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Right Turn

What conservatives should learn from 9/11.

These are heady times for conservatism. The last 20 years have seen a decisive shift in the West toward market economics and away from statist intervention. The welfare state as it has historically been understood is an endangered species. Culturally, the importance of family structure, religious faith, and personal responsibility is affirmed by a wider array of people than for a generation. And with September 11, the bedrock conservative insight that the world is an inherently dangerous place has been decisively proved once again. Even the democratic left has moved irrevocably right in the last generation, witness Blair and Clinton. As the United States achieves early, though still provisional, success in the war on terrorism, the temptation for conservative hubris is close to irresistible. 

It should be resisted. Although this war's evident justness and remarkable success may well discredit the far left for a generation, the right, too, has deep problems that cannot much longer be ignored. Republican losses in recent elections, and a shake-up at the Republican National Committee, hint at larger conservative doldrums. The war has both highlighted and deepened intractable ideological tensions--and there is barely a faction or a school of thought on the right that hasn't been affected. This is not to say that the war presents a new crisis for the right. That would be an overstatement. But it is to suggest that this war should occasion as much thinking on the right as on the left--and that the time for it is now.

Most obviously, wars almost always move polities leftward. To fight wars, governments assume greater powers than are necessary in peacetime. Money is spent on the war itself and on the domestic needs it exacerbates. The deficits that are now predicted for George W. Bush's first term are not solely a result of this--they stem primarily from the slowing economy, faster government spending over the last few years, and to a lesser extent, tax cuts--but the war has made these deficits deeper. Such deficits crowd out private investment and thus hinder wealth-creation--they are the enemy of the freer economy and society some conservatives have been trying to foster for two generations.

There is, to be sure, a silver lining in this for conservatives. The structural tax cut, enacted as the Bush administration's first priority, is the surest fire wall against a significant expansion of government in the near future. It's also true that just because government is gaining greater power in some areas--defense, emergency services, intelligence, law enforcement--doesn't mean that government, as contemporary liberals understand it, is poised for a comeback. Greater respect for the military doesn't translate automatically into support for, say, government-backed universal health care. In fact, conservatives might argue that our lack of preparedness for September 11 shows what happens when government ignores its most fundamental duties--defense of the country, protection of American citizens--and devotes itself instead to overweening obligations like, say, providing free prescription drugs for seniors or micromanaging the economy. Alas, no such case has been effectively made. Instead, we have a panicky, unnecessary stimulus package, which uses the war to throw money at pork-barrel projects and bail out ailing corporate behemoths. Compare the current package to Clinton's initial modest stimulus, mercifully junked in 1993, and you can see how far left domestic economic policy has moved. If Clinton was an Eisenhower Republican, Bush looks increasingly like a Nixon liberal in domestic economic policy. The Nixonian gambit of buying public support for the war by reckless, pro-corporate Keynesianism at home is a sobering precedent, and could wreck Republican credibility on the economy in the months and years ahead.

More drastically, the law enforcement measures designed to avert terrorism have thrown another virus into the conservative hard drive. From William Safire to Congressman Bob Barr, stiff conservative resistance to government actions that clearly impinge upon civil liberties is one of the first big domestic political surprises of the war. Libertarianism--often allied to neo-isolationist foreign policy--has gained traction in recent years, and the war has shown how deep instinctive suspicion of government has become. Barr recently told ABC News, "I'm not worried about tribunals, for example, overseas, but domestically we have to abide by the ... Bill of Rights." A lockstep, Clinton-baiting right-winger, Barr has nevertheless wildly denounced a slew of modest and well-precedented measures to protect the country from further terrorist assault. Some circumspection is, of course, necessary. But Barr's knee-jerk suspicion of all government authority has led him into a deeply strange alliance with the editors of The Boston Globe.

