Q. When did the conservative worldview take root?
A. It’s probably difficult for anyone who’s lived through the Bush administration to believe that there was a time when conservatism was not a serious force in American politics. But after World War II, the right wing was in total disarray. Until that time, American conservatism had been marked by a belief that government shouldn’t meddle in the economy and the United States should stay out of conflicts overseas. The Great Depression and the need to defeat Nazi Germany invalidated those ideas in the eyes of most Americans. In the 1950s—in large part because of William F. Buckley, Jr. and the magazine he founded, National Review—a new conservatism took hold. It was defined by libertarianism, traditionalism, and above all an absolutist anti-communism that saw the Soviets as devils and the Cold War as an apocalyptic showdown. Interestingly, that “good versus evil” worldview was just a variation on the isolationism that conservatives had previously espoused, which I call an “us versus them” approach to the world. And it had many ramifications for defense and foreign policy. Among other things, it led conservatives to reject coexistence and negotiations with the Soviet Union—even though “victory” was a dangerous prospect in the nuclear age. When the modern conservative movement began to take shape, however, it had little influence. It wasn’t until the Reagan administration, 30 years later, that conservative views got a serious political voice.
Q. But how can you say conservatives took 30 years to gain power, when Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon were Cold War presidents as well?
A. That’s a great question. It’s very important to understand that until recently “conservative” and “Republican” were not the same things. Rather most Republicans elected to public office during the Cold War were moderates who thought about foreign policy in much the same way that their Democratic counterparts did: the Soviet Union needed to be contained and the nuclear arms race needed to be controlled. They didn’t share the good-versus-evil worldview; they were more pragmatic and realistic. By contrast, conservatives wanted to roll back communism, and they rejected the idea of mutual assured destruction, which sought to keep the nuclear peace. Conservatives wanted a nuclear advantage over the Soviets, so they argued not only against the arms control efforts of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter—but also against those of Eisenhower and Nixon. Conservatives only reluctantly supported Eisenhower and they actually broke with Nixon during the 1972 election. It wasn’t until the Reagan administration that conservatives got a chance to put their policies into place.
Q. And how did this undermine U.S. security?
A. It increased the risks of nuclear war. In fact, one of the scariest episodes of the Cold War was directly precipitated by Reagan’s conservative policies. Rejecting coexistence, containment, negotiations, and mutual assured destruction with the Soviet Union, he accelerated the arms race, advocated missile defenses and civil defenses (i.e., bomb shelters), and hired advisers who actually thought it was possible to win a nuclear war. That antagonistic military posture—combined with Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric—led the U.S.S.R. to believe Reagan might actually be contemplating a nuclear first strike. And, in November 1983, when U.S. and NATO forces launched a military exercise called “Able Archer,” the Soviet leadership thought it was cover for an actual attack—and they put their own forces on alert. Later, when Reagan realized he had almost triggered a nuclear war, he changed tack and opened serious and genuine arms control talks with Moscow. But when he succeeded, signing a treaty in 1987 to eliminate an entire class of nuclear arms, conservatives turned on him.
Q. What does this have to do with the Bush administration?
A. The very same worldview that drove Cold War conservatives—an us-versus-them, good-versus-evil approach to foreign policy—has driven the Bush administration from the moment it entered office. This isn’t just an abstract similarity; that worldview has had many of the same policy ramifications, including a hatred of treaties, an unwillingness to negotiate with enemies, and even a belief in nuclear war-fighting. In the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, the danger from this approach isn’t so much that the Bush administration is going to spark a nuclear war, but that it will increase our vulnerability to nuclear terrorism by hindering nonproliferation
Q. How so?
A. Well, take the Iraq war, for example. We ostensibly invaded to stop Saddam from developing nuclear weapons, which we now know he wasn’t. But even if you assumed that the most dire intelligence reports we had about Iraq in 2002 and early 2003 were correct, that information was far less scary than what we knew at the time about the nuclear programs of the two other members of the “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea. Their programs were much more advanced. So why prioritize Iraq? Well, if you refuse to coexist or negotiate with your enemies—or to use international institutions, like the United Nations, to contain them—you’re forced to rely on military force, and Iraq was much more “invadable” than either Iran or North Korea. Because of the ramifications of its good-versus-evil worldview, the Bush administration let its preferred foreign policy means determine how it prioritized threats. As a result, North Korea wound up producing enough plutonium for 10 nuclear weapons (and testing one), while Iran’s nuclear program continues unabated. Seeing the Bush foreign policy as an outgrowth of Cold War conservatism actually helps explain many of the administration’s most controversial decisions, including its push to deploy missile defenses, to build new “bunker-busting” nuclear weapons, to aid India’s nuclear industry, as well as its failure to aggressively clean up Russia’s loose nuclear material.
