As the ranks of those who defend Bill’s War continue to thin, another
famous Bill has grown skeptical. William F. Buckley Jr. has reversed his
earlier position in favor of bombing Serbia to say that he too is
against the unconscionable destruction of a country that never did us
any harm.

“If I were voting on the Kosovo matter,” he wrote back on March 24,
“I’d vote yes: Get on with the bombing.” A month later, on April 28, he
reversed himself: “There’s something dirty about the entire operation.
In most direct terms, it is not geared to the safety of the population
whose protection took us into the war. … We are taking satisfaction
from dropping bombs here and there.”

Buckley’s reversal represents more than the change of one mind. It is
a capitulation to a movement that he, his friends, and their
expansionist ideology no longer control, or even influence to any
noticeable extent. It’s great that Buckley is now on board the antiwar
cause, but even better that his previous control of conservative opinion
has been broken up.

Time was when the right was nearly indistinguishable from National
Review, a powerful fortnightly that began publication in 1955, just as
the last remnants of the old anti-New Deal right were dying off. Under
Buckley’s guidance, right-wing politics mutated from its ancient faith
in limiting government at home and abroad into a new faith that elevated
as its central principles anti-Sovietism and support for the huge
military and spying apparatus supposedly needed to combat an
impoverished Russia.

Hence, Buckley famously called for a “totalitarian bureaucracy within
our shores” to battle the foreign communist menace, and proceeded to
cast out from the right anyone who doubted the merits of the warfare
state. Even such stalwarts of the old faith as John T. Flynn (author of
The Roosevelt Myth and As We Go Marching) were banned from
Buckley’s magazine and other publications he influenced.

The reason was simple: Flynn saw the founders’ fear of standing
armies as entirely justified. It makes no sense, he said, to militarize
the economy in the name of fighting a militarized economy. The Cold War
state, he wrote, played into the hands of home-grown socialists by
lavishing vast industrial subsidies on special interest groups, and
giving government planners more power than a free society should allow
anyone to have.

As Bruce Porter has pointed out in War and the Rise of the
, “Throughout the history of the United States, war has been
the primary impetus behind the growth and development of the central
state. It has been the lever by which presidents and other national
officials have
bolstered the power of the state in the face of tenacious popular

This is why Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans in 1833 about the
problem of even successful wars: “All those who seek to destroy the
liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest
and shortest means to accomplish it.” Murray N. Rothbard went further to
point out that right-wing backing for the Cold War was made possible
only through a systematic purge of the movement itself, combined with an
influx of socialist intellectuals who had only turned against the
Soviets after the Hitler-Stalin pact, as well as a bunch of recovering
Trotskyites. For thirty years, Rothbard was nearly alone on the right in
decrying the nuclear buildup and proliferation of American troops in
far-flung corners of the world that the ex-communists championed.

Flynn and Rothbard were the principled exceptions. Most conservatives
put their fear of militarism on hold while the Cold War raged. Buckley
then led the charge to oust the last “isolationists” from the
conservative movement, and to make glorification of war a central plank
of the conservative philosophy.

Exactly as Flynn and Rothbard predicted, when the warfare state grew,
so too did the welfare state, and the vast regulatory bureaucracy
lording it over American business. The lesson of wartime history — that
individual liberty cannot coexist with a government engorged on killing
— was tossed aside.

How badly did the warfare bug infect the right? People who otherwise
claimed to believe in free enterprise, the most peaceful social system
ever conceived, reflexively argued for a first-strike use of nuclear
bombs. Yet these weapons of mass destruction are fundamentally
incompatible with just-war doctrine because they necessarily harm
innocents. Meanwhile, conservative publications began celebrating the
indiscriminate use of power, and hailing higher Pentagon and CIA budgets
as acts in defense of freedom.

Along with the rise of warfarist ideology on the right came an
inevitable trimming of the domestic political agenda. Cutting programs
came to be preferred to abolishing them, and slowing the growth of
government was seen as more respectable than calling for it to stop, let
alone be dramatically curbed. Statist measures like the drug war and
federal school standards
became popular among people who should have known better. The
conservative love affair with the war machine spilled into many other

Even today, when National Review lists its top 100 nonfiction books
of the century, No. 1 is Winston Churchill’s grotesquely biased history
of the Second World War (starring you-know-who). In its sycophancy
toward the warfare state and mass killing as man’s highest end, it is
only surpassed by Tom Brokaw’s government-worshiping bestseller, The
Greatest Generation.

But at the grass roots, matters are different. Since the Cold War,
the antiwar instincts of the right have come more to the fore with every
intervention. The war on Iraq in particular forged an important new bloc
of right-wing, antiwar intellectuals, and since then, they have fought
to bring
the troops home, curb the ability of the president to wage war, and
restore some semblance of rationality to foreign policy.

How horrible to realize, ten years after the Cold War, that the real
evil empire is not some foreign regime, but the U.S. military state. It
bombs buses, bridges, factories, churches, and schools, expresses
“regret,” and then continues to do the same. A host of innocents have
died from U.S. attacks — a fact which should make every patriot wince.
The propaganda should also make us wonder to what extent the old
Communist Threat was trumped up to plunder the American taxpayer.

Polls have shown that Republican voters, particularly conservatives,
are against this war, and rightly so. In a great moment in political
history, House Republicans voted six to one against supporting Clinton’s
cowardly air attacks. Even more impressive, a sizeable majority voted to
invoke the War Powers Act and reclaim Congress’ constitutional right to
declare war.

Truly, many Republicans have learned the lesson of Vietnam, which is
not to increase bombing when the war isn’t going well, but to think
entirely outside the box, fundamentally reevaluating military
commitments when reality shows them to be failing. But this type of
thinking hasn’t gone nearly far enough: stupidly, the same Congress
contradicted itself by expanding military spending.

Nevertheless, in their sometime-opposition to war, Republicans are
recalling a pre-Cold War tradition of thought and action. American
libertarians (believers in private property, decentralism, and liberty)
opposed McKinley’s war on Spain and Wilson’s war on the European
monarchies, and formed the basis of the American First movement that
warned of Roosevelt’s
planned war for Churchill and Stalin. Indeed, their roots go back even
further, to the states-rights opposition to Lincoln’s military
consolidation of the country.

Republicans must return to their interwar impulse, and resist
military internationalism before the U.S. is entrenched as the very
global menace the U.S.S.R. was always said to be. The Buckley surrender
is a good first step. What is needed now is a wholesale ideological
restructuring, to rid the last vestiges of warfare statism from the mind
of anyone calling himself a conservative.

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