I'm working on a book concerning "Why 'Conservatives' Can't Do Foreign Policy". I'm going to post pieces of it here in the hope of getting useful feedback from folks on the Web. In this first post I'm including an introduction to some basic ideas. First, I have to explain why I believe so-called "conservatives" and "neo-conservatives" are NOT conservative; or, why I have Conservatives in quotation marks. Here's a draft explaining the latter issue.
Why Pseudo-Conservatives are not "Conservative"
Reading contemporary American commentary one hears again and again various members of the American right-wing referred to as “conservative” or as “neo-conservative”. I believe this is one of the most fundamental misnomers in the rhetoric of contemporary politics; it represents a very creative and thus far successful attempt to make individuals who advocate views that are radical and extremist sound like they are really simply wholesome proponents of preserving what is good in American society.
What is conservatism?
In his prize-winning book, Conservatism in America, Clinton Rossiter wrote (1962, p. 26): “At the center of the constellation of virtues which make up the good… Conservative… is prudence. ‘Prudence,’ Burke wrote, ‘is not only first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director’ of all the others…. [T]here is no doubt that [prudence] represents a cluster of urges—toward caution, deliberation, and discretion, toward moderation and calculation, toward old ways and good form….”
It is well to remember that Edmund Burke was the father of conservatism and thus an essential source for Rossiter. Burke’s emphasis was upon “old ways” because he believed that our current society has developed slowly and organically, keeping only those traditions and institutions which have served well and thus stood the test of time. Rossiter (p. 48) later continued, “Nothing is more foreign to the Conservative cast of mind than lawless violence. The Conservative’s whole nature revolts against the cruelty, unpredictability, and inadequacy of brute force as a solution to problems of human relations. He does not seek peace at all costs, but he seeks it with all his powers.”
Rossiter believed Dwight Eisenhower was a modern American representative of conservatism and I agree he is an excellent example in many ways. But let us not forget that the Radical Right of the 1950s, e.g., rabid anti-communists like Robert Welch of the John Birch Society and, to some degree, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, believed that President Eisenhower seemed to be carrying out the dictates of the “international communist conspiracy”. Rossiter (pp. 168-9) called these people “ultra-conservatives” and listed Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, Jr. as examples. Rossiter referred to Senator McCarthy as “their defunct and tarnished Galahad”.
What is Pseudo-Conservatism?
Although I heartily recommend Rossiter’s book I disagree that “ultra-conservatism” is a useful label. However, Rossiter (p. 168) does recognize and quote agreeably the term I believe most accurate, “pseudo-conservatism”. Indeed, if one looks in Rossiter’s index under “pseudo-conservatism” one is told to “See also Ultra-conservatism”. Given Rossiter’s very careful attempt to define the essence of “conservatism,” choosing any term suggesting that those he refers to as “the choleric Right” bear any resemblance to true conservatives debases his effort. They have wrongly appropriated the label for themselves and as such should be referred to as “pseudo-conservatives”.
Apparently, one of the first uses of “pseudo-conservative” appeared in The Authoritarian Personality, a popular book, which was widely read in the 1950s. (This work has been improved and brought up to date by Robert Altemeyer [Enemies of Freedom, 1988] and used extensively in John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience, 2006.) The term was elaborated by historian Richard Hofstadter in two essays published in 1955 and 1962. (These essays can be found in The Radical Right, edited by Daniel Bell, 1963.) Hofstadter (1955, p. 77) quoted what The Authoritarian Personality had to say: “The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions..., consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition.”
Hofstadter went on to elaborate the concept (1955, pp. 76-7): “[T]he new dissent [of the radical right]not only has no respect for non-conformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative… because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism….”
Returning to the subject in a follow-up essay, “Pseudo-Conservatism Revisited” (1962), Hofstadter continued (pp 102-3): “The right wing tolerates no compromises, accepts no half measures, understands no defeats. In this respect, it stands psychologically outside the frame of normal democratic politics, which is largely an affair of compromise. One of the most fundamental qualities, then, in the right wing mentality of our time is its implicit utopianism. I can think of no more economical way of expressing its fundamental difference from the spirit of genuine conservatism…. [T]here is one force in American life, hardly more than hinted at in my original formulation, that would now loom very large indeed, and that is fundamentalism…. To understand the Manichaean style of thought, the apocalyptic tendencies, the love of mystification, the intolerance of compromise that are observable in the right-wing mind, we need to understand the history of fundamentalism….”
Hofstadter was right to emphasize that pseudo-conservatives “show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism….” This is true of contemporary pseudo-conservatives like Richard Perle, William Kristol and many others. These are individuals who radically disagree with much of American foreign policy and wish to tear it down and replace it with their radical vision of “tough”, “hard-line”, hyper-military policy. (Pseudo-conservatives are equally radical regarding domestic policy as they wish to repeal the estate tax and weaken, if not eliminate, many achievements of the New Deal. George W. Bush’s proposed “reform” of Social Security bears some similarity to, the Clark amendment, a provision Republicans and pseudo-conservative Democrats wanted included in the original law. FDR, realizing it was an attempt to destroy Social Security, held firm and eventually prevailed [Hacker, 2002, p. 101].)
