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Conservatives split over war
T welve years ago, conservatives split sharply over the first Bush administration’s drive toward war with Iraq. While the majority of right-wingers supported the president’s war plans, anti-war rightists such as Patrick Buchanan criticized Israel’s “amen corner” and raised larger questions about the United States’ role in a post-Cold War world. Absent the Soviet threat, they argued, the U.S. government should stop trying to impose its will on other countries and concentrate on defending America First.
Today, as a second Bush administration moves toward reintensifying the war with Iraq, conservative anti-interventionists are still vocal and their criticisms go much farther than those of establishment figures such as Lawrence Eagleburger or Brent Scowcroft. Scowcroft’s central concern regarding Bush’s policy was that a full-scale attack on Iraq would seriously hurt the war on terrorism. But right-wing anti-interventionists have been criticizing the war on terrorism for the past year. They are horrified when conservative hawks at the Weekly Standard or Commentary call for “World War IV” against militant Islam or openly celebrate an “American empire.” Sometimes the anti-interventionist Right seems to echo leftist arguments. But its politics are rooted in deeply reactionary principles and goals.
Consider Samuel Francis. A former Heritage Foundation policy analyst who branded the ANC and the Sandinistas as Soviet-sponsored terrorists, Francis now argues that the September 11 mass killings were payback for the United States’ illegal and unprovoked warfare against other countries, including the mass slaughter of civilians in Iraq. He warns that expanding police powers in the name of homeland security threatens citizens’ right to dissent. Yet Francis also argues that large-scale immigration from Mexico is one of the top security threats facing the United States. “Having many different races in the same country,” he claims, “is a sure formula for anarchy.”
For anti-war leftists, Sam Francis is a reminder that anti-militarism can go hand in hand with oppressive politics. That can be a problem within our own movements and it is also something we should be mindful of as we build broader anti-war coalitions. Rightists do not speak with one voice, but rather have developed a variety of ways to exploit both prejudices and legitimate grievances. This has contributed to the Right’s success over the past quarter century.
The anti-interventionist Right reflects a neutralist or “isolationist” strain in American conservative thought that goes back to the 1930s and early 1940s, when the Old Right opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. Chief heirs to this tradition today are paleoconservatives such as Francis, Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, and Justin Raimondo. Paleocon-controlled institutions include the Ludwig von Mises Institute, the Rockford Institute, and the Antiwar.com website. Paleocons uphold an old-style conservatism that unapologetically favors native-born white Christians. (While glorifying Western civilization, paleocons disagree on whether whites’ cultural achievements are biologically determined.) Unlike much of the conservative establishment, paleoconservatives are hostile to economic globalization and mass immigration, and sharply critical of the state of Israel.
Paleocons are bitter enemies of the neoconservatives, a political current started by former Cold War liberals who moved rightward in the 1970s and defected from the Democratic Party to join the Reagan coalition. Neocons include Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Bennett, and Pentagon advisor Richard Perle. Paleocons charge that the globalist-oriented neocons are still liberals at heart and that they have hijacked many mainstream conservative institutions, from the National Review to the Heritage Foundation to the American Enterprise Institute. Neocons, many of whom are Jewish, accuse the paleocons of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.
Several related sectors of the Right share the paleocons’ anti-interventionism, including the John Birch Society, sections of the Libertarian Party such as 2000 presidential candidate Harry Browne, Gary North’s theocratic Institute for Christian Economics, and groups that focus on promoting White racial identity, such as the American Nationalist Union, American Renaissance, and the neo-Confederate League of the South.
Anti-interventionists agree with the hawks on some points. Unlike the neonazis who praised the September 11 attacks as righteous blows against an evil Jewish elite, the anti-interventionists expressed grief and horror at the mass killings and most of them supported focused military reprisals against the perpetrators. Some have also endorsed certain repressive security measures such as the establishment of military tribunals and racial profiling to screen potential terrorists. Many anti-interventionists derogate not only “radical Islamism,” but Islam in general, as an alien and dangerous ideology.
But unlike mainstream conservatives, right-wing anti-interventionists regard September 11 as a predictable response to the United States’ own brutal crimes overseas. If the U.S. wants to protect itself against future terrorist attacks, they argue, it has to end its policy of global military intervention. “Who has reason to hate this country?” asked Joseph Sobran rhetorically. “Only a few hundred million people—Arabs, Muslims, Serbs, and numerous others whose countries have been hit by U.S. bombers.”
By contrast, the pro-interventionist National Review declared after September 11, “The United States is a target because we are powerful, rich, and good. We are resented for our power, envied for our wealth, and hated for our liberty. President George W. Bush told Congress that the terrorists ‘hate what we see right here in this chamber—a democratically elected government....’ They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
Anti-interventionist conservatives dismiss such claims as arrogant nonsense. Pat Buchanan commented, “Osama bin Laden did not convince 19 educated young men to simultaneously commit suicide in defiance of freedom of assembly.” The issue, he stressed, is U.S. foreign policy, not our system of government. “As Osama bin Laden said, they want us to stop propping up the Saudi regime they hate and to get off the sacred Saudi soil on which sit the holiest shrines of Islam.”
