to restore “democracy” to Kuwait.
While this and other military ventures served to keep the embers glowing, the later Iraq War fully restored the fires. With the “axis of evil,” we found a familiar brand of enemy. More imaginative neocons fanned the flames with a nearly endless list of potential foes, even suggesting that we were now in the midst of “World War IV”—the Cold War being World War III—a titanic struggle for the survival of Western civilization against the forces of “Islamo-fascism.”
In retrospect, had traditionalists exercised greater prudence during the Cold War—if only by critically appraising what our government was telling us about the capabilities of the Soviet Union—the chances of introducing realism into 21st-century policies might have been enhanced. At the very least, traditionalists can be faulted for accepting virtually every Cold War policy or action, including the Vietnam War, as vital to confronting the Soviet challenge. The most damaging legacy of the Cold War mentality has been the effective elimination of strategic alternatives in our foreign and military policies. As the Lyndon Johnson tapes reveal, he recognized at an early stage that disengagement from Vietnam would be the most prudent policy. Yet these tapes also show that this was a path not taken because doing so would have been an act of political suicide, given the certainty that hardline Republicans would charge LBJ and his party with being “soft on communism.”
Barack Obama’s Afghan policies were likely formulated against a similar backdrop. He could not show “weakness”—could not seriously consider the gradual reduction of forces as a logical course of action—for fear of the political fallout. The lamentable fact is that for decades many, if not most, Democrats have for reasons of sheer political expediency also acquiesced in following the “imperatives” dictated by the Cold War mentality.
Is there any possibility of overcoming this legacy? Perhaps, if enough Republicans and Democrats stand up to the new breed of hardline Cold Warriors. Otherwise, we will continue to fight the last war, inflating distant threats into epic enemies until such time as the American people come to their senses or run out of money.
George W. Carey (1933-2013) was a political theorist and longtime professor of government at Georgetown University.