Book Review: Buchanan Makes His Way Back from the Wilderness, Sort of

This was oringally written in 2006.

An incisive critique from the right of Bush 43’s foreign policy is long overdue, and Buchanan manages it without too much unnecessary controversy.

Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency

By Patrick J. Buchanan.

(St. Martin’s Press, 264 pp., $24.95)

A Republic, Not an Empire: Reclaiming America’s Destiny

By Patrick J. Buchanan

(Regnery Publishing, 300 pp., $29.95)

In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan seemed to lose his way. A sharp and smart, if avowedly conservative, speechwriter for three presidents in the 1970s and 80s, Buchanan seemed to jump the rails as a polemicist during Bush 41. His social conservatism, perhaps without the binders a White House staff position put on his tongue, boiled over into ethnic and religious controversy. William Buckley acquiesced in calling him an anti-Semite for his controversial remarks on the value to Israel of the first Gulf War. At the 1992 Republican convention he gave his notorious primetime ‘culture war’ speech that probably cost Bush votes to Perot. And his abandonment of free trade early that decade cut his last tie with cosmopolitanism. His political and economic nationalisms melded into a somewhat disturbing American Firstism and flirtation with xenophobia. His 1996 and 2000 presidential bids were flops and his political views increasingly moved away him from respectable discourse. Smart, to be sure, but cranky.

But if the owl of Minerva brings enlightenment at dusk, then the threat Bush 43 represents to traditional conservatism has re-energized Buchanan at this late hour. In his newer work, Buchanan shows – in a way only a conservative who cares for these subtle distinctions can – how the current Bush administration is re-making the GOP and with it American conservativism. A ‘paleoconservative’ who wrote a preface to Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, Buchanan is badly out of step with the conservative activists of the Bush administration. He comes from the capital-C Conservative tradition in the sense of Burke, de Maistre, Disraeli, Metternich, Oakeshott, and in the U.S., Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Robert Bork (many of who are named in the book). He combines an aristotelian concern for the possibilities of tyranny arising from state power (think Communism), with an augustinian sense that institutions (Church and Throne, or Church and Republic) are necessary to curb flawed mankind (think the 1960s). A devout Catholic, one imagines he believes in original sin. And while such pessimism may make his positive vision of America disturbingly strict, his deep roots in European Conservativism make him a unique critic of Bush’s big-government conservatism. Not quite the philosopher from the list above, imagine Buchanan as Burke’s bulldog for contemporary America.

The Rosetta stone for Buchanan’s work is American nationalism, the city on the hill – a Jeffersonian-Madisonian paradise of religious, independent-minded, rugged, free Americans. And this drives the three big criticism he poses of the Bush administration across these two books – an expansionist foreign policy which will terrify the rest of the world, while undermining republican freedoms and virtues at home; free-trade multilateralism which will de-industrialized the US and imbricate it in international laws and organizations that trump the Constitution; and big-government conservatism at home which balloons the budget deficit and saps rugged individualism.

Nothing so much as the Bush Doctrine and the Iraq war has ignited Buchanan in recent years. This is the best part of both books. Buchanan’s argument is two-fold. We face, in Chalmers Johnson’s great expression, ‘the sorrows of empire.’ First, terrorism, which Buchanan correctly identifies as a tactic, not an ideology, will be endemic if we seriously pursue global hegemony. This is not far-fetched; academic international relations theory has long expected other states and actors in world politics to balance the massive concentration of US power. Our democratic process and timid foreign policy goals have forestalled this. So terrorism, as the weapon of the weak, represents what little balancing there is. But if the US truly pursues a neo-imperial grand strategy, it is hardly overwrought to expect resistance in the form of more terror from alienated groups, with equally alienated states as sponsors. This is a good and interesting check to the wilsonianism of writers on the left and right speaking of the War on Terror as the first phase of ‘World War IV.’ Such language, and the long, nebulous conflict it entails, should give us all serious pause.

