Back in the days when hippies roamed the earth, kids used to enjoy taunting their parents by speculating on the reception Jesus Christ would receive if he were to walk through the door of the local church. The joke was that the congregation would give him the heave-ho, long hair, sandals, and all, then return to their Christian worship.
Readers of a respected journal of foreign affairs were recently treated to a similar irony, albeit of a more temporal nature, courtesy of the provocative young foreign-policy analyst Christopher Layne. In the winter issue of the quarterly Foreign Policy, Layne strove valiantly to resurrect the noble but neglected conservative foreign policy of Ohio's Mr. Republican, Senator Robert Taft. Today's conservatives were none too pleased with this Second Coming, either.
Throughout the 1940s and early '50s, Taft led the opposition to the Cold War policies of the liberal Democrats. Taft and his conservative allies feared that the extensive foreign commitments America was making would strain our budget, imperil our liberties, and earn us the enmity of people around the world.
For their efforts these postwar conservatives were reviled and red-baited by eminent publications from The New Republic to the New York Times. Most all of these gallant old boys are dead now. Their collective epitaph, in light of J. Edgar Hoover, the Iranian hostages, and a $200-billion budget deficit, should be a giant "WE TOLD YOU SO."
Layne tags Taft and his comrades "real conservatives" and contrasts them with the Reagan administration's neoconservatives. Real conservatives, explains Layne, believe that the primary purpose of our national defense should be to defend this nation and its vital interests. Ever mindful of the need for prudence in government expenditure, real conservatives desire to shift the cost of defending Europe and Japan from the hapless American taxpayer to the Europeans and the Japanese. And real conservatives, understanding that "vital American interests are not engaged in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and similar Third World hotspots," do not wish to entangle the United States in those peripheral conflicts.
Opposed to the real conservatives are the neoconservatives who run American foreign policy in the age of Reagan. Neoconservatives believe that the purpose of US foreign policy is to wage a global war on communism. They are therefore willing to spend money hand over fist propping up anticommunist governments and insurgents and subsidizing the defenses of our NATO allies. America, in their view, is an imperial power with an almost limitless set of foreign obligations. The neoconservatives regard old-fashioned conservatism, with its caution and concern for preserving traditional American values, as a quaint but disturbing antique.
Nevertheless, Layne's essay hit a raw nerve among today's conservatives. Two of the right wing's leading lights—columnist cum TV pontificator George Will and New Republic chin-puller Charles Krauthammer—moved quickly to snuff out this flame of heterodoxy.
Reaganite Will dismisses Layne as being "stuck in the 1940s." Interference in Third World affairs is necessary, Will argues, to roll back the Soviet Empire. If anything, US foreign policy has been "too passive." It's not unfair to note that during America's futile crusade in Vietnam, Will served his country in the musty corners of graduate-school libraries.
Hawkish Democrat Krauthammer scarcely knows what to make of Layne's "extreme" isolationism. The United States is a superpower, he sagely observes. If all we care about is national security, then we require only "a minimal deterrent arsenal, a small navy, a border patrol, and hardly any foreign policy at all." This prospect strikes Krauthammer as ridiculous and undeserving of further comment. After all, what self-respecting superpower would mind its own business when there's a global crusade to be waged?
In fact, however, a foreign policy based on Layne's real conservatism offers us a peaceful and prosperous future. For starters, it'd take a huge chunk out of the enormous Reagan deficit. Approximately half of our $300-billion-plus defense budget goes toward defending Europe and Japan, which are certainly capable of building up their defenses to the point necessary to deter a Russian attack. A real conservative approach to defense would keep American dollars where they belong—in the hands of the folks who earn them.
It would also put to rest the nagging fear that American blood will be spilled in far-off lands in which we have no proper interest. If the Russians wish to don the imperialist mantle, let them. Imperialism is foreign to the American character; it corrupts us and enables the central government to build up its power at the expense of the liberties of the people. And it leads, ultimately, to the grisly sight of young American boys, stacked in military planes, coming home to parents and girlfriends in body bags.
Opposing US interventionism from the right is a lonely business these days. Most of one's allies are likely to be pious, posturing leftists of the sort who throw wine and cheese parties for visiting Sandinistas. Not very pleasant company. But conservatives who are reluctant to challenge the wasteful and dangerous policies the Reagan administration is pursuing abroad are advised to remember the defiant words of the great Confederate statesman Alexander Stephens: "Times change and men often change with them, but principles never!"
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Real Conservatives Don't Start Wars".