The Isolationist Shift within Conservatism
By Elvin Lim
What is it about conservative opposition to Obama’s policy in Libya? It appears conservative critics think he has done both too little too late in Libya, and also too much. While there is agreement on the Right that whatever Obama does is bad policy, the divergent critical voices are not so much evidence of hypocrisy as the disagreement between neo-conservatism and libertarianism. As it now appears the case, the Tea Party movement, which started off as a movement focused almost exclusively on the domestic politics of bail-outs and health-care reform, has matured and developed an alliance with the isolationist segment of paleoconservatism. With this new alliance we see a rightward shift in conservative politics, and the resurgence of the isolationist strand in Republican politics which has been dormant since the Nixon Doctrine.
For all the talk of polarization in American politics, on one thing, some liberals and some conservatives have always agreed on – it is an assertive, hegemonic engagement with the world. The “neo” in neo-conservatism registers the fact that many neo-conservatives used to be old liberals disenchanted with the Democratic Party’s anti-war shift after Vietnam. This is why the neo-conservatives from the Bush administration have pretty much supported Obama’s intervention in Libya. As Michael Gerson writes, “President Barack Obama’s decision to participate in the air campaign against Moammar Gadhafi’s regime is a vast improvement over previous policy, a victory for human rights idealists.” And this is what unites Leftists who believe in humanitarian intervention and Rightists who support the propagation of democracy around the world. Both are idealists.
Tea Party libertarians and paleoconservatives, on the other hand, believe that foreign policy should not be guided by visions of utopia. The former are all too aware that wars cost money, and the latter believe that a fortress will protect us better than an advancing army, especially one staffed by member nations of NATO and authorized by the United Nations. Both, therefore, believe that we should go to war only when we absolutely must. And so just like that, paleoconservatives are riding on the coat-tails of Tea Party libertarianism back into political salience.
This is why the Right has complained that the Obama administration has done too little and too much in Libya, with the balance of voices revealingly weighted on the latter. This is significant as a signpost of the development of American conservatism, because it reveals a reformed conservatism more ready to take on Obama in 2012 than it was a few months ago when conservatives were still fixated on the Reagan coalition and the Reagan doctrine. Reagan ordered major bombing raids against Tripoli and Benghazi in Operation El Dorado Canyon, and he ordered the invasion of Grenada. Reagan was no isolationist.
Call it restraint, or call it isolationism, but its resurgence reveals American conservatism undergoing reform and re-accreditation. Presidential hopefuls on the right should take heed, so that they do not get caught on the wrong side of this evolution. In tough economic times, when our troops are now spread out in three theaters of war, conservatism has taken on a new complexion for our time, and Barack Obama would likely be facing an opponent so far to the Right on foreign policy issues, s/he may actually come full circle and begin to sound like Dennis Kucinich.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.