Like many American teenage boys, I grew up listening to heavy metal music. In 1989, a favorite album was “Kill’em All” by Metallica and my favorite song on that album was “Am I Evil?” (a cover of a song by the British metal act Diamondhead). Metallica pondered in the chorus: “Am I evil? Yes, I am. Am I evil? I am man, yes, I am.”
True to metal form, the rest of the lyrics were pretty dumb. Yet, however accidentally, the chorus did hint at the Christian view that man is fallen. Not exactly a theologian at fifteen, to my immature mind the song was good simply because it sounded “evil.” If Elvis Presley scared parents in the 1950s and the Beatles did it in the ’60s, by the ’70s and ’80s predictably rebellious teenagers desired a more extreme music to pacify their usual, rite-of-passage adolescent silliness. For many, heavy metal was it—and the more “evil” the better.
As part of a panel for The American Conservative at this year’s Freedom Fest conference in Las Vegas, speakers Daniel McCarthy, Jon Basil Utley and I discussed the possibilities of the Tea Party and conservatives in general redefining the Right’s foreign policy post-Bush. We each made the case that conservatives should return to a more prudent and constrained foreign policy, based on actual defense and tangible national interests, as opposed to Bush-era nation-building and “spreading democracy” around the globe. One attendee, who seemed to think George W. Bush had already defined the Right’s foreign policy just fine, asked in anger: What “good” was America if we didn’t “fight evil?” McCarthy asked where we might find “fighting evil” in the Constitution. The gentleman walked out.
Like the Metallica song, the man’s comments might have contained a morsel of truth about traditional American character or foreign policy, true or perceived. But the inherent vagueness of his statement more closely resembled my juvenile attraction to the heavy metal concept of “evil.” Both concepts are exciting precisely to the degree that they are void of any tangible meaning. To flesh out either, from mere theory to actuality, not only immediately diminishes their attractiveness but makes them morally repulsive. For metal fans who would champion “evil” or Republican hawks who would fight it—the devil becomes apparent by insisting on details.
“Evil” to American heavy metal fans is mostly symbolic and comedic nonsense. If at fifteen I was intrigued by Metallica, at 36 I was nostalgic for an even more “evil” band of my youth, the legendary “death metal” act Slayer. Attending a Slayer concert in Atlanta last fall, I watched men roughly my age taking their adolescent sons to see this ghoulish group—who sang about death, mayhem, and, of course, the devil. The most charming moments were when Slayer gave friendly acknowledgment to a wheelchair-bound man who was gently hoisted into the air by the audience so that he could get a better view of his favorite band. There was also a young boy sitting next to me, probably about ten, who knew most of the lyrics and when it was appropriate to “bang his head” in sync with the music, with his father helping him along. In fact, the audience was filled with fathers and sons (heavy metal simply isn’t most girls’ thing, young or old) bonding in a similar manner.
Now what would any of these concert attendees—fathers, sons, conservative columnists, the band itself—actually do if confronted in real life by the grisly musical subject matter? Certainly not cheer. Most would probably start praying or even take up arms to defeat the injustice before them. Slayer was once asked where they got their inspiration. They said mostly television.
TV is likely also a primary inspiration for many war hawks. Does the man who insisted it is America’s mission to “fight evil” think we should have US troops in the Darfur region of Sudan? Many American liberals believe we should, yet few if any conservatives think the US has any business there—even to fight mass genocide. Is it America’s role to oust evil dictator Muammar Gaddafi in Libya? Most conservatives now say no, while neoconservatives and Obama loyalists say yes. Should we fight the obviously evil regime in China—or continue borrowing money from them? Parade magazine’s annual list of the world’s worst dictators often includes nations like Saudi Arabia—which is not only an ally but has been regularly ranked worse on human rights abuses than Saddam Hussein or the current Iranian regime. Most Americans would defend their country against any imminent threat—but would most send their sons or daughters off to fight an abstract “evil” of no particular concern to the US?
In his ongoing mission to declare Republicans who dare question America’s foreign policy “isolationist,” Sen. John McCain asked recently concerning Libya: “I wonder what Ronald Reagan would be saying today.”
