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Oct 10, 2004

America First

A very interesting article by Franklin Foer appears in today's NY Times:"Once Again, America First." Foer talks about how conservatives, with their typical distrust of government power, have begun to turn against the Bush administration's neo-Wilsonian desires to"democratize the Middle East." The critics include George Will, Patrick Buchanan,"the libertarian Cato Institute and the traditionalist Chronicles magazine," as well as congressman Henry Hyde and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson. More importantly, Foer rediscovers the almost-forgotten anti-interventionist tradition of the Old Right, and he includes a number of modern-day heroes of contemporary libertarianism:

One of conservatism's early and now largely forgotten folk heroes was Albert Jay Nock, the flamboyant author of ''Memoirs of a Superfluous Man,'' who wore a cape and celebrated Belgium as his ideal society. In 1933, Nock wrote about ''the Remnant,'' borrowing the term from Matthew Arnold and the Book of Isaiah. By the Remnant he meant an enlightened elite that rejected the phoniness of mass society. A few historians have used Remnant as a synonym for the pre-National Review right -- a group that included the economic journalists Garet Garrett and Frank Chodorov, Ayn Rand, Rose Wilder Lane (Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter) and, to an extent, H. L. Mencken. Nock's allusion to Isaiah works nicely for these polemicists, who issued thunderous, Old Testament-like warnings about American decline. Finding themselves at the forefront of opposition to World War II, they turned to the America First movement. Their hatred for war followed from their radical individualism. As the essayist Randolph Bourne (not a conservative) famously put it about World War I, ''War is the health of the state.'' Since these writers disliked the state, they came to dislike war, too. ...
Conservatism emerged out of the McCarthyite moment with a new enemy: that small band of conservatives who continued clinging to isolationism. National Review, for one, didn't have any place for them in its pages. ... Upon the death of the libertarian isolationist Murray Rothbard in 1995, Buckley quipped, ''We extend condolences to his family, but not to the movement he inspired.'' ... Without a home in the conservative movement, the isolationists had no choice but to search for allies in unlikely quarters. During the late 60's, they often teamed up with the New Left, becoming stalwarts of the antiwar movement. ... And a few on the New Left returned the favor, heartily embracing the apostates. In 1975, the historian Ronald Radosh (then a man of the left) published ''Prophets on the Right,'' a book championing the prescience of Robert A. Taft and other ''conservative critics of American globalism.'' ...
Buchananite foreign policy has an intellectual wing, paleoconservatism. Long before French protesters and liberal bloggers had even heard of the neoconservatives, the paleoconservatives were locked in mortal combat with them. Paleocons fought neocons over whom Ronald Reagan should appoint to head the National Endowment for the Humanities, angrily denouncing them as closet liberals -- or worse, crypto-Trotskyists. Even their self-selected name, paleocon, suggests disdain for the neocons and their muscular interventionism. ... The paleocons explicitly hark back to Garrett, Nock and the Remnant, what they lovingly call the ''Old Right.'' ...
George W. Bush entered office implicitly promising agnosticism in the long-running debate between neocons and paleocons. On the 2000 campaign trail, he promised a ''distinctly American internationalism'' that would provide ''idealism, without illusions; confidence, without conceit; realism, in the service of American ideals.'' Of course, after 9/11, Bush dispensed with this doctrinal neutrality. And in adopting a neocon foreign policy, he rallied most conservatives behind his ambitious agenda, a dramatic turnabout in opinion from the 90's.
Will this consensus hold? Already, many conservative writers seem primed to abandon it. Even when they haven't gone as far as Will or Carlson in their criticisms of the war, they have flashed their discomfort with Bush's goal of planting democracy in Iraq. National Review has called this policy ''largely, if not entirely, a Wilsonian mistake.'' With these signs of restlessness, it's easy to imagine that a Bush loss in November, coupled with further failures in Iraq, could trigger a large-scale revolt against neoconservative foreign policy within the Republican Party. A Bush victory, on the other hand, will be interpreted by many Republicans as a vindication of the current course, and that could spur a revolt too. If the party tilts farther toward an activist foreign policy, antiwar conservatives might begin searching for a new political home.

I recommend the whole article to your attention.

Cross-posted at the Mises Economics Blog.

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