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Good-bye to All That

A former National Review trustee surveys the wreckage of contemporary conservatism.
Paul Morse, White House Photo Office, via Wikimedia Commons.

Until recently, it has been almost impossible for me to speak candidly about the conservative movement, for it was my strange fate to serve as director and later trustee of the movement’s flagship journal, National Review. Earlier this year, at William F. Buckley’s request, I resigned both positions. I can therefore now declare what perhaps has oft been thought but never, at least not often enough, expressed. Notwithstanding conservatives’ belief that they, in contrast to their partisan opponents, have thought deeply about the challenges facing the United States, it is they who have become unserious.

The unseriousness began not long after 9/11. On Oct. 15, 2001, for example, National Review—still the most powerful brand in conservative opinion, whose pronouncements the movement must either accept or at least refrain from challenging—wrote, in an editorial entitled “At War: Defining Victory”:

The logic of a ‘war on terrorism’ points beyond itself. … The phrase is meant to suggest that our hostility is not confined to those people who can be proved to have materially aided the attacks of September 11. It encompasses all those who mean to do our people harm. … Bombing bin Laden, if we find him, will not end [this war]. Nor will overthrowing the Taliban. Victory requires either changing the regimes of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, and Sudan, or frightening them enough to change their behavior towards us.

“Defining Victory” describes the post-9/11 world in terms that have since become familiar. First, it insists on a war that has no definite enemy and no foreseeable end. Short of one-world despotism or universal brotherhood, the U.S. cannot literally defeat “all those who mean to do our people harm.” To trim the hyperbole, NR goes on to name five examples of potential enemies (plus, in later editorials, Saudi Arabia) but does not explain how the list was generated or whether it is even complete. The reader gathers only that we should threaten or go to war with an unspecified number of troublesome nations.

Second, the editors use the term “war” in a purely figurative sense. At the time of the editorial, the U.S. was not at war with Syria, Sudan, or Iran nor, realistically speaking, with any other nation on the list. No matter how vulnerable or despised, no Muslim nation can be turned into a sacrificial substitute for bin Laden. Nor, no matter how often incanted, can the phrase “at war” be made to describe an actual state of affairs. A rhetorical bludgeon designed to compel assent to certain policies, it begs the question of whether war is advisable in the first place.

Third, “Defining Victory” does not identify a casus belli. Neither Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, nor Sudan attacked us on 9/11. Later debate would focus on the legitimacy of preventive war as a defense against future threats. All foreign nations, however, by definition pose hypothetical threats; at some point, those threats become so remote, trivial, or contingent that preventive war cannot be distinguished from an aggressive war of domination. By urging belligerence against nations with no known designs—to say nothing of any capacity—for harming the U.S., “Defining Victory” surely advocated crossing that point.

Finally, the editorial defines “victory” in terms of a goal—regime change—that war advances only incidentally. War by itself cannot cause regime change. To overthrow and replace a government militarily, one must either invade and occupy a country (a technique that works best when the occupier has made a policy of slaughtering civilians en masse, as in Dresden or Hiroshima) or else so punish the civilian population that they rise up against their government. By saying, incoherently, that the United States was “at war” with a list of regimes, NR gave no indication of what policies it was actually touting.

In sum, NR declared that we were “at war” when we were not, for reasons that it did not specify, against enemies that it could not define, and to achieve goals that war does not advance. “Defining Victory” dresses up as policy but inchoate thirst for vengeance against someone, anyone who hates us. How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed / when vengeance listens to the fool’s request! On Oct. 15, 2001, National Review had no position on post-9/11 foreign policy.

Nor did it find a position thereafter. In December 2001 NR declared:

Even Osama bin Laden, whose humiliation and death is one of our prime war aims, is only a pustule on the diseased body of the Middle East. After Afghanistan comes Iraq. … After it comes Saudi Arabia …

A fortnight later:

If Saddam Hussein were toppled and Saudi Arabia reformed or restructured, the Middle East would be emptied of many of its poisonous humors, like a bathtub when the plug is pulled away.

Upon a metaphor and a simile—the diseased body and the wet bathtub—did National Review hang all its post-9/11 prescriptions. Yet the editors never explained what these figures actually meant. Presumably, the theory to which they allude is that (a) the Middle East suffers from certain conditions (b) that cause threats to the U.S. to emerge and (c) that by removing those conditions the threats will cease.