The second argument is more certifiably ‘paleocon.’ Buchanan makes a libertarian argument that American external interventionism undermines its ability to be a free society at home. In this, one truly sees Buchanan’s lineage with the Founding Fathers, and their 20th century exponents Robert Taft and Russell Kirk. He notes, correctly, that the expansion of the Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Department, and government spending to fund ‘empire’ threaten domestic liberties. The Economist and human rights NGOs have made similar arguments since the Guantanamo detentions began. And certainly previous wars have tossed up constrictions of freedom we today reject – Japanese internment camps and the House UnAmerican Activities Subcommittee are probably the best known

Surely this argument is correct. But if concerns about domestic liberties feel disingenuous coming from the old right, they are. This is clever, but only because so few conservatives have shown the spine to defend due process against Bush’s imperial presidency. Still, Buchanan is a poor defender. He worked for the presidency synonymous with an imperial White House and was a strong supporter of the Cold War – which spawned a national security state so freedom-encroaching that a Republican president warned of the ‘military-industrial complex.’ Perhaps as a result, Buchanan flags here. He falls back on distant quotes from Madison about the cost of armies and Reagan’s famous ‘city on the hill.’ But it is hard to cast cold warrior Buchanan and the ACLU in the same camp defending us against the encroachments of an imperial executive.

From here it is an odd non-sequitur to the next target – global governance. In the wake of castigating the US government for seeking global hegemony, Buchanan contradicts himself by suggesting we are simultaneously oozing sovereignty to international organizations. This is the biggest logic failure in the books, and marks Buchanan more as a polemicist than philosopher. But it does introduce Buchanan’s most interesting claim in the book – that “free-trade fundamentalism” is eviscerating the industrial capacity necessary to maintain US superpowerdom. This is fascinating political economy; almost no one makes such claims any longer. It is certainly correct that globalization is reducing the competitiveness of American manufacture, but the neoclassical response, of course, is that the division of labor and international specialization improve living standards. Indeed Buchanan avoids mentioning the bonanza for poor American consumers that trade and Walmart have brought.

But unlike the Michael Moore left, Buchanan knows he cannot defend protectionism in the language of economics. Mercifully, Buchanan spares us the shoddy logic and false concern of labor unions and NGOs over the ‘oppression’ foreign investment wreaks in the developing world. To his credit, Buchanan takes a clear neomercantilist stance, supported by a smart argument pulled from historian Paul Kennedy. He rejects the absolute gains reaped by all from free trade, for the relative gains to be achieved, in America’s favor of course, by managed trade. His approach, so derided in the US, is actually not quite different from Asian developmentalist strategies.

Battling the Thomas Friedman approach head-on, Buchanan argues that no great power can hang on without an industrial base. His Kennedy-esque example is 19th century Britain, stumbling before rising German power. In case of conflict, a great power must retain the capacity to produce goods and arms. It must not fritter manufacture away through trade with less developed, cheap labor states, nor indulge in ethereal white collar and service professions that produce nothing tangible. Taking a page from Marx, Buchanan sees industrialism as the highest stage of economic development. An industrial base is the root of national power, and for this claim too, there is a long pedigree in both political economy and practice.

His answer then is to manage trade with the rest of the world to insure that the US gains relative to others in the transaction. Friedman and the globalizers see free trade binding the world together, so if China grows relatively faster, it is not that threatening. We are tying her into modernity and the global economy along the way, and reducing the likelihood of future conflict. Buchanan is more cynical (or perhaps the nationalist in him wants to be). Citing similar interdependence arguments made in Europe before WWI, he prefers relative gains and economic sovereignty. And this dovetails easily with the political nationalist’s resentment at international law and organizations. The WTO, which infringes on both America’s economic and political sovereignty, comes in for special criticism.