If you think this is a trivial spat, look at the combatants. If you'd been told before September 11 that one of the fall's political fights would pit Bob Barr against John Ashcroft, you'd have dismissed it as a liberal fantasy. But the Barr-Ashcroft divide falls ominously along the conservative-libertarian fault line of contemporary Republican politics. Barr's argument echoes other Republicans who harbor deep suspicions of the FBI and CIA, as well as the experts at the Cato Institute who worry about a new American imperialism if the war goes well. If the base of Republican support for the last decade or so has been what Grover Norquist has called the "leave-us-alone" coalition, then a far stronger military, intelligence, and homeland security apparatus, however good for the country, is not the greatest of news for the conservative coalition.

Libertarians aren't the only ones who are discombobulated in the current war.

Neoconservatives have been snacking on crow for a month or so. Immediately after September 11, they saw in the war on terrorism echoes of the Clinton administration's weakness. They interpreted the reliance on airpower as an attempt to avoid direct U.S. military involvement overseas, and the construction of an international coalition as a sign of weakness. Key neocons, like William Kristol and Robert Kagan, already distrusted President Bush, and had been alienated from the administration ever since backing John McCain in the primaries. In October, Kristol wrote, "Hostile regimes tend not to succumb to air power alone--especially when the use of air power is itself constrained by diplomatic considerations, as it has been in Afghanistan." Neoconservative distrust of Colin Powell has also led to panic. "When will President Bush step in and find himself a Grant to take over from the McClellans?" Kristol and Kagan fumed in the November 19 Weekly Standard. The week before, The New Republic ran a cover of a hapless Bush, titled "Losing The War." Within days the Taliban collapsed. Kristol and Kagan gamely argued that it was their advocacy of a stronger military policy that helped change the administration's course, but there is little evidence that the Bush team engineered a u-turn in military strategy in late October, and plenty of evidence that the military campaign was always designed to be effective, swift, and flexible. The difference between the neoconservatives outside the administration and the governing conservatives on the inside had rarely been so wide or so visible. Like the civil libertarians, some neocons simply lacked the maturity to be team players when it really counted--and their part of the Republican coalition is shakier as a result.

The split between the neoconservatives and the Bushies could widen further in the war's next phase--if the White House takes things slow with Iraq, or in any way lowers the volume of its war rhetoric. The subtext of this internecine battle is, of course, the first Gulf war, where it is a matter of neocon faith that Colin Powell prevented the United States from toppling Saddam Hussein. Perhaps the best sign of the lingering bitterness came in an e-mail sent to Bill Keller by former President Bush, reported in Keller's recent fawning profile of Powell in The New York Times Magazine. "Kristol said Powell opposed the use of force," Bush wrote. "That is a vicious slander, totally untrue. I valued Colin's opinion that when force was needed we'd use sufficient force to keep our casualties to a bare minimum.... That Colin did not want to use force is a grossly unfair, insupportable lie." This is clearly not a dispute that time has tempered. Both sides could be wrong, of course. Powell almost certainly made a catastrophic mistake in 1990; but that doesn't mean he will do so again.

That ability to adjust with the times has never been a neocon strong suit. The neocons looked at China in the 1990s and saw barely any difference between it and the former Soviet Union at its megalomaniac peak. They tend to shout "Munich" at the slightest American accommodation to international exigencies--as in the standoff with China earlier this year over a downed American spy plane. And they look at the forty-third president and see the forty-first. But even the most casual observer must notice that the two men differ in their war leadership, executive style, and diplomacy. Bush I was a conciliator, a listener; he never mastered or enjoyed the executive functions of his job. While Bush I caved into left-liberal pressure and hiked taxes, Bush II has resisted such pressure, enacted credible tax relief, and appointed John Ashcroft--demonstrating his capacity to stick to goals through wobbles and travails. This latter quality--W.'s tenacity and political acumen--seems lost on the neocons. Their continuing churlishness--a function of ideological rigidity and personal pique--will only add to conservative weakness in the months ahead.

