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Anti-war Conservatives vs. Foreign Policy Realists

Anti-war Conservatives vs. Foreign Policy Realists

By Dan E. Phillips, MD

Reports indicate that Bush will advocate an increase in troop strength in Iraq when he publicly announces his new policy for Iraq. This policy has been dubbed “surging” and is also supported by Sen. McCain and other hawks. Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid have already spoken out against a surge. How this will all play out from a public relations and political standpoint remains to be seen.

Planning for a surge may well have been in the works for some time, but the timing of Bush rethinking the policy in Iraq was clearly precipitated by the unfavorable results of the Iraq Study Group (ISG). Ironically, if the ISG was suggesting a de-escalation and eventual withdrawal, they may end up precipitating the opposite. In the name of “doing something” or “changing tactics” the findings of the ISG arguably give Bush some political cover for increasing troop numbers that he might not have had otherwise.

The liberal media celebrated the ISG’s findings as a severe blow to the Bush administration and its policies in Iraq. Predictably the conservative punditry reacted indignantly to the report and cried that the recommendations were tantamount to surrender. An apparent RNC talking point is that the Commission should be renamed the Iraq Surrender Group, an admittedly catchy but obviously simplistic formulation.

Assuming the reports are true, as Bush and the still faithful Republicans battle it out with Pelosi and Reid and the Democrats, we will again see the familiar dynamic: “conservatives” for the War, liberals against.

This same dynamic was on display immediately after the release of the ISG report. Per the left-wing media and the Democrats, extremist “right-wing conservatives” and Republicans support the War while moderated “voices of reason” and liberals oppose the War. Well what about anti-war voices of reason from the right that aren’t moderates? Actually, the “right-wing” supporters of the War support it because they have adopted blatantly left-wing principles. More on that below.

To the degree that the media acknowledges some Republican skepticism of the War from the beginning, James Baker is a life long Republican of course, all the credit for being the “cooler heads” is given to foreign policy “realist” like Baker. The mainstream media either intentionally fails to acknowledge or is unaware that another conservative anti-war faction exists. The official right also does not acknowledge it because for the official right being pro-Iraq War is enshrined dogma. But the loudest most vocal conservative voices against the War from the beginning were not the “realists.” It was a group of anti-war conservatives often called paleoconservatives.

Clearly, the left-wing media does not understand distinctions on the right. Unfortunately, many conservatives don’t understand distinctions on the right either. As partisanship and opposition to the left has largely replaced cogent thought and analysis among self-described conservatives, many conservatives don’t realize that there is a healthy contingent of anti-war conservatives. Nor do they seem to realize that they differ significantly from “realist” or “dovish” elements of the foreign policy establishment such as James Baker and Colin Powell.

The Bush Administration has embraced, especially since 9/11, the pro-intervention, aggressive foreign policy stance of the neoconservatives. According to neoconservative analysis, which post 9/11 has become indistinguishable from official conservative movement analysis, America’s safety and security interests are best served by a pro-active approach to the Middle East. This includes the invasion of Iraq as well as saber-rattling and the implied potential for invasion of Iran, Syria, and even Saudi Arabia. You can also throw in the implied potential invasion of North Korea, which while it is not in the Middle East is still part of the “Axis of Evil.” The neoconservatives advocate unilateral action if necessary, are skeptical of diplomacy (“talks”), and are dismissive of the UN and international opinion if they fail to rubber stamp US initiatives. In short, the neocons are interventionists and globalists of the most obvious sort.

The other group acknowledged by the media is the foreign policy realists. The realist prominently include James Baker and Lawrence Eagleberger, both associated with the Bush I presidency. With the post-humus release of his statements skeptical of the War, you can now include former President Ford in this category. It is even reported that Bush I was skeptical of the Iraq invasion. Colin Powell, who helped engineer the invasion during Bush’s first term but was clearly a reluctant ally, could also be considered a realist. The realists are of the old school foreign policy establishment that favors diplomacy and international cooperation and agreement. It is very important to note that this group does not reject globalism or interventionism. In fact, they celebrate American global influence. However, they believe the neocons are reckless and overly optimistic about the degree to which globalist goals can be achieved unilaterally and by military might alone. There may be some element of turf warfare involved in this conflict as well, as the old-school realist were under-represented initially in the Bush administration, pushed out by new-school neocons.

Interestingly, this realist/neocon divide within the GOP was also evident during the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush I administrations when we were dealing with the Communists. The realists favored negotiations and Détente while the neocons favored a more aggressive and confrontational approach. Again, it is important to note that this is not because the realists reject globalism or the need for America to exert its influence throughout the world; they are just guided by a more pragmatic, realistic (sorry) outlook. By contrast, the neocons are guided by a dogmatic ideological commitment to “democratization” that often seems impervious to the real world.

