Conservatives Against Empire

The forgotten tradition of the antiwar right

Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism, by Bill Kauffman, New York: Metropolitan Books, 304 pages, $25

If you are trying to discover how a particular conservative understands conservatism, a good place to start is to ask him what he thinks about Ron Paul. Paul’s admirers on the right don’t just consider the 10-term congressman from Texas a conservative. They tend to think the libertarian favorite was by far the most conservative of this year’s Republican presidential candidates. Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), now making a presidential run himself as a Libertarian, told the Conservative Political Action Conference that Paul is “the gold standard of conservatism.” (If you are a Paul supporter, then you already know the gold standard is a good thing.)

Paul’s detractors on the right take a different view, to put it mildly. When not likening him to the Branch Davidians, they dismiss him as a crazed liberal. Free Republic founder Jim Robinson told site members that Paul was no different from Hillary Clinton on the Iraq war, a verdict that either exaggerates Clinton’s anti-war credentials or dramatically understates Paul’s. Upon hearing his famous foreign policy exchange with Rudy Giuliani, in which Paul argued that the 9/11 attacks were “blowback” from U.S. interventions abroad, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis called for Paul’s exclusion from future GOP presidential debates, saying, “I think he would have felt much more comfortable on the stage with the Democrats in what he said last night.”

Even some Paul voters seemed to feel the same way. In New Hampshire this year, exit polls showed Paul carrying 16 percent of the primary’s self-described liberals—second only to John McCain—and just 6 percent of conservatives. While 7 percent of Paul’s voters considered themselves “very conservative,” more than twice as many (15 percent) were “somewhat liberal.” Paul’s conservative supporters thought they were challenging the Republican establishment from the right in the tradition of Barry Goldwater, John Ashbrook, and Patrick Buchanan. Others saw something more analogous to long-shot liberal campaigns by Pete McCloskey and John Anderson.

No matter how often Paul invoked Robert Taft’s noninterventionism, Dwight Eisenhower’s warnings against the military-industrial complex, Ronald Reagan’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and a fellow Texan’s campaign promise of a “humble foreign policy,” the Hannity-and-Coulter set did not budge from this simple formulation: Opposing the war is liberal; shock and awe is conservative. Or as the antiwar journalist Bill Kauffman puts it in the opening line to his most recent book, “Left stands for peace, right for war; liberals are pacific, conservatives bellicose.”

Kauffman spends the next 300 or so pages of Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism exploding this myth and celebrating a long, neglected anti-war tradition on the American right. Frequently informative, often sentimental, and sometimes quixotic, Ain’t My America is always engaging. Kauffman (a reason staffer from 1985 to 1988) is at his best when extolling the virtues of ordinary people stuck under the boot of big, faceless institutions or denouncing wooly abstractions that threaten to swallow whole little platoons.

The story begins, as it so often does with Kauffman-style conservatives, with the Founding Fathers. George Mason warned against maintaining peacetime standing armies—”I abominate and detest the idea of a government, where there is a standing army,” to quote him exactly—but James Madison thought that a “government of a federal nature” could be entrusted with “one of the greatest mischiefs that can possibly happen.” Madison argued that not even the “most arbitrary despot” would “drag the militia unnecessarily to an immense distance.”

Oops. Kauffman moves on to George Washington’s Farewell Address, with its injunctions to “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations” but avoid “foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues.” Bearing the “editorial mark of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison and thus as close to an expression of early American political omnifariousness as one might find,” Washington’s address more importantly “still stands as a sacred text among conservative critics of empire.” Kauffman laments, “One doubts if any secular sutra has ever been violated with such brutal regularity…especially in its foreign-policy injunctions.”

Kauffman doesn’t hesitate to point out some of the more egregious violators, but in Ain’t My America he is more interested in those who tried to heed George Washington’s counsel. He starts with the noble few who opposed Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase as being not expressly authorized by the Constitution, though it doubled the country for just $15 million. Seven senators voted against ratifying the deal and 25 congressmen voted against funding it, fearing it would lead to an American empire. The Massachusetts Federalist Fisher Ames, described by the author as “a first-class Jefferson hater,” asked, “Having bought an empire, who is to be emperor?”

