By Robert Capehert
PRESIDENT GEORGE WASHINGTON once said,
If one wants peace, prepare for war.
In the following years, American Presidents resisted wars aimed at chasing monsters across the world’s stage. In the spirit of Washington, Jefferson, and John Quincy Adams, U.S. President’s sought a unilateral foreign policy, consisting of a skeptical eye toward foreign alliances, and a defensive posture preserving and protecting American vital interests of national security.
In opposition to the tides of Europe at the time, where the Napoleonic Wars killed hundreds of thousands of people, the early American Republic stayed out of wars of utopia, growing strong, expanding in prosperity and security.
That is until Woodrow Wilson became president of the U.S. in 1913. Soon after, American foreign policy changed and the world needed to be made “safe for democracy.” Taking a hint from Wilsonian utopianism, neo-conservatism in the waning years of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st century, adapted President Wilson’s quixotic foreign policy, embracing such rhetoric as ridding the world of tyranny in George W Bush’s second inaugural, Jan. 20, 2005.
Ridding the world of tyranny?
If taken to logical ends, such foreign policy will mean endless involvement in the world’s war torn affairs—many of them caldrons of civil war, bloody and costly. Likewise, most are not of American interest, nor vital to American security—or America’s vital allies’ security. In essence, the above premise is the basic foreign policy position of constitutional (paleo) conservatives going back into the 1950’s. And it has been the recurrent theme of Patrick J Buchanan, a former adviser to three U.S. president’s Nixon, Ford, and Reagan.
Buchanan, 74, has double-downed on a slip of land since before the Persian Gulf War of 1991, saying then, the war would only be the first in many wars against Arab nations. The former editorial writer, and speech writer for President Richard M Nixon, helped found The American Conservative magazine—launched to oppose America’s march into Iraq following 9/11— and is the author of several books of presentiment, forecasting American collapse, has amplified his rhetoric too far at times, namely his evaluation of World War II, but his basic point is, nevertheless, true.
Buchanan always appeared cranky to me. I still find Buchanan’s cultural warriorism grating. This is not to say Buchanan is in error about the decline of the West, nor its causations. It is to say, however, the state does not have the authority or the ability to remediate American culture. The state can, through classical liberal policy, be stripped of creating incentives [positive liberty] to Western decline, but it cannot reform it. Even so, Buchanan as elder statesmen has become a national treasure, a paleo-conservative of searing prudence. The more I listen to Buchanan, the more I hear wisdom gained through trial and error—the summit of history, and its oscillating lessons, becoming more pristine.
Larger questions loom. Did Sep. 11, 2001 change the anthropological truths of nations and peoples?
To answer in the affirmative, would mean 18th century liberalism—what conservatism intends to “conserve” politically, and philosophically, is in large error. Other options persist. Might 9/11 and its consequences, mean rumination on policies which failed American security interests on a horrid Tuesday morn, where death rained from above, and the reform, ever the handmade of liberalism’s elasticity, of American intelligence and military capabilities, be sought?
With Buchanan, I confess, America has never been an isolationist nation. But it once routinely shunned wars of utopia—of making the world safe for democracy; its shunning of wars of dynastic intentions, of hunting down the monsters of the world, paralleled its rise in power, expanding individual liberty, and amplifying prosperity and security.
There is a utilitarian element to consider. And it is here Buchanan flirts with brilliance. Since 1991, one might consider, America trounced into foreign entanglements, trying to rid the world of foreign tyrants—planting democracies, and communicating diplomatic schizophrenia. Meanwhile, China stayed out of all such engagements. And China has not invaded one country in all those years. But yearly, they grow ever larger in economic and military prowess. Communist China grows stronger, the U.S., weaker.
By 2016, it is projected China will overtake the U.S. as an economic juggernaut. What have all these wars done for America? Conservatism has always demanded results. What has been gained? Is it working? Is it animating a dignity of life?—such questions should consume the classical liberal mind, always.
How have these wars of utopia benefited American national interests?
