“America as the World’s Only Superpower Actually Detracts
from our National Security”: Interview with the Editor of The American
Conservative, former Neocon, Scott McConnell
Scott McConnell is the editor of The American Conservative, a magazine he founded with Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos in 2002. McConnell has a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, and was formerly the editorial page editor of The New York Post. He has been a columnist for Antiwar.com and New York Press. His work has been published in Commentary, Fortune, National Review, The New Republic, and many other publications.
Kevin Zeese: The views of "conservatives" on foreign policy and the use of the military are broad including Robert Taft-style isolationism, Dwight Eisenhower's prudent internationalism to George W. Bush's unilateral militarism. As the editor of The American Conservative magazine, where do you see the views of conservatives on militarism and foreign intervention? Where are you on these issues?
Scott McConnell: You’re right that there are now radically divergent views among people who, for the most part, supported Reagan during the '80s. It can’t be denied that most “movement” conservatives support Bush’s foreign policy, by which I mean people tied in some way to the Republican establishment and the larger number of people who identify with it. But there are significant pockets of dissent, both among realists -- prudent internationalists who on balance would have found Eisenhower an excellent president and among the heirs of the old isolationist tradition. I’ve learned quite a lot from isolationists in the past few years, they are invariably a repository of sharp insights and good polemics. But I’m probably closer to the realist tradition myself. I basically respect what the United States did after World War II to restore the Western world; I don’t think we could have avoided the Cold War, (or the Second World War). But after the Soviet Union imploded, I began to think it was time for the United States to pull back and become (as I think Jeanne Kirkpatrick said at the time, before her neoconservative friends reminded her that she shouldn’t say stuff like that) a “normal country” again.
My own thoughts (because I had been a neoconservative, used to write for the magazine Commentary, was comfortable and friendly with the Committee for the Free World crowd) evolved fairly slowly, but by the late 1990s I thought we should not be bombing Serbia (though it hasn’t seemed to have turned out disastrously) and I certainly opposed the attack on Iraq in 2003. Our magazine is open to both the Taftian and Eisenhower perspectives, but we are, over all, a minority faction within the conservative movement.
KZ: The Iraq War seems to be dividing both of the old parties. In my state, Maryland, the most recent polls show that 52 percent of Republicans oppose the Iraq War. Do you see a disconnect between the Bush Administration's policies on Iraq and the views of American conservatives?
SM: If you define conservative as a belief in some necessary link between a country’s past traditions and its present conduct, yes there is a disconnect. Many people have made the point that Bush’s policies in Iraq are radical -- this great sense that you can re-make the world for the good by military force seems loony. Or if not loony, at least Jacobin, reminiscent of the French revolutionaries so enthralled by their own notions of freedom that they sent their armies everywhere to export it. To their surprise, they eventually found most of Europe resistant to this type of liberation.
But that said, the belief that Bush’s foreign policy isn’t conservative at all is something that makes sense to a certain number of intellectuals. Probably a majority of Americans who call themselves conservatives -- even if they don’t actually believe it is conservative to invade other countries to make them free -- at least so identify with the Republican Party that they are willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt.
A great deal of this is due to conservatives who have bonded with the Republican Party on social and cultural issues, and are willing to give the President leeway in areas in which they assume that the president knows more than they do. The 52 percent figure you cite surprises me a bit, but perhaps Maryland has an unusual political culture.
KZ: In a recent issue, an article in your magazine entitled "Twilight of Conservatism," the author quotes Robert Nisbet one of the intellectuals of the American conservative movement as saying:
War and the military are, without question, among the very worst of the earth’s afflictions, responsible for the majority of the torments, oppressions, tyrannies, and suffocations of thought the West has for long been exposed to. In military or war society anything resembling true freedom of thought, true individual initiative in the intellectual and cultural and economic areas, is made impossible -- not only cut off when they threaten to appear but, worse, extinguished more or less at root. Between military and civil values there is, and always has been, relentless opposition. Nothing has proved more destructive of kinship, religion, and local patriotisms than has war and the accompanying military mind.
Could you comment on this sentiment? In particular, how do traditional conservatives see the military industrial complex? Are they concerned that the U.S. spends as much as the whole world combined on the military? That the military budget makes up half of our discretionary spending?