Thus spelled out, however, the theory behind the metaphors provides little policy guidance. First, what conditions cause threats to emerge? Lack of democracy? The world is full of non-democracies, very few of which actually threaten us. Lack of a sound ideology? Crazed ideologues are ubiquitous, even (perhaps especially) in democracies. Sophisticated Westerners can’t even agree on what democracy is. Islam itself? It is a major world religion that comes in diverse forms and which American policy cannot mould to its liking as if it were soft wax. Tyranny? Philosophers have agreed that democracy itself is a kind of tyranny.

Second, what threats emerge from the Middle East and how do the alleged conditions cause them? Terrorism? It flourishes in democracies, especially under conditions of occupation, no matter that the occupier or the occupied is democratic. Democracy may even worsen terrorism as it tends to arm terrorist groups politically as well as technologically. Nuclear proliferation? Many nations, of all ideologies, religions, and political systems, seek nuclear weapons, largely as guarantors of their security. Hostility to our ally Israel? It is Arab dictators who strike deals with Israel; anti-Zionism, by contrast, is a demotic passion.

Finally, how do you change the alleged conditions that cause the alleged threats? By what psychological techniques, for example, do you cause people to accept a new ideology? Brainwashing? Relentless propaganda? Feats of strength? And how do you go about establishing a democracy in the first place?

Each of these questions alludes to a serious policy debate. Possibly, by speaking only in metaphor, National Review was announcing that it had resolved them already and no longer needed to be troubled. If so, the editors concealed their reasoning in the dunnest haze. NR’s subsequent editorials offered one nebulous metaphor after another. After curing diseased bodies and draining bathtubs, NR was changing “the political map of the Middle East,” erecting a “new model for Middle Eastern governance,” “transforming the geopolitical balance in the Middle East,” and establishing a liberal “beachhead.” Bodies, bathtubs, swamps, maps, models, balances, beachheads: each metaphor conceals a paucity of analysis.

Despite their vacuity, the metaphors have inspired specific policies. In defending the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and possible attacks on Syria or Iran), conservatives invoke 9/11 with astonishing alacrity. I once heard an NR senior editor, a man revered for his high-mindedness, begin his defense of the Iraq occupation by reminding the audience that on 9/11 “they” attacked “us.” In his mind as in others’, the invasion of Iraq has so inescapable a connection to 9/11 that only a traitor or fool would deny it.

But the movement’s leaders have no more defined the connection between Iraq and terrorism than they have defined the war on terror. While acknowledging that the occupation of Iraq may be increasing the short-term risk of anti-American terrorism, NR nonetheless argued more recently:

If we prevail [in Iraq], we will have destroyed a dictatorship supportive of terrorism and Arab radicalism and replaced it, we hope, with a government opposed to both of those things. That will be a significant step forward in the War on Terror. … If we succeed in creating a stable, democratic Iraqi state, it will be clear that the terrorists are opposed not so much to the ‘crusaders’ and ‘occupiers’ as to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims in the Middle East. [Quoting John Negroponte] ‘[S]hould the Iraqi people prevail in establishing a stable political and security environment, the jihadists will be perceived to have failed, and fewer jihadists will leave Iraq determined to carry on the fight elsewhere.’

Never mind the conflation of “Arab radicalism”—presumably a reference to Ba’athism—with bin Laden’s Muslim jihadism (how would discrediting Saddam’s ideology discourage bin Laden’s?), the allusion to Hussein rewarding the families of Palestinian suicide bombers (how does terrorism in Israel threaten the United States?), or the assumption that foreign terrorists are driving the insurgency in Iraq (if Iraqis hate the relatively benign Americans, why would they turn over their country to a bunch of foreign wackos?). Let us observe only that the conservative movement’s best argument for staying in Iraq is that jihadists “will be perceived” differently, for “it will be clear” that they are harming Muslims at large. In short, if all goes well, the occupation of Iraq might just produce a useful propaganda victory. War as propaganda: surely this is the thinking of clownish dictators rather than mature analysts.