It is also interesting to note that Hofstadter recognized the kinship of “fundamentalism” to the views of the radical right; he must be considered very prescient as we now see that much of the radical right in the Republican party is claiming fundamentalism as well. Many on the Christian right also back a hyper-aggressive, militarized foreign policy. (It is certainly questionable whether the “Christian” right merits the label “Christian”. This calls to mind Ghandi’s comment: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”)
For example, President George W. Bush is referred to as conservative on a daily basis. Yet he is the author of a policy of “preemptive” war which is virtually universally acknowledged to be a radical departure from previous U.S. foreign policy. (In reality, as Stephen Walt (2005, pp. 59, 261) has pointed out, Bush’s policy is more accurately one of “preventive war”; one “preempts” when an enemy is about to attack; preventive war aims “to prevent an enemy from becoming stronger… even if there is no sign of an imminent attack.”) Whether or not one agrees with Bush is not the issue, whatever one thinks of the Bush Doctrine it is not a “conservative” policy.
One hears individuals like Richard Perle and William Kristol referred to regularly as “neo-conservatives”, yet Perle was one of the most aggressive proponents of a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and one of the most withering critics of attempts to maintain “stability” and continue to slowly pursue the continued “containment” of Saddam (see Perle, 2000, pp. 99-102). Attempting to maintain stability and continuing to contain Saddam would have been truly conservative policies. Advocating his military overthrow using U.S. troops was a radical departure from past policy which entailed great risks, as can be seen by what has happened since we invaded.
Not yet convinced that Perle is a radical? Here is his suggested policy for dealing with North Korea (Frum and Perle, 2004, p. 87): “Decisive action would begin with a comprehensive air and naval blockade of North Korea, cutting it off from all seaborne traffic, all international aviation, and all intercourse with the South. South Korea will object, but it needs to be made to understand that… a blockade is its best alternative to war…. Next, we must accelerate the redeployment of our ground troops on the Korean peninsula so they are beyond the range of North Korean artillery and short-range rockets…. But we hope—and this hope is, we think, well founded—that a credible buildup… will persuade the Chinese finally to… bring the North Koreans to heel.” Risking the possibility that North Korea would use the many military facilities it already has in place to shell Seoul, while also risking the possibility of a war with China, is the very antithesis of the term “conservative”. Recall that Seoul is one of the smallest and most densely populated major cities (Greater Seoul area population 23 million) and is only 30 miles from the demilitarized border with North Korea. The South Koreans may perhaps be forgiven their trepidation about a military confrontation engineered by Richard Perle, who would be able to witness all this from his second home in the south of France. (France? The home of “freedom fries”? Yes, that’s right. See Packer, 2005, p. 28: “For all of his French-baiting, Perle has a house in southern France and a living room in Chevy Chase full of French cookbooks.”)
How about well-known “neo-conservative” William Kristol? During the 2006 Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Hezbollah Mr. Kristol made an eminently “conservative” suggestion (Weekly Standard July 24, 2006). This war allegedly began when Hezbollah attacked Israeli soldiers just inside Israel and captured two alive. (I say “allegedly” for a reason. Seymour Hersh (The New Yorker, August 21, 2006 wrote: “The Pentagon consultant [Hersh’s source] noted that there had also been cross-border incidents involving Israel and Hezbollah, in both directions, for some time. “They’ve been sniping at each other,” he said. “Either side could have pointed to some incident and said ‘We have to go to war with these guys’….” Hersh’s sources claimed the Israelis had their bombing campaign in Lebanon planned months earlier, had shared the plans with the Bush administration and gained the administration’s support. The administration denied these claims but Hersh added: “The White House did not respond to a detailed list of questions.”)
Claiming that Hezbollah, a group supported by Iran but with its own extensive political and social base among the 40% Shia population in Lebanon, is identical with Iran, Kristol suggested that either the United States or Israel “consider countering this act of Iranian (sic) aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? ... Yes, there would be repercussions—and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.” This “modest proposal” ignores the fact that Iran is not a direct combatant in the conflict, ignores the clear distinction between a Hezbollah with Iranian support and Iran itself, and dismisses any worries about untoward “repercussions”. It implicitly suggests that, although the U.S. was successful in containing a nuclear Soviet Union for 40 years, it’s inconceivable we could also do so with a not yet nuclear Iran. Again, whether one agrees with Kristol or not, his proposal is thoroughly radical and bears no recognizable resemblance to any meaningful concept of conservatism. These examples could be multiplied filling many volumes.
OK, that's a partial intro to what conservative actually means and why pseudo-conservatives are NOT conservative. This draft will be further filled out in the future with more about what the label "conservative" really means.