Columnist George Will answered McCain: “Wondering is speculation; we know this: When a terrorist attack that killed 241 Marines and other troops taught Reagan the folly of deploying them at Beirut airport with a vague mission and dangerous rules of engagement, he was strong enough to reverse this intervention in a civil war.”
Will added: “Would that he had heeded a freshman congressman from Arizona who opposed the House resolution endorsing the intervention. But, then, the McCain of 1983 was, by the standards of the McCain of 2011, an isolationist.”
McCain’s definition of who’s an “isolationist” seems to be anyone who believes permanent war is not in America’s interest. For McCain, any decision not to intervene militarily overseas is tantamount to erecting a brick wall around the US. The actuality of McCain’s foreign policy continues to demonstrate its absurdity—as now 72% of Americans say the U.S. is “involved in too many foreign conflicts” according to a recent Pulse Opinion Research poll.
According to McCain’s definition nearly three quarters of Americans are now isolationist. So was Ronald Reagan.
National Rifle Association President David Keene has noted the major distinction between Reagan’s foreign policy and the neoconservatives’ vision:
“Reagan resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office. . . . After the  assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets. Can one imagine one of today’s neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?”True to neocon form, McCain now chastises his own party for even daring to think about backing away from Libya or Afghanistan.
This is not to say that Reagan was a non-interventionist. He wasn’t. But it is to say that Reagan’s foreign policy represented something far more cautious and restrained than the hyper-interventionism the neoconservatives demand.
After the 2010 election, McCain said of Senator-elect Rand Paul of Kentucky: “Rand Paul, he’s already talked about withdrawals, cuts in defense… I worry a lot about rise of… isolationism in the Republican Party.”
What sort of “isolationism” does Paul propose? Something similar to Reagan’s foreign policy, or as Paul told an audience at John Hopkins University earlier this month:
“If for example, we imagine a foreign policy that is everything to everyone, that is everywhere all the time that would be one polar extreme… Likewise, if we imagine a foreign policy that is nowhere any of the time and is completely disengaged from the challenges and dangers to our security that really do exist in the world—well, that would be the other polar extreme… But what about a foreign policy of moderation? A foreign policy that argues that—maybe we could be somewhere some of the time?”
McCain now wonders what “Ronald Reagan would be saying today” because the neoconservatives have long been paraphrasing him while ignoring his actual record. Ask many conventional conservatives what a “Reagan Republican” is and you’ll likely hear something about “Peace through strength”—while they typically forget the peace part. Conservatives who admired George W. Bush’s foreign policy perceived Bush as being Reagan-esque. This is a fiction the neoconservatives have steadily encouraged—but it is still fiction. Explained former Reagan Senior Adviser Patrick J. Buchanan:
“Would Ronald Reagan have invaded Iraq? Would he have declared a doctrine of preventive war to keep any rival nation from rising to where it might challenge us? Would he have crusaded for ‘world democratic revolution’? Was Reagan the first neoconservative? This claim has been entered in the wake of his death. Yet, it seems bogus, a patent forgery, a fabricated claim to the Reagan legacy, worked up in the same shop where they made the documents proving Saddam was buying up all the yellowcake in Niger.”
Foreign Policy’s Peter Beinart has noted Reagan’s comparative reluctance to commit troops: “on the ultimate test of hawkdom—the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm’s way—Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war—the 1986 bombing of Libya—was even briefer.”
The term “isolationist” is much like the word “racist” in that it has become almost useless due to its overuse. For example, if the Left rightly considers Ku Klux Klan members racist—but also members of the Tea Party who merely criticize President Obama “racist”—such a glaring logical disparity cries out for a reassessment of terminology. A word that can mean anything can quickly become meaningless—and it also becomes a great rhetorical weapon in a political environment that substitutes smears for thoughtful debate.
Such was the case at the Wall Street Journal last week which published an editorial entitled: “The Kucinich Republicans: The House GOP turns isolationist on Libya and war powers.” The “Kucinich Republicans” were the 87 GOP House members who supported liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich’s bill forcing a withdrawal of American troops from Libya within 15 days. What made these House Republicans “isolationist,” according to the WSJ, is that they now undermine the President by challenging his constitutional war powers and questioning his authority according to the War Powers Resolution Act of 1973.
