The Kristol Method

by Henry on August 12, 2007

Both “Ross Douthat”:http://rossdouthat.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/08/partisanship_and_the_national.php and “Matt Yglesias”:http://matthewyglesias.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/08/may_i_have_another.php suggest that I was wrong to “claim”:https://crookedtimber.org/2007/08/06/trahisons-des-clercs-2/ last week that Kristol and Kagan were more interested in Republican hegemony than in the actual worth of their foreign policy ideas when they wrote their famous 1996 “essay”:http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=276 on the virtues of a neo-Reaganite foreign policy. What I said then was short-hand for what I said at greater length in a paper that I wrote a couple of years ago for an APSA panel that Russell Arben Fox chaired on conservatism. The paper has never seen the light of day, and probably never will (it wasn’t really an academic paper so much as a glorified form of current commentary; something less than academic research but more than a blogpost), so I may as well link to it “here”:http://www.henryfarrell.net/conservatism.pdf and excerpt the key bit that speaks to this argument (below the fold).

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[open quote from essay] William Kristol and William Kagan’s article (and subsequent edited volume) provides a good example of this, as it slips back and forth between three levels of argument. First, Kristol and Kagan claim to be providing a new vision that will unify a conservative movement that is “adrift” and “confused.” Second, they claim to be providing a means towards maintaining America’s dominance and hegemony over the world. Finally, they claim to be providing a vision for a new world order, where democracy, free markets and liberty would be spread to the corners of the earth. Kristol and Kagan decline to provide a rank-ordering of these goals, simply asserting that “[a] neo-Reaganite foreign policy would be good for conservatives, good for America, and good for the world.

This perpetual shuttling back and forth of goals, in which a vital and unified American conservative movement means the maintenance of American dominance which allows America to take on a mission civilisatrice which creates a vital and unified conservative movement feels more like a sleight-of-hand than a serious argument. And indeed, there is some reason to suspect that Kristol and Kagan’s primary interest is in revitalizing the American conservative movement. As Corey Robin has argued, both neo-conservatives like Irving Kristol and David Brooks and more traditional conservatives such as William F. Buckley appear to have been in the market in the late 1990’s for an existential struggle between good and evil, a rationale for crusade that would make politics seem exciting and meaningful. In David Brooks complaint, “”The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore.” It’s obviously easier to cast politics in sweeping moral terms when you can use a struggle of this sort as a metric, even if the struggle isn’t really there, or isn’t the kind of struggle that you claim it is. It’s also easier to galvanize the conservative movement into action:

[quoting from Kristol and Kagan]Without a broader, more enlightened understanding of America’s interests, conservatism will too easily degenerate into the pinched nationalism of Buchanan’s America First, where the appeal to narrow self-interest masks a deeper form of self-loathing. A true conservatism of the heart ought to emphasize both personal and national responsibility, relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic, which has been sorely lacking from American foreign policy — and from American conservatism — in recent years.

This emphasis on conservatism as a movement which must have a sense of the heroic lest it dwindle into mere selfishness, has the paradoxical effect of emptying out the core of conservatism. Kristol and Kagan suggest that what matters is a sense of “national greatness” rather than a specific set of virtues, or goals, or policies. Rather than being a defence of a particular set of transcendent values, conservatism becomes a kind of perpetual crusade, a continued attempt to create a sense of national greatness and of heroic endeavour. The content of politics – the particular tasks that the heroes must carry out, and the dragons that they must slay – becomes secondary to the heroic form. Here, conservatism is reduced to nothing more than a more-or-less aesthetic disposition towards politics, a kind of “proto-cognitive itch.” Not so much a commitment to a set of transcendent values, or even a pragmatic Burkean attachment to tradition, as a desire that politics provide a sense of the heroic. [close quote from essay]

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As Matt says, there is a feeling in the Kristol and Kagan essay that war is a good thing because of its effects on the national character. But what he leaves out – and what is manifestly important to Kristol and Kagan – is that this would allow the Republicans to set the terms of foreign policy debate in a way that favors their political interests and the political interests of the Republican party over the longer term. If the foreign policy debate is about ‘national greatness,’ Kristol and Kagan clearly believe (and argue) that the Republicans will enjoy a dealer’s edge over the longer term. In their own words:

it is hard to imagine conservatives achieving a lasting political realignment in this country without the third pillar: a coherent set of foreign policy principles that at least bear some resemblance to those propounded by Reagan.