Q. But when William F. Buckley, Jr.—whom you identify as the godfather of modern conservatism—died a few weeks ago, commentators pointed out that he had become a critic of Bush foreign policy and the Iraq war, saying the president had perverted the legacy of conservatism.
A. That’s an excellent point, and you’re right that Buckley was one of the first conservatives to call the Iraq war a mistake. Nevertheless, the war—and many of Bush’s other foreign policy disasters—can be traced very clearly to the worldview that Buckley himself articulated in the early Cold War years. In the 1950s, it was Buckley who divided the world into us-versus-them and good-versus-evil. That framework had implications for U.S. foreign policy, among them a rejection of coexistence with one’s enemies (Buckley wanted to rollback communism); a rejection of negotiation (Buckley protested Eisenhower’s 1959 summit with Nikita Khrushchev); and a rejection of deterrence (Buckley opposed arms control efforts). In his invasion of Iraq, his rejection of negotiations with Iran and North Korea, and his plans for the U.S. nuclear arsenal—to say nothing of his insistence on describing the war on terror as a war between good and evil—Bush has fully embraced Buckley’s worldview and its ramifications. Buckley’s conservatism was focused on defeating communism, so when the Soviet Union fell, his foreign policy became more circumscribed. But Bush’s conservatism is perfectly consistent with the ideology Buckley first defined 50 years ago.
Q. But everyone always says the Bush administration is neo-conservative. Is there a difference between that and conservatism, and why does it matter?
A. There is a difference. Neoconservatism is a splinter ideology that took form in the 1960s and ‘70s among once-liberal intellectuals who worried that Democrats weren’t taking the Soviet threat seriously enough. So they joined Buckley’s conservatives and backed Ronald Reagan. After the Cold War, they adopted a very proactive, almost messianic foreign policy, advocating the promotion of democracy abroad. There are, or were, many neocons in the Bush administration, and they clearly influenced the decision to invade Iraq. But most Bush officials—including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Bolton—are just plain conservatives. Both conservatives and neocons see the world in terms of us-versus-them and good-versus-evil, but conservatives tend to be more reactive and don’t really care about democracy promotion. (Bolton, only half-jokingly, said that we should have overthrown Saddam, handed the Iraqis a copy of the Federalist Papers, and then gotten the hell out of the country.) It’s important to understand the differences as well as the similarities between the two schools of thought because, as Bush’s foreign policy failures accumulate, critics on both the left and the right have targeted the neocons as convenient scapegoats. Buckley-like conservatives exasperated by Bush’s performance have found it convenient to blame the Iraq quagmire on their neoconservative brethren. Meanwhile, liberals seem to think that neoconservatism is a temporary aberration that will dissipate as soon as Bush’s “neocon cabal” leaves office next year. But the root problem with the Bush administration is its good-versus-evil, us-versus-them worldview that is now an integral part of the Republican Party. If we don’t recognize that, we’re bound to repeat Bush’s mistakes. The Bush presidency may be ending, but conservatism will live on.
Q. Are you saying that we can expect more of the same from a Republican like John McCain? What should we be looking for in the 2008 presidential candidates?
A. There are many signs that McCain will behave much like Bush. He certainly speaks in the same Manichean rhetoric. He was—and continues to be—a vocal proponent of the Iraq war. He has long disparaged negotiations with North Korea, and he’s criticized Democrats who’ve called for talks with Iran. He’s been a strong backer of missile defenses, as well as a supporter of “bunker busting” nuclear weapons. By contrast, Barack Obama takes almost the exact opposite tack. Rather than casting U.S. foreign policy in strictly oppositional terms, he’s expressed a more cooperative vision of international relations.
Q. And why is that so important?
A. Because the most serious dangers we face today are not ones that the United States can vanquish on its own. Global warming and nuclear terrorism—which are really the two existential threats that could radically change America as we know it—are transnational challenges. We need to enlist the cooperation of others in order to meet them. I would argue that the United States has a unique leadership role to play in the twenty-first century in solving these problems. But we can’t lead others if we see the world in terms of us-versus-them; we need to see things in terms of us-and-them. By preventing us from doing that, conservatism continues to undermine America’s security.