To justify the long-term occupation of a foreign country, the supposed propaganda victory must bring overwhelming benefits to Americans. Consider, however, what must happen before Iraqi democracy can make us safer from terrorism. First, Iraqi democracy must exist. National Review, by offering the occasional potpourri of new tactics that might or might not improve the situation, poses as the voice of maturity (neither unrealistic like the neocons nor defeatist like the cut-and-run Democrats) in the debate over whether Iraq can be salvaged. To the extent, however, that NR dares to name what forces are actually driving events in Iraq, it offers either blandishments (“we must keep the political process on track as the key to making progress on the ground”) or such naïvetes as the theory that peace and stable government have a chance in Iraq because that is what Iraqis ultimately want. Alas, if people always got what they wanted, the whole world would be well-governed. A nation cannot afford to premise its policies on the universal hope for something better.

Second, Muslims must recognize Iraqi democracy as such. Accurately perceiving “democracy,” however, requires a degree of information and political sophistication beyond most people, Muslims included. Conservatives complain, for example, that the media give Americans a distorted view of Iraq. Surely the Muslim media would do even worse. Most people around the globe, after all, dispute that even the United States is a democracy on the perfectly plausible theory (given lack of information) that Bush simply crowned himself president.

Yet even if fully informed, Muslims may still not perceive Iraq as a “democracy.” Scholars can’t even agree on the meaning the word. Joseph Schumpeter, the most penetrating modern theorist of democracy, argued in essence that “democracy” is a misnomer, while economist Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel Prize for proving (on one interpretation) that it is literally impossible for a democratic process to satisfy all relevant normative criteria of legitimacy. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people (what George Orwell in 1984 called the “proles,” or the 85 percent of the world so uninterested in politics as to have no ideology whatsoever) have not even the most basic grasp of the concepts of democracy or legitimacy. Even if everything in Mesopotamia came up roses, therefore, Muslims may never see the Iraqi government as legitimate. To do so, they would need the minds of angels, not men.

Finally, before Iraqi democracy can cure terrorism, Muslims in general, and Muslim extremists in particular, must infer from “democracy exists in Iraq” that “terrorism is wrong.” But even assuming that Muslims think logically, surely it is too much to ask them to commit a non sequitur. Democracy in Iraq will leave in place any number of grievances—our occupation of Muslim lands, our support for Israel, and our continued alliance with Muslim dictators—any one of which may continue to inspire terrorism. Ironically, conservatives pooh-pooh the danger that the occupation plays into the hands of terrorist propagandists yet blithely assume that Iraqi democracy would play into the hands of our own. To the chagrin of ideologists everywhere, however, Muslims are creatures as complex and unpredictable as the rest of us. They cannot tenderly be led by the noses as asses are, no matter that the U.S. adds Iraq to the ranks of Muslim democracies.

In short, the steps in the causal logic whereby Iraqi democracy defeats anti-American terrorism are so numerous and doubtful that it becomes impossible to believe that Bush’s supporters have ever actually thought them through. Those who wonder what error befell the conservative movement since Bush took office are asking the wrong question. Since 9/11, the conservative movement has not made unsound or fallacious arguments for supporting Bush’s policies. Rather, it has made no arguments at all. T.S. Eliot once asked, “Are you alive or not? Is there nothing in your head?” The answer: “Nothing, again, nothing.”

It follows that Mephistophelean neoconservatives did not suddenly commandeer the conservative movement. Whatever may be said of neoconservatives, at least they know what they think. (The Weekly Standard for this reason has always been a good read.) Every nation has a faction zealous for national glory and horrified by decadence and dishonor; in the United States, a famously idealistic country, that faction emphasizes the blessings that American power confers upon all mankind. Today, we call them neoconservatives, but in some sense they have always existed.

After 9/11, neoconservatives championed any war that we waged in reaction. In this, they were acting opportunistically but not hypocritically: in their view, 9/11 is what happens when the United States suffers any challenges to its authority. The rest of the movement knew only that it wanted a ruthless response. Neoconservatism just happened to provide a convenient ideological infrastructure with which to justify metonymic revenge against some Muslim Arab or other. Before 9/11, the movement was praising modesty in foreign affairs; after 9/11, it did not so much embrace neoconservatism as blunder into it by accident.

To be sure, conservatives have hotly denied the charge of neoconservatism but never by actually disagreeing with it. (National Review Online, which now far outshadows the magazine in influence, has become the world’s most prolific organ of neoconservative opinion.) In an article in The National Interest, for example, NR editor Rich Lowry and an anonymous co-author contrasted neoconservatism to what they called the “Reagan synthesis.” The Reagan synthesis, as they describe it, endorses the neoconservative project of expanding liberty abroad and exerting American power as a force for good but nonetheless recognizes that foreign policy “should be prudent, flexible, aware of power relationships and immune to juvenile excess.” When exactly do prudence and awareness of power relationships conflict with the imperative to spread the blessings of American power abroad? The authors do not say. The grand Reagan synthesis turns out to be nothing more than “as much neoconservatism as the world lets us get away with.” As the world has a strong tendency to frustrate neoconservative ambitions, no practical difference exists between actual neoconservatism and the authors’ neoconservatism-in-everything-but-name.

