Book Review: Where the Right Went Wrong

Posted on November 16, 2012 by

The Book: Where the Right Went Wrong, by Patrick Buchanan, 264 pages, published in 2004.

Summary:  Mr. Buchanan is not known for being a friend to neocons, and this book may be the tome that sealed that impression. He goes out great-guns against neocons, the former “boat people of the McGovern revolution” who were dissatisfied with the Democrat Party’s relatively dovish turn on militaristic interventionism and affinity for Islamists over Israelis, and who jumped ship to the Republican party in the 70s and 80s. He contends these Cold War liberals worked their way up to the levers of power in the Republican party in the late 90s and, seeing their opportunity in 9/11 to wage wars of what Mr. Buchanan calls “democratic imperialism”, successfully goaded a formerly non-interventionist president Bush into making war upon Iraq as well as Afghanistan. Worse still, under what came to be known as the “Bush Doctrine”, neocon-inspired American foreign policy had as its object waging a worldwide Jacobin moral crusade of “good” against “evil” terrorists and the regimes that harbor them (“you are either with us or with the terrorists”). Having appointed themselves the right hand of God on Earth, the Neocons declared on behalf of America–that is to say, themselves–the right of pre-emptive attack to prevent any member of the “Axis of Evil” from acquiring nuclear weapons and the “responsibility” to destabilize despotic regimes around the Middle East in the name of “promoting democracy”. All in the name of maintaining American hegemony around the world.

Pretty ambitious stuff, and Mr. Buchanan decried such War Party agitation as “utopianism…[that] will bleed, bankrupt, and isolate this republic”. Eight years on, Mr. Buchanan’s warnings were quite prescient, as our elective wars to force-feed Western-style democracy to an unwilling and unprepared Islamic civilization has broken America’s spirit and budget; now America is forced by economic and political reality to pull back as radical Islamist regimes take power in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring” revolutions.

Mr Buchanan itemizes six ways in which the American right went wrong.  First, he criticizes the neocon-influenced narrative about “why they hate us”, disputing that we are attacked “because we are powerful, rich, and good”, or that our enemies “hate our democracy, our liberal markets, and our abundance and economic opportunity“, or that we were attacked because the Islamist terrorists “hate our freedoms” [of religion, assembly, religion, and speech]. Instead, Mr. Buchanan claims that we are hated not for what we are but for what we do…the realpolitik propping up of dictator client governments while paying lip service to democracy elsewhere, by moving infidel (and particularly female) soldiers onto Moslem holy lands, by promoting a seedy neopagan culture that promotes vice, feminism, abortion, and pornography, and by hypocritically holding Arabs and Israelis to differing standards of behavior. “To millions of Muslims”, Mr. Buchanan writes, “we are the evil empire”.

Small wonder then that his position earned him accusations of “blame America firsterism”. Yet while there is some truth to Mr. Buchanan’s indictment, his critics are also accurate, and I found his analysis to be too simplistic and too quick to accept culpability for provoking irritable Islamist radicals around the world. For the truth is that we could have done none of those things that the “blame America first” crowd cites as ways in which we Americans brought the ire of radical Islam on ourselves, yet still we would be the subject of Islamic aggression. If not today, then sometime in the future, for the very nature of Islam is to divide the world into the faithful, at peace with Allah, and “the enemy”, which is at war with the faith. Thus a religion that historically has expanded through conquest, and a culture that remembers when Islam was the pre-eminent culture on the planet will eventually precipitate conflict with the West as its bloody borders expand out of the Middle East, south-central Asia, and the southwest Pacific into Europe, North America, and Australia. Were America to withdraw completely from Moslem lands, as the Islamists demand, it would not prevent conflict, only delay its arrival. The question for the West, which thus far cannot even bring itself to name its opponent, is when and where said conflict will occur. About this conflict, too, Mr. Buchanan warns that our military might will not help us, for

America’s enemy then is not a state we can crush with sanctions or an enemy we can defeat with force of arms. The enemy is a cause, a movement, an idea

This struggle, in Mr. Buchanan’s perspective, between a neopagan West and Islam, is more about faith and fanaticism than it is about a Jominian accounting of arms and troops. Ancient (pagan) Rome employed the military force against a pacifistic Christianity and lost; one wonders why we should think that this time, history will be different, and that the (neopagan) West’s military might will somehow prevail against a staunchly held faith even more aggressive that was Christianity two thousand years ago.

