Reading the excellent new book The Limits of Power by Andrew J.
Bacevich, I was reminded of why, for years, I refused to call myself a
conservative, despite my many sympathies and philosophical
commonalities with its founders and later prominent figures. Though
the book's primary focus is the nature of the warfare state both at
home and abroad, it could just as easily be read as an indictment of
post-war conservatism; particularly it's consistent failure to
confront hard truths, despite its allegedly "realist" rhetoric.
As a self-described conservative, Bacevich is no stranger to the
Right. Though he was an early "Obamacon," his tepid endorsement of the
Illinois Senator (The Conservative Case for Barack Obama, The American
Conservative, March 24, 2008) included one of the better descriptions
of conservatism in recent memory, in which Bacevich cited six
principles as the cornerstones of the anti-ideology:
· a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that
genuine freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
· a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
· veneration for our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of
stewardship for Creation;
· a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
· respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a
wariness of the market's corrosive impact on humane values;
. a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the
sinfulness of man and the recalcitrance of history.
While one might quibble with some of the implications that could be
drawn from these points, it is hard to imagine that Russell Kirk or
Richard Weaver would find much of the above disagreeable. In fact,
most self-professed men of the traditional Right have claimed most of
the above as heartfelt convictions.
With that in mind, it is interesting that Bacevich relies almost
exclusively upon the words, critiques and sentiments of Leftist
opponents of militarism and the managerial state.
Instead of quoting James Burnham or utilizing his theory of a
"managerial revolution" as it relates to government, Bacevich makes
the same general point by utilizing the theory of the "Power Elite"
promoted by New Left founding father C. Wright Mills. The entire
historical model Bacevich relies upon is that of historian William
Appleman Williams, another New Left hero. Bacevich, the conservative,
seems to owe nothing to William F. Buckley, but his account of the
rise of National Security State does closely parallel that of perhaps
the National Review founder's most bitter rival, Gore Vidal. Readers
will search in vain for any mention of Ron Paul or Pat Buchanan, and
yet Robert Byrd and Robert La Follette receive accolades. Bacevich
quotes and borrows from Leftist after Leftist - with nary a
conservative example in sight.
That a foreign policy "realist" and a self-described conservative
would rely almost entirely upon the Left to make his case is
interesting. He did not have to rely on figures of the Left to make
his argument, something Bacevich implies when pointing favorably
towards "paleoconservatives." There are deficit hawks, anti-imperial
conservative historians and others who could have been solid examples
to bolster Bacevich's argument from the Right. But these figures have
largely been obscured, not just by the rise of neoconservatism, but
also by the collapse of conservative principles in general and the
elevation of realism in the electoral arena - even as realism in the
policy arena has all but disappeared.
This is not to say that the author is unaware of the existence of
principled conservatives. There can be no doubt that Bacevich is aware
of the non-interventionist Old Right, and the realist bona fides of
contemporaries like Michael Scheuer, Leon Hadar and others are well
known. Still the reader can't help but get the feeling that the former
Army colonel knows that these figures wield no influence within the
halls of power and in fact seem to face their fiercest opposition from
those that in theory reside on "their side" of the political divide.
One of the best illustrations of this gap between conservative
rhetoric and conservative reality is Bacevich's comparison of the
language and strategies of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald
As Bacevich correctly notes, one of the only "realist" speeches in
recent political history was the infamous "malaise" speech delivered
by former President Jimmy Carter. The crux of Carter's speech was
that Americans needed to conserve more, consume less and "balance the
books". For this speech, Carter was labeled a "pessimist" whose
rhetoric was in direct opposition to the "American Dream." His defeat
by the "optimist" Ronald Reagan was, in part, born of that speech and
Reagan's expansionist policies both at home and abroad were largely
ignored by conservatives of all stripes, who instead focused their
collective gaze on the Gipper's abstract rhetoric about a "shining
city on a hill."
Reagan idolatry symbolizes the bankruptcy of many Right movement
figures, neoconservative or otherwise, and by proxy the corruption of
the much of the conservative milieu. The cult of the personality
surrounding Reagan has always sought to ignore the facts about the man
and his "revolution." Tax cuts promoted to increase the size of
government, unfettered spending in the most bureaucratic government
agencies and the belief in consumption with no costs may be
"revolutionary" but they certainly aren't conservative.
Though easy targets for disdain, there is plenty of blame to be
directed at the Right other than neoconservatives. By deifying the
concept that nothing (let alone ideas) has consequences as long as one
has faith in the "exceptional" nature of the "American spirit," many
well meaning conservatives have become just what they despised -
pie-in-the-sky liberals with an unfettered believe in progress. That
this liberal belief in progress is often balanced by a conservative
respect for tradition and a libertarian favoring of the
entrepreneurial spirit does not make it any less utopian.
Family, faith and free markets ought to be the basis of any practical
conservatism but are more often perverted, becoming Republican talking
points promoting growth for the sake of growth. Mainstream
conservative concerns about throwing the baby out with the bath water
are understandable, but when politics consistently trump principle one
must wonder if the baby has not already drowned; as the conservative
mind turns away from the Right, promotes the wrong and settles all too
comfortably into delusion.
This piece has also been posted at the excellent paleo webzine, Conservative Heritage Times