From the War of 1812 to the 1898 Spanish-American War, the main opponents of foreign military adventures were people motivated by aversion to either empire or emperor. But their anti-imperial critique wasn’t obviously leftist or proto-Chomskyite. The characters Kauffman sketches are decentralist, traditionalist, and constitutionalist. Many were businessmen with fairly conservative politics. The Anti-Imperialist League, for instance, was funded in part by Andrew Carnegie; it nearly fractured when it endorsed William Jennings Bryan for president 1900, because he opposed—wait for it—the gold standard.

Progressives played a leading role in agitating for both the Spanish-American War and Woodrow Wilson’s subsequent crusade to the make the world safe for democracy, although their ranks also included some notable dissenters, such as Hull House founder Jane Addams and the radical essayist Randolph Bourne. People on the right were also active in opposing those wars and the subsequent fight against Hitler as well. Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio), “Mr. Republican,” opposed U.S. entry into World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he wanted to keep American troops out of Korea.

Taft-style conservatism didn’t completely die with the man himself, but it certainly became more marginal politically. While Kauffman lavishes praise on outliers such as Rep. Eugene Siler (R-Ky.), an anti–Vietnam War conservative in the mold of Ron Paul, during the Cold War he shifts his focus to trans-ideological peace movements in which the right played a much smaller role than the left. He also has to do a bit of padding to make anti-war conservatism seem relevant during the ideological struggle with the Soviets.

Any Republican who opposed the Vietnam War is conscripted into the anti-war right, no matter how liberal. Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon was close to a pacifist and deeply interested in both the Old Right and libertarianism. Kauffman calls Hatfield a “neo-Taftie,” much as the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard once described the senator as “a nineteenth century liberal devoted to a creed of strictly limited government, limited at home and abroad.” But Hatfield mostly voted like a moderate Rockefeller Republican, and even Rothbard concluded in 1972 that Hatfield’s voting record was “very good on foreign policy and the draft, but it’s not too great on other things.” Similarly, Sen. Thurston Morton (R-Ky.) may have been “no squishy John Lindsay liberal Republican turncoat nursing a secret desire to join the Democrats,” but neither was he Mr. Republican.

Kauffman’s definition of the anti-war right becomes so elastic that it includes George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, and elements of the New Left. McGovern and McCarthy were certainly more traditional (and unpredictable) than their hippie followers, and they took some conservative positions in retirement: McGovern on economic regulation, McCarthy on immigration. But setting aside their nice words about decentralization, it makes less sense for paleoconservatives to adopt them than it does for neoconservatives to claim Harry Truman. McGovern did not just alienate Scoop Jackson’s Senate staff from the Democratic Party. He repelled millions of Kauffman’s Middle Americans.

Which raises the question: Is there still such a thing as an anti-war right, at least as a political rather than an intellectual phenomenon? That’s been a debatable proposition since Barry Goldwater’s hawkish presidential campaign of 1964. Taftian tendencies do re-emerge during Democratic administrations, and in the 1990s a real revival of noninterventionist conservatism seemed possible. Pat Buchanan didn’t even support the first war against Iraq, but that was no impediment to him launching a stronger-than-expected Republican primary challenge to President George H.W. Bush in 1992. In his second presidential bid, Buchanan attracted strong support from social conservatives and evangelical Christians, giving Bob Dole a scare in New Hampshire—and scaring more than a few neoconservatives who feared that “Buchananism” might have an even larger following on the right than Buchanan himself.

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  • ||

    "Normalcy?"

    Was that a joke, or are you just as addled as a politician?

  • Nick M||

    In the case of George Will (and Bob Barr, for that matter) I think they didn't just dusting off principles, but experienced a conversion.

  • economist||

    zeph,
    "Normalcy" was actually a word coined by Warren G. Harding in his presidential campaign, when he was talking about rolling back the wartime intrusions of the federal government.

  • ||

    "War is the health of the State."

    A Progressive wrote that back in 1918, and he couldn't have been more right.

  • herodotus||

    What's wrong with being an imperial power?

    Really, what?

  • Nigel Watt||

    herodotus: The cost, for one.

  • ||

    "What's wrong with being an imperial power?"

    It's cheaper to just BUY the natural resources, among other pesky concepts.

  • ||

    What's wrong with being an imperial power?

    What's right about it?

  • Imperialist||

    It's cheaper to just BUY the natural resources, among other pesky concepts.