As it happens, the broader conservative public supports Bush for very sensible, non-neoconservative reasons. Those reasons just happen to be poorly informed. For example, many believe—including an astonishing 90 percent of soldiers serving in Iraq—that the U.S. invaded to retaliate against Saddam Hussein for his role in the 9/11 attacks. Now that Saddam is gone but Iraqis are still giving us trouble, they reason, we must kill them before they kill us. If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.

The movement’s leaders may be better informed, but they have no clearer idea of what they actually think. What they need is analysis: the skeptical tradition extending from Machiavelli to Hobbes, Hamilton, and Burnham that seeks to understand the world as it is rather than as we might like it to be. Analysis, however, requires intellect, but the movement’s mainstream, perhaps to avoid embarrassment (some mainstream figures favorably compared Bush not just to Ronald Reagan but to Abraham Lincoln), has increasingly ostracized its brightest minds.

Sadly, analysis is also often lacking outside the mainstream movement. Every movement throws off disgruntled outsiders (conservatives sometimes call them “paleoconservatives”) who feel bitterly their loss of power. They write obsessively, sometimes quite fancifully, on the alleged perfidies of the mainstream. Often, however, their critiques want credibility.

Some, for example, carry on the Cold War obsession with the so-called “crisis of the West.” Convinced that history at some point took a wrong turn, they pore over ancient texts in search of some Hermetic insight into the fatal error. (Not surprisingly, this approach has little popular appeal, although it still commands respect among professional conservatives.) The notion of a crisis of the West, however, grossly overestimates the importance of ideas; indeed, it requires an unphilosophical and almost paranoid ability to treat ideologies (most conspicuously, liberalism) as living, breathing omnipresences to which intentions, tactics, strategies, feelings, disappointments, and conflicts can all be attributed. Believers in the crisis of the West rest almost their entire worldview on an elusive notion—modernity—borrowed from a half-formed science—sociology. Crisis-of-the-West conservatism, at one time a fruitful response to the calamities of the 20th century, has become more a posture than a genuine school of thought.

Another group pleads for the conservative movement to return to its alleged first principles. “If only people would still read Russell Kirk,” one hears. But the movement never had any first principles to begin with. Although it boasts a carefully husbanded canon of supposedly foundational texts, the men who wrote them—Kirk, Strauss, Voegelin, Weaver, Chambers, Meyer—were notorious eccentrics given to extravagant claims whose policy implications remain largely obscure. Russell Kirk, for example, even as he shrewdly positioned himself as the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement, had almost no political opinions whatsoever.

Still others eulogize local attachments and ancestral loyalties. They invoke a litany of examples: family, church, kin, community, school, the “little platoons” in which Burke found the basis of political association. Celebrating such “infra-political” institutions may well have made sense in the 1950s, the high tide of American nationalism and federal government prestige. At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive. The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan. Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East. Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for nothing did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.

For all their philippics, disgruntled conservatives remain decidedly of the movement, if not in it, for they share with the mainstream the fundamental conceit that conservatism exists to advance some core set of beliefs or principles. Like a soul animating a body, these principles allegedly guide, smooth or grim, all the movement’s institutions, programs, publications, alliances, tactical feints, and shifting positions. Hence, even those outside the mainstream keep the faith that the movement will not stray forever. Conservatism, in this view, can no more betray its principles than the God of Abraham can betray His covenant with Israel.

But “conservatism” has no mystical essence. Rather than a magisterium handed down from apostolic times, it is an ideology whose contours are largely arbitrary and accidental. By ideology, I mean precisely what Orwell depicted in 1984. I do not mean, of course, that conservatism is totalitarian. Taken as prophecy, 1984 has little merit. Taken as a description of the world we actually live in, however, it is indispensable. 1984 reveals not the horrors of the future but the quotidian realities of ideology in mass democracy. Conservatism exemplifies them all.

