Way back in the olden thymes, Paul Gottfried coined the term “paleoconservatism” to distinguish the more culturally conservative from the short-term “movement” conservatism that was springing up in the 1980’s. At the time, I thought it was just hairsplitting. When Pat Buchanan revolted against Bush the Elder, it seemed to me the Paleocons may just be a bunch of bitter old guys who felt like their thing got hijacked by a bunch of newcomers. Ideological fights are usually more about hurt feelings than real differences.
As time has gone on I see that was an incorrect assessment. Hawkish liberals, the neoconservatives, who eventually took over the Republican Party and the conservative movement, were a different breed of cat. Since almost all of them were on the Left at one point and all of them were Straussians, they were naturally at odds with the Old Right. There’s simply no way to square “compassionate conservatism” with the more docile, pragmatic conservatism of the Old Right. All that talk of national greatness and spreading democracy just sounds like New Deal Progressivism to the old timers on the Right.
This short trip down memory lane is not without purpose. I was half-listening to Glenn Beck yesterday and he was talking about this business with ISIS. I say half listening because it was pretty much background noise for me. What got my attention was his comparing ISIS (I think he prefers ISIL) to Nazi Germany. Specifically, he said they pose the same threat to America as the Nazis. I thought I misheard so I paid closer attention and sure enough, he was making that claim.
It brought to mind something I have rolled around in my head for a long time now. That is the fact the schism on the Right over foreign policy has left no place for sensible men. On the one hand we have the weird isolationism of the Paleocons. They are convinced that any involvement in world affairs is a Zionist plot. On the other hand, we have the invade-the-world universalism of The Weekly Standard crowd that imagines every dirt bag with a gun as the next Hitler. My goodness. How many people have they compared to Hitler?
My own inclinations lead me to embrace distributivism and a mild isolationism. That used to be the traditional conservative starting point. There was a time when William F. Buckley, as an example, complained that the problem with capitalism was capitalists. Similarly, there was a time when Ronald Reagan concluded there was no point in risking American lives in the Middle East. The Khobar Towers disaster was enough to teach him the limits of American power. Today, no one holds these positions.
Now that Obama is bombing his fourth country, he becomes the fourth American President to order bombing of Iraq. The median age in Iraq is 21.3 according the CIA Fact Book. That means the typical Iraqi has known nothing but US bombing. By way of comparison, we defeated the Nazis and Imperial Japan in six years. Julius Caesar conquered Gaul in four years on foot. Twenty years of bombing Iraq and everything about the place is worse.
I suppose the Obama people would argue they are choosing a third path between the isolationism of the paleos and the warmongering of the neos. The reality is Obama is just fecklessly indifferent and his people are in way over their heads. The neocons are loudest and dominant in Washington so they inevitably get their way over this administration. The only thing Obama is accomplishing with his foot dragging is giving time for the two sides on the right to take some shots at one another. In the end we will be following the path defined by the editorial board of The Weekly Standard.
There’s no reason to think the result will be any different this time. I have no sympathy for ISIS or any of the players in this never ending war. The Kurds strike me as the only sympathetic actor in the region, but that’s probably because they have to play a weak hand. If they ever had the whip hand, my bet is they would apply the lash to their neighbors with the same enthusiasm we see from ISIS. It is a gang war between extended families using religion as a handy excuse to kill one another.
I recall reading Kagan’s Peloponnesian War wondering how it came to pass that the conservative and largely successful polices of Pericles gave way to the hawkish and disastrous polices of Cleon. It is not something with an obvious explanation. Similarly, the Straussian infection that has afflicted the Right along with the paranoid isolationism that is its reaction does not have an obvious explanation. We cannot go tromping around the world like this much longer so something has to give. Who knows, maybe the next President will invade Syracuse and the whole thing comes crashing down.
For now, there’s no place for reasonable men. If you are skeptical about another round of bombing, you get called n isolationist. If you doubt the isolationism of the paleos, you’re accused of being a tool of Israel. Respectable people, left with a choice of being called an anti-Semite or a Zionist stooge have kept their heads down. I can’t blame them. Maybe the fever will break and more sober voices can once again be heard in foreign policy debates. I don’t know. it’s been a long time thought so maybe that door is closed forever.