    Yes, but it's not as satisfying as crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of the women.

  • ||

    Democrats right now are twice as likely as Republicans to believe "the U.S. should mind its own business internationally."

    Until January 20th, 2009. Obama intervention will be all good. I've seen it too many times in recent years.

  • ||

    Oil:

    $150/barrel

    Sand:

    Free for the taking.


    Crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of the women:

    Priceless.

  • Sam Grove||

    What's wrong with being an imperial power?

    Imperial power seems to require an overweening state, is based on the erroneous premises of mercantilism, arouses distrust and resentment among subject populations, is enormously expensive, and creates significant market distortions.

    It is also an immoral state in that being subject to imperial power is not a voluntary affair.

  • ||

    What's wrong with being an imperial power?

    Nothing that an old-fashion insurgency won't cure.

  • Imperialist||

    Oil: $150/barrel --- Sand: Free for the taking.

    The biggest problem with Iraq is that we marketed the war to the US population (and the global population to a lesser extant) as a do-gooding, democracy-building act of mercy.

    We should have just been honest and declared that the US has vital interests in the free-flow of oil. And therefore, we need to keep places like Iraq out of the hands of people that could be too easily influenced by Russia and China.

  • Travis||

    "Yes, but it's not as satisfying as crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentation of the women."

    True, but eventually you will get crucified on the tree of woe.

  • mr simple||

    Now, I haven't read the book, so all my arguments are based on the review. These arguments seem to be based on the fallacy that what may be true once is always true. Just because someone was against one war or military excursion, doesn't mean they have completely changed their values if they are for a seperate incident. It just means the first incident didn't meet their criteria for war, whatever that may be.
    Also, any reference to the founders thoughts on national security or war is completely outdated. It no longer takes three months to cross the Atlantic, nor does it take a whole army to kill thousands. Clearly they thought some things worth war, otherwise we wouldn't be having this debate. You say we could have stopped Hitler without war, which I disagree with, but I doubt you oppose the American Revolution.
    Your anti-war arguments necessitate an ideal world, where people only attack others when provoked. But this is clearly not the world we live in. Do you honestly believe we would be better off if we just completely withdrew our troops and let the despots and terrorists carve up the world as they see fit, with no one caring enough to stop them. These are not rational people who only want their own plot of land to live as they please.
    And, empire? Really? What kind of empire uses its own resources and citizens lives to free another country, only to turn it over to the local citizens to govern, asking only for enough land to bury our dead and maybe a military base. More free countries benefit everyone.
    I fear I have too much to say to express it completely yet succinctly in one post. This is why I hate comment boards.

  • ||

    "We should have just been honest and declared that the US has vital interests in the free-flow of oil. And therefore, we need to keep places like Iraq out of the hands of people that could be too easily influenced by Russia and China."

    I'm not so sure that that's why we invaded Iraq. I think it was for the purpose of eliminating a potential enemy of Israel, but Bush and the neocons knew they couldn't sell the American people on that so they had to make up all the nonsense about WMD's and being a part of the war on terrorism.

    Regarding the free flow of oil, there was no danger that Saddam Hussein wasn't going to sell the oil. He wanted to sell it just as much as we wanted to buy it.

  • ||

    "any reference to the founders thoughts on national security or war is completely outdated. It no longer takes three months to cross the Atlantic"

    Those principles are still as relevant to today's times as they were then. We should always strive for good relations and free trade with all countries. There would be no reason for any country to invade us as long as we had friendly relations with them and as long as we discouraged their invasion by having a strong defense. There is no reason why we need to be the policeman of the world. Smaller countries can form alliances with each other to repel bullies in their neighborhood.

    "You say we could have stopped Hitler without war, which I disagree with"

    There was no reason for Great Britain to declare war against Germany over Danzig. Hitler was just getting back the land that was taken from Germany at Versailles. I think Great Britain, France, and the US should have let Hitler fight it out with Stalin and let them weaken each other and maybe we wouldn't have been bothered with either of them.

    "What kind of empire uses its own resources and citizens lives to free another country, only to turn it over to the local citizens to govern"

    Have we really turned over Iraq to the Iraqis to govern or have we more or less set up a puppet regime there? I know Maliki was democratically elected, but will we really leave there when they want us to? Time will tell.

