Spoiling for a fight?

by Henry Farrell on February 20, 2004

“Corey Robin”:http://bostonreview.net/BR29.1/robin.html has an interesting article in this month’s _Boston Review_, arguing that prior to September 11, the intellectual wing of the US conservative movement had been in the doldrums because there weren’t any new battles to fight.

He quotes from interviews that he conducted with William Buckley and Irving Kristol in 2000, where Buckley describes the fight for free markets as “rather boring,” and Kristol says

bq. I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. Not what we’re doing now but to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world—Africa in particular—where an authority willing to use troops can make a very good difference, a healthy difference … there’s the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it’s disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It’s not Athens. It’s not Rome. It’s not anything.”

As Robin argues, September 11 changed everything; empire-building has suddenly become intellectually respectable again on the right. Robin’s article goes on to make a rather implausible argument about the contradictions between empire building conservatism and free market conservatism. Still, he captures something important; something that has always struck me as weird about American conservatism. Usually, we think of conservatism as an effort to keep things the way they are. However, there’s an important strain within US conservatism that is interested not only in revolution, but in permanent revolution. The struggle itself is what is important, not a successful resolution, which is dull, and somehow slightly distasteful. The everyday politics of policy and markets just aren’t very interesting. Some conservatives never seem more comfortable and happier than when they are engaged in an epic struggle between good and evil.

Now it should be acknowledged that plenty of lefties have the same set of intellectual pre-dispositions. I reckon that the prospect of a good fight is what won Christopher Hitchens over to the pro-war side; plenty of anti-war protesters feel invigorated by the struggle against the ‘evil American imperium.’ Let’s take that as stipulated. But if Green is right (and he has some good arguments on his side), there’s something deeply _unserious_ about the response of many conservatives to September 11 and its aftermath. They’re less interested in putting the world to rights, than in the struggle and glory involved in putting the world to rights. Which might help explain why their foreign adventures don’t seem to be working out very well. Fighting the good fight may be “character building”:http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/2003/11/dead_right.html, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good policy.



Barry 02.20.04 at 5:06 pm

It’s part of a larger picture – the right wants to win. They don’t believe in ‘honorable second’, or ‘honorable opposition’.

The right also understands the power of the attack. In the recent Bush-AWOL flap, they immediately attacked Max Cleland, after having viciously attacked him during the ’02 elections.

It does help, of course, that the right has far more media access than the left does.


james 02.20.04 at 6:02 pm

Josh Marshall said something great along tose line recently:

“These are complex questions, ones not easily reasoned through by the standard nah-nah-nah. But there are some folks who can’t get over their 1939-envy, their hunger for the Orwell moment. But this wasn’t one of them. It never was. And the failure to understand that — whether by deception or myopia or an honest mistake or the simple need for drama that is the curse of intellectuals — has done us real harm.”

And your right that politics as antidote to ennui is profoundly unserious and lamentably widespread, in various ideological circles. It’s also terribly tempting.


Steve Carr 02.20.04 at 6:29 pm

Corey Robin wrote the Boston Review article, not Robin Green.


Henry Farrell 02.20.04 at 7:50 pm

Thanks – correction made.


Grant 02.20.04 at 8:18 pm

I get the impression that Mrs. Buckley’s approach to sex is too business-like.


John Smith 02.20.04 at 11:04 pm

What’s the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role?

Reminds me of those morons in the belligerent countries (and not only the Second Reich) who, at the start of the First World War, welcomed the war as an end to decadence and a chance to practice the higher virtues of bravery, endurance and all that jazz.

Do we put Kristol’s rantings down to senility or alcohol – or was he just funning with the assistant prof?

Or is this some kind of Mutt and Jeff? Having just refreshed my memory of Bush’s National Security Strategy, it’s amazing how modest and temperate a document it appears by comparison….


Rajeev Advani 02.24.04 at 10:58 pm

You say that Hitchens defected to pro-war because of a good fight? He doubtless enjoys controversy, but your stipulation is more than a bit reductive and insulting. Hitchens has long believed, since the 1989 fatwa on Rushdie, that the left is soft on Islamofascists. What brought him to the prowar side was this, and the fact that his Kurdish friends owed their lives to Bush Sr. — an undeniable fact that forced him to re-examine his position and grapple with one very straightforward question, a question that the hard left (for whom he was writing) ducked: is this war good for the Iraqi people? His answer was in the affirmative.

I have further qualms with Robin’s article, regarding the so-called change after 9/11. Nation building has always been acceptable to neoconservatives, who’ve always had a revolutionary doctrine. Yet nation building is still not supported by the realist wing of the conservative establishment — to them it’s more of a temporary adjustment in policy for security concerns. Both ideologies were intact before and after 9/11, only the neocons won the spotlight in the aftermath.

And what’s this talk of permanent revolution? The realist wing of the conservative movement wants nothing to do with it, and the hard Wilsonians have set goals in mind to build a stable world.

Finally, in regard to Josh Marshall on Orwell moments. This is not one of them? I realize this website is of a very respectable soft left disposition, but is Mr. Marshall not aware of the hard left’s bankrupt worldview post 9/11? Activists Arundhati Roy and Tariq Ali openly call on the world to establish a new economic front against the American occupation troops. They seek to subvert America’s attempts to implant democracy in Iraq, in the name of anti-globalization. And many, many people believe them. Frankly, when so many are taken by this imperial fiction while refusing to take fascism at face value, we are indeed in an Orwellian moment.


brett 03.01.04 at 6:24 pm

Two half-assed quotes from 2000? That’s your evidence for the proposition that the *right* is unserious about the war? Wishful thinking at best.

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