TCS Daily

Right From the Beginning, Left at the End

By Michael Rosen - September 13, 2004 12:00 AM

"The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not "insurgents" or "terrorists" or 'The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow -- and they will win. Get it, Mr. Bush?"

-- April 14, 2004

"Terrorism is the price of empire...[I]t's something the British might say when they were driven out of Palestine, the French might say when they were driven out of Algeria. Quite simply, in this modern world, if you try to rule other peoples, even to alter them, make them democratic or force them to change their ways to conform to your own, you're going to have a serious problem with those people. They're going to fight, just like the American revolutionaries fought against the British Empire. We ought to know that. We were the first rise up against an empire."

-- September 3, 2004.

If you guessed that Michael Moore uttered these words, you would be half-right. Moore's infamous equation of Iraqi terrorists-cum-insurgents to the American minutemen earned him as much praise from the left as scorn from the center and the right. But you might be surprised to discover that Patrick J. Buchanan gave voice to the second quote during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, a political talk-show airing on HBO.

Buchanan, variously described as an arch-conservative, a paleoconservative, and a populist conservative, has throughout his career shirked the orthodoxies of the Republican party and the prevailing norms of conservatism. In his magazine, The American Conservative, and in his latest book, Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency (Thomas Dunne Books, 272 pp.) -- reviewed in these pages by Ramesh Ponnuru -- Buchanan presents his case for an "authentic" conservatism that has been infected by radical, Johnny-come-lately variants. Yet many of Buchanan's positions, most recently on the War on Terror, have placed him and his supporters in ideological company with the left.

Buchanan has moved slowly but steadily out of the Republican mainstream. An adviser to three presidents, Buchanan first made his own bid for the White House in 1992 when he challenged a sitting Republican president. At the convention in Houston that year, he delivered a fiery address (widely, but mistakenly, thought to undermine President George H.W. Bush's reelection strategy). In 1996, Buchanan managed to capture the New Hampshire primary but ultimately lost the nomination to Bob Dole. And in 2000, Buchanan broke with the Republican Party, seemingly for good, and assailed Bush from the right under the confines of the Reform Party.

Buchanan's policies, too, have strayed from popular conservative dogma. To begin with, much ink has been spilled about the alliance between the far left and the far right with regard to immigration and free trade. From the 1999 anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle to raging debates about patrolling our borders, a left-right alliance has coalesced around preserving jobs for American workers, reducing unemployment and raising wages by combating illegal immigration, and imposing barriers -- be they tariffs or environmental and labor restrictions -- to promote "fair trade." In a recent interview with Buchanan, Ralph Nader, the country's best-known leftist politician, made a bid for the "disenfranchised Right" by referring to NAFTA and the World Trade Organization as "sovereignty-shredding" institutions.

Yet it is the Buchananite right's recent criticisms of the Iraq War, of the Bush administration, and of the fight against global terror as a whole that have captured the most attention and that reflect a closer intellectual propinquity with the left than previously thought. For starters, if the sheer number of times a writer invokes the term "empire" in referring to the U.S. is any indication of the degree of his leftism, then Buchanan qualifies as a leftist par excellence. Buchanan peppers almost every chapter of his new book as well as many article headlines and the title of his 2002 A Republic, Not an Empire (Regnery, 437 pp.) with imperial language reminiscent of Noam Chomsky.

The hyperbole is startling. In Where Right Went Wrong, Buchanan labels the Bush administration's foreign policy "the imperial edict of a superpower out to exploit its present supremacy to make itself permanent Lord Protector of the universe." He writes that "[w]e are not hated for who we are. We are hated for what we do. It is not our principles that have spawned pandemic hatred of America in the Islamic world. It is our policies." And: "U.S. dominance of the Middle East is not the corrective to terror. It is a cause of terror. Were we not over there, the 9/11 terrorists would not have been over here."

These complaints were all too familiar within the walls of the academy and in the pages of the Nation in the wake of the September 11th attacks. But to hear a "man of the right" utter them is a rare occurrence indeed.

Many commentators have already debunked this approach at length. But a few words are in order nonetheless. For instance, The American Conservative's Mission Statement derides American participation in an "open-ended war against much of the Arab and Muslim world" for reasons that "hardly touch upon America's own vital interests." Yet the battle was joined by militant Islam through terrorist bombings carried out years before 9/11, let alone the Iraq War. Furthermore, our vital interests have clearly been implicated in the struggle, especially as increasingly sophisticated terrorists attempt to get their hands of weapons of mass destruction.

Similarly problematic is the Buchananite depiction of President Reagan as a man of appeasement, a revision of Reagan's record akin to that of many liberals who, in the wake of Reagan's death, contrasted him with Bush. According to this line of historical reasoning, Reagan was hardly the heroic war-monger who gambled our very existence on challenging the Soviet Union. Instead, he was a pragmatic realist who held back American might and prestige more often than not, a reserve and humility that have been betrayed by the Bush Administration and its advisers.

But while it is true that Reagan sent American troops into combat only on very rare and limited occasions, he often risked war and was unafraid to battle the USSR through proxies in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola. As Buchanan acknowledges, Reagan staked the Euro-American alliance on deploying Pershing missiles on the European mainland in the 1980's, a move that embittered our French and German allies but that showed resolve in the face of Soviet aggression.

Reagan's forceful attitude, not to say swagger, liberated American international and strategic policy from the morass of compromise and naïve reconciliation that marked the Carter years. Indeed, it was in the Reagan administration that the likes of Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeane Kirkpatrick -- neoconservative bugaboos who draw Buchanan's ire -- first began to make their influence felt. Thus, Reagan, in word and deed, did at least as much to inspire the muscular internationalism of neoconservatism as Bush has done today.

Finally, the Buchanan approach to Israel is of a piece with his general tilt toward the ideas of the left-wing. Much has been written about Buchanan's views on Israel and its supporters in the U.S. Yet it should be pointed out that he is better depicted not as an opponent of Israel's right to exist but as a supporter of the Israeli left. Just as parties of a leftist tilt in Israel believe that the Jewish state must make deep-seated compromises to achieve peace with the Arab world, so has Buchanan castigated successive right-of-center Israeli leaders and their American "amen corner" for their "intransigence." On Bill Maher's show, he slammed Bush for "outsourcing American Middle East policy to [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon." Similarly, Nader, in his interview with Buchanan, decried the "subservience of our congressional and White House puppets to Israeli military policy." Thus, like much of the Israeli and American left, Buchanan believes that America should strongly pressure Israel into negotiating a settlement with its Palestinian interlocutors.

To be sure, much of the Buchanan movement remains bitterly hostile to the liberal agenda. Buchanan argues in Where Right Went Wrong that the left exploits the "tyranny of judges" as a "Ho Chi Minh trail around democracy." His cultural and social views on abortion, pornography, and gay marriage will never win him the allegiance of the academic or militant left. Yet in the service of his version of conservatism, Buchanan has of late made arguments, used language, and backed ideas that fit rather neatly in a left-wing mold.

Ronald Reagan, the leader to whom Buchanan pays fealty in his latest book and a Democrat in his acting days, famously said that he didn't leave the Democratic Party, the party left him. Yet one gets the sense, in Buchanan's case, that it is he who has abandoned Republican ideology and principles, not the other way around. In comparing Iraqi militants to American revolutionaries, Buchanan is adopting at least the rhetoric of the left. After all, in the breathless words of Bill Maher, "that's something Michael Moore might say."

The author is a TCS contributor.


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