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So Many Old Right Revivals, So Few Antiwar Conservatives

If a Republican member of Congress so much as whispers criticism of Obama’s Afghanistan policy, or even comes right out and says we ought to withdraw and start tending to our own problems, Larison is right in there assuring us that he (or she) doesn’t mean it, can’t mean it, and is merely “pretending” to mean it, because, you see, they deviate on some other point, or just because they’re modern conservatives, who can’t, after all, be anything less than bloodthirsty monsters. ~Justin Raimondo

I would say that this debate is getting tiresome, but it would be giving it too much credit to call it a debate. On one side of the argument, I explain why certain new Republican opponents of the war in Afghanistan seem to be far worse militarists and interventionists than the administration they are reflexively and opportunistically opposing, and in response Raimondo makes a weak joke about Andrew Sullivan. This is the sort of hyperbolic, unpersuasive, insulting style that Raimondo has practiced for years, but it has normally been tethered to something resembling a principled argument. In this case, Raimondo dispensed with substantive argument early on and has relied entirely on outrage.

There was a time when it was still acceptable to acknowledge that opponents of a particular war were nonetheless deeply mistaken about foreign policy generally. Pointing out that some latecomers to the antiwar movement held dangerous ideas was once considered a service to the causes of non-intervention and peace. Raimondo cannot stop harping on Sullivan’s appalling pro-war views from five or six years ago, long after Sullivan publicly abandoned them, but the rest of us must never question the antiwar credentials of anyone Raimondo has chosen to defend. It was once considered valuable to emphasize the full record and views of politicians whom antiwar activists had enthusiastically (and sometimes mistakenly) embraced. Apparently, none of that can get in the way of falsely proclaiming another rebirth of the Old Right, which has been reborn by Raimondo’s count at least five times in the last decade. The flaw in constantly announcing the Old Right’s revival, like the flaw in optimism itself, is that it simply does not take account of reality, and it leads to severe disappointment when the optimistic delusion vanishes and reality intrudes once again.

Howard Dean generated a great deal of enthusiasm in 2003-04 because of his newfound opposition to the Iraq war, and it was undeniably his very convenient antiwar view that propelled him to the top tier of candidates, but it would not have been unduly pessimistic to draw attention to Dean’s statements endorsing preventive war, his complaint that the problem with the Iraq war was that it had distracted us from the “real” threat of Iran or even to deny Dean’s antiwar credibility entirely. Joshua Frank wrote this for Antiwar.com four years ago:

Howard Dean’s “antiwar” convictions haven’t vanished – they never existed to begin with.

How depressing! Oh, yes, he was also right. By 2005, it was no longer necessary to ignore the reality that Dean’s antiwar convictions were temporary and driven by immediate political needs. As Dean was a New Democrat and “centrist” hawk, Dean’s role as the tribune of the antiwar left never made much sense. Evidently, we have not reached a point when we can acknowledge that the same applies to some of the new opponents of the war in Afghanistan. If we could at least acknowledge that several of these brand-new Republican opponents of the war in Afghanistan are motived almost entirely by opportunism and partisanship, and that they have no interest in a restrained and limited foreign policy, we could at least move on to arguing the relative merits of different Afghanistan plans, including plans for withdrawal. Instead, we are treated to the farce of calling an advocate of unlimited war in Afghanistan an antiwar Republican.

The “go big or go home” position is a crazy, maximalist hawkish position. It is simutaneously anti-administration without being critical of the military or U.S. hegemony, and it is designed to allow Republicans to criticize the administration for mistakes on foreign policy while maintaining the absurd claim that Obama is not “tough” and hawkish enough. Chaffetz in particular favors going home only because he does not think the administration will sign off on suitably brutal, devastating tactics. Chaffetz has effectively imitated the Sharon-Olmert position on Gaza, and Raimondo has been applauding it. After all, Chaffetz favors a withdrawal, and that’s good enough. Never mind the details of his argument or the readiness to inflict massive damage on the place in the future!

When Raimondo was preparing Chuck Hagelfor canonization in early 2007, I was therereminding everyonethat Hagel had voted for the Iraq war and supported the bombing of Yugoslavia. Hagel retired from the Senate after his abortive presidential bid, and the latest new savior of the antiwar right vanished from the scene. Raimondo was one of the most prolific evangelists on behalf of Hagel-as-antiwar-champion, and his analysis proved to be awesomely wrong.

The Hagel episode has not stopped him from adopting and cheering on practically every politician who occasionally says something he likes, only to turn around a few months later to express his disgust with the same politician for “betraying” the cause. When all together too many non-interventionists and realists were celebrating Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war as proof that U.S. foreign policy as a whole might begin changing significantly, I pointed out that Obama was a devoted liberal internationalist with a very activist and ambitious foreign policy vision. Now that this has become undeniable to all but the most fanatical of hawks, the people who gave Obama far too much credit last year now desperately search out new political heroes whose foreign policy views are no better and are, in fact, far worse than anything coming out of the current administration. For the record, Chaffetz does not say that we should be “tending to our own problems,” unless one wants to define “taking out” Iran’s nuclear program as “tending to our own problems.” Raimondo has never addressed this point regarding Chaffetz’s dangerous Iran policy views, perhaps because he knows there is nothing he can say.

The reality is that the public is becoming somewhat less comfortable with an aggressive foreign policy, but it is still only too willing to back military action against vilified states that pose little or no threat to the United States. More and more of the public is not aligned with the political right at all, and this is primarily what accounts for changes in public opinion on matters of war and foreign policy. On the right, the devotion to aggressive foreign policy has, if anything, become much worse among politicians and activists, and at least as far as we can tell from polls there has not been a dramatic change among rank-and-file conservatives. There has certainly been no great clamoring for an end to the Afghanistan war in deepest-red Utah.

On the specific question of Afghanistan, I am persuaded for the moment that the proposed plan is still the best means available for concluding the war there soon, and it stands a far better chance of prosecuting the war with as little damage to the civilian population as possible. I respect those non-interventionists and realists who take a different view, and Prof. Bacevich may be right when he says that the plan is “folly.” It seems to me that we do owe some measure of security to the people whose country our war has damaged, and it seems possible that our military can provide that before leaving. There are serious arguments that say I am wrong, and I will be addressing those in future. Raimondo’s arguments are not among them. What I do know for certain is that warmongers who want us out of Afghanistan just so that we can plunge the Near East into hell for years to come with an attack on Iran must be resisted at every turn.

Raimondo is right about one thing: I am a pessimist. I’m not sure how anyone with a Christian understanding of fallen human nature and human finitude could be anything other than a pessimist. This helps to guard against political fantasies regardless of their source or content. That includes the recurring fantasy that the return of the Old Right is just around the corner whenever some Republican pol wants to make a splash in the media by taking a position that is at odds with everything he has ever said before on the subject.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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