hawks and owls

So, lately I’ve been trying to branch out a bit more – to see what the movement conservatives have to say and pay it a little more heed (rather than focusing only on the really silly things) and not just wander about the realms of the dissidents and libertarians and localists (even though these are typically the more serious voices out there, and the only voices which I think promise any real reform agenda, any real possibility of limited government and liberty, and all that jazz).

The thing is, I sometimes begin to feel a little bit too contrarian, or as Kara Hopkins put it a while back: “I snipe much and affect little.”  As easy as it is for the movement types to demonize and excommunicate the dissidents, it is just as easy for the dissidents to do the same.  (Thus my post a while ago on ‘the big tent.’)

But a couple thing keep tripping me up in this quest to expand and broaden my horizons.  A couple not-insignificant obstacles remain between any meaningful alliance of the dissident and movement conservatives.  Probably the most glaring is the hawk and owl divide – or if you prefer, the realist/neocon divide.  You see, to me no true conservatism can embrace the sort of hawkish, militaristic policies that the neoconservatives lay claim to.  These are liberal internationalist policies sprinkled heavily with right-wing machismo.  Conservatives are supposed to be wary of “statism” yet nothing says statist like a security or police state built on the back of the global war on terror overseas contingency operation.  Nothing promises Big Government like a Really Big Military.  (Well, except for maybe Really Big Bailouts and Really Big Entitlements…)

And yet, for some reason, all across the movement – from politicians to bloggers – very few seem to put these simple concepts together.  Strong defense has become such a catch-all term, it now defines everything from preemptive war to “harsh interrogation techniques.”  Once upon a time, conservatives believed that strong defense actually meant, well, a strong defense.  Which included a defense of civil liberties, even at the expense of our total, all-encompassing security.  Defense means we work to protect our country, with an army and a navy and a responsive Commander in Chief – it does not mean we work to erect a security state that is so flawless that nothing remains worth protecting, where words like “liberty” and “freedom” have become less concepts and more keywords, less actualities and more distant histories.

Nation-building and democracy spreading were always little more than post-Wilsonian pipe dreams.  They were certainly not conservative ambitions.  Even George W. Bush used to believe that, though I’m really not sure Dick Cheney ever did.  (Why do they let him out of his cave, anyways?  They never did before.)

So, this has been my difficulty.  I have corresponded with some very reasonable people who I think are excellent thinkers and upstanding conservatives and everything (we often disagree on some social issues, but that is rarely and oddly not nearly as big of a deal as the national defense stuff) but there remains this divide.  I have no idea how to cross it.  When even the most reasonable movement conservatives – like Reihan Salam – are nonetheless “vanilla neocons” there is very little hope that a realist, or non-interventionist conservatism can truly take shape at least for a while.  And this is a shame, because it would be politically very savvy I think.  Almost as savvy as reviving fiscal conservatism again.


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10 thoughts on “hawks and owls

  1. Amen. Non-intervention and a policy of defensivism is the best course for the 21st century — I believe this. The Bush Doctrine was a mistake. With technology as it is, and with free trade begging to take the place of war, we could build an incredible defense system, one which honors civil liberties, and open trade, and lead the world by example. Podhoretz, and the like, laugh at this because of the reality of terrorism, but I believe terrorism can be contained without our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those regions will implode if they don’t change, but we can’t force the change, only defend against any attacks through intelligence and smart defense at home.

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  2. I think you’re onto something, but I’m not sure it’s completely fair to call Bush doctrine, Iraq-style intervention “liberal internationalism”, even if you qualify the statement. The key distinction between liberal internationalism and Bush/neocon interventionism is the belief in American exceptionalism (which is, admittedly, shared to a certain extent by the current administration, although to a much lesser degree).

    If the foreign policy debate was between an internationalism that saw America as one nation amongst others, and your vision of conservative non-interventionism, I’d be a happy man.

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  3. In my more enlightened moments, I long for a healthy conservatism that keeps liberals honest (there was an IIRC WaPo op-ed on this, but I can’t find it now) – a conservatism that provides reasonable alternatives, or at least points out the unintended consequences of liberals’ big government do-gooderism efforts. Then I watch about five minutes of Glenn Beck and hope conservatives stay in the wilderness for thirty years.

