After nearly two years of bitter controversy about the role of neo-conservatives in dragging the country into a useless and apparently endless war in the Middle East, it has finally begun to dawn on some of the neo-cons’ liberal enemies that their critics on the right have been warning about them for years. In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, New Republic editor Franklin Foer at last discovered the “paleo-conservatives.”
“Long before French protesters and liberal bloggers had even heard of the neoconservatives, the paleoconservatives were locked in mortal combat with them,” Mr. Foer writes. As one who carries wounds from such combats, I can testify that he’s right. In recent years, the role of neo-con policy makers like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and others in concocting phony reasons to make war on Iraq has become notorious — mainly because liberals themselves have talked about it in their own publications. The liberals should have listened to what we paleos were saying a long time ago. [Once Again, America First, By Franklin Foer, NYT, October 10, 2004]
Mr. Foer notes that the neo-cons’ response to paleo-conservative criticism “often accused the paleocons of anti-Semitism.” That’s true too, and today the standard neo-con claim is that the word “neo-con” is really only a code for “Jew” and the only people who use it critically are Jew-baiters.
The larger truth is that there has been a paleo-conservative critique of neo-conservatism for years, developed, as Mr. Foer notes, in such magazines as Chronicles and in the columns and books of such folks as Pat Buchanan, historian Paul Gottfried and yours truly.
The Jewish identity of many neo-conservatives probably plays an important role in what they think and why they think it, but for most paleos the problem with the neo-cons is not that they’re Jewish but that even today they’re liberals. Maybe that’s why so many liberals who don’t like the neo-cons won’t talk about the paleo-cons at all. If they did, they’d only call attention to their own flaws as well.
Neo-conservative liberalism is not confined to support for spreading democracy by force, in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, but also includes their sympathy for big government and mass immigration, among other liberal causes. As for the paleos, Mr. Foer seems to think their skepticism toward the Iraq war is rooted in opposition to the state. That’s partly true, but there are other reasons as well.
Paleos do not necessarily oppose war (or the state). They just oppose this war and this state — the war because it’s not in the interest of the nation, is not dictated by our security needs and serves to deflect and distract us from more dangerous enemies and threats; the state, because in the hands of liberals and neo-conservatives it has become an enemy of the real American nation, undermining its people and civilization and invading its freedoms.
Mr. Foer also keeps calling the paleos “isolationists.” That’s true of some but not all. “Isolationism” was mainly a 1930s slur word for Americans who opposed intervention in World War II. Most paleos sympathize with that cause, but few back then or today were or are against all intervention. There are times when intervention (including war) is necessary and just. The Cold War was one of them. The war with the Arabic world today isn’t.
Does paleo-conservatism have a future? Mr. Foer suggests it might. He notes that some establishment conservatives have finally come around to saying the Iraq war was a blunder. None is a paleo, and none will acknowledge that the paleo critics of the war were right all along. But if the paleos were right about the war, maybe they’re right about other matters too.
“It’s easy to imagine that a Bush loss in November, coupled with further failures in Iraq, could trigger a large-scale revolt against neoconservative foreign policy within the Republican Party,” Mr. Foer writes. “A Bush victory, on the other hand, will be interpreted by many Republicans as a vindication of the current course, and that could spur a revolt too. If the party tilts farther toward an activist foreign policy, antiwar conservatives might begin searching for a new political home.”
Actually, quite a few have already started searching, and they’re well advised to do so. A Bush victory would more likely mean their obliteration, since neo-conservative domination would be locked in. But even if Mr. Bush loses, it’s dubious very many Republicans would leap on the paleo bandwagon.
The paleocons have suffered from a bad press, some of it of their own making, but it’s likely that more rank and file American conservatives agree with them than with the neo-cons. If the paleos could learn how to play a little more effectively, they could still deal themselves a better hand in the future, even if it’s outside the GOP.