Ron Paul’s America
The promise and peril of the isolationist strain in American Conservatism.
Presidential campaign seasons are sometimes more noteworthy for what is not debated than for what is. For example, as I write these words in mid-January, the leading candidates of both parties have barely discussed the important question of whether terrorists strike at America because of “our freedoms” or because of specific policies we undertake. One would have thought this topic quite fundamental to how the next president approaches the most important international problem America faces. (Republican libertarian Ron Paul, to his credit, raised the issue often, but he was always quickly and thunderously dismissed by his opponents.) The reasons why this subject is off limits are clear enough and have to do with political timidity: Democratic candidates, who might genuinely think the answer has to do at least partially with our policies, are too terrified of blowback to state this truth, while the Republicans, to pass muster with their party’s base, hew to George W. Bush’s belief that we are hated because of our “freedoms.”
Nor have we seen, among the Republican candidates, much of a foreign-policy debate at all. I know that some would disagree, pointing to Mike Huckabee’s invocation, in an essay in Foreign Affairs, of the Bush Administration’s “arrogant bunker mentality” in dealing with the rest of the world. Huckabee’s use of this buzz-phrase certainly achieved its goal of receiving a lot of attention on the cable channels. But the rest of the article doesn’t really depart, in hard policy terms, from the standard Republican line on Iraq (let General David Petraeus finish the job), Iran (negotiate, but only up to a point), and a host of other issues. In their respective Foreign Affairs essays, the others did much the same: Rudy Giuliani was the unleashed id of the Cheneyesque world view, John McCain was a close second, and Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson were to varying degrees riding on the same carousel and grabbing at the same ring. And this is the year the GOP is supposedly running away from its establishment.
The Republican Party has become, in short, a party of empire. The conservative movement is now a movement dedicated to American hegemonic dominion. And, given the lack of debate, both will likely remain that way for some time. These statements are true not only of the major presidential candidates, but of the vast majority of Republicans in Congress, most conservative foreign-policy think-tankers, and most high-level GOP operatives involved in policy-making. If the travesty that was our invasion of Iraq has not had the power to change these facts, it is difficult to imagine what set of circumstances could.
This angers me, but “anger” is far too gentle a word for the response it produces in Bill Kauffman. What would a better word be? Well, I don’t quite know, but Kauffman sure would. In fact, I imagine he’d produce a humdinger. Just a few pages into Ain’t My America, his biting history of conservative foreign policy, and all in the space of a little more than one printed page, he employs the words “coruscant,” “nescience,” temerarious,” “adjuration,” and, my personal favorite, “tribade.” Goodness! As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up. I certainly had to.
One either likes this sort of thing or one doesn’t. I mostly do, because a writer who uses words like these is, between the lines, admitting something about himself: Namely, that he has read quite a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. And sure enough, Kauffman, a conservative writer–no, belletrist–whose mad concatenation of opinions and animadversions (there, I’m getting warmed up!) is not remotely captured by that single word, all but confesses to us here and there that he would have been much more at home in a previous century. Not for him the gargantuan, the exurban, and the ceaseless hunger for more and larger and greater and more homogenous, whether the issue under consideration is overseas military bases or 24-hour hardware superstores. Kauffman–like one of his heroes who is oft-invoked in his pages, the conservative essayist and rural Michigan denizen Russell Kirk–aches for the old, the small, the singular, and the pastoral. The world, to his eye, began growing tragically out of scale round about the mid-twentieth century.
No fewer than five times in Ain’t My America does he raise the specter of the Interstate Highway System–not a logical and efficient means of moving people and freight, but for Kauffman a monstrous imposition by the federal jackboot upon a once contentedly local America, happily incurious about remote destinations and properly suspicious of the need to get anywhere in such a damn hurry. Here in a few sentences is the world view, expressed as rebuttal to a colonel who employed a metaphor the author didn’t like:
Ah, chaplain, dear sky pilot, war may be a frequent metaphor but let us not metaphorize war. The soldiers are not “stepping up to the plate” in the Middle East. No one plays baseball there. The place to step up to the plate is in your backyard, or on the local diamond, with your daughter pitching and your son heckling you from shortstop. In which case the family is intact, the children are not suffering, and all is well with the world.
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