Does Lieberman Belong on the Right?

Joe Lieberman’s loss in Tuesday’s Democratic primary might not be a great blow to President Bush or the GOP — I wish it were, but that Democratic primary voters in one of the more liberal states in the country chose an antiwar candidate over the Bush-kissed incumbent doesn’t necessarily tell us much about how the November elections are going to turn out. Lieberman’s loss is a significant setback for neoconservatives, however, who have long pursued a one-and-a-half party strategy: holding tight reins on the GOP and the conservative movement while maintaining a strategic toehold in the Democratic camp through liberal hawks like Lieberman. Look at how the neocons and their conservative movement echo-chamber are squealing over the implications of Lieberman’s defeat: this means that the Democrats might be on the way — slowly — to becoming a real antiwar party. “[I]t appears to me that the Democratic party is in the process of cementing that it is the ‘peace,’ party” writes one of the contributors to NRO’s symposium on Lieberman’s loss — and the whole symposium goes a long way toward illustrating my point.

The conservative and neoconservative reaction illustrates something else as well: support for Bush and his war, as many other observers have remarked, is indeed their criterion for distinguishing friends from enemies. Lieberman is a friend. Lamont is an enemy, and is therefore construed as being hard left. Stop and think about that for a minute: Lamont is a successful businessman. He is not Cynthia McKinney. The only way anyone can believe he is loony left or far left or hard left is if being antiwar is itself proof of loony / far / hard leftiness.

Several of the contributors to The American Conservative‘s recent symposium on the meaning of Left and Right (which goes on-line Thursday) made this point. Justin Raimondo for one. Scott McConnell too. It’s a fact pretty well established by now. I should add one twist, however: neocons will tell you that it is possible to be an antiwar conservative — as long as you don’t act on your conviction or speak out about it. Even in his infamous “Unpatriotic Conservatives” hit piece, David Frum allowed that there could be some good antiwar conservatives. They’re just the ones who meekly go along with whatever the warmongers want. (Fun fact: I hear on pretty good authority that there were at least two antiwar people on staff at the Weekly Standard at the time of the invasion. And of course, Neal Freeman has given us some insight into the NR circle. Notice, however, that none of these people thought the war was important enough to speak out against it publicly when doing so might have made a difference, either in ’03 when the war was launched or before the ’04 elections. Party and movement loyalty trumped.)

It’s not unreasonable that the war should be so polarizing. Its proponents evidently do believe that Saddam posed a threat to the United States and that by invading Iraq the United States would be combatting terrorism rather than incubating it. And those of us who are against the war have thought from the very beginning that this view is unsupported by any evidence or probable line of reasoning and that by attacking and occupying a country that posed no threat, the United States would only exposing be itself to more terrorism while at the same time bringing about the deaths of untold thousands of innocent Iraqis and thousands (so far) of U.S. troops. Those are high stakes either way, and behind the two sides are very different ways of seeing the world and seeing U.S. power.

Not only is it not surprising that the war has been as polarizing as it has, but it also is not surprising that the polarization has broken down the way that it has. At least since Vietnam, and really going back some years earlier, most conservatives have been committed militarists and nationalists. Conservatives over the past five decades have frequently talked about government’s incompetence and excessive spending — but virtually never have they applied these criticisms to the military, certainly not in a sustained and systematic fashion. It would hardly be going too far to say that the military has been an object of veneration. Similarly, but to a slightly lesser degree, American military expansionism and interventionism have been supported by conservatives to a far greater degree than they have been supported by anyone else. Again, this is an old story. The one major exception to conservative foreign-policy bloodlust was the anomalous period in the mid-to-late ’90s when Republicans weren’t keen to get into Kosovo and bomb Serbia. Today, there’s some hestitation on the Right about getting into Darfur and other African sinkholes, although some the Christian Right — Sam Brownback in the Senate and Frank Wolf in the House come to mind — seem about as eager to do so as anyone on the Left.

There is no antiwar Right, at least not beyond the very limited number of contributors to and readers of magazines like Chronicles and The American Conservative. We could all fit into a college football stadium and still have plenty of seats to spare. There is, to be sure, a conservative intellectual tradition critical of war and militarism that outshines anything the belligerent Right or neoconservatives can offer. To one extent or another, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, Michael Oakeshott, John Lukacs, and Russell Kirk are all in the anti-militarist camp. Up to a point, right-wing militarists can be brought around to the side of peace and nonintervention by showing them that the best conservative arguments are against was, especially total war, and a quasi-imperial foreign policy. But the number of conservatives who are smart enough to understand such arguments, or interested enough to listen, is very small indeed.

It gets steadily harder to deny that militarism is the sine qua non of “conservatism” as it is actually practiced in America. So perhaps Lieberman’s bedfellows are not so strange as they might appear, regardless of whether Lamont or any of the rest of us who oppose this stupid bloody war are “far Left” or not.


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