Even traditional conservatives outraged by radicalism of the right
For a moment during the spring, neoconservatives associated with the Bush administration thought they had died and gone to heaven. The quicker than expected fall of Saddam Hussein seemed to justify their vision of a new America that would reshape world politics. The United States would use its overwhelming military power to crush tyrannical regimes, they declared, and establish American-style capitalist democracies in their place. Domestically, the neocons’ only question was whether the tax cuts aimed at reshaping American society would be merely big or gigantic. As time passes, however, it has become increasingly clear that this course is neither neo nor conservative and that it may lead more quickly to hell than to heaven.
This was not the foreign policy agenda traditional conservatives like myself voted for in 2000. Concerned about growing anti-American feeling around the world, we were pleased when candidate Bush spoke of adopting a humbler attitude in foreign policy and of reducing US overstretch abroad.We also anticipated that a new Bush administration would embrace long-standing conservative objectives such as smaller government, fiscal responsibility, tax cuts crafted with a goal of balancing budgets, strong protection of individual rights, and support for healthy state and local governments. There
was certainly no mention in Bush’s campaign of revolutionary schemes to transform the world.
So imagine our surprise when instead of a new humility, the ﬂedgling Bush administration embraced a new arrogance. Traditional conservatives were no fans of the Kyoto agreement on global warming—many thought it unfair to US interests. But why so loudly reject a treaty that could have been left in limbo without any meaningful effect on the United States? Why make enemies so needlessly? Domestically, the initial Bush tax cut proposals seemed surprisingly large. But traditional conservatives held their fire. The cuts did seem to provide stimulus at a time when the economy was sinking dangerously, and the forecasters said we could maintain a balanced budget even with the cuts.
The events of Sept. 11 strengthened the president’s hand, giving him a moral authority that had been lacking after the election. It also allowed a small group of selfstyled neoconservatives in his administration to turn the ship of state onto a dramatically new course.
In foreign affairs, this meant ditching America’s ‘‘no first strike’’ commitment to deterrence in favor of preventive war. Out too were long-term alliances in favor of temporary ‘‘coalitions of the willing.’’ Suddenly America’s ‘‘mission’’ was to recast the world in the American democratic capitalist mold.Neoconservatives have openly called this strategy imperialistic.
Domestically, the administration’s new direction has been even more dramatic and, for traditional conservatives, alarming. Far from being reduced, the size of government has grown larger as spending has been significantly increased to support our imperialist strategy. Passage of the Patriot Act has imposed the greatest constraint on individual American freedoms since the internment of Japanese-Americans during WorldWar II. In the face of budget projections now deep in the red, further tax cuts may cripple all but the most basic of government functions.
Will traditional conservatives sit still for this? The dawning realization that the aftermath of war is likely to be long, painful, and costly, coupled with the absence of any significant weapons of mass destruction, has begun to refocus attention on the viability of the preventive war doctrine and the new imperialism.
Conservatives like formerNational Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft have noted that despite its great power America still needs help. Yet its efforts to get that help have been undermined by global resistance to the new US strategy and by our government’s loss of credibility. Indeed, the new doctrine is seen by many as being not only ineffective but also dangerous. Resistance is also growing on the domestic front. Maine’s Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, a member of the traditionally conservative Main Street Coalition, played a key role in capping the most recent tax cut at $350 billion. Even more significant has been the revolt of Republicans in the House against the recent changes in FCC rules regarding the consolidation of media companies. This, quickly followed by a House vote supporting US sales of inexpensive imported drugs, again in defiance of the White House, indicates that traditional conservatives are waking up to an important discovery.
There is nothing neo about imperialism. It is just as un-American today as it was in 1776. And there is nothing conservative about gigantic military establishments, endless oceans of red ink, and crumbling state and local governments burdened by unfunded obligations passed on by an irresponsible federal government. Far from conservatism, this is radicalism of the right, and it is unsustainable because it is at odds with fundamental—and truly conservative—American values.
Clyde Prestowitz is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of ‘‘Rogue Nation: American Unilateralism and the Failure of Good Intentions.’’
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