[Ross further argues that the willingness of Kristol and Kagan to continue arguing their case after Iraq went bad is evidence that “neo-Reaganism” is more important than Republican political success in their eyes. But this hardly counts as dispositive evidence; various White House gobshites whose reputation is at stake, including Karl Rove, whom no-one has _ever_ accused of an attachment to political principle above all else, have been doing more or less the same thing.]

What’s more of interest to me is the fundamental problems that foreign policy presents for conservatism, and the tortured ways in which conservatives have sought to respond to it. Unlike many CT commenters, I think that there is a lot that is valuable in certain variants of conservatism – specifically the kind of political caution advocated by people like Burke and Oakeshott. This isn’t to say that I buy into their arguments fully at all – but I do think that they are important. However, there is very little of this to be seen in full blown conservative accounts of what the US should do in foreign policy, and I think that there are important structural reasons why this is so (I try to articulate these reasons in the linked essay, and am not entirely happy that I have succeeded to my own satisfaction, but at least I think that my account provides a kind of entry point into thinking about these issues).

{ 15 comments }

1

P O'Neill 08.12.07 at 7:56 pm

I started reading and I thought “Oh god, there’s another Kagan?” But you mean Robert and not a hopefully fictional William.

2

stuart 08.12.07 at 8:18 pm

Interesting article, was worth the time to read.

Noticed a few typos as I went through it:

Page 12, Line 1 nade -> made
Page 23, Last paragraph – two double quotes at start of Brooks quote
Page 25, Last paragraph – space missing between neo-conservatives and to in the first sentence.

3

togolosh 08.12.07 at 8:32 pm

Neo-Reaganism is quite detached from the actual actions of Reagan. Reagan negotiated with the enemies of the US, and even went so far as to proposed reduction and even elimination of nuclear weapons. Reagan fought an ideological struggle against communism, but he was always clear that the struggle was to defeat communism, not to create an American Empire. I oppose many, if not most, Reagan policies, but in the end of the day he did understand that the world was not black and white.

4

Henry 08.12.07 at 9:26 pm

yep stuart, I know you are usually supposed to claim that this is a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care, but in truth it is a conference paper that I wrote in a rush and haven’t really looked at since, and that has, I am sure, all sorts of niggling little errors.

5

P O'Neill 08.12.07 at 9:41 pm

Apart from anything else, the historical record would seem to be that wars make countries more “liberal.” The government needs more revenue and it asks more of people during a war, and so after the war the expectations of people vis-a-vis the government are larger. One reason maybe why Bush is so insistent on running the war with a small army and with no increase in taxes.

6

Planeshift 08.12.07 at 10:14 pm

“so after the war the expectations of people vis-a-vis the government are larger”

Except in the neo-con world there will be no such time as after the war as they want a perpetual conflict – the “war on terror” is ideal for this.

7

sglover 08.13.07 at 2:31 am

Neo-Reaganism is quite detached from the actual actions of Reagan. Reagan negotiated with the enemies of the US, and even went so far as to proposed reduction and even elimination of nuclear weapons. Reagan fought an ideological struggle against communism, but he was always clear that the struggle was to defeat communism, not to create an American Empire. I oppose many, if not most, Reagan policies, but in the end of the day he did understand that the world was not black and white.

That’s a crock from start to finish. Bush the Lesser is IN EVERY WAY the intellectual and moral heir to the sainted Reagan. Do you really believe that it’s a coincidence that so many of the Cheney crime syndicate’s most odious policies are, time and again, shepherded through by some guy who got his start as Assistant Deputy Something-Something in the Reagan White House? Wolfowitz, Negroponte, Poindexter, Rove (Atwater without the brain tumor) — these guys are doing just as Da Gipper intended.

8

sglover 08.13.07 at 2:34 am

I should have made this clear: Kristol and Kagan may try to distract their audience through the usual disingenuous games, but as ever, they’re essentially shilling for the Bush approach. Hence my objection to the lame attempts to paint some bogus contrast between the Idiot Prince and the Senile Actor.

9

Daniel Nexon 08.13.07 at 5:08 am

Henry, have you seen the Snyder et al. piece that’s going to be presented at APSA? Worth some blog time.

10

bad Jim 08.13.07 at 7:51 am

The focus on the external threat is certainly congenial to the authoritarian core constituency, as it validates their addiction to fear, and it certainly gladdens the corporations addicted to fat defense budgets, who in turn addict politicians with their campaign contributions.

Not all external threats are alike, though. The Axis powers were opposed by an avowedly liberal president and occasionally accommodated by conservative industrialists who shared some of the enemy’s values, including racism and anti-communism.