Buchanan has long warned that dark-skinned peoples pose a threat to American civilization. Yet his portrayal of bin Laden as a rational enemy with specific objectives makes far more sense than the apocalyptic language of many conservative hawks, who portray the war on terrorism as a manichean struggle between the noble West and the evil, nihilistic barbarians. Neocon Charles Krauthammer, for example, called the war “a transcendent conflict between those who love life and those who love death.”
This debate has been marked by strange reversals. The American Nationalist Union promotes white supremacist views, but after September 11 its newspaper praised Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Black man, as “the chief voice of reason in the Bush administration” because he advocated restraint in the war on terrorism. Paleocons are usually identified with isolationism or unilateralism, but now it is neo-conservatives who urge unilateral action while paleocons stress the need to build alliances with Arab and European states and warn that war with Iraq could leave the United States truly isolated.
Less surprising was the John Birch Society’s insistence that the United States should punish those responsible for the September 11 attacks without becoming “further enmeshed in entangling alliances abroad.” To the Birch Society, the Bush administration undermined U.S. sovereignty by seeking United Nations and NATO approval before bombing Afghanistan, rather than getting a declaration of war from Congress as the Constitution requires. Unable to let go of the Cold War, Birchers also argued that Bush’s war fails to challenge the real sponsors of international terrorism: the Communist states of China, Cuba, and even Russia.
A common refrain among right-wing anti-interventionists is that the United States should be (as Buchanan titled one of his books) “a republic, not an empire.” This clashes squarely with neo-conservatives, who have been among those pressing for war most aggressively and in the most grandiose terms. To fully root out the threat of terrorism, neocons argue, the United States should embrace its imperial role. “Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets,” wrote Max Boot in the Weekly Standard . Michael Ledeen in the American Enterprise urged the United States to “wage revolutionary war against all the terrorist regimes, and gradually replace them” with governments based on popular sovereignty. Such a course, he argued, would win mass support from the oppressed people of these countries.
Buchanan countered, “only naivete would expect an occupied country to thank rather than revile us.” Joseph Sobran wrote, “The United States is now a global empire that wants to think of itself as a universal benefactor, and is nonplussed when foreigners don’t see it that way.” Imperialism is a disastrous course, paleocons argue, because colonized peoples will inevitably use violence to throw off their colonizers and because imperialism means the growth of big government, militaristic repression of the home population, and a flood of foreign immigrants.
Like many rightists less critical of Bush’s war, anti-interventionists oppose the post-September 11 expansion of federal authority to spy on U.S. citizens. They warn that there is a serious threat to civil liberties from measures such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which gives police sweeping new search powers, and the TIPS program (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), which in its original form would have recruited millions of civilians to report on “suspicious” activities. (The conspiracy-minded John Birch Society, but not the paleocons, argued that the expansion of police powers was stealthily engineered by the Council on Foreign Relations, “the most visible element of the internationalist Power Elite.”)
At the same time, many anti-interventionists have supported the government’s repression against non-citizens and have urged even harsher measures, including an immediate halt to all immigration and deportation of all undocumented immigrants. Sam Francis warned that “a vast subculture of non-Western immigrants” allowed terrorists to move freely within the United States. He declared that “Islam, a great and in many respects admirable faith, simply is not part of [the West], and those who subscribe to Islam and its civilization are aliens....”
Despite such nativist bigotry, paleocons address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms surprisingly familiar to progressives. They argue that Palestinians have a right to national self-determination and that the Israeli occupation is brutal and illegal, that anti-civilian violence by both sides is wrong, and that real peace requires complete Israeli withdrawal to something like the 1967 borders and creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. The United States’ massive support of Israel, paleocons assert, fuels widespread anti-Americanism in the Arab world and fosters sympathy and support for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda.
Such arguments place paleocons sharply at odds with most conservatives, who routinely dismiss Palestinian grievances and portray Israel as a democratic society righteously defending itself against terrorism. Conservative pro-Zionism is not necessarily rooted in concern for Jews. Most of the Christian Right believes that a strong Israel hastens the millennial End Times in which all except true followers of Christ will be destroyed.
Paleoconservatives rightly argue that legitimate criticisms of Israel cannot be equated with anti-Semitism. But prominent paleocons such as Buchanan and Sobran have a history of praising antisemites and trivializing the Nazi genocide. Paleocons also tend to exaggerate the power of a Zionist lobby—Buchanan once referred to Congress as “Israeli-occupied territory”—playing into classic stereotypes of Jews as a hidden, superpowerful presence.
By contrast, the American Nationalist Union’s newspaper, the Nationalist Times , broadcasts explicitly anti-Jewish views. One writer warned of a “Judeo-Islamic-Masonic thrust against Christian-Western civilization.” Another remarked, “the [Israel First] newly patriotic media are the same crowd of rootless cosmopolitans that have been promoting degeneracy and perversion since they invented Hollywood.” The American Nationalist Union is successor to the Populist Party, which fielded ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as its presidential candidate in 1988.