  • ||

    What the hell is "antiwar''?Does this make one a pacifist?I wish writers would just admit every action has it's detractors on both left and right.Every situation is unique unto it's self.I'm also tired of hearing about Washington every time we us force.Times change,and I'm sure he would have used force to protect our interests abroad.

  • zoltan||

    What kind of empire uses its own resources and citizens lives to free another country, only to turn it over to the local citizens to govern

    A smart one. Just because we do "nice" things doesn't make it any less imperialistic. And we're not doing those things out of the kindness of our hearts or to "spread democracy" whatever the hell that means.

  • ||

    "I'm also tired of hearing about Washington every time we us force.Times change,and I'm sure he would have used force to protect our interests abroad."

    What about when we use force when our interests aren't at stake such as the conflict in Kosova or in defending Israel against their enemies? These were the kinds of conflicts our Founding Fathers had in mind when they talked against entangling alliances and going overseas in search of monsters to slay.

  • gmatts||

    "Now, I haven't read the book, so all my arguments are based on the review. These arguments seem to be based on the fallacy that what may be true once is always true. Just because someone was against one war or military excursion, doesn't mean they have completely changed their values if they are for a seperate incident. It just means the first incident didn't meet their criteria for war, whatever that may be."

    If you don't believe that people "changed their values" then read the 2 speeches below and then decide if there wasn't a wholesale conversion on the part of those that campaigned in '00, and those that have governed from '01-present.

    This is from pre-governing
    http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20000101faessay5/condoleezza-rice/campaign-2000-promoting-the-national-interest.html

    And now:
    http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20080701faessay87401-p0/condoleezza-rice/rethinking-the-national-interest.html

  • gmatts||

    "Do you honestly believe we would be better off if we just completely withdrew our troops and let the despots and terrorists carve up the world as they see fit, with no one caring enough to stop them. These are not rational people who only want their own plot of land to live as they please."

    Well now you've gone off and conflated despost and terrorists, as if the 2 are one in the same. In some regards, we are actually using despots to help us capture and kill the terrorists. Also, the terrorists are hardly "carving up the world".

  • ||

    The biggest reason that the anti-war position has withered on the Right is because of continual deficit spending. The costs of war and our bloated military simply get added to the big pile of IOUs that the feds are creating.

    If Americans of a conservative bent were forced to confront how expensive our military-industrial complex is, I think you'd see a big comeback for a Taft-style foreign policy.

    Perhaps this will happen when U.S. Treasury notes are reduced to the status of colorful toilet paper...which seems to be on the horizon.

  • ||

    The high cost of government which is largely driven by our imperialistic meddling has weakened the dollar. This has driven speculators into the commodoties market, particularly oil and gold to protect their wealth which has driven up the price of oil and has created high gas prices. When the public learns how our meddling foreign policy has contributed to our high gas prices, there will be a lot more than 2/3 of the American public that will be opposed to the war in Iraq.

  • Dagny T.||

    Among other things, this article serves as a nice example of why the words "right" and "left" have essentially no meaning in a libertarian context.

    If "conservatives" on the "right" are anti-interventionist in foreign policy and DON'T think they have a direct hotline to God, or a right to interfere in the personal lives of others, what, exactly, makes them conservative? Free market economics? The "right" may have a better history of defending free markets than the "left," but is that enough to link these seemingly disparate figures described in the book review?

    Without the "God-family-country swamp" that Ayn Rand detested, what exactly IS conservatism? (This isn't a snarky question, I'm really curious.)

  • mr simple||

    No, I know what conflate means and I have done no such thing. I was merely giving examples of those who might not stay peacfully in their own borders. The reason terrorists are not carving up the world is our military. How many more speeches about bringing back the caliphate do they need to give before you realize their intentions? In their own words, they do not fight us so we will give them something, they fight us to destroy us. No amount of non-intervention or appeasement will sate them short of full sharia compliance, including killing openly gay people and not allowing our women to talk or show their face. Again, you're trying to push solutions for an ideal world onto the real world.
    I'll get right on reading those speeches. Though as far as people changing positions throught the years, in the words of probably this magazines least favorite economist, Keynes, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

  • ||

    The reason terrorists attack us is because of our meddling foreign policy.

