Today, July 29 National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interviewed J. Peter Scoblib about his new book, U.S. Versus Them. Scoblib is the executive editor of the New Republic, and former editor of Arms Control Today. He wrote the book while he was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a visiting researcher at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies. The goal of his book was to look at his area of expertise, arms control, to ascertain the main strands of thought that led to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He came away with the thesis that the Bush administration’s foreign policy was largely shaped by the new conservatism of William Buckley’s National Review and Barry Goldwater.
The first term of George W. Bush had a moralist foreign policy that according to Scoblib came from the new conservatism that emerged during the Cold War. Before World War II, conservatives were mostly isolationist and divided. They did not want America to be involved in Europe’s problems, and were divided between social conservatives that were upset with the direction of the country’s culture that they believed was abandoning Christianity, and anti-government economic conservatives. William Buckley and his National Review magazine were largely credited with uniting these two factions in their opposition to communism to form the new conservatism. Russia threatened to spread godless communism where the government would control all aspects of the economy, which brought together the two strains of conservative thought. This new ideology believed that the Cold War was a moral battle between good and evil. They did not believe that Russia could be negotiated with, and that only a massive American military and a large nuclear stockpile could stop them from taking over. Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona became the public symbol for this new breed of thought.
Ronald Reagan was the first to bring these new ideas about conservatism to the White House, but his presidency turned out to be a paradox. Members of his administration believed that the U.S. needed to confront Russia and thought it could win the Cold War, even win a nuclear confrontation. Following these beliefs Reagan rejected arms control negotiations, wanted to deploy Pershing nuclear missiles to Europe, announced the Star Wars missile defense system, and civil defense plans to be carried out in case of a nuclear attack. A funny thing happened though in his second term. In the last four years of Reagan’s presidency he turned 180 degrees and began doing all the things that he opposed. He opened negotiations with Russia, cut mid-range missiles, and had a friendly relationship with Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The conservatives were beside themselves, attacking Reagan for selling out America’s ideals and even claiming that the communists had duped him. When the Soviet Union fell apart the new conservatives rationalized it by saying that it was Reagan’s strong opposition to communism that made it collapse. They said it was an example of the triumph of peace through strength, forgetting that the president had abandoned most of those policies in the last half of his term in office.
The new conservatives and another group calling themselves neoconservatives took up the Buckley-Goldwater-Reagan mantle in the Bush administration. In the White House’s stance towards Iraq you saw the vision of a moral battle between good and evil, and the belief that only force should be used to protect America not negotiations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton, who is often labeled a neoconservatives but isn’t, represented the new conservative stance that military power is what should be used to protect America. They saw Saddam Hussein as a threat to the U.S’s interests in the Middle East who couldn’t be left in power after 9/11. They wanted to go in fast, overthrow the government, and get out just as quickly. The neoconservatives were mostly former liberals who abandoned the Democratic Party because it opposed the Vietnam War, which was seen as a cop out to communism. They brought to the Republicans the belief in a moral foreign policy based upon confronting evil regimes such as Iraq. They wanted to spread good by bringing democracy to the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam. Neither faction believed that talking with Iraq would do anything but maintain the regime. Like the Cold War united the social and economic conservatives, Iraq proved to be the bridge that connected the new conservatives and neoconservatives in the Bush White House. The result was the invasion of Iraq.
In the end, Scoblib believes that a moral foreign policy is dangerous. He said that the new conservative stance during the Cold War escalated tensions with the Soviet Union more than they had to be, and blocked constructive engagement over issues such as nuclear weapons that could have stabilized things more. Taking a moral view of the world leads to absolutes where there is nothing acceptable but a victory over evil. It also leads to a reliance upon force to protect the nation. The conservatives and neoconservatives thought they had proof of their beliefs when Reagan was elected to office and the Soviet Union collapsed. Scoblib believes that Russia was going to fall apart whether Reagan was president or not because communism was not a sustainable system. Reagan ended up abandoning most of his confrontational policies anyways and began talking with Russia, something that both conservative groups expunged from their histories to justify their own worldview. All of these ideas played out in Iraq where you had two conservative groups in the White House that had different ideas about the world, but united in their opposition to Saddam. They decided on war, and sidelined countries like France and Germany that wanted to negotiate, and used the United Nations only to provide an excuse for an invasion. The fact that the new conservatives and neoconservatives had different visions of what to do after the war was never really discussed. Although Scoblib didn’t mention it in his interview, this division is what led to the predicament the U.S. now finds itself in Iraq. The conservative ideologies led to a war that had no united post-invasion vision. Scoblib does bring up the example of Libya where forces within the administration were able to oppose the conservatives and negotiate Muammar Qaddafi’s unilateral destruction of his weapons of mass destruction and nuclear programs. Qaddafi was just as much of a rogue leader and terrorist supporter as Saddam Hussein in the Middle East. In fact, it turned out that Libya had a much more advanced weapons program. This could have been an alternative outcome to the invasion of Iraq.
Fresh Air, “’U.S. Versus Them’: The Cost Of Hawkishness,” National Public Radio, 7/29/08
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