U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security
By J. Peter Scoblic
(Viking, April 2008)
In the 1976 election, the Republican primary pitted an incumbent if accidental president against the California conservative Ronald Reagan.
Jimmy Carter ran and won that year, in part because of his optimism, but mainly because Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal had wrecked the Republican brand. But Ronald Reagan stood out as a remarkable failure as a presidential candidate in his first go-round because his brand of conservatism seemed to consist only of a medley of fears—fear of the Russians, fear of cultural elites, fear of modernity, of science, of minorities—unleavened by any optimism whatsoever.
Then, during the 1980 election, the conservative fear formula worked.
That was the election in which the ongoing hostage crisis in Iran was daily news. Current Iranian president Mohammed Ahmedinejad and his fellow Iranian “students” shook their fists and chanted anti-American slogans for the benefit of the media, and the American electorate got the message that the United States was not able to control events or even protect its own. The ad men and spooks who ran Reagan’s campaign exploited, quite expertly and quite intentionally, the fears of millions of Americans who were waking up every day believing the worst about the world and being told that negotiation with nasty foreigners was for weaklings.
Secret, back-channel negotiations to release those hostages were allegedly underway. The spooks never fessed up. But Reagan trumpeted the conservative message in his public campaign. The message was us versus them—America the Virtuous against a dirty, violent, unfair, sinful world. This political message of American exceptionalism worked.
Because it’s bred in our bones. Americans are neither the first nor the only people who tell their children that we are special: specially virtuous, morally superior, and just overall nicer than other nations. Just ask a Serb whether he was raised to feel special. Or a Chinese, inculcated from infancy in the notion that China is literally the center of the earth.
American exceptionalism, however, has been quite explicit about how much better we are than other countries politically, economically, militarily—and, in the long view of history, how uniquely important we are to saving humanity from its worst tendencies. Our revolution portentiously claimed that we could create a novus ordo seclorum, a new order for the ages.
Ronald Reagan’s devilishly brilliant speechwriter Peggy Noonan exploited this notion. She had Reagan quote Massachusetts Bay Colony founder John Winthrop, who himself quoted Saint Augustine, when Reagan spoke of building the American “city on a hill.” Saint Augustine and his Puritan followers meant creating a political structure of righteousness, godliness, virtue, and justice. Reagan and his handlers meant to create equivalence between godliness and specific conservative policies of their own devising. Godliness meant a massive military buildup. Virtue meant snubbing the UN. Righteousness and justice meant prosecuting proxy wars in Central America with the bloodiest torturers and murderers we could find, because we were godly and, by definition, the Communists were not.
It hasn’t always worked out so well for folks who fancy themselves Augustinians. Within 20 years of Winthrop delivering his “city on the hill” speech, Massachusetts indulged in genocidal warfare against the Narragansetts, and then went about burning, drowning, crushing, and stoning men and women identified as witches.
Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, based on his American exceptionalism and us-versus-them, black-and-white approach, has been cited as the clear reason why Communism fell and liberal capitalist democracy triumphed.
Yet even within the praise of the Reagan arms buildup, and in the humanist sentiments in the Noonan-Reagan “tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the praise stumbles when one glimpses that dark streak, that paranoia, especially about domestic enemies and weakling allies, that conservatives feel is totally justified, and that liberals despise yet are afraid, politically, to jettison.
Liberals worry about not being taken seriously as trustworthy defenders of our exceptional national self. The decorated World War II pilot George McGovern was brutally but effectively tagged as a peacenik appeaser when he echoed many wise persons who advised us to leave the inevitably re-unified Vietnam to the Vietnamese, communist victory notwithstanding. The decorated Vietnam War commander John Kerry was brutally but effectively tagged as a peacenik appeaser by a hard-drinking draft-dodger’s surrogates because he’d dared to question whether it was in America’s national interest to prosecute a losing war.
George Bush—even as his secretary of state conducts quiet statecraft of the conventional kind, meeting with adversaries that his principle characterizes as “evil”—more or less proclaimed that pro-negotiation, anti-Iraq war candidate Barack Obama would betray America to those same forces of evil. (Remember North Korea? Bush’s State Department is making sure that North Korea gets food supplies, notwithstanding Bush’s rhetoric about North Korean being a part of an “axis of evil.”)
John McCain has picked up on this theme, and Republican political rhetoric will echo this Bush rhetoric, and also the charge that deviation from the conservative Reagan script is betrayal of America—that is, until such time as this rhetoric proves to be electorally ineffective.
But it’s not the politics alone that bothers some people. It’s the belief system—the integrated theology, ideology and psychology that together form the us-versus-them view of the world.
