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Social networks buzzed last week with the publication of an article by Reihan Salam titled “The New Anti-War Right”, which praised the “conservative case for withdrawal [from Afghanistan]” promoted by Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. The author went so far as to designate Chaffetz as the “beginning of a wave”—that wave being the swelling ranks of “the new Anti-War Right”.
Salam summarizes the situation by observing that “grassroots conservatives” are concerned that the military is “too hamstrung by concern about civilian casualties and political correctness to wage an effective military campaign”, despicably bundling a (noble) regard for innocent life with a widely despised concession to neutered language and protocol. Since when did conservatives show a complete disdain for innocent life?
The answer to that question requires understanding just what the so-called “Right” embodies, as well as its historical evolution. Perhaps no better source material can be found than Justin Raimondo’s Reclaiming the American Right, an exhaustive analysis of how modern conservatism has changed its tune over the years. While shaped by many people and events, the assessment of modern conservatism can largely be summarized as follows:
Throughout the nineteenth century, the party which espoused classical liberalism (a rejection of intervention both domestically and abroad) was not the Republicans, but the Democrats. These fought for limited government, free trade, and no privileges bestowed upon business by government. The onset of the progressive movement in America knocked this libertarian-minded philosophy from its place of popularity, replacing it with a quest for “change”—a slogan popular in campaigns both then and now.
The depression gave way to FDR’s New Deal, which served as a catalyst to fuel the opposing ranks of long-lost libertarians; here modern conservatism was born. This was a broad coalition of conservative and Jeffersonian Democrats, libertarians like Mencken and Nock, and Republicans. As the Democrats intensified and championed the New Deal, this broad group of opposing political forces mostly united under the banner of the Republican Party. As Murray Rothbard has noted, this was an odd occurrence “since, from its inception in the 1850s, the Republican Party had always been the party of statism and centralized Big Government”.
Republicans united in their opposition to the New Deal and became the de facto disciples of classical liberalism and free markets, though these individuals had never really championed either of these causes previously. Their non-interventionist rhetoric became a staple of Republican conservatism—free markets and limited government—though their record in adhering to such ideals has rarely been a match. Rothbard likewise notes that this is a “grievous disjunction between high-sounding free market and libertarian discourses and actual statist practice that has marked conservatism ever since”.
The second World War really gave the “Old Right” its non-interventionist identity, but only after the anti-New-Deal coalition morphed with some changing alliances. By the end of the war, the Old Right was largely Republican and identified by its opposition to intervention both domestic and abroad. Senator Taft became the unofficial but visible spokesman for this wing of the Republican party, standing on the planks the Old Right became known for: opposition to war, the draft, foreign aid, and New Deal-esque domestic statism, and support and advocacy for free enterprise, sound money (the gold standard), and commerce and friendship with other nations.
The Old Right’s prominence was largely snuffed out with Taft’s loss to Eisenhower in the 1952 Republican convention, one of the closest and most heated political battles in this country’s history. Taft’s death soon thereafter, followed by the deaths or disappearance from the public eye of his political allies, largely solidified the implosion of the Republican faction opposed to foreign intervention abroad; on domestic policy, at least, the emerging New Right agreed—at least in campaign speeches and public statements. Eisenshower, Goldwater, and other figures became the symbols of the New Right which, far from having any pretense of anti-war principles, embraced warfare and international military intervention.
Rothbard notes the beginning of the solidification of the New Right as follows:
Since the thirties, the Right had suffered from a dearth of intellectuals; it had seemed that all intellectuals were on the left. A disjunction therefore existed between a tiny cadre of intellectuals and writers, and a large, relatively unenlightened mass base. In the mid-1950s, with a power vacuum in both the political and the intellectual areas, the Right had become ripe for a swift takeover. A well-edited, well-financed magazine could hope to capture the dazed right wing and totally transform its character. This is exactly what happened with the formation of National Review in 1955.
Raimondo’s book explains what happened next:
When National Review was founded in late 1955, [William F. Buckley, Jr.] and his circle initially refrained from criticizing or even differentiating themselves from the rest of the right-wing movement in this country. But it wasn’t long before the so-called “New Right” began to show its true colors. Whereas the Old Right had been a diverse and loose coalition of free-market libertarians, old Progressive isolationists, and the few remaining Jeffersonian Democrats, coexisting in a working alliance against the New Deal, Buckley and the National Review crowd soon put an end to this peaceable kingdom. In a series of polemics, they sought to purge American conservatism of every dissident group and subgroup. (p. 221-2)
This purge targeted members of the John Birch Society, the intellectual followers of Ayn Rand, libertarians, and all others who rejected the use of America’s military to intervene in the affairs of other nations and fight unnecessary wars. Indeed, any opposed to America’s global hegemony and military might were systematically decommissioned from the conservative movement, thus narrowly defining the New Right in the eyes of the masses, and drumming up support for a marked shift in conservative political ideology. Raimondo summarizes:
With the purging of these disparate heretics from the conservative “mainstream,” the betrayal and homogenization of the American Right was complete. Straining at the bit to get on with their holy war against the Soviet Union, the New Right was on the march and focused on a single goal: power. (p. 225)
Thus can be labeled today’s Republican conservatism: verbal homage to free markets and limited government, small statism and socialism when politically convenient, and a determination to vanquish any and every enemy who might threaten America’s “interests” around the world. Those Republicans who still oppose our wars of aggression and entangling alliances refer to those of the New Right (which is almost the entire GOP, these days) as neoconservatives (“New Right”), while sometimes labeling themselves as paleoconservatives (“Old Right”) in distinction.