The WSJ makes the case that American presidents have long committed troops or taken military action without Congressional approval. It also makes the case that these same presidents and many on Capitol Hill today consider the War Powers Resolution Act unconstitutional. Said Sen. John McCain: “No president has ever recognized the constitutionality of the War Powers Act, and neither do I. So I don’t feel bound by any deadline.” Asks columnist George Will: “Oh? No law is actually a law if presidents and senators do not ‘recognize’ it?”
Will makes a good point. Many Americans and a few in Congress believe the Internal Revenue Service is unconstitutional. Similarly, many also believe the same is true concerning Obamacare. What might happen if the people or their elected officials simply decide not to ‘recognize’ the legality of either?
The entire purpose of the House of Representatives is that the “people,” through their elected representatives, should act as a counterbalance to the Senate and Executive branch, as outlined in the Constitution. The entire overall purpose of our Constitution is to limit the power of the federal government; and it explicitly vests to the president the power of how to wage war—to Congress, when to wage it. Obama now does both while completely ignoring Congress. The inability of so many of our leaders to recognize and respect this important constitutional distinction is indicative of their routine recklessness. That the WSJ considers the historical precedent of routine recklessness justification for virtually unlimited Executive war powers, also suggests that the supposedly conservative newspaper now considers the Constitution itself a moot point.
But if the WSJ finds challenging the constitutionality of Obama’s actions in Libya absurd because it also finds the Constitution absurd—perhaps even more ridiculous is calling House Republicans who challenge this war president “isolationist.”
To my knowledge, there are no genuine isolationists—those who would build an economic, diplomatic and perhaps literal wall around this country—in modern American politics. There are leaders on Capitol Hill who are regularly called “isolationist,” much like there are those in Washington who are called “racist”—but you will find few if any elected officials who truly fit the traditional definition of these terms.
This is particularly true of the charge leveled by the WSJ at the 87 House Republicans who voted to withdraw troops from Libya. Most Americans do not understand why we are in Libya. Many leaders in both parties can’t understand why we’re in Libya. President Obama cannot give the American people a straight answer as to what interest the US has in Libya.
But who is enthusiastic about the war in Libya? “Obama Republicans” like Sen. McCain. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find an American military intervention overseas in the last few decades that McCain and similar-minded Republicans and Democrats were not enthusiastic about. Because of such consistent bipartisan champions of hyper-interventionism, the US now has arguably the most expansive and globally involved foreign policy in history. We also have a historical debt to match it.
The notion that questioning the wisdom of this foreign policy status quo is “isolationist”—something even outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates says needs serious reassessment—is a rejection of any discernible definition of that term. That the WSJ considers Republicans who question our war in Libya isolationist—a curious situation that not only a majority of Americans but the entire world looks upon with bewilderment—should really disqualify that newspaper from ever using the term again.
When Newt Gingrich criticized Congressman Paul Ryan’s Medicare voucher plan and repeated his support for individual healthcare mandates this week, many conservatives expressed outrage and shock. Conservatives were right to be outraged. But they shouldn’t have been shocked.
Simply put, Newt Gingrich has never been a conservative.
Perhaps a quick primer in perception versus reality is in order. The reason most presidential candidates are considered frontrunners is because enough people keep saying they are frontrunners. For example, candidates like former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty or Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels are considered frontrunners despite having less name recognition, lesser poll numbers and less fundraising ability than some of the other supposed second or third tier candidates. Still, their perception as such continues to dictate the current reality.
The reason Newt Gingrich is considered a conservative is because enough people have always said he’s a conservative. The former House speaker rose to national prominence in the mid-1990’s championing the GOP’s “Contract with America,” spearheading the “Republican Revolution of ‘94” and earned a reputation for being one of President Bill Clinton’s harshest critics. From that time to today, Gingrich has no doubt remained one of the harshest critics of the Democratic Party.
But simply being partisan does not a conservative make. If so, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney could be considered conservatism personified. In a similar mold, Gingrich has rarely, if ever, been for smaller government. He simply believes Republicans can preside over big government more effectively.
