The other day, Ross called for other conservatives to be more critical of Republican politicians and conservative “entertainers,” and Jim Manzi made the mistake of taking up this challenge and applying intellectual rigor and honesty to a prominent conservative radio host’s book on a subject he understands fairly well. The inevitable circling-of-the-wagons that has followed illustrates perfectly the problem Manzi was trying to address in Levin’s work. Not only do Manzi’s colleagues automatically defend Levin’s sub-par arguments, but they regard it as horribly bad form to dare criticize those arguments with the vehemence that their poor quality would seem to merit. Small wonder that there are so few “magazines and conservative columnists…willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.”
One need only quickly read Levin’s chapter “On Self-Preservation” to find that the sloppiness Manzi skewers so effectively is not limited to the discussion of climate change. In the early part of the chapter, Levin begins by misrepresenting the content of Washington’s Farewell Address:
The address makes clear he did so not because neutrality was an end in itself, but because he feared that taking sides could split the country apart. (p.177)
This is a good example of a deeply misleading half-truth. Washington was concerned about passionate attachments to other countries partly because of the domestic political effects, but he also explicitly argued that the American interest dictated that we remain free of foreign political attachments for many other reasons:
Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible [bold mine-DL]. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government. the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.
Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?
Why, indeed? In other words, President Washington made it quite clear that neutrality provided many goods that Americans would be foolish and unwise to throw away for the sake of taking sides in foreign conflicts in which we had no real stake. Levin badly misinterprets and distorts the meaning of the Farewell Address because Washington’s genuine support for neutrality as the obvious policy that takes advantage of our unique geographical position is deeply at odds with the aggressive interventionism he lauds later in the chapter. Central to Levin’s vision is the maintenance of American superpower status, when this is impossible without the permanent alliances that Washington specifically rejected. As Washington said:
It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.
Later, Levin critiques Obama’s 2007 Global Affairs speech as a perfect expression of “Statist” foreign policy, as if Obama’s emphasis on interdependence and the inextricable connections between American and the security of rest of the world were not almost identical to the freedom-babble of Bush’s Second Inaugural. At the time of Obama’s speech, hawkish interventionists on the right cited that Obama speech as proof that he supported American “leadership” in the world, which they regarded as a very good thing. Indeed, nothing really separates Levin’s “Statists” from Levin himself on foreign policy, except that he prefers that the U.S. remain a superpower that is as unfettered by international agreements as possible. This has nothing to do with “preserving and improving American society,” as Levin likes to put it, and everything to do with securing and expanding the power of the national security and warfare state.