First, like Ingsoc, conservatism has a hierarchical structure. Like Orwell’s “Inner Party,” those at the top of the movement have almost perfect freedom to decide what opinions count as official conservatism. The Iraq War furnishes a telling example. In the run-up to the invasion, leading conservatives announced that conservatism now meant spreading global democratic revolution. This forthright radicalism—this embrace of the sanative powers of violence—became quickly accepted as the ineluctable meaning of conservatism in foreign policy. Those who dissented risked ostracism and harsh rebuke. Had conservative leaders instead argued that global democratic revolution would not cure our woes but increase them, the rest of the movement would have accepted this position no less quickly. Millions of conservative epigones believe nothing less than what the movement’s established organs tell them to believe. Rarely does a man recognize, like Winston Smith, his own ideology as such.

Second, conservatism is concerned less with truth than with distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Conservatives identify themselves in part by repeating slogans (“we are at war!”) that, like “ignorance is strength,” are less important for what (if anything) they say than for what saying them says about the speaker. At the same time, to rise in the movement, one must develop a habitual obliviousness to truth, or what Orwell labeled “doublethinking.” Anyone who expresses too vociferously too many of the following opinions, for example, cannot expect to make a career in the movement: that the Soviet Union was not the threat that anti-communists made it out to be, that the current tax system discriminates in favor of the very wealthy, that the Bush administration was wrong about the Iraq invasion in nearly every respect, that the constitutional design itself prevents judges from deciding cases according to the original meaning of the Constitution, that global warming poses small but unacceptable risks, that everyone in the abortion debate—even the most ardent pro-lifers—inevitably engages in arbitrary line-drawing. Whether these opinions and others are correct or not matters little to the movement conservative, even if he knows next to nothing about the topic at hand. If you do not reject these opinions or at least keep quiet, you are not a movement conservative and will be treated accordingly.

Third, and closely related to doublethinking, the conservative movement engages in selective editing of history. When events have a tendency to disconfirm ideology, down the memory hole they go. Thus, conservatives do not recall their dire warnings about the Soviet Union during the Cold War or about the economy after the Bush I or Clinton tax increases. On the Iraq invasion, they will not remind you of their claims that Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, that the world would soon be applauding the Iraq invasion, or that events in Lebanon and the Ukraine heralded global democratic revolution. Nor will conservatives remind you of their predictions that the insurgency’s demise was imminent, that Saddam Hussein and then Zarqawi were the Big Men of the insurgency, or that the insurgency consisted largely of foreign jihadis. As in 1984, the ability to forget that any of these events ever occurred signals one’s loyalty to the movement. (Hence, the rise of hawkishness against Iran, not four years after the last effort to sell a war to an otherwise balky public.) To prove his loyalty to the emperor, everyone must compliment him on his new clothes. The most loyal believe that the emperor is wearing clothes to begin with.

Fourth, conservatism is entertaining. Understanding the world, though rewarding, provides nothing like the pleasures of a “Two Minute Hate,” a focused, ritualized denunciation of enemies. To induce its own Two Minute Hates, conservatism, like Ingsoc in 1984, manufactures bogeymen such as “judicial activists,” “so-called realists,” or “moral relativists” that become symbolic representations of detested outsiders. Meanwhile, like the Inner Party in 1984, conservative leaders tolerate the more vulgar, angry purveyors of ideology—think talk-show hosts or authors of bestselling political books. The most vicious attacks, meanwhile, are reserved for turncoats, like Goldstein in 1984. (Of course, as many paleoconservatives could attest, the hatred is usually mutual.) Rooting for conservative ideology is as engrossing to its partisans as rooting for the local football team is to its fans.

None of this is to suggest that conservatism is uniquely pernicious. The roots of ideology lie deep in our cognitive limitations and instinct for group loyalty. One could make similar observations of any ideology. The most distinguishing feature of conservatism is its misleading name. Lexically, “conservatism” denotes caution, prudence, and resistance to change. Conservatism the ideology, however, has if anything tended towards recklessness. “Nuke ‘em!” has always been a popular conservative sentiment, never more so than today with respect to the Muslim world. For frantic boast and foolish word / Thy mercy on thy people Lord!

Whatever its past accomplishments, the conservative movement no longer kindles any “ironic points of light.” It has produced fewer outstanding books even as it has taken over more of the intellectual and political landscape. This trend will only continue. Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to “see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched.” The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.

Austin W. Bramwell is a lawyer in New York City.



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