March 24, 2005

The Other Conservatives

I just discovered the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a fine organization with a wealth of publicly available material, much of it going back years. In these days of freedom expanding into the Middle East and Republicans taking great credit for their embrace of the principles of liberty, it's useful to realize that it wasn't always so. There were plenty of arguments, gentlemanly fights among conservatives without insult or heated, personal invective that tried to set the stage for a post-cold war conservative ideal in foreign policy.

But I can’t help thinking of Woodrow Wilson’s complaint that the only way for a president to “compel compliance” from Congress is to get the nation into “such scrapes” and make such “rash promises” abroad that the Senate cannot disavow him without shaming the United States. And indeed, the authors conclude with a clarion call that would appear to invite scrapes and rash promises: “[Conservatives] hark back to the admonition of John Quincy Adams that America ought not ‘go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’ But why not? The alternative is to leave monsters on the loose, ravaging and pillaging to their heart’s content, as Americans stand by and watch.” Adams’s counsel may have been wise in 1823, they concede, but today “a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor."

I cannot let any slap at John Quincy Adams go unavenged. “Why not?” ask the authors rhetorically. Here’s why not: because if you go abroad in search of monsters, you will invariably find them even if you have to create them. You will then fight them, whether or not you need to, and you will either come home defeated, or else so bloodied that the American people will lose their tolerance for engagement altogether, or else so victorious and full of yourself that the rest of the world will hate you and fear that you'll name them the next monster. And by the way, was it not Ronald Reagan who reminded America in such moving cadences of its calling to be an exemplary City on a Hill? Kristol and Kagan also fail to quote the sentences that immediately follow Adams’s “go not abroad in search of monsters.” The reason not to is that to do so “would involve the United States beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, avarice, envy, and ambition. . . . America might become the dictatress of the world, but she would no longer be the ruler of her own spirit.” The road to hell, that is, is paved with good intentions, as we Vietnam veterans know.

I bear no grudge against Kristol or Kagan. I even agree with them that the U.S. must play a leading role in the world, affirm its values without apology, and recommend them to all mankind. But I believe that the American people and Congress are already, to their credit, on board for an engaged foreign policy, that the quarter of a trillion dollars in our annual Pentagon budget is no trifling sum, and that premature, imprudent crusades are the best way to play into the hands of real “isolationists.” Above all, I fear that the sins of commission that excessive zeal may provoke are more dangerous in our present era than any sins of omission borne of inordinate prudence.

And then came 9/11 and the realization that if the neoconservatives weren't entirely right, they were less wrong than most other factions, conservative or otherwise. But "John Adams" conservatives certainly have a job to do so that we don't become dictators, don't lose our spirit, remain a republic and not an empire. If we're going to win this war, we're likely to have to change a great deal. We can do it without losing our soul but it'll be the fight of our lives.

Posted by TMLutas at March 24, 2005 08:45 PM