What’s really important in the Bush-McCain war is not religion,
taxes, or campaign finance reform. The crucial issue, though it is
hardly mentioned at all, concerns the use of the military in foreign
policy. Neither Bush nor McCain are pure exemplars of the two sides
struggling for control of the GOP and U.S. foreign policy. But they
still nicely represent the opposing camps that have been at each other’s
throats at least two times since World War II: 1952 and 1989.
More than a half century ago, at the end of the war, America could
have restored the original ideal of constitutional foreign policy, with
no entangling alliances, no presidential overreach, no foreign aid, and
leadership by example through trade and freedom. This view was the
mainstream position within the Republican Party, which was still very
bitter that FDR had not only nationalized the economy during the New
Deal, but then dragged the U.S. into war against his own campaign
pledge. This position was well represented by the great Sen. Robert
Taft, the last constitutionalist in the Senate.
The other side favored continued military expansion, the Bretton
Woods institution of the World Bank and the IMF, foreign aid and postwar
occupation of Europe in the name of restraining Russia (which the U.S.
had just helped conquer East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia,
Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Bulgaria). This was the official position of
the Truman administration, beginning with its promotion of the Marshall
Plan and its subsequent scheme to keep U.S. troops in Europe by raising
the specter of communism.
Neither Truman nor Taft were against free trade with the world,
though Truman made it clear that he favored using the power of the
federal government to manage international trade, while Taft was more
skeptical of the role of international institutions. The deliberately
nebulous terms “isolationist” and “internationalist” were tossed around
as descriptions of their respective positions. A better way to delineate
the difference is that one believed that the U.S. state should possess
and exercise messianic power while the other was happy with the old
Republic envisioned by Jefferson and Madison.
Each position had a domestic agenda that roughly paralleled the
foreign one. Taft and the Taftians were small-government conservatives:
against the New Deal, in favor of free enterprise, and suspicious of
social engineering. The Truman forces, of course, favored the New Deal
revolution and the nationalization of industry that took place during
the war and were loathe to preside over any pullbacks. Social
engineering in the form of federal intervention in schools (both public
schools and universities) was in the works.
The GOP might have represented a united front against the Democrats’
statist plans, both domestic and foreign, but for an emerging fifth
column within the party itself. It paraded around as anti-establishment
but in fact was beloved by the media and the party that controlled the
White House. Its standard bearer was Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Though
he was largely a dupe for the interest groups that backed him, his
agenda was only slightly and irrelevantly to the right of the Truman
The nomination process for the 1952 presidential race pitted
Eisenhower against Taft, with the main issue being foreign policy. The
two sides slugged it out, and though Taft more clearly represented the
GOP mainstream, the Eisenhower forces eventually prevailed through a
very slick use of free media and underhanded credentials fights at the
Republican convention. The Old Right represented by Taft was defeated,
and the ideological position it represented lay largely dormant for 40
At the end of the Cold War, history repeated itself with a titanic
struggle for the heart and soul of the GOP. Though the party had moved
far to the left from its position in the late 1940s (Reagan had by now
trained party regulars to like FDR, for example), there was still the
matter of foreign policy. A group of dissident voices on the right
worked to resurrect the Taft movement from days gone by, and demanded
that the U.S. curb its world empire, leave Europe, and focus on cutting
the military leviathan down to size.
On the opposing side was the tiny but ubiquitous group of
neoconservatives, who had left the Democratic party precisely because
the Republican Party, since 1972, was seen as the preferred vehicle for
the promotion of U.S. international military ambition. After the fall of
communism, the moment presented itself to restore George Washington’s
policy of trade with all and conflict with none, but the
neoconservatives dedicated themselves to ensuring that this would not
happen (just as the Trumanites had after WWII).
The soul searching began in 1989, as leading neocon intellectuals
wondered what they would do with their lives after the fall of
communism. Joshua Muravchik, the man the Wall Street Journal described
as “the most cogent and careful of the neoconservative writers on
foreign policy,” wondered if he should get out of politics altogether.
“Can I maintain the motivation and interest in being what I have been
for the first 20-odd years of my adult life over the size of the school
budget?” he daydreamed.
Sadly, his daydream didn’t last. Rather than get out of politics, he
jumped back into it, just as all the neocons did. Instead of retiring,
he came up with the idea that the end of the Cold War provided the
opportunity to follow “a more idealistic and crusading foreign policy,”
spreading democracy to such places as Somalia, Panama, Iraq, and Libya.
They won control of the Bush administration, but their series of absurd
foreign wars ended in disaster, turning American public sentiment
decisively toward the isolationist side.
Also in these days, Pat Buchanan was converted from an anti-communist
international crusader into a Taft Republican. In the months between
mid-1989 and early 1992, when he challenged Bush for the nomination, he
articulated a magnificent vision of an independent America, free of
federal tyranny at home and free of entangling military commitments
abroad. Except for some small heresies (which would grow larger in the
years to come), he was adopting a position best described as old-style
right-libertarianism, which has been the view of all the great political
dissidents in American history from Jefferson through Robert Taft.
(Sadly, despite great speeches on such subjects as sanctions, Pat
plunged headlong into protectionist nationalism, a brew as likely to
lead to war as militarist internationalism.)
In the Clinton years, the neocons have been hibernating, out of power
but pleased to see their international agenda faithfully carried out by
their left-wing counterparts. Hence, we have had war after war, imposed
sanctions on dozens of countries, inflicted domestic controls in the
name of international security, laid waste to several whole countries,
and mucked up a dozen more by interfering in their politics. If you
want to see the consequences of military internationalism, look no
further than the mess the Clinton administration has created in such
places as Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, Indonesia, and Russia.
And where are the neocons today? Two places, mainly: the editorial
board of the Weekly Standard (where they cheer for McCain in issue after
tedious issue) and among McCain’s international advisers. His advisers
list is a blast from the past of the worst militarism of days gone by.
The names include warhawk Zbigniew Brzezinski, Reagan leftover Richard
Burt, Kissingerite Larry Eagleburger, social democrat war enthusiast
Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Henry Kissinger himself, and Iran-Contra man “Bud”
As a result, and due to their influence, McCain’s speeches look like
a random assemblage of neocon rhetorical devices. In his famous
anti-religion speech, McCain referred to “national greatness,” a phrase
employed by David Brooks of the Weekly Standard to sum up a wildly
statist agenda. He talked up the “American experiment,” a favorite
phrase intended to portray the U.S. as a disembodied ideology without a
founding history or people. He talked up Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham
Lincoln, the neocons’ two favorite empire-consolidating presidents.
Finally, he urged us to “believe in a national purpose that is greater
than our individual interests” — which might make a great slogan for
the McCain Youth.
And what of George W.? He’s a strong free trader, which is a plus.
And on foreign military policy, he appears to be better than his father
(but all politicians are better out of office than in). His general
theme is that he wants “good relations” with foreign countries. That’s a
great start. True, he’s no Taft, but even that mildly anti-militarist
sentiment is enough to cause the warhawks fits. An article in the Wall
Street Journal blasted him for seeing good relations as an end in
itself, which leads “critics to question his leadership skills and his
credentials as a reformer abroad.”
Haven’t we had enough of American presidents who seek reform abroad?
So long as they have the power to lord it over foreign countries, and
keep the American population in a frenzy about the “experiment” in
“greatness” that involves bombing factories, apartments, and bridges
abroad, the federal leviathan will continue to expand here at home.
Never trust any politician who demands that we sacrifice “individual
interest” for “national purpose,” because somehow the vaunted national
purpose, defined by those in power, always comes at the expense of the
liberty of those out of power.