  • ||

    If Osama bin Laden is trying to take over the world, why doesn't he attack Sweden? He doesn't attack Sweden because Sweden doesn't meddle in the Middle East the way we do.

  • gmatts||

    "The reason terrorists are not carving up the world is our military."

    But the main reason is that they are simply unable to carve up the world.

    "How many more speeches about bringing back the caliphate do they need to give before you realize their intentions?"

    I don't need any more speeches to realize their intentions. What I do need, however, is much more proof that they are actually capable of establishing this capliphate than mere intentions. Intentions and plausible scenarios are 2 totally different things.

    " No amount of non-intervention or appeasement will sate them short of full sharia compliance, including killing openly gay people and not allowing our women to talk or show their face"

    Was that written just because you think that if you merely include gays and woman that someone that might be a liberal will agree with you?

    "Again, you're trying to push solutions for an ideal world onto the real world."

    Hardly. In fact, the opposite is true. The main proponents of the advancement of democracy, and unicorns, in Iraq would have us belive that merely because a majority of Arabs (in a country w/ a Kurdish minority and Shia majority mixed in w/ a majority Arab and Sunni minority)have the right to vote that all will end up well is just the "ideal world" that you so disparage.

    Here's a tip: Read up on what the al-Dawa party, the current party of the PM of Iraq, has been up to until the installment of them as the dominant party in Iraq. Here's a hint - they were involved with Iran, expolsives, and the American Embassy in Kuwait. Yet now, they have the President's ear. So spare me the talk of "terrorists", "caliphates", "appeasment" and "sharia" law. We set in motion the probability that the quotes above might come to fruition.

  • mr simple||

    "But the main reason is that they are simply unable to carve up the world."

    Let's see, before we invaded they were running Afghanistan. They control an ever increasing area in Pakistan. They run Palestine and parts of Lebanon. They enjoy funding and full cooperation from states including Iran and formerly Iraq (Yes, there is documentation in the form of internal Iraqi memos and files detailing cooperation and funding for multiple terrorist organizations taken from Iraqi palaces and offices). Does it really take a stretch of the imagination to see them easily spread their control throughout the Middle East and northern Africa? And with the increased resources and ordnance becoming at the very least a major thorn in the side of western countries. These groups are not just a few people who banded together to retake some land. Nor are they isolated groups only interested in their own agenda. They repeatedly work in concert, regardless of sunni or shia affiliation, toward their stated goal of wiping western civilization off the map and implementing sharia law worldwide.

    "Was that written just because you think that if you merely include gays and woman that someone that might be a liberal will agree with you?"

    I thought that the obvious squashing of civil liberties would be something that both I and anyone reading a libertarian blog would be against. Perhaps your concerns of personal freedoms and rights do not extend beyond arms reach.

    "would have us belive that merely because a majority of Arabs (in a country w/ a Kurdish minority and Shia majority mixed in w/ a majority Arab and Sunni minority)have the right to vote that all will end up well is just the "ideal world" that you so disparage."

    So Arabs can't get along with each other, don't want personal freedom, and don't deserve democracy? Is mixed ethnic groups living in one nation only something that can be accomplished in the west? Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. Most polls and studies show that a majority of these people just want to live their lives and be free to practice their religion how they see fit. This is why so many Iraqis turned on al-Qaeda when we showed we were actually going to help them. The struggle against oppression by all people is just a small extension of the American Revolution. But no, this was not the primary reason we went to war. That would be national security, and it absolutely helped. The last thing we need is another country in the nuclear arms race and sponsering terrorism.

    "We set in motion the probability that the quotes above might come to fruition."

    How? By killing them and taking away their resources? The terrorists are people that only understand and can only be stopped by brute force. This is not something we can just wait on until it gets to our doorstep. We cannot wait for the threat to be imminent. We tried that. It resulted in the numerous attacks on us throughout the 80's and 90's culminating in the attacks on Sept 11, 2001. And no that line wasn't added to tug on heart strings. It was a real event that can easily be repeated and any attempt to dismiss it as a hackneyed phrase is just a refusal to learn from the past. The terrorists have repeatedly stated that Iraq is the main stage in their war against us. To leave it to them now would be asinine and irresponsible. We are winning and the cost of losing would be way too high. Only the loser gets to decide when the war is over.

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