Anti-intervention conservatism reemerged as an important political current with the end of the Cold War. Before that, most paleoconservatives supported an interventionist foreign policy in the name of anticommunism. In the 1980s, paleocons, neocons, Christian rightists, and other conservatives all worked closely with the Reagan administration to bolster anti-leftist military and paramilitary forces around the world, from Salvadoran and Philippine death squads to Angola’s UNITA rebels, from Nicaraguan contras to Afghanistan’s mujahedeen. Despite factional squabbles, anticommunism held the Reagan coalition together.
This coalition fell apart in 1989, the year President Reagan left office and Communist Party governments collapsed across Eastern Europe. Paleocons increasingly challenged the neocons’ vision of using U.S. power to export democracy throughout the world, as well as the neocons’ staunch pro-Zionism. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and President George Bush, Sr. massed troops in Saudi Arabia, neocons and many other rightists loudly supported war with Iraq. Paleocons warned of pro-Israeli “dual loyalists” exerting too much influence over U.S. foreign policy and opposed the war preparations until actual combat began.
Over the following decade, Pat Buchanan’s three presidential campaigns became the focal point for an effort to revive a neutralist conservatism. Buchanan’s program evoked the America First Right of the 1930s and early 1940s, whose enemies list included New Deal social programs, labor unions, Eastern Establishment blue bloods, international bankers, and free trade.
In the 1992 Republican primaries, Buchanan condemned foreign aid, the stationing of “vast permanent U.S. armies on foreign soil,” and “the predatory traders of Europe and Asia” who threatened American industry and jobs. He abandoned his longtime support for free trade in favor of economic protectionism and identified Bush Senior with the sinister Eastern elite. (Bush’s 1991 call for a “new world order” sent shock waves through the antiglobalist Right, which regarded it as proof of an elite plot to impose a tyrannical One World Government.) In the 1996 primaries, Buchanan intensified his populist rhetoric against “unfettered capitalism” and corporations “who have lost all loyalty to America.”
Several factors weighed against Buchanan’s effort to build a lasting movement. In the mid-1990s, the rapid growth of antiglobalist citizens militias and the larger Patriot movement offered right-wing anti-interventionism an organized mass base. But the militias, which were fueled by apocalyptic expectations of massive repression, failed to build durable institutions and collapsed as a movement in the late 1990s.
Most Christian Right leaders did not support Buchanan’s campaigns. Although they shared his positions on many social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, Christian rightists such as Pat Robertson were intent on building their own power base within the Republican Party and did not want to alienate the party’s establishment. Buchanan also failed to win much business support. Aside from a few arch conservatives such as textile magnate Roger Milliken and the protectionist U.S. Business and Industrial Council, most capitalists steered clear of Buchanan’s economic nationalism. In the era of globalization, the large business bloc that had opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s free trade policies in the 1930s no longer existed.
In 2000, Buchanan finally left the Republican Party and won the Reform Party presidential nomination after a bitter struggle with other factions in the party founded by Ross Perot. Racial nationalist groups including the Liberty Lobby and the American Nationalist Union, rallied to Buchanan, but were alienated when he chose Ezola Foster, a Black conservative activist, as his vice-presidential running mate. Buchanan received a dismal 400,000 votes (0.43 percent) in the general election. This defeat was followed by infighting among paleocons over whether he had betrayed the cause and general uncertainty about the movement’s future.
Anti-interventionists are a small minority on the Right, and their prospects as a movement are uncertain. Some critics (such as Franklin Foer in the July 22, 2002 New Republic ) have written them off as finished, but this judgment may be premature. Despite their political isolation, anti-intervention conservatives target glaring weaknesses and absurdities in the pro-war position. Their critique of expansionist militarism and rising state repression, coupled with their anti-immigrant scapegoating, could once again tap into broad-based frustrations and fears—especially if substantial numbers of U.S. troops start dying in Iraq or elsewhere.
For the Left, becoming familiar with anti-intervention conservatism can help us recognize and combat political overtures from the Right. Over the past two decades, some rightists have tried repeatedly to build alliances with leftists on the basis of progressive-sounding politics. In 1990-1991, for example, members of Lyndon LaRouche’s fascist network (which includes the Schiller Institute and the New Federalist newspaper) took part in anti-war events across the country. With fake-radical conspiracy theories, they made a concerted effort to recruit liberal and leftist activists. Recently, the neonazi National Alliance has tried to lure progressives through a front group called the Anti-Globalism Action Network.
Coalition work is often important, but we should steer clear of groups and ideas rooted in bigotry, scapegoating, and defense of inequality. Otherwise we lend legitimacy to the Right and help oppressive politics grow within our own movements.
At the same time, we should avoid demonizing anti-interventionist rightists in ways that let pro-war conservatives and liberals off the hook. Too often, critiques of a so-called “radical Right” implicitly legitimize mainstream politics. The Pat Buchanans and Sam Francises are a danger that we should continue to oppose. But in this case it is mainstream conservatives and their liberal allies who, by cheering on a war that could cost hundreds of thousands of additional lives, pose the greater immediate threat.
Z Magazine Archive
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from across the continent to learn skills and build one big union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13, the 11th Annual Peacestock will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers, and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
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