And here, finally, we have our answer to the question of how such individuals can show such a disdain for innocent life; when the consolidation of power is your quest, all else literally becomes collateral damage. Of course, the party base is not built on this blatant disregard for civilian casualties throughout the world, and so the New Right’s imperial tendencies have always been publicly wrapped in flowery prose and laced with emotionally compelling justifications for “spreading democracy” and “opposing evil”. The New Right is, at their core, far from being the “compassionate conservatives” some portray them to be.
But enough of the Old and New Right, for now we have the apparent emergence of the “new Anti-War Right”, spearheaded by Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah—so says Salam, anyway. At first glance, one might expect this new anti-war wing of the GOP to be a throwback to their Old Right predecessors, but that’s already been done and refined by the Ron Paul Republicans. No, this supposedly anti-war faction led by Chaffetz is a far cry from the principled anti-war platform of the Old Right. Instead, it is political strategy and tactical practicality, perhaps better labeled as the “new Anti-War-When-The-Democrats-Are-In-Charge-And-When-I-Can-Score-Political-Points-And-Not-Really-Against-War-But-Just-Against-This-Specific-One-In-Its-Current-Form Right”. But labels that long don’t fit well on yard signs and logos, so the shortened and generalized (though misleading) “Anti-War Right” will be used. To do so, however, requires hijacking the true (and honest) anti-war faction of the Right, just as the pro-war neoconservatives hijacked the conservative movement half a century ago.
Daniel Larison of The American Conservative magazine explains why Chaffetz’s allegedly anti-war stance is, in reality, a complete farce:
The trouble with Chaffetz’s brand of “antiwar” stance is that he conceives of a “withdrawal” from Afghanistan being a prelude to the perpetual use of air strikes and targeted assassinations. His alternative of “going big” and eliminating strict rules of engagement is a pose of “freeing” the military from constraints that the top commanders themselves insist on having to give their mission the best chance of success. Barring the deployment of an even larger force with few constraints on how they operate, Chaffetz advocates a “withdrawal” from Afghanistan that will be as non-interventionist as Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. In this approach, we will reserve the right to launch attacks on their territory with impunity whenever we wish, but otherwise we will wash our hands of the place and the consequences of our actions. This will not only ensure the alienation of the population from any allied government that might still be in power, but it will contribute to the very radicalization and militancy that Chaffetz presumably would like to see weakened.
The Old Right would have said—and the current Anti-War Right does say—“go home”. Chaffetz’s “new Anti-War Right” (Orwellian doublespeak, perhaps?) says “go big or go home”, indicating an approval of foreign military intervention so long as goals are set, the desired people are killed, and our soldiers are freed up to inflict death as they see fit, free from politically-tied hands and politically-correct rules of engagement. This is not being anti-war—it is being anti-the current instantiation of war.
The real Anti-War Right opposes the never-ending military conflicts around the world on principled grounds, regardless of which party is in charge. Chaffetz’s brand cannot boast such a bipartisan stance. The real Anti-War Right does not riddle its opposition to war with numerous qualifiers as a cushioned fallback upon which they may rely should circumstances change, and war become politically expedient. This, unfortunately, is precisely what Chaffetz’s statement is all about. The real Anti-War Right has a fundamental principled objection to war and condones it only in the most exigent of circumstances, and when in legitimate self-defense. Chaffetz’s brand has no such foundation.
This clarification is not meant to reserve some elitist label of “anti-war” for the purists who refuse to swell their ranks with people who do not believe the exact same way and share such a principled objection. We of the Old Right and current (real) Anti-War Right happily welcome all those who wish to unite with us in opposition to war, empire, and international intervention. But we refuse to let our mission of peace and principle be hijacked by those would claim to be anti-war, yet who in reality are no more anti-war than Republicans have historically been champions of limited government and free enterprise. This is about the principle of true opposition to war; the dilution of that principle by those who would claim it as their own, and yet refuse to both understand and abide by its implications, is unacceptable and dishonest.
Hollow and politically-crafted anti-war rhetoric may generate media coverage, win a few votes, and be superficial enough to convince the ignorant and unprincipled. But at the end of the day, it is just a string of empty words void of any foundation, ready to be whisked away by the breeze of a new election, a new administration, and the control by one’s own party over the military.
General Douglas MacArthur once said that “It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it.” Chaffetz’s anti-war policy is, seemingly, based on this factor and this factor alone: whether or not the war can be won. It is, then, anti-unwinnable-wars, and for this reason alone he has called for the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. We should, Chaffetz wrote to Obama, “give [the military] everything they need [to win] or bring the troops home.” No principle, and no across-the-board opposition to warfare. Instead, as Larison pointed out, Chaffetz’s supposedly anti-war stance is actually an advocacy for more war—just “better” waged war.
The “New Anti-War Right” is wrong both in description and mission. Their success ensures the continuing success of the New Right as a whole and the perpetuation of ongoing warfare, intervention in the affairs of other nations, and the use of hundreds of thousands of our troops, to say nothing of the costly expenditures of hundreds of billions of dollars, for the pursuit of a policy that stands at odds with traditional, original, anti-war conservatism.
Ronald Reagan said that “History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap.” It’s time Chaffetz and his “new anti-war” cohorts understood the real price of aggression in blood, treasure, and national morality. Perhaps then he will admit his anti-war policy for the fraudulent political doublespeak that it is, and embrace the principles that constitute a true opposition to war.