Like almost all modern conservatives, I started my political life as an interventionist, but I made the transition to conservative non-interventionism fairly early on. How I arrived where I am today is a subject for another essay, but to establish my bona fides as something other than a Johnny-come-lately to non-interventionism, I often tell people that I was a non-interventionist before Ron Paul made it cool. I opposed US involvement in the first Gulf War and publicly cast my lot with the non-interventionist crowd when I supported Pat Buchanan’s 1992 primary challenge to George H. W. Bush.
As a long-time conservative non-interventionist, I have obviously been swimming upstream against my fellow self-identified conservatives. Therefore, I am a veteran of many battles with interventionists, both in the virtual world of the Internet and the real world of political activism. During these battles I have frequently lamented that I have essentially the same arguments with people over and over again. It occurred to me that since I am always having the same debates, that it would save me time and effort to summarize some of these common arguments in the form of individual essays so that I could link back to them or cut and paste them rather than bang out the same arguments again for the umpteenth time.
During my years as a partisan in these battles, I have also recognized that the interventionist true-believer foot soldiers come armed with a series of boilerplate arguments. These arguments quickly fall apart under scrutiny, in my opinion, but they serve as rationalizations for those who make them and advance the cause of the elite interventionist opinion makers who are invested in maintaining the current interventionist status quo.
Admittedly pointy headed individuals such as me are sometimes loath to concede the effectiveness of simplistic boilerplate arguments, because we want to believe that everyone is as rationalistic as we are and can be won over by thoughtful debate. This, unfortunately, does not accord with reality. In the real world, easy to articulate boilerplate serves to support the position it is designed to advance, and likely as importantly serves to cut those who repeat it off from seriously considering alternatives. So I’m conceiving of this project as an exercise in “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” and “two can play at that game.”
What follows is my first foray into this endeavor. In this essay I will attempt to present a brief overview of a basic underlying premise of conservative non-interventionism, that it is the authentically conservative position. In future essays I will elaborate at greater length on this premise and describe the foreign policy positions that flow from it. If this project is well received, it is my intent to compile all these essays into an easy to access book and e-book so that advocates of non-interventionism can come well-armed to the intra-conservative foreign policy debate. Consider this an effort to create a basic textbook of Conservative Non-interventionism 101 apologia.
Modern conservatism is often conceptualized as a stool having three legs to greater or lesser degrees–Laissez-faire economics, social conservatism, and “strong” national defense. How this conceptualization came to characterize modern conservatism will be the subject of one of my future elaborating essays, but for now let’s just accept that it is what it is.
So the modern self-identifying conservative who watches FOX NEWS, listens to Rush, and reflexively votes GOP sees these all as part of a whole package. There has always been some pushback within the coalition on certain issues, such as more libertarian-oriented types who might balk at aspects of the social conservative agenda or more populist types who aren’t as ideologically invested in the free-market, but until fairly recently there has generally been a pretty uniform consensus on a “strong” national defense and foreign policy interventionism among all involved, although factions have differed somewhat on its priority in the issue hierarchy and the degree of intervention they advocate.
In my experience in the intra-conservative foreign policy debate trenches, one of the first barriers that the non-interventionist encounters is the assertion that what he is arguing is not conservative. In fact, it is often suggested, it is obviously the liberal position. In the mind of the conservative interventionist, supporting foreign policy interventionism is just what “conservatives” do, and opposing it is what liberals do. They viscerally identify opposition to foreign intervention with long-haired, unwashed, free-loving, hippie, anti-Vietnam War protesters from the 1960s, not conservatives. In their minds, Obama, for example, gets foreign policy wrong because he isn’t resolute or tough enough. What they propose instead is often vague and inchoate, and this is a weakness I plan to point out, but the sense is more in their gut than in their head.
That Obama is a liberal internationalist which is not very far removed policy-wise from neoconservative internationalism does not occur to them. The similarity is their shared globalist assumptions. That non-interventionism, which rejects many reigning globalist assumptions, represents the actual opposition to their shared globalism is very far off their radar screen, and likewise does not generally occur to them.
This is why the reaction of many self-identified conservatives to Ron Paul’s two Presidential campaigns was often confusion and visceral outrage, rather than rational disagreement. They couldn’t conceptualize that Paul wasn’t just a conservative who happened to have a really liberal position on foreign policy. They saw commonality between Paul and the slightly less hawkish rhetoric of Obama, rather than seeing the commonality between their default globalism and Obama’s perhaps slightly less rhetorically hawkish default globalism.
Because of this unfortunate dynamic, my first strike in many battles with interventionists is often to just counter-assert that non-interventionism is the authentically conservative position. My argument usually goes something like this:
There is nothing conservative about presuming it is America’s role to police the world or mitigate every conflict wherever one may arise. This assumption is inherently hubristic and globalist. The neocon manifestation of this presumption is downright Jacobin. When did conservatives become shills for globalism? Non-interventionism, not interventionism, is the policy that naturally flows from a conservative mindset, properly understood.
This is what I mean by developing a counter boilerplate of our own. Feel free to copy and paste it with or without attribution, in whole or in part. Tweak it as appropriate to the situation. Change it up, and make it your own.
Do you see what I’m doing here? I’m claiming the conservative ground as rightfully mine. I am asserting that I am the one articulating a truly conservative foreign policy, which also has the virtue of being true. Don’t allow them to get away with blowing you off as just a liberal or non-interventionism as the liberal position. I find a statement like this is particularly helpful when I happen to come into the middle of some conservative debate where the need for the US to “do something” about some particular foreign conflict such as the Ukraine had heretofore been taken for granted.
In my experience, a statement of this kind tends to catch my adversaries off guard. Many of the interventionists advocates you will encounter are emotionally invested in their conservative Red Team identities. They don’t like having their identity or basic assumptions challenged. It changes the debate from “You’re a liberal” to who is the authentic conservative. It also establishes your credentials as a conservative who is legitimately engaged in the argument rather than some liberal troll.
This is especially true now that two Ron Paul presidential campaigns have established the non-interventionist conservative as a recognizable type to most. Prior to this, I often found myself dropping Pat Buchanan’s name as a reference point for people who had trouble figuring out where I was coming from, and referencing Buchanan is still very useful at times because no one can brush him off as just some interloping liberal.
One thing I observed when I was dealing with fellow Ron Paul supporters is they had a tendency to have a chip on their shoulder and went into situations such as Republican county conventions with the expectation that they were going to be treated as outsiders. In many cases these concerns were justified and in the case of some of the more doctrinaire libertarian types, they were outsiders to a degree. But as someone who supported Ron Paul from a paleoconservative and Constitutionalist perspective, I refused to concede that I was the outlier and made sure I acted like I belonged. I made it clear that I support non-interventionism because I am a conservative and that it is the authentic conservative position. Again, this changes the debate favorably in our direction away from the charge that you are a liberal or an eccentric outlier to who is the real conservative.
“Who is the real conservative?” and “What is the authentic conservative foreign policy?” is a debate that is desperately needed and one our side should relish because the facts and philosophy are on our side. Stay tuned for more entries as this project develops.