TCS Daily

Buchanan Mellows

By Ramesh Ponnuru - September 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Has Patrick Buchanan come back to the fold of mainstream American conservatism? His new book, Where the Right Went Wrong, would almost make you think so. He covers the themes of his previous three books -- The Great Betrayal, his brief for protectionism; A Republic, Not an Empire, his history of American foreign policy; and The Death of the West, about demographics and immigration -- but he leaves out some of the most provocative views he has expressed over the last decade.

Buchanan's break with the conventional Right began with his opposition to the first Gulf War. He ignores that opposition now. That's probably a good move, for three reasons. First, Buchanan has enough of a burden to carry in arguing that America would be better off had we left Saddam in charge of Iraq. He may not want to have to argue that we would be better off if Saddam had also controlled the oil fields of Kuwait and been in a position to intimidate the Saudis. Second, Buchanan wants to claim credit for prescience about the Iraq war of 2003. It would not be helpful for readers to learn that he made the same predictions in 1990 about a military quagmire and the Arab world's rising against us. Nor would it be helpful for them to learn that he said similar things about the Afghan war of 2001 -- which is why he now presents himself, grotesquely, as a supporter of that war. That might lead readers to think about stopped clocks. (It might even lead them to consider that his 2003 predictions have not really been realized, either.) Third, Buchanan wishes to present the Iraq war as the handiwork of a neoconservative cabal. Many people are prepared to believe that George W. Bush was manipulated by some shadowy group into waging this war. But fewer people would be willing to believe, with Buchanan, that the first Gulf War was also their doing, that Bush's father was also manipulated, and that the neoconservatives have been running foreign policy intermittently for years.

There is almost nothing in this book of Buchanan's revisionism about the world wars (save for a stray reference to Chamberlain's real blunder having been to guarantee the Poles' freedom).

On trade, Buchanan remains a protectionist. His chapter on trade is called "Economic Treason." But it does not include the specific proposals he made in his trade book, which included a 15 percent tariff on all imports that compete with American-made products and much higher tariffs on poor countries.

Buchanan even presents himself as a born-again budget cutter. President Bush and his Republicans have abandoned the true faith, he says, citing Bush's comment, from Labor Day of last year, that "government has got to move" whenever "somebody hurts." Never mind that when the Gingrich Republicans tried to cut federal spending, Buchanan dissented. Never mind that Buchanan's initial response to Bush's "compassionate conservatism" was to accuse him of ripping off his own "conservatism of the heart." Bush's comment was a pretty stark departure from conservatism. So is this: "Better the occasional sins of a government acting out of a spirit of charity than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." Which is what Buchanan wrote in The Great Betrayal (the line is a paraphrase from FDR).

And Buchanan is backing Bush in this election, after having run against him in the last one. Now this is extremely odd. Buchanan presents the Bush of 2000 as having had a sensible foreign policy. Since then, Buchanan tells us, our author has founded "a magazine dedicated to opposing an invasion of Iraq," and, the president has invaded Iraq and thrown in with the neocons and empire. He suggests that he is backing Bush over the courts: Bush has nominated good judges, and fought the good fight for them. Maybe the most charitable explanation for Buchanan's switch is that he distrusted Bush's promises on judges in 2000 but believes them now.

There is plenty to dispute in Buchanan's book. His conspiracy-mongering about Iraq is dumb and ugly. He has drunk more deeply of moral relativism than he appears to realize ("One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" gets trotted out.) He whines about being accused of lacking patriotism, after spending more than a decade accusing other Americans of being more loyal to Israel than their own country and calling free traders traitors. Much of his foreign policy seems to be based on betting against "the self-indulgent Americans of today." His China policy makes no sense: He does not want us to do anything to provoke Beijing, but he expects them to be unruffled if we restrict trade with them.

The uninformed observer who read the book, however, would think that Buchanan is just a Bush-supporting conservative who opposes the Iraq war, wishes the Republicans would cut spending, and worries about trade and the courts: that Buchanan was a punchier, protectionist version of George Will. Buchanan's mellowing would be a welcome change -- except for the way he papers over his past. Buchanan revealed in his foreign-policy book a fondness for revisionist history. He has now applied it to himself. And that makes his self-presentation as the last Reaganite standing, the one man who has kept the true faith while others drifted into heresy, a little hard to take.

The author is senior editor at National Review.


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