The proper answer to this logic is not an economic one, for Buchanan seems to realize he is sacrificing absolute gains. Rather it is historical and political. Historically, Buchanan seems trapped in the Industrial Revolution. Like the late Soviet Union, he seems baffled by Digital Revolution of our generation. He does not see that America’s vast intellectual, service, and financial centers also contain elements of power. If he is correct that Britain could not grow all the food or manufacture all the weapons it needed in WWI and II, it is also true that the City of London gave her the credit to borrow hugely from around the world. Or consider that America’s high innovation economy means our military increasingly uses lasers, satellites, plastics, aluminum and other tech composites. Buchanan, like Kennedy (who predicted that Japan and the Soviet Union would be major 21st century powers) overrates the necessity of an raw coal-and-steel style industrial base. He does not see, as Wesley Clarke has, that the US military is remaking war around our economy’s comparative advantage.

The political answer is more troubling, but more important. Pursuing absolute gains, multilateralism, and cosmopolitanism are political strategies to achieve American security. They signal openness, flexibility, and warmth in an anarchic world. They mitigate anxiety, generate trust, and, today, are the likely reasons so few states balance American power. Yes, they are the reason we suffer surprise attacks like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, but they serve the medium-term interests of American power (as well as align with our values). Buchanan’s cramped, lonely vision of America would reduce these stocks of ‘soft power’ in the same way the Bush’s administration’s truculence has. On the economic merits, Buchanan’s strategic trade is simply wrong, but as a national security strategy, it is flawed at best.

The final major criticism of the Bush 43 neo-cons is the emergence of ‘big government conservatism.’ Liberals will find it comforting to know that someone on the right is still nervous about deficits, pork, and the growth of bureaucracy. As ex-leftists, neoconservatives do not resent government, so they don’t mind the New Deal or the Great Society. Again, Buchanan’s paleocon sympathies return, and for sheer peculiarity, it is fascinating to watch an admirer of Taft and Goldwater elaborate on the halcyon days of the gold standard! But much of the attack on the welfare state is pretty standard Reaganite stuff – end busing/affirmative action, balance the budget, reduce the role of the federal bureaucracy to the advantage of local communities (on education, for instance).

This would be even less remarkable were it to come from the conservatives in power. But it does not, hence it is Buchanan’s strongest claim of the abandonment of principle in the GOP. Even conservative think-tanks like Cato and Heritage, enjoying unprecedented access to power, have raised deep concern over the Bush administration’s predilection to borrow recklessly and fund new programming. Now in power, conservatives are enjoying funding their own pet programs – marriage and abstinence promotion, an FEC crack-down, the re-balancing, rather than abolition, of public television. Buchanan correctly notes the Gingrichian highpoint of small government conservatism, but cannot seem to reconcile himself to its popular failure. Americans want to retain the middle-class entitlements to which they are accustomed, but Bush 43 is unprepared to pay for.

Most of this is not beyond the pale. It is good to see Buchanan return to saner and sharper commentary. But old habits die hard. The books are stuffed with other critiques that sound like a TV pundit cutting loose. Indeed wandering from topic to topic is the major structural flaw of both books. He also indulges a few of the barbed one-liners that pull down his stature and make him so hot to handle. California is “Mexifornia;” America is “Mexamerica;” trade is making the US a “third world country.” And social science this is not. There are no citations; some of the authors he cites as authorities you’ve never heard of, and others (like Joseph Sobran, another Catholic paleocon) are really ideological allies.

That said, the books are entertaining, and designed for a basic reader with some free time. Don’t read with a pen; it is not worth it. But the state of conservative commentary today is terrible. Coulter, Hannity, Limbaugh, even Kristol have all sold their souls to the Bush administration. Fox News reads like RNC talking points. Even the Wall Street Journal and the National Review are not trying too hard anymore. Given the sorry, sycophantic state of conservative punditry, Buchanan’s work is a unique and piquant reminder that the right and the GOP needn’t be the same thing.

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