Changing World, Unchanging Worldview

Reviewed by Fred Kaplan
Sunday, April 27, 2008

U.S. vs. THEM

How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security

By J. Peter Scoblic

Viking. 350 pp. $25.95

The shelves are already bulging with books about George W. Bush's disastrous foreign policy -- where it went wrong, how to steer things right. Yet space should be made for J. Peter Scoblic's U.S. vs. Them, if only because it points out that there's nothing "neo" about the neoconservatives.

The neocons' military unilateralism, shunning of diplomacy as "appeasement," scorn of international institutions as "unwelcome checks on American power" -- all these notions, Scoblic argues, are rooted in un-prefixed American conservatism, a movement founded by William F. Buckley in the 1950s, which fused the once separate strands of libertarianism and religious traditionalism into a crusade against Roosevelt's New Deal at home and Truman's containment abroad.

Bush, Scoblic writes, "is the direct descendant -- indeed, the ultimate product -- of this movement" because, unlike other postwar Republican presidents, he has taken conservatives' foreign policy ideas seriously and brought their dreams to deadly life.

Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, talked of "rolling back" the Soviet empire, but Ike and Dulles abided by the realism of their Democratic predecessors, Harry Truman and Dean Acheson, who, as Scoblic puts it, valued nuclear deterrence over "moral clarity." Nixon, whom Scoblic treats as an arms-control hero, did much the same, at least in superpower politics.

Conservatives credit Reagan's ideological purity with winning the Cold War. But Scoblic notes that the Soviets folded only because, in his second term, Reagan turned liberal. It's often forgotten that many on the right lambasted their idol for sitting down with Mikhail Gorbachev and still more for the accords he negotiated, especially the one eliminating medium-range missiles in Europe.

Reagan's crucial role, Scoblic says, was that "he recognized Gorbachev as a reformer and adapted quickly . . . ratcheting down the nuclear tension that he himself had helped create." Had Reagan persisted in his earlier rhetoric, as several aides and columnists urged, "Gorbachev would have lost his room to maneuver" within the Politburo; his attempts at reform, which required outreach to the West, would have wilted; and the Cold War might have rumbled on, ending at some point but perhaps not so cordially.

Scoblic, executive editor of the New Republic, isn't out to puncture GOP myths but to frame them in a historical context. He traces the conservative worldview ("us versus them," "good versus evil") to the nation's beginnings, when the colonists were "in fact surrounded by enemies" -- Native Americans on one side, European imperialists on the other -- a condition that bred a sense of moral and nationalistic exceptionalism.

By the mid-20th century, the rise of the Axis powers, the vital role that we played in winning World War II and the nuclear arms race that followed all rendered this lofty apartness untenable. "International security required reaching some sort of modus vivendi with the enemy so that the world did not suddenly end in nuclear holocaust," Scoblic writes. "Conservatives were not only ill-suited to meeting this task; they rejected its very premise."

Conservatives staged a revival under George W. Bush, in part because it seemed they could. With the Soviet Union gone, they thought the United States could flex its muscles without limit or risk. And so the "us-versus-them worldview" revived, with democratization serving as the "ideological successor to anticommunism." The goal was the same -- "to make victory permanent so that there would never again be a question of engaging with evil." Yet as Acheson noted in 1949, "good and evil have existed in this world since Adam and Eve went out of the garden of Eden."

Scoblic is among a growing number of liberals who, repulsed by Bush's kind of "moral clarity," have embraced a return to realism in foreign policy -- not quite Nixon-Kissinger realpolitik but at least a modest view of the world as it really works. He writes, for instance, that presidents should be elected for their "empiricism, pragmatism, and leadership." (He stays mum on which of the present candidates best fits the bill.)

Yet Scoblic sometimes falls prey to his own us-versus-them thinking. In drawing contrasts with Bush, he gives the impression that Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Brent Scowcroft are of the same ilk -- which brushes over significant differences. He waves away Truman's conservative tendencies as politically expedient rhetoric, when Truman probably believed in them. He sees John F. Kennedy as confused, but the confusion is partly Scoblic's; JFK doesn't neatly fit into his liberal/conservative matrix.

Scoblic doesn't address the age-old, now-vital question of whether and how moral factors should enter into foreign policy. He draws a distinction between policies that are "moral" (good) and "moralist" (bad), but he never clearly defines the terms. Instead, he devotes his final chapter to the danger of nuclear proliferation -- an issue both narrower and broader than the rest of the book's scope -- and then fails to offer a solution, except to say that negotiating to prevent nuclear war should take precedence over violent regime change. I closed this otherwise satisfying book, thinking, "OK, but then what?" ยท

Fred Kaplan is national security columnist for Slate and the author of "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power."

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