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A Conservative’s November Dilemma

photos: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0), Matt Ortega (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the November election approaches, I find myself faced with a dilemma. I would like to vote for the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as the better of two distasteful choices, but would have to hesitate at this point. It’s not that I’d be tempted to vote for Obama, although I can well understand the path he’s taken recently in preparation for the November ordeal. In order to get reelected with a poor economic record, he’ll have to energize the more enthusiastic elements in his base; and those groups whom he’s trying to galvanize may well respond to the grievances he’s playing up and blaming on the opposition.

Most of these grievances, for example, against stronger attempts by Republican-dominated regions to control our national borders, against objections raised by religious Christians to Obama’s decision to force Catholic and other religiously affiliated institutions to supply their workers with abortion-producing drugs, and now against a supposed epidemic of white racism, seem to me wildly exaggerated and deeply divisive. But given his socially leftist base, which Obama desperately needs to hold on to, and given the importance for him of maximizing minority turnout, he may be making strategically sound moves. I just can’t stomach what he’s doing.

In almost all respects the current occupant of the White House does not deserve reelection. Moreover, I find those who talk up his record hold views that are so fundamentally opposed to mine that I can barely hold civil discussions with them. In one respect only, Obama seems less disastrous than his predecessor. He is not surrounded by neoconservative foreign policy advisors who are pushing him into embarking on new wars or into keeping old ones going indefinitely. He has tried to wind down the wars he inherited from Bush II, and except for what I think was an unnecessary and probably ultimately counterproductive entanglement in Libya, Obama has shown restraint internationally.

This doesn’t mean he’s a thinker with a serious international vision. Obama is certainly no Richard Nixon, who walked around with a picture of every major and minor world power in his head and who could explain what was happening internationally in discourses that lasted many hours. (I was present at several of them.) But Obama has done no major harm in handling foreign affairs, at least from my perspective. He makes all the obligatory noises about “human rights,” the list of which multiplies as political fashions change, and he goes through the motion of “agonizing” over foreign dictatorships. But he’s not committed to sending new armies into battles on distant shores, and he’s not moved toward war against any of the multitudinous foreign powers that John McCain and John Bolton want us to get tough with.

I’m afraid that Mitt would not resist these temptations. Almost everything I’ve heard him say about world affairs suggests that he’s in sync with W’s incendiary form of liberal internationalism. His one of his main foreign policy advisors is Robert Kagan, who seems to relish every war the U.S. has been in and regrets we couldn’t have fought in some of them even longer. Although Kagan is now selling himself as some kind of foreign-policy realist, all the “realists” he admires are  people like himself, who supported all of America’s past military adventures and presumably would favor lots more military intervention in the future. Kagan assures us that what he advocates is rooted deeply in our national character. Perhaps so, but then so is eating junk food.

Also waiting to take his place in a future Romney administration is Fox News nightly screech owl John Bolton, our former interim UN ambassador. Someone who rails against the Obama administration for not being “confrontational,” or for not representing our “values” belligerently enough, Bolton may be as suited for diplomacy as Mike Tyson is to be a Trappist monk. If we get lucky, Romney might follow the lead of Newt Gingrich who promised to make Bolton secretary of state. These are the foreign-policy choices I fully expect from a future Republican administration.

The upside of a Romney presidency is that we’d likely have less flaky people in cabinet and judicial positions than those Obama has given us in trying to accommodate his base. Kagan and Bolton may be almost worth swallowing to be rid of Eric Holder, playing the race card in the position of attorney general. I say almost because I believe the GOP could do as much harm internationally as the Dems would do at home. I could also imagine a “moderate” Romney triangulating between Obama and what’s left of the Tea Party Republicans. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the former governor started shifting on social issues, in order to steal votes from the other side. But I doubt he’d do the same in foreign policy, whether or not there’s widespread backing for what his advisors intend to accomplish in that field.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

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