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Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism

And then came 9/11/01. Traditional conservatives were again virtually united on the need to “take the fight” to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But opinion became divided on the further military engagement in Iraq. Not least problematic was that insofar as many traditionalists were religious believers, the Iraq war lacked an evident causus belli [sic]— an elementary requirement of just war doctrine. (And indeed, the pre-emption doctrine articulated as America’s official national strategy seems, at the level of theory at least, impossible to square with even quite permissive readings of the just war tradition.) Most were nonetheless willing to support the war on the basis of the “clear and present danger” presented by weapons of mass destruction. Thus, the Bush administration’s failure to discover such weapons in Iraq has proven a considerable blow.

Traditional conservative confidence in the Iraq policy has not been helped by the Bush administration’s ever-more-complete embrace of muscular Wilsonian rhetoric as the justification for American action. Woodrow Wilson is not a conservative icon. Sensitive to historical limitations and understanding liberal institutions as dependent upon pre-existing forms of social and cultural capital which are not present in Arab societies, traditionalists do not believe that “democracy” — which is to say, secular constitutional liberalism — is easily exported there. This is not to say that traditionalists do not take pride in America’s having rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s odious regime, nor does this mean that they now wish to cut our losses and withdraw. To abandon those Iraqis who have — at considerable risk to themselves — put their trust in us would be dishonorable in the extreme. To retreat, moreover, may well prove worse for American security in the long run. One hopes in any event that the administration is now studying the (negative) lessons of an earlier dishonorable American experience — that of Vietnamization. The dishonor there was not in turning the Republic of (South) Vietnam over to the Vietnamese. The dishonor was in not fulfilling our promise of continuing military support for that fledgling nation when confronted with a North Vietnamese armored invasion. ~Mark C. Henrie, “Understanding Traditionalist Conservatism”, The New Pantagruel

Mr. Henrie’s extensive review of the traditionalist conservative tradition, its critics and its views on specific questions makes a great many solid points, and I am not at leisure to put down my thoughts about the entire article just yet. Were I to attempt a full response at present, I probably wouldn’t be finished for several hours, and unfortunately I still have much Byzantine history reading yet to be done. My interest was, not surprisingly, drawn to Mr. Henrie’s comments on traditionalists and foreign affairs, since foreign affairs more than almost any other area of public policy have dominated how traditionalist conservatives define themselves vis-a-vis competing claims to the title conservative.

A few things jumped out at me. Naturally, his observation that a lack of casus belli for invading Iraq makes the war extremely difficult to justify is spot on. His comments about the irreconcilability of the just war tradition and preemptive war struck me as absolutely, obviously right, and they find confirmation in an article by Daniel McCarthy in the Aug. 29 issue of American Conservative that is well worth reading, especially for Catholics looking for some sane rejoinder to the sloppy moral theology and quasi-jingoism of First Things.

Mr. Henrie’s account that most traditionalists were willing to go along with the “clear and present danger” nonsense about Iraq is accurate as a description (evidently, most presumably traditionalist conservatives must have endorsed this rationale, as there were very few conservative dissenters outside the small but vocal “paleo” camp), but I was rather hoping for something a little more compelling. By more compelling, I mean a serious application of traditionalist conservative realism and common sense to the idea that a third-rate country ruled by a tinpot Arab dictatorship could actually pose a “clear and present danger” to the United States, or perhaps traditionalist conservative skepticism of tall presidential tales in the wake of past lies about the Gulf of Tonkin and Racak, among others. Mr. Henrie’s rejection of Wilson as a conservative icon is most welcome, but somehow I was also expecting the correlated statement that, because he so venerates and imitates Woodrow, Mr. Bush is not a conservative.

On the question of withdrawal, obviously I cannot agree. I consider myself a traditionalist conservative in the tradition of Kirk, Weaver and Bradford (I also consider myself a paleoconservative in that I see no fundamental divergence between the two kinds of conservatism). I feel fairly confident in saying that there can be no honourable retreat from Iraq of the kind Mr. Henrie wants short of successful “Iraqisation,” which I believe is entirely unlikely to succeed. If Iraqisation itself is as misguided as Vietnamisation was, solutions to our Iraq problem, excluding withdrawal, are non-existent.

It is regrettable that dishonourable men in government have extended promises to Iraqis who were foolish enough to trust in the decency of aggressors, and some arrangement might be made for a limited number of political refugees to be brought out of Iraq in the event of a withdrawal, but it is inconceivable to me that we might not carry out a policy in the best interests of the United States because we feel obligated to fulfill unrealistic promises made by incompetent policymakers. I have frequently encountered the argument that our enemies will be “emboldened” if we leave, or that the region will be “destabilised.” Without trying to trivialise either of these objections, our enemies are hardly acting the part of mewling sheep at present and seem to be more active and more bold than ever before thanks to the continued presence of our soldiers in Iraq. Regional instability is unlikely to be much greater if we leave than if we remain indefinitely, and remaining indefinitely appears the only other realistic option.

Then there is Mr. Henrie’s concern that American security may be adversely affected in the long term by a withdrawal, and perhaps more so than if we remain. I can imagine that our security might well be adversely affected. There is nothing to guarantee against Iraq becoming a place full of terrorist training camps, and even less to guarantee against embittered Iraqis who decide to take their revenge on Americans for what the government has done to their country. However, much of that damage is already done, and those things could occur in any event. I have a hard time imagining how our national reputation and security could be harmed more by withdrawing than by remaining–Islamists may well cite our withdrawal as a great victory, a la the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it bewilders me more than a little why we feel compelled to pursue a policy, potentially to our own detriment, to deprive the enemy of some PR.

Withdrawal would concretely remove Iraq from the top of their list of priorities, give the Iraqis some breathing room and give them at least a marginal fighting chance of establishing a working government of some kind. If that sounds too optimistic, withdrawal would eliminate a rallying point for Islamists, as well as ceasing to radicalise some unknown number of Muslims who might otherwise have become recruits for Islamist organisations. How much less powerful would the mujahideen in Afghanistan have been had the Soviets left in 1982 instead of 1988? Who now would have ever heard of Osama bin Laden?

The reason why one “cuts” one’s losses is because otherwise losses will continue to mount with no end in sight. Withdrawal at the very least stops the American bleeding and the excessive strain being put on the armed forces. That, in the end, is what traditionalist conservatives have to worry about first regarding Iraq. It would be admirable to be able to do right by all the Iraqis that have sided with our government, but one of the necessary skills of a statesman is his willingness to choose from two bad options the one that is best for his country.

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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