In a new book on American foreign policy, New Republic editor J. Peter Scoblic spends a couple of hundred pages reviewing the historical record of Ronald Reagan, his successor George H. W. Bush, and the current Bush presidency before getting to the real nub of the issue, in which he is succinctly correct:
Conservatism, he writes, “although it has a clear intellectual pedigree, operates on a deep psychological level as well.”
American Exceptionalism and the world
Scoblic has written a widely praised intellectual history of the foreign policy mindset and practice that gave us the current disaster in Iraq and the current breakdown in American relations with most of our allies, all of our adversaries, and with international bodies like the UN.
There used to be a bipartisan consensus in foreign policy. That consensus was self-deluding and self-destructive in Vietnam. Elsewhere, the consensus was effective, if brutally self-interested, too. It created NATO and what looks like a permanent peace among the great powers, but for decades it left despairing Hungarians, Poles, Balts, South Africans, Central Americans, and many other peoples wondering whether America’s immense national power would ever do more than nod toward their aspirations for basic liberty. But it was, withal, within a range of variation, not a crusade to reshape the world but about practicing the statecraft required to tend to the nation’s interests.
Only when Reagan was elected was an eschatological vision empowered. That vision was eased out when the CIA man George H. W. Bush brought back conventional statecraft. Bill Clinton pursued a trade-oriented statecraft; Christopher Hitchens, among others, smites Clinton for failing to intervene against Serb ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Hutu genocide in Rwanda, and horrific massacre in Congo, but under the old rules of statecraft, a lack of a compelling national self-interest is accepted as a justification for non-intervention.
With George W. Bush, the deep psychological problems of conservatism became policy, and statecraft was jettisoned. The peculiar moral and religious and ideological justification for war in Iraq trumped any rational analysis of sound data. National self-interest was trumpeted as war’s justification, but then, after the lunatic rationale of the intervention was exposed, worse was to come. Lunatic execution of lunatic policy led to disaster.
The reason to read this book is pretty simple: If a Democrat wins, you will have just read a preview of the anti-lunatic, multi-lateralist, pro-negotiation, pro-consultation, pro-UN, pro-internationalist approach that will characterize America’s foreign policy for at least the next four years, and that should characterize it forever. Indeed, the continuity of foreign policy from Truman through Carter—a continuity which was broken by Reagan’s conservatism—spared us nuclear conflagration. The resumed continuity of Poppy Bush got us in and out of Iraq in the first Gulf War with our alliances not only intact but bolstered. Clinton’s continuity kept us at peace and at least began to address the al Qaeda problem.
If John McCain wins, you will have read a scathing indictment of the psychological pathology that underlay truly disastrous decisions made by the Bush administration, chief among which was the decision by Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and their operative in Iraq to disband Saddam Hussein’s army and police force and thus put 350,000 angry armed men onto the streets where, for the past four years, they have proceeded to destroy a multi-ethnic civil society, killed 4,000 Americans, and empower religious fanatics and criminal gangs while Bush spent all the money—and more—that Clinton had saved in surplus.
We don’t actually know what John McCain thinks about specific policy questions, except his Iraq position—that the US will probably have some kind of military presence in Iraq for decades to come, just as it did in post-World War II Europe—and his belief that the Cuba embargo must be maintained, the Colombia free-trade treaty must be ratified, some version of the Kyoto climate-control treaty has to be negotiated, and that the American saber must continually be rattled against Iran. McCain’s pronouncements are a mixture of 50-year-old conventional diplomatic postures, loose-lip syndrome, and realpolitik. It doesn’t sound like the psychologically consistent, disciplined ideology of the true conservative believers.
Maybe that means that Scoblic’s book is more history than warning. That would be a good thing. What is worrisome about the anti-conservative mindset on foreign affairs, however, is that it’s always going to be difficult for the US not to be expected to lead world opinion and practice by staking out definitive policy positions. That’s because this country remains, notwithstanding its psychological and cultural tendencies, truly exceptional—in wealth, in military power, in energy (over-)consumption and in scientific and cultural innovation, if not in size.
Scoblic’s concluding chapters are useful. No matter what the outcome of the presidential election, a new Congressional leadership must not allow—and cannot be allowed to allow—another American president to fail to assert American leadership on containing nuclear proliferation, curbing international terrorist organizations, fighting human-caused climate change, and other ugly issues. Nor can another president eschew the new global networking with very powerful non-government organizations—such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—on issues that cross many borders, like disease-control, child nutrition, clean water, and environmental standards.
The wide praise of Scoblic’s analysis indicates that the next Democratic president, should there be one, will be advised by people who share it. If it is to be a Republican administration, one can only hope that the past eight years’ lunacy won’t persist.