Related to the conflict between America (a proxy for the West) versus Islam, Mr. Buchanan also counsels against the American Right’s reflexive, flag-waving support for what he calls an “unwinnable war” against the terrorism. Paraphrasing Dr. Daniel Pipes, the author likens waging a war against terrorism as akin to a “war on WMD”, where the objective is the weapons or techniques employed by the combatants rather than on the will of the enemy himself to fight.  Mr. Buchanan thinks this focus is misplaced and that terrorism is better viewed as a legitimate extension of the Clausewitzian “politics by other means”. Which is to say nothing more than one weapon or tactic among many; only that the legitimacy of this weapon or tactic seems to vary greatly by whom narrates the history. Moreover, American history has more than its fair share of people who employed “terrorism” in the pursuit of their goals.  Sherman famously terrorized the South during the War Between the States.  John Brown  (of Bleeding Kansas and Battle Hymn of the Republic fame) employed terrorism in the pursuit of his anti-slavery objectives. Nat Turner led a Negro slave rebellion that terrorized white Virginians in the early 1800s. The Allies terrorized the German civilian populace during World War II, and I don’t think the Japanese will quickly forget being nuked.  Yet terrorism was always the means, never the ends, and waging a “global war on terrorism”–the tactic, again–obscures the fact that we are engaged in a physical war against an intangible idea whose time has come

Our problem in this vast region is that tens of millions of Arab and Islamic peoples have now concluded they want us out, the Israelis gone, and pro-Western autocrats overthrown … Islamists who fight us in the name of these goals are swimming with a powerful current. Moreover, while Arab armies have rarely defeated a Western army, Arab and Islamic revolutions that employ terror tactics against Westerners have rarely failed

Continuing his criticism of an overly bellicose foreign policy, toward China, Mr. Buchanan assails the American position on the Taiwan question.  He wonders why we give the Taiwanese, with whom we no longer have a defense treaty, a blank check to drag us into war, much in the same manner as Chamberlain did with the Poles in 1938 with the German demand for the return of deutschevolker Danzig. The author, quoting Byron, postulates that if the Taiwanese wish to “be free, they themselves must strike the blow”, and that it is a mistake for the United States to continue to insert itself into places where it has no strategic interest.  Mr. Buchanan counsels a different policy toward China, one that recognizes that while she is not a strategic partne, she is also not an enemy, and we need not (and should not) pick a fight with the world’s most populous country.

Blunt as ever, Mr. Buchanan’s book contains a chapter entitled “Economic Treason”. Mr. Buchanan, long known for his protectionist economics views, repeats his opposition to free trade in this book and bitterly criticizes contemporary politicians for what the author sees as “selling out” (my terms, not Mr. Buchanan’s) the American labor force. America was born a protectionist country, he argues, and that protectionism benefitted America in ways that free traderism did and does not. As a historical example, he cites the case of a protectionist and prosperous Great Britain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before it’s evangelization into free traderism by Smith, Ricardo, and by the elder and younger Mill. Economic decline, and soon after, national decline, hastily followed after this “religious conversion” in Britain, and Mr. Buchanan argues that free traderism will inevitably yield the same results for America.  Yet the author argues that is precisely what is happening; a Republican party that once championed protectionism in the traditions of Hamilton, Lincoln, McKinley and Coolidge, resulting in strong growth in American manufactures and employment for its workers, has since converted to the political liberalism of Democrats, of FDR and Wilson, in matters economic as well as moral and spiritual. The liberal narrative, to which the Republicans now evidently subscribe, holds that the raising of tariffs and the cutting of income taxes caused the Great Depression, and free-trade New Dealism and Keynesian monetary policy pulled us out of depression. As a result of these policies

we have witnessed the fall of the American dollar, the end of our economic independence, the deindustrialization of our country, and the abandonment of our working men and women to Darwinian competition with foreign labor forced to work for a fifth or a tenth of U.S. wages.