The Ryan plan controversy is simply our latest exposure to Gingrich’s consistent big government Republican brand. There is currently an intra-GOP debate wherein most conservatives recognize Ryan’s plan as being bolder than most, but they also note that it doesn’t go nearly far enough considering that by its own projection we will still be saddled with a $23 trillion national debt in ten years. In this latter sentiment, Sen. Rand Paul and other conservative leaders have noted the relative timidity of Ryan’s plan.
Even so, at precisely the time when part of the GOP is praising Ryan for being bold and another part is worried his plan isn’t bold enough—Gingrich has already dismissed it as too “radical.” This might make conservatives angry, but it is also classic Gingrich.
If a candidate like Ron Paul is often unconventionally Republican precisely because he is willing to examine sacred cows in the name of more substantively limiting government, Gingrich’s unconventional Republican positions come from the exact opposite direction—with Newt typically taking the side of big government. For example, many conservatives were surprised to see Gingrich appearing in commercials with Nancy Pelosi sympathetic to liberal views on climate change. Conservatives shouldn’t have been surprised.
Most people can’t imagine an America without a minimum wage. Without such wage regulation many believe poverty would run rampant, families would become homeless and children would be starving in the streets. Yet conservatives have rightly recognized that these are moralistic and emotional responses to what is essentially an economic problem. Pointing out the policy’s failure, National Review founder William F. Buckley wrote: “The minimum wage is about as discredited as the Flat Earth Society…” Yet the very notion of getting rid of it remains something most Americans simply cannot fathom.
Most people can’t imagine an America without the War on Drugs. Without federal drug laws many believe substance abuse would be rampant, families would be destroyed and the nation’s youth would be strung out across our streets. Yet opponents of federal drug laws have rightly recognized that these are moralistic and emotional responses to what is essentially an economic, political, and due to our approach, criminal problem.
In 1995, National Review declared “The War on Drugs is Lost.” Leading this charge, Buckley broke down the troublesome cost of prohibition: “We are speaking of a plague that consumes an estimated $75 billion per year of public money, exacts an estimated $70 billion a year from consumers, is responsible for nearly 50 per cent of the million Americans who are today in jail, occupies an estimated 50 per cent of the trial time of our judiciary, and takes the time of 400,000 policemen—yet a plague for which no cure is at hand, nor in prospect.”
Much like the minimum wage, virtually all data available on drug prohibition points to the utter ineffectiveness of our policies. The primary difference is that prohibition of drugs has been far more damaging to this country than prohibition of market determined base wage levels. Whether measured in dollars or lives—the War on Drugs continues to be a great and unnecessary tragedy.
It should not be surprising that those most comfortable with the damage caused by the War on Drugs have often belonged to administrations that have wrought the most damage on this country. Denouncing Congressman Ron Paul’s opposition to federal drug prohibition, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote this week in the Washington Post: “Welcome to Paulsville, where people are free to take soul-destroying substances and debase their bodies to support their ‘personal habits.” Added Gerson: “In determining who is a ‘major’ candidate for president, let’s begin here… It is difficult to be a first-tier candidate while holding second-rate values.”
Gerson was addressing the first Republican presidential debate last week, in which the moderators seemed intent on belittling Paul’s position on federal drug laws by using the most extreme example of heroin use, similar to how leftwing defenders of the minimum wage might invoke visions of homeless mothers and starving children. Paul’s simple yet controversial position is that drugs should be regulated at the state and local level as the Constitution demands, just like alcohol.
But Gerson’s review of Paul’s debate performance specifically focused on what the Bush speechwriter found to be a cold and dismissive libertarian attitude toward the very real problem of drug abuse. Gerson is not completely wrong in his criticism. Neither was Buckley, when he highlighted the larger question by addressing the same aspect of this issue as Gerson: “Those who suffer from the abuse of drugs have themselves to blame for it. This does not mean that society is absolved from active concern for their plight. It does mean that their plight is subordinate to the plight of those citizens who do not experiment with drugs but whose life, liberty, and property are substantially affected by the illegalization of the drugs sought after by the minority.”