Wednesday, March 19, 2003
David Frum goes all-out against the so-called paleos. Good for him. It's a great piece - particularly for the detailed history of where the paleos came from over the past generation.
But I can only give him two and a half cheers, because deep down, there is an argument there to be rebutted, and I don't feel like Frum does it. He does a masterful job of proving that these people are consumed with resentment, envy and hate; that they are mediocre nostalgists and posing anti-Semites; that they hate their country and are in no sense conservatives. But the more articulate among them - Pat Buchanan especially - do have the germ of a coherent ideology. And it's worthwhile articulating that ideology to see if, on their own terms, these guys make any sense.
The paleo ideology is not an ideology that one associates with a "global vision," but in fact it does have one. That vision is: each nation, living true to itself in its own land, minding its own business. Nations are real, they say; they are out there, in the world, and are probably genetic in origin. Trying to get different national groups to live together under one government is folly. Similarly, going out and conquering other nations is folly. War is just a scheme by the wealthy and well-placed to advance their interests; the interests of the common people do not require conquest.
This is a plausible vision for a world order: a world of nation-states with clear borders who look out for their own interests and let their citizens (or subjects) alone so long as they don't upset the internal social order. I can like the vision or dislike it, but it's not incoherent.
But what does one do when a state starts violating that order?
This is where I start to lose the thread of paleo logic. When some state out there - Iraq, say, but you could just as well have said Wilhelmine Germany or Imperial Japan - sets out to conquer its neighbors and aggrandize power, the paleos now argue that this is none of our business. Perhaps the Wilsonians are wrong that we are obliged to do something about such aggression - but why are we obliged not to do something, as the paleos seem to claim? They hate Churchill for standing up to Hitler; they claim Roosevelt treasonously conspired to get us into war with Japan. But the Axis was very clearly bent on dominating the world and reducing all other powers to dependencies. Why on earth should America have allowed such a thing to happen? If America is not directly attacked, they imply, we don't care how powerful other countries get - countries determined to use their power to further aggrandize power at our expense. America, in other words, should behave like Switzerland, zealously guarding its own freedom but accommodating itself to the international "realities" created by countries with more willingness to shape events, even by violence.
I think that's a plausible, maybe the most plausible, way for Switzerland to behave, because Switzerland is a small country, so it doesn't have a choice in the matter. But how, precisely, could America behave this way? How would we be better off if, just to pick an example, Iraq had been able to conquer Kuwait and Saudia Arabia, develop nuclear weapons, and thereby become a rival, anti-American superpower? How would we be better off if, to pick another example, we withdrew our security assurances to Taiwan and South Korea, and these countries were either absorbed by an expanding China or, along with Japan, acquired nuclear weapons of their own with which to deter the Chinese? How are we better off if allies and friends conclude that America is self-interested in an unenlightened way, and therefore must not be relied upon when evil men threaten them? How are we better off if enemies conclude that we will never use our power even to defend our own interests, but will always seek accommodation to avoid war?
My litmus test for thinking like a genuine paleo-conservative, not a snivelling self-hater, is: what would Old Hickory do? Andrew Jackson was just about the perfect paleo President. He hated the elites, and was hated by them in turn. He had contempt for blacks and hated American Indians. He was an avowed foe of the national government, destroying the Bank of the United States and generally getting the government out of economic life as much as possible. He treated the British and the French with equal disdain. He had a violent and unpredictable temper. If the paleos don't like him, there must be no one in American history they can admire.
I think I can state with confidence that if Jackson had been President on 9/11/2001, Afghanistan would be radioactive slag, as would Mecca, and the Persian Gulf would be an American garrison.
All these paleos who admire the antebellum South but fulminate against defending America should remember that the real paleos - the actual Southern Conservatives - were avid Imperialists. They were the backbone supporters of war with Mexico, and wanted to go on and conquer Cuba and anything else they could get their hands on. Jackson may have hated the Bank of the United States, but he had no objection to using force to defend and advance American interests. And he never worried about the body count. There is not a doubt in my mind that the real paleos - folks like, say, Anne Coulter - would be calling for a general massacre of America's enemies, and would never once wonder "what did we do to make them so mad at us?"
(As an aside, I wonder if the nostalgists for the Old Confederacy remember that a Jew - Judah P. Benjamin - was considered by Jefferson Davis to be the most valuable and brilliant member of his cabinet. Not something most Jews would be proud of, I suppose, but a fact nonetheless.)
I'm not a paleo-conservative. I think the neo-conservatives are right about one key fact: the internal character of a regime, particularly a radical regime, shapes its foreign policy. Totalitarian states are organized around war, and so will always be a danger to America. I've also got a Whiggish optimism about human potential that doesn't sit well with a conservative temperament. But today's paleos don't measure up to their own standard. They are not the heirs of Andrew Jackson; they are the heirs of Ezra Pound, people who hate their country and admire a foreign power they find more pure, more true, more authentic than America. Today, they harbor a barely-hidden admiration for bin Laden, like Hitler before him a man willing to kill millions if necessary in the name of purity. They are to the legitimate American Right what the Communists were to the legitimate American Left. Good for the National Review for throwing them out yet again.