The problem with the modern conservative movement and its vessel—the G.O.P.—is not in a disagreement with Buchanan’s historical and political analysis. Crede, ut intelligas has lamented that great minds think alike, but they also disagree—often profoundly. What is troubling about our 18th century liberal movement of contemporary restoration (conservatism), is that Buchanan’s points are classically conservative, and yet, following 9/11, such views were deemed the views of the anti-war left. If like Buchanan, one realizes Hamilton and Madison and Jefferson wanted to separate the power to make war from the power to wage it—thus seeing it as the duty of the U.S. Congress to oppose utopian aimed wars, especially the opposition party, to have voted against the war in Iraq—such would have been considered unpatriotic to far too many conservatives in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.
Buchanan called the Democratic Party of pre-Iraq invasion as cynical—shirking its duty to stand opposed to the Iraq War because Saddam’s Iraq, while tyrannical, did not threaten American vital interests.
Put another way, if one voted against the Iraq War in 2003, one had to be an unpatriotic leftist Democrat. Many popular conservatives lambasted those who questioned the Iraq incursion—not as dumb, but as leftist, and unpatriotic. But ideologically, and historically, which is Buchanan’s point, such an assumption was beyond nonsensical. Such criticism was aloof from the font of conservative principals.
And so, classical conservative would have had, bad intelligence or not, ample ideological reason to oppose the invasion of Iraq.
Those who supported the Iraq War on the assumption of WMD and violations of the 1991 cease-fire are too often all called neo-conservatives. This is equally misfortunate—and inaccurate. Still, it was largely a clarion call of the pop conservative right who deemed a vote against Iraq, was a McGovern-ite Democrat vote.
Opposition to Iraq, by many conservatives, was not a result of a leftism steeped in McGovern anti-war advocacy. But too many pop conservatives assumed as much. It should be noted, The American Conservative magazine heralded the call for America to finish Afghanistan and decimate Taliban and al Qaeda offensive military capability.
America was attacked on 9/11. The enemy should have been destroyed.
But the destruction of an enemy threat, having attacked America is quite different than democracy building by force—of traveling the world looking to depose nation’s tyrants and their governments.
All sound views and men have their fringe counterparts. And it here we run into problems. Buchanan’s posture of an America at war only when vital national interests/security are threatened, at the same time being always ready for war, is sound policy. But some in paleo-conservative and libertarian enclaves go further, desirous of American military capability of lightweight composition, and all too remote in size.
I cannot agree with such madness. If Wilsonian foreign policy is by the left or right is utopiastic, so is a small American military in a brutal, seemingly more dangerous world, equally utopian.
Conservatism should always submit to reality. Washington’s quote is timelessly relevant.
If America is not a superpower militarily, another nation will be. And since no Western country looms in the background to protect American security, as America did for Britain in the 20th century, it behooves America to be the most lethal force under the sun—able to fight and win a war against any two nations at any time. Such is the way of securing America, the first duty the U.S. Constitution presumes of the federal government.
What is problematic is the footprint and location of American firepower. It needs massive restructuring and reconfiguration. The sundry reasons that American military lethality is pressed into battle needs to be fundamentally changed, at once wholly restrained.
We do not need to be postured to defend nearly forty nations around the world, for instance.
I am in large agreement with Kentuckian senator Rand Paul on his foreign policy views, with elaboration. Sen. Paul has often talked of a less aggressive United States foreign policy. By less aggressive, clarification is needed. American’s war effort in Afghanistan needed far more aggression. U.S. Military rules of engagement were self-defeating and unwise given war’s reality. If the Iraq War was a must—and because it happened, it was—far more military aggression was in order. Saddam and his regime should have been liberated from the bounds of this mortal coil quickly—the insurgent enemy decimated early, and American troops withdrawn after resounding victory.
Aggression is not America’s problem. It is where and when, and upon whom America uses her aggression, which is of importance. I suspect this is what Rand Paul intimates, but acuity on an issue of key import would garner more support for a growing, and shall one say, more conservative position in matters of war and peace.
And let us never forget General Washington’s adage—not of himself, but from the ancients.
If peace America wants, it must always be prepared for war.