05 November 2010

The American Conservative Returns

One piece of good news this week, to me at least, was the arrival of a new issue of The American Conservative in my mailbox. The anti-war "paleocon" monthly has returned from several months' hiatus, now reportedly funded enough to be published "for years to come" after its future had hung in doubt for much of this year. This is good news for anyone interested in genuine, substantive political discussion, because the Conservative offers a unique perspective on the current scene. The smug self-righteousness of most conservative media (and most opinion media in general) is almost entirely absent here, perhaps because the magazine's primary purpose has been to criticize conservatism itself, which in America has degenerated into a radical, ideological "movement," in the magazine's collective opinion, that has abandoned much of the country's true conservative tradition. Stigmatized as "isolationist" by their neocon antagonists, the paleocons of the Conservative are perhaps the most formidable anti-war critics writing today because their opinions can't be written off as stereotypical leftism.

The new issue announces that the Conservative intends to maintain its anti-war, anti-interventionist purpose, and intends to judge the new Republican congress, as well as the Obama administration, by that standard. The cover story, written in advance of the election, blames the Democrats' expected fate in this year's voting to Obama's betrayal of the anti-war left. Justin Raimondo argues that anti-war sentiment made the difference during Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Clinton, though he also notes that Obama's rhetoric about Afghanistan during the campaign itself should have been a warning sign to his supporters. The new President's perpetuation of the War on Terror demoralized his base more than anything else he did, Raimondo claims. Had he acted differently, the writer hints, he might have retained much of his popularity with angry independents despite the controversies over health care and the economy.

The antiwar Left defeated itself by electing a Democrat little different from Bush. And now Barack Obama is dismantling his own party by repudiating the causes that animated his base -- the opposition to war and fear of the imperial presidency. In the run-up to the midterm elections, Obama tried instead to mobilize his party around the weakest items on his agenda: big government and cultural issues. No wonder Democrats and the progressive Left are demoralized: is the party's antiwar base really supposed to get excited about gays in the military?

Raimondo warns, however, that "in the years to come the GOP may yet save the Obama administration by pursuing its own version of electoral suicide." Republicans will do that, he continues, if they try to revive the GWBush "Freedom Agenda," which Raimondo describes as "simply incompatible with the Tea Partiers' commitment to cutting spending and reducing the scope of the federal government." Whether the TPs themselves realize this remains to be seen. Raimondo remains convinced that "key segments of [TP] activists are antiwar as well as anti-spending," but notes that they're "primarily concerned with Obama's domestic programs." He thinks that they'll turn on Republicans again, and immediately, if the GOP pushes for more war and the deficit spending it requires.

The same point is taken up by W. James Antle, who argues that defense spending must be on the table if anyone intends seriously to reduce deficits. He goes further, arguing that meaningful defense cuts require a reconsideration of American strategic priorities as well as the usual scolding of $700 toilets and other waste. He looks forward to collaboration between Ron Paul and Barney Frank on the Sustainable Defense Task Force, which promotes "realistic goals [and] sustainable strategy," but sees Republicans as the biggest threat to this bipartisan agenda.

While Antle notes that "conservative reluctance to cut military spending is somewhat understandable [since] national defense is a legitimate function of government," but he stresses that "defense is by far the biggest discretionary spending program, vastly larger than the combined price tag of those earmarks Republicans so frequently rail against." He advises conservatives to "stop thinking of the military as if it's an honorary member of the private sector rather than a government program [exempt] from cost-benefit analysis and other reasonable standards they would impose on the rest of the federal budget." He also urges them not to panic about all the supposed threats simmering around the world. "[A]dvocates of the status quo assume a military involved in all the world's hot spots in order to eliminate any conceivable threat," Antle writes, "Of course, such a view of the military's role applies the precautionary principle that conservatives wisely [?] reject when it comes to environmental policy."

For Antle, our bloated military establishment is a constant temptation to intervene in other countries' affairs. While "many traditional conservatives favor a strong military that is used sparingly," he writes, "the military's size encourages politicians to use force as a first resort. According to this view, rethinking what constitutes defense is not the same as issuing some pie-in-the-sky pacifist manifesto; rather, it is the only way to control the Pentagon's budget....Ultimately, budget-cutters will find that the republic-versus-empire debate cannot be avoided."

It might seem like the Conservative is further marginalizing itself by emphasizing its anti-war stance at a time when everyone seems focused on domestic issues, but the editors most likely believe that it's exactly while everyone obsesses over health care and other easily-demagogued issues that the military-industrial establishment will be least challenged without someone sounding the alarm. The magazine gives instant credibility to anti-war opinion because its stance can't be smeared as Marxist or anti-American -- though it comes in for smears of its own given its critical view of Israel. Some writers on the anti-war Left have been welcomed in the Conservative's pages, and it remains a potential seedbed of a truly dissident, anti-Bipolarchy movement.

On some issues, the magazine's opinions are just as obnoxious as you might expect, but as a rule there's more effort to offer reasoned objections to liberal or progressive demands, and less recourse to ad hominem "anti-elitist" arguments. The regrettable thing about The American Conservative is that, while it wants to bill itself as the voice of authentic conservatism as opposed to radio-controlled movement Republicanism, its name will always make newstand browsers assume that there's nothing but standard Republican propaganda inside. In our Bipolarchy "conservatism" means the Republican party, and that makes some people unwilling to read or listen when thoughtful critics raise issues on philosophical rather than partisan grounds. As a persistent internal critic within the conservative community, the Conservative is an invaluable resource and worthy of attention even from those who don't call themselves conservative. With Republicans rising to power again, it's a good thing that the Conservative is back in action.

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