Communism was the dream enemy for conservatives, because it represented both an arguably existential threat and a dangerous ideology which could be employed to discredit much of the liberal agenda. Beware of socialized medicine! (Never mind that it was clear, at least by the end of WWII, that the Soviet economic system was bound to collapse; authoritarians were then and are now happy to argue both that the bad guys’ system won’t work and they’ll conquer us.)

The present situation appeals to the authoritarian fraction; the specter of resurgent Islam sends delicious shivers down their spines, and they find cave-dwelling religious extremists just as credible as their own leaders. However, the corporations can’t find this completely comfortable, since so many of them are doing business with other scarcely more respectable regimes in the Middle East, and our supposed opponents in that arena don’t really have the sort of hardware that requires our most expensive counter-measures, like a missile defense system. Still, what other game is in town?

11

Roy Belmont 08.13.07 at 8:32 am

#7 – “these guys are doing just as…”
“the Idiot Prince and the Senile Actor”
Imputing intention to a creature of Reagan’s vacuity is dangerously wishful.
Some of us think it’s quite possible that both Bush and Reagan are examples of something new, a kind of spiritual homunculus with a superior telegenic front, mental blank slates with excellent poll numbers based on carefully crafted scripts they’re led to believe are their own values and ideas, convincingly brought to the people through a complicitous and deceptive media.
Reagan was a master of ceremonies, nothing more, a performer, a working actor to the day he died. Bush is a cowboy out of the same celluloid mold, fictional, unreal, a participant in a set of illusions whose purpose is to co-opt the human need for stories as vehicles for learned and inspired truth, and replace them with dogma and doctrine and propaganda-driven lies. And bottom-line black ink.
Reagan was a natural and kept to his blocking and memorized lines and motives like a pro, Bush is an amateur working behind locked doors on a closed set through take after take, but as product they’re both stars in the same industry.
Talking about either one in the context of ideology or philosophy is like talking about the moral character of the actors on CSI:Miami as represented by the roles they play.

12

Barry 08.13.07 at 12:05 pm

Henry: “Unlike many CT commenters, I think that there is a lot that is valuable in certain variants of conservatism – specifically the kind of political caution advocated by people like Burke and Oakeshott. This isn’t to say that I buy into their arguments fully at all – but I do think that they are important. ”

I agree.

“However, there is very little of this to be seen in full blown conservative accounts of what the US should do in foreign policy, and I think that there are important structural reasons why this is so….”

Perhaps we should accept the fact that ‘small government’ conservatism, for one variant, is as dead as a doornail. The right, and the alleged conservatives, strive to keep money from being taxed out of their favorites’ pockets, and from going into the pockets of those whom they despise. Which is merely a commonplace, not a principle, let alone a principle of small government.

As for libertarian conservatism, Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and most zealously Bush II have all increased government powers. Including in ways which would have shocked many from pre-WWII days.

13

Barry 08.13.07 at 12:56 pm

bad jim: ” However, the corporations can’t find this completely comfortable, since so many of them are doing business with other scarcely more respectable regimes in the Middle East, and our supposed opponents in that arena don’t really have the sort of hardware that requires our most expensive counter-measures, like a missile defense system. Still, what other game is in town?”

In addition, it’s working quite well. 9/11 was basically a Saudi Wahabbite (sp?) operation, with Pakistani support for the organization in general (through their support for the Taliban, who were openly supporting Al Qaida).

Result: trash Iraq, get more hostile with Iran, trash Afghanistan but fail to win decisively against the people who supported 9/11. Keep on good terms with Saudi Arabia, and sell them more military hardware. Sell vast quantities of goods and services to support the war in Iraq, frequently under cost plus, no bid contracts.

14

Henry 08.13.07 at 2:58 pm

dan – I haven’t – have you a link to it??? (also we should meet at APSA for a coffee – shameful that I haven’t made it across town ….)

15

e julius drivingstorm 08.14.07 at 2:41 am

Weren’t Kristol and Kagan trying to both promote and excuse fascism as the primary modus operandus of the Republican will to grab and hold power? The only thing missing was the volatile term itself which has since been corrupted into the so-called war on terror as islamo-fascism.

Molly Ivins was right – they are projection artists.

Roy @ #11 – In explaining his role in the arms for hostages caper when he brokered the missile deal between Israel and Iran while simultaneously arming Iraq against Iran, Reagan pouted that he did it to try to free “three, maybe five” hostages. He took the brokerage fee to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras, but that’s okay because he couldn’t remember that (whew).

Barry @ #13 – Keep them at war with each other. The CEO party thinks it can handle and manage situations better than anyone else, so they use the money and the authoritarianism and the hot-button issues to perpetuate their power. These are master strokes.

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