To Mr. Buchanan, the Right’s advocacy of Democratic-style free trade pauperizes the working American, destroys jobs, and enriches the elite who profit from offshoring their labor.  He also views expansionist monetary policy as part of the “Road to Serfdom” upon which conservatives have acquiesced to place the American people.

Mr. Buchanan notes that before World War I, except for a 10 year period following the War Between the States, the Federal government was financed entirely by tariff revenue.  There was also no central bank, America was on a gold standard, and the dollar was “good as gold”.  Yet the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 would initiate a chain of events that would destroy the dollar, just as the Austrians said it would.  Moreover, Mr. Buchanan links a declining dollar to America’s overall economic and international decline–“a fading dollar mirrors fading confidence” as “bad money chases out good”, trade deficits swell, once-lucrative manufacturing jobs offshore, it becomes steadily more and more expensive to both finance the debt and maintain a world empire, and a people’s rulers silently steal their wealth through inflation.  The Right’s willing complicity in the tax, inflate, and spending  free-for-all makes them just as responsible for the present circumstances as the leftists with whom they think they differ.

Mr. Buchanan’s critique of the betrayal of American people by the so-called right is not limited to trade or monetary policy. Indeed, he inveighs stridently against those whom he labels “conservative impersonators”, those wolves with liberalist ideations who don conservative fleece. Few and unpopular are the “paleocons” who heed the minarchist principles in “Conscience of a Conservative“, the neocons have now taken over the major organs of the conservative movement. The politico-philosophical body snatching was near total with the election and re-election of President Bush, who ran in 2000 without calling for a single spending cut, and who staffed his administration with “compassionate conservatives”, who openly supported big-government solutions to problems large and small.  Conservatives switched from their principled historical opposition to left-wing redistributionist vote-buying  programs to crying “me too” at the funding trough. The No Child Left Behind Act, a $180B farm welfare bill, “nation-building” in Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign aid to countries whose polices aren’t sound enough to independently attract investment, $15B to fight AIDS in Africa, $1.5B to promote marriage, and an omnibus spending bill so stuffed with payouts to various politically favored groups that it would have been better named the “Incumbent Protection Act of 2004” were the result. All this with a near $500B (in 2004) budget deficit.  It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between Republicans and Democrats in how they actually governed.

Where Reagan challenged liberalism as a failed philosophy, Bush told Republicans the only thing wrong with the house liberalism built was that liberals were managing the estate.

Any problem, great or small, is instantly nationalized by either the left and the “right”, and the bi-factional ruling party invariably designs a new or expands a present Federal program to address it.  One wonders: Is this habit one characteristic of Conservatives? Or Liberalists?

The penultimate chapter of Mr. Buchanan’s book argues that the Right has failed to prevent Congress’ abdication of its Constitutional role of check and balance to both an “imperial judiciary” and an “imperial presidency”. Congress has failed to stop the judicial branch from imposing a socio-cultural revolution on America from above–by failing to circumscribe the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court–just as it has failed to bind an ever-aggressive executive with the “chains of the Constitution”.  Mr. Buchanan exhorts the Legislative branch to re-assert its power to circumscribe the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, and to take a hard line against an out of control executive by invoking the power of the purse.

Mr. Buchanan ends his book by charting a way forward.  He recommends the Right retrench with a focus on immigration (ending illegal immigration, no amnesty, and dramatically lowering caps on legal immigration); renouncing interventionism and empire, replacing it with what the author calls “strategic disengagement”; re-calibrate our approach to Islam and terrorism; to adopt a Middle East policy made in the USA, not in Jerusalem, AIPAC, or AEI; shift trade policy toward protecting American jobs and growing economic capability at home; renounce deficits and big government; and renew the culture war fight, this time by restoring the Supreme Court, the Executive, and the Legislature to Constitutionalism.