    But what I really wanted to comment on was a single sentence that jumped out at me, “Nation-building and democracy spreading were always little more than post-Wilsonian pipe dreams.” I’d say before you dismiss nation-building (and humanitarian intervention) entirely, you should consider some of the cases that complicate a picture that looks particularly bleak in the wake of the Bush administration. A pair of RAND studies that focus on cases since 1945 illuminate the on the whole kind of positive record of nation-building/humanitarian intervention (One here, the other here). What I particularly appreciate is the careful analysis of the inputs and outputs of the cases studied. Examples of outputs you probably already have a good idea of, did democracy stick? Was there economic growth? Did refugees return? Did sustained peace follow? The authors also examine inputs, “manpower, money, and time” – unfortunately competence as such isn’t a variable, like say, Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq (WaPo).

    Long story short the authors find (Exec. Summary, PDF) several very successful (West Germany, Japan), successful (Namibia, El Salvador, Eastern Slavonia, East Timor), mostly successful (Mozambique), and partially successful (Congo, Cambodia) cases. This summary is of a 318 page book, so I’m sure there’s a great deal more nuance and granularity to their analysis than that (like the unsuccessful cases, Somalia, and the initial successes that fall apart, Haiti, also whys and wherefores) – but worth a look. And I’d have a hard time faulting the methodology. So perhaps nation-building and democracy promotion are not post-Wilsonian pipe dreams after all.

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    • I’ll take a look at those when I have more time. Long response made shorter:

      Time will tell. “Success” is only measurable within time-frames, and the long-term success of many of these projects is still undetermined. Japan and Germany, of course, are somewhat different cases. There is something to be said for re-building a nation that you’ve destroyed.

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  4. I agree it would be nice to divorce republicans from a big defense industry, but there are a lot of structural problems to overcome. To wit:
    1. Ever since 9/11, we’ve had a culture of fear and paranoia that favored a huge defense, and two wars to deal with. Obama has done some things to improve this (ie, not publicize terrorism arrests, draw down Iraq war) but until and unless we have a long stretch of time where we are not afraid of terrorist attack, the republicans will play on that fear to get votes. This ties them to a big military.
    2. American exceptionalism as applied to the outside world means that many on the right think we have the duty to bring the world up to our lever by bombing them back to the stone age. This philosophy was powerful for the GOP when the religious right was strong, as it married their social concern with patriotism and aggressive foreign policy. Unfortunately, while the religious right is waning in power, there are plenty on the left who hold the same basic principles, ie “we must invade to save them!”
    3. Military enlistment and contracting are huge sources of employment for the lower class, and contracting especially is jiggered to have large political influence – witness the F-22 debate.
    4. Other countries are free-riding our military at this point, expecting us to deal with every necessary military action pretty much alone. They will only build up when we build down.

    So, to get a ‘limited military’ conservatism back in play, I feel the US needs to abandon the culture of fear, become more isolationist, drastically draw down its exceptionalism, and develop more manufacturing jobs to replace military contracts. The good news is the first two are happening to some degree. The bad news is I think it will still be years before any meaningful change can be made in the republican outlook.

    Sorry if this all seems obvious, but I needed to set the background before I made my point.

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    • All very good points. I’d point you to this post from the other day in regards to military employment and demobilization. It sums up my views rather more succinctly (or eloquently?) than I can.

      But, in short – those who are employed with the military will find employment in the private sector, will create demand for goods, and will keep tax-money otherwise spent on military expenditures in local communities instead. The trade-off will be economically beneficial domestically. I do recommend reading Bastiat on this, though.

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  5. Nothing in there about the Military-Industrial Complex?

    Money is what defense spending is about. Nothing else. It’s not that hard to see if you really open your eyes.

    Statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.
    – Mark Twain

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    • I rather see it as an extension of the State-Industrial complex. Just one facet of the larger whole. But yes, undeniably there is a problem with the military industrial complex. Do I somehow skirt that issue?

      Sadly we still have some need for defense, as does every nation in an imperfect world. We have no need for the sort of defense apparatus we have now.

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      • You skirt the issue insofar as you focus on policies and policy difference between different groups, and not other motivations beyond policy differences. This is fine as far as it goes, but it is a symptom, not the disease. Money makes the world go round, after all – not policy.

        Perhaps State-Industrial complex is a better term, but I prefer the Eisenhower version. Also, I think it obscures something important if you lump Defense spending in as “State-Industrial”:

        There is no other single thing that is like Defense Spending. Not in amount, $, or sacredness. It is in its own league. By combining it into the “Big Bad Government” slogan of State-Industrial it obscures the real truth. Defense spending is the giant elephant (sorry for the pun) in the room. Money is the real disease here.

        I agree that we do need defense, but have not needed the gargantuan spending in defense that we’ve had since Reagan (or as you say above the “defense apparatus we have now”). But, the real problem isn’t policy differences (IMO). It’s differences in the ways we want to spend finite resources.

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