The realists opposed the Iraq invasion from the beginning as ill conceived and unnecessary, but they were not trumpeting their opposition from the roof-tops. Instead they mostly worked behind the scenes. Perhaps they wanted to keep their cards close to their vests in case the War went well, or perhaps they thought it was “undiplomatic” to be too vocal in their opposition. The group that was trumpeting their opposition from the beginning was the anti-war conservatives. It is probably a loose use of the term to describe this group as entirely paleoconservative. Many of the leading voices such as Pat Buchanan and the folks at Chronicles Magazine are self-identified paleos, but some were not. Robert Novak, who opposed the War, is a partisan Republican movement conservative icon. So is Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. MSNBC personality Tucker Carlson (put the bow-tie back on Tucker) was also skeptical of the War, and he is probably best described as a center-right moderate with perhaps some paleo leanings.

So before the War there was a strange synthesis of realists, moderates, and hard- right paleocons all opposing the War and denouncing the neocons as reckless ideologues. But the motives for opposing the War for the paleos were much different. Paleos re-embrace the non-interventionist tendencies of the pre-World War II Old Right. They see non-intervention as the only policy consistent with the Constitutional roll of the federal government. It is the only foreign policy that any type of small-government conservatism can allow. They see neocon style interventionism as Utopian, big-government, Wilsonian liberalism. They often cite Washington’s Farewell Address as their foreign policy guide. Based on some distinctives of paleocon philosophy, they rejected from the beginning that Iraq was going to be a “cakewalk” as some neocons foolishly predicted. They were skeptical that American troops would be embraced as liberators and that American style Jeffersonian democracy could just be plunked down in the Middle East and expected to flourish. For this they were branded as “Unpatriotic” and called racists. How dare they suggest that Iraqis are any less prepared for the glories of liberal democracy than are Americans?

Unlike the realists, paleos are not globalists. Isolationist, properly understood, is probably an apt description, but that is a term that has acquired baggage with time. Today it is less confusing to say they support a policy of non-intervention and non-entanglement. In a day of slogans, their foreign policy could be summed up as “America first.’

Unlike the realist, paleos do not defer to the UN or the international community. In fact, most would consider the UN and other supra-national organizations such as NATO as the kind of entangling-alliances that Washington warned about. Most would support immediate or phased withdrawal from the UN and NATO. Also unlike the realist, they do not see it as America’s responsibility to “broker” peace deals or otherwise overly exert our influence in world affairs. In fact, they see such actions as generating hostility against us. They especially believe that Muslim hostility to America is at least partially the result of America’s military presence in the Middle East and our obvious one-sided support of Israel in the Israel/Palestine conflict. People will obviously take sides in that conflict, but American policy in the Middle-East and elsewhere should generally be one of self-interested neutrality, much like Switzerland. Hard-core paleos call for the end of all foreign aid and bringing home all US military personnel stationed abroad.

Time has proven the paleos to be extremely prescient and the neocons to be foolish idealists. Iraq has not been the cakewalk that the neocons predicted and democracy isn’t exactly flourishing. So why no recognition of these prescient paleo voices by the mainstream media or the conservative establishment? They were more right and were more outspoken than were the war skeptic realists. In everyday parlance, “What’s a guy gotta do to get some love?”

Based on the reaction to the Baker commission and talk of surges, the official right does not look like it will be abandoning its embrace of neocon interventionism any time soon. The base is still broadly supportive of the policy. None of the potential GOP presidential candidates in 2008 are anti-war. Sen. Hagel (NE) could probably be described as a realist, but the base hates him because of it. Both possible paleoesq candidates, Rep. Tom Tancredo (CO) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (CA), are pro-war. Front-runner Sen. McCain (AZ) is the loudest voice calling for more troops. (Rep. Ron Paul, are you listening?)

The ultimate slap might be that there wasn’t even a token paleo in the Iraq Study Group. Even the discredited neocons got their token, and he quit in disgust.

It would be naïve for me to hope that the official right will soon re-embrace their conservative, non-interventionists roots, and cast off the neocon interlopers. It would be equally naïve to expect the press to understand all the nuances on the right. But is it asking too much for both groups to at least acknowledge the existence of a paleocon anti-war right and grant them the credit they are due? They correctly forewarned the reckless neocons and their drum-beating co-conspirators on the official right that their ideologically based denial of reality would inevitably lead to the lamentable situation all acknowledge we now face in Iraq? Again, “Can I get a little love here?”


(Dr. Phillips is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. He specializes in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. He can be reached at Phillips_de @

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