SM: I think Nisbet is right. War is almost always a destructive and revolutionary force. I don’t think it’s always avoidable, and I recognize, without undergoing paroxysms of guilt, that a lot of the power and wealth of the United States, which we all have benefited from, are the fruits of war.
But I’ve come to think the over-armament of the United States, and the concomitant belief we can have a military option in dealing with almost every global problem, actually poses a threat to our well being. It’s undeniable that terrorists have potentially more power to kill and maim than they have in the past, and the more we are involved militarily in the world -- occupying other countries, or attacking them, the more people will see us as the cause of the their problems, and the more will think that hurting us will help solve them.
So while I don’t necessarily believe that our military budget (still much smaller portion of our budget than it was during the height of the Cold War) could be so transferred to solve all our social problems, I think the idea of America as the world’s only superpower -- an idea that is the consequence of our comparably huge amount of military spending -- actually detracts from our national security.
KZ: I found your editorial "The Weekly Standard's War" to be particularly interesting. It highlighted the conflict between conservatives and neo-conservatives, and the competition between The American Conservative and The Weekly Standard. What are your views on these conflicts and competition?
SM: The battle between different elements of conservatism is in part a battle of ideas. I think if you took our magazine’s views on, let’s say, foreign policy, immigration, and the economy -- and put them along side the positions of The Standard, and presented them in a sort of blind taste test to the delegates at the last Republican convention (as an example of a sample of politically engaged and active conservatives) we’d do pretty well. (We are for lower rates of immigration, and more skeptical about free trade than the Standard.)
But it’s not only a battle of ideas, it’s also an institutional battle. And the neoconservatives (represented by The Standard) have about twenty times the institutional heft of traditional conservatives. They control a great number of think tanks, and other magazines and newspapers; they can pay a lot of salaries, which means that for a great deal of neoconservatives, ideological politicking can be a career, rather than an avocation you might engage in with the time left over after your day job. That gives them a large advantage. I don’t really know the answer to this, but the success of the neoconservatives in building institutions, which in effect means finding people who have made a great deal of money to fund them, far outstrips their ability to make cogent arguments for their case -- and the latter is not inconsiderable.
KZ: Your recent obituary of Eugene McCarthy, "Peace Candidate, 68 Vintage," you describe McCarthy as an "accidental Buchananite." He is viewed as a liberal by many. How do you see him? What did you mean by that phrase? Do you see connections between the left and the right in the United States?
SM: After I wrote the piece, I saw a quotation from Norman Mailer who described (in 1968) McCarthy as the most conservative man to run for president in his lifetime. During that time -- much like today, it was “liberals” who opposed the Vietnam war, conservatives who backed it. But under the surface there were powerful cross currents -- both small government conservatives who opposed the war, and liberals (the future neoconservatives, for instance, who were beginning their march to the Right. There were pro-war socialists -- Carl Gershman and Joshua Muravchik, for instance, who have since emerged as leading neoconservatives. )
McCarthy always had a somewhat conservative sensibility, which perhaps impeded him as a candidate. He had no talent as a populist, made no effort to flatter “the people” in his campaign, which is why the Left never was as comfortable with him as with Bobby Kennedy (who actually was a latecomer in opposing the war.). I didn’t follow Gene’s career much after 1968 -- but in the 90s became aware of him as a fellow immigration restrictionist, one of those who for a variety of reasons (environmental, impact on the class structure, distrust of rapid demographic change) thought we should slow down our immigration rates. Late in life he wrote a book about this, and said some nice things about Pat Buchanan during the 2000 campaign. He seemed to have, at least in part, one of those traditionalist sensibilities that is skeptical of change. For instance, I remember a piece he wrote in The New Republic, perhaps in the 1980s, in which he mocked the notion of playing baseball on artificial turf, describing, in a humorous way, how it altered and corrupted the game. There is are good arguments for that, but also just an aspect of the conservative esprit -- that there is a kind of natural legitimacy about the way things are, and ought to be changed at their peril. Now obviously Gene was not resistant to all change; I suspect he was liberal on most social issues, he was, after all, elected as a Minnesota Democrat, in one of the most progressive regions of the country. But he was traditionalist. He clearly would have found it difficult to explain why it is “conservative” to show contempt for the natural environment which God has given us -- but that is something I don’t understand about most modern day conservatives either.
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