The print edition of The American Conservative is returning in December. You may have already read some of the articles from the December issue that are available online, but if you haven’t I recommend Dr. Leon Hadar’s article on the Tea Party and foreign policy, Dr. Paul Gottfried’s article debunking Glenn Becks’ oversimplified portrait of early 20th century progressives, Jim Antle’s article on fiscal conservatism and military spending, and Michael Brendan Dougherty’s article on the Fed and Ben Bernanke. Don’t overlook Daniel Flynn’s review of Proud to Be Right. I found the review enjoyable, but I would also recommend taking a look at the book, especially Michael’s contribution. Michael has written a very sharp essay on how opposition to the Iraq war crystallized and shaped his conservatism.
The cover article by Justin Raimondo is also worth reading. On the whole, Raimondo is correct that Obama alienated many of his progressive supporters by escalating the war in Afghanistan. For their part, they were badly mistaken and misled if they ever expected him to do otherwise. After all, he specifically campaigned on the pledge to make the war in Afghanistan a priority of his administration. Even though there were numerous warning signs that Obama was a conventional liberal internationalist and a supporter of virtually every military intervention in American history, which many antiwar activists and writers tried to downplay and ignore as much as they could during the election campaign, it is certainly true that Obama was the only candidate in 2008 who could have ever been plausibly described as antiwar. Antiwar voters settled for the best major party candidate they could get. As it turned out, the best they could get wasn’t much.
I have made my objections several times to the Pew poll Raimondo uses at the start of his article, but before I come back to them I wanted to address a different point. There was one other line that didn’t seem quite right. Raimondo writes:
Just as Obama demoralized his base and mobilized his enemies by pushing the wrong mix of foreign-policy hawkishness and domestic statism, Republicans like Mitt Romney are itching to pull another bait-and-switch on the Right by putting militarism ahead of domestic conservatism.
I agree that Romney wants to put militarism ahead of domestic conservatism, or at least he is giving every indication that this is what he wants, but it’s not clear that this is really a bait-and-switch. To the extent that the inane Republican foreign policy criticism of the last two years is well-received among rank-and-file conservatives, and to the extent that the rhetoric of American exceptionalism-as-hegemonism is popular on the right, Republican leaders are making their aggressive and confrontational foreign policy a central element of their opposition to Obama, and it is not driving their supporters away. If Republican voters are not positively endorsing militarism, neither are they recoiling from it.
That brings us back to the Pew survey. 49% did say that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” In the same poll, 57% of the public favored keeping America as the only superpower, 53% viewed China as a major threat, and almost two-thirds favored (63%) military strikes against Iran in the event that it acquired a nuclear weapon. In all three cases, respondents who belonged to the Council on Foreign Relations gave answers that were markedly less supportive of unipolarity, perceiving China as a major threat, and war with Iran. There was a stark contrast between elite and popular views on these questions, and the popular views were the ones more aligned with foreign policy hawkishness. Obviously, those popular views didn’t come out of nowhere. They had to be encouraged and fueled by misinformation and demagoguery, which is what Republican leaders have been providing on a daily basis for years.
The point is not that the public isn’t war-weary. It is. It is that we can’t assume that a poll result that shows 49% support for minding our own business translates into support for a more modest, restrained, sane foreign policy. Among Republicans, just 43% support “minding our own business.” Alongside the peak in “isolationist” sentiment was this finding:
Fully 44% say that because the United States “is the most powerful nation in the world, we should go our own way in international matters, not worrying about whether other countries agree with us or not.” That is by far the highest percentage agreeing since the question was first asked by Gallup in 1964.
As the report goes on to say:
While still a minority view, 44% agree with this statement today, up 16 points from 28% in 2006 and far exceeding the previous peak of 34% in 1993 and 1995.
Republicans were disproportionately likely to agree with this statement (50%), compared with 45% of Democrats and 37% of independents. They were also more likely (78%) than the other two groups to say that Iran’s nuclear program is a “major threat” to the U.S., and far more likely to support military action against Iran (79%) if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon. That brings us to Pew’s findings on the public’s views on “pre-emptive” (aggressive) warfare:
As expected, there are substantial partisan differences over whether it is justified to use force against countries that threaten the U.S., but have not attacked: 65% of Republicans say it is at least sometimes justified, compared with 44% of Democrats and 50% of independents. Similarly, 54% of CFR members who identify or lean Republican say the use of force is at least sometimes justified compared with 24% of those who identify or lean Democratic.
In other words, Republican CFR elites are generally more inclined to militarism than their Democratic counterparts, but they are relatively less inclined to militarism than Republican members of the general public. Despite the debacle of Iraq, fully two-thirds of Republicans continued to believe that “pre-emptive” (aggressive) war is sometimes justified, and three-quarters of them supported war against Iran when this survey was taken last year. If Republican leaders put militarism ahead of domestic conservatism in the future, they will in many respects be giving their constituents exactly what they claim to want.
According to other surveys, a majority of the public may be more resistant to hegemonism now than it used to be, but that resistance is not principally located on the right.