You can be forgiven for wondering who let the conservative in. Expecting a right-winger to know the tune of kumbaya is about as probable as John Bolton getting nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize—except that just happened too. I realize we’re all supposed to be following lockstep in the Great March of Freedom. Spreading democracy. Ending evil.
It may come as some comfort to hear that not everyone who lines up on the Right side of the aisle drinks the Kool-Aid.
I’m the executive editor of a magazine called The American Conservative that launched in the fall of 2002 with the cover, Iraq Folly: How Victory Could Spell American Defeat. And since then we’ve only tightened the screws. The Washington Post asked, “What magazine has published the most scathing attacks on President Bush and his Iraq invasion? If you guessed the Nation or Mother Jones or the Progressive, you may be right. But the correct answer just might be The American Conservative."
You see, it’s not that conservatives are out of place in a peace coalition. It’s that George W. Bush is no conservative. He doesn’t represent us. Rather, he has betrayed us and all that the Old Right stood for.
His notion that any government grants freedom or that the state is a legitimate instrument of social engineering is a profoundly unconservative idea. Back when the Right distrusted revolution, we used to swear by Edmund Burke, that patron saint since replaced by Richard Perle.
We were the small government crowd, leery of utopian programs and centralized power. We understood along with Randolph Bourne that “war is the health of the state,” and we had no will to fortify Leviathan.
We were also the voice of fiscal restraint. Pouring countless billions into a desert sinkhole and ringing up massive debt in the service of a scheme that is clearly failing is in no way conservative.
Only the fiercest Republican partisans can contort the conservative creed to fit this case. Easier to ignore it altogether, as they have the old Right’s fidelity to Constitutional constraints. You’ve heard us rail against judicial activism. Now, to accommodate an imperial executive, Republicans stand by while civil liberties erode and ancient protections slip away. We’re told to trust the president—by partisans who have forgotten that in a Republic, power is suspect and liberty is chief.
You may be thinking at this point that these conservatives I’m talking about have also long prided themselves on being “strong on defense.” I’ll take it. If our shores are menaced or our citizens are threatened, we should respond. Arguing that peace is always preferable or that preemption is unprincipled isn’t pacifistic. But the invasion of Iraq and the wars its planners threaten to make sequels are offensive, not defensive, actions. A Shining City on a Hill is not an aggressive metaphor.
Despite administration agitprop about mushroom clouds and yellowcake, Saddam posed no threat to Americans and provided no harbor for al-Qaeda. If Americans are now threatened, it is because we electively put 150,000 of our finest in harm’s way.
Speaking of them, there’s another, often overlooked, element of the conservative creed that is violated by this administration’s foreign policy. The Right has a long tradition of championing the sanctity of life. Many of you would probably disagree with me on the issue of abortion. That’s fine. Insofar as there’s any indictment here, it’s aimed at my own: an authentic conservatism would recognize that the lives of soldiers and innocent civilians are not cheaper than those of unborn children. If conservatism is true to itself, any blood unjustly spilled is a blot—and ongoing casualties in an unnecessary war are a moral stain on the national conscience.
It’s for these reasons that conservatives have every right—indeed, obligation—to be part of a peace coalition and to be ashamed of this president. On his watch, blood and treasure have been spent in pursuit of the delusion that we’re hated for our freedom and that all will be at peace if we force them all to dip their fingers in purple ink. The world recognized our power before but didn’t fear it. Now, even our allies distrust us. Our army is stretched to the breaking point. And bin Laden can laugh from his cave that all he claimed about us is coming true.
As conservatives, we’ve paid a price for these truths. National Review—the old man in our movement—ran a cover story entitled “Unpatriotic Conservatives” in which three of our magazine’s editors and five of our writers were brought up on charges. To quote David Frum, we “deny and excuse terror,” “espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism,” and “explicitly yearn for the victory of [our] nation's enemies.” He concluded, “In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
In this, principled conservatives are political orphans—excommunicated by the Republican establishment and regarded with suspicion by the Left. But anti-interventionism has deep roots in the conservative pedigree, which is modest and realistic—not striking out in search of “monsters to destroy” or signing blank checks for globalist schemes while our own freedoms shrink at home.
That—and not this crusade Republicans are advancing in our name—is what real conservatism is about, and here—among those committed to the cause of peace—is where real conservatives ought to be.