The neocons have also tied themselves in knots on the issue of unilateralism. During the 1980s and 1990s, it became a matter of neocon faith that any coordinated international military action was inherently suspect. Allies could do more harm than good; coalitions could too easily become ends not means. Indeed, although neocons paid lip service to the value of alliances, they were always more comfortable when the United States was going it alone. They often cited as persuasive proof of their argument the Clintonian tendency to ask allies what to do before acting, or to shunt off important national security measures to international coalitions or even the dreaded United Nations. And so throughout this war, the neocon chorus has loudly wailed every time an alliance is invoked. The neoconservative response to the Bush-Putin summit, the most important and hopeful Russian-American meeting in many years, was skeptical when it wasn't nonexistent. The administration's delicate balancing act with Pakistan and other Muslim powers was equally subjected to microworrying.

But in this respect, the war has surely revealed an essential flaw in neoconservative ideology. Like most ideologies, neoconservatism has a tendency to ossify, to fail to see new opportunities or realities. In the new war, neither unilateralism nor multilateralism is appropriate. The Bush White House has instead improvised an imaginative if precarious series of bilateral and trilateral alliances, each designed to solve a particular problem. There has been little evidence so far that these alliances have hindered our efforts to find and destroy terrorism. Quite the opposite. Placating Saudi Arabia hasn't stopped us from pummeling Al Qaeda. French and Italian military support hasn't paralyzed the bombing campaign. Russian intelligence has been indispensable. Yet the neocon paranoia continues. This is not to say that no criticism of Bush's prosecution of the war is ever warranted or that alliances shouldn't be subject to skepticism. But the reflexive, shrill nature of that criticism reveals how sclerotic contemporary neoconservatism has become.

But if the war has exposed libertarianism's and neoconservatism's internal flaws, they remain vibrant schools of thought compared to what has been termed "theoconservatism." With the ascension of a born-again president, the influence of these theocons seemed on the rise. A major initiative of "compassionate conservatism" was the co-optation of private religious groups for publicly funded social work. Suddenly influential thinkers like Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, and Marvin Olasky argued that the United States needed more public religion, that the boundaries dividing church and state had been too drastically drawn in recent years, and that politics had little to fear and much to gain from a more self-consciously religious cast. Bush's personal contribution to this argument was an ecumenical one. He embraced the fusion of religion and politics, but insisted on making it a multifaith endeavor. So Christians were just one part of a more publicly religious America--with Jews and Muslims and any other bona fide faith participating as well.

It would be hard to think of a political philosophy that is less appropriate after September 11. The terrorist attacks emanated from a total fusion of religion and politics, and illustrated for many conservatives and liberals the reductio ad absurdum of a theocratic order. At first, the White House went into spin control, tapping the Islamic apologism of theocon David Forte to blunt the argument that religion had anything to do with Al Qaeda terrorism. Karl Rove insisted that some remnant of Bush's faith-based initiative would pass the Congress--although it now appears that whatever emerges will be severely diluted. Michael Novak wrote in National Review an essay dedicated to the notion that theoconservatism remained intact: "The present war is not a war between a secular nation and a Muslim nation," he insisted. "Ours is not a secular nation. We are the single-most religious of all the advanced nations, and the third- or fourth-most religious of all nations anywhere on earth. Our Founding's religion, in case you want to know, is predominantly Christian and Jewish. And a good thing, too!"

The defensiveness behind Novak's words is not hard to discern. Indeed, for many theocons, fundamentalist Islam's critique of American society has been a little too close for comfort. Jerry Falwell's initial suggestion that American immorality brought this on ourselves was an expression of the Christian right's id. Or consider this, from Joseph Farah, the editor of, a popular conservative Web newspaper: "Exporting MTV would only serve to confirm Islam's worst fears and most accurate suspicions about the West--that we are a people who exploit women in crueler and more effective ways than the Taliban ever considered. We turn them into sex objects. What we do to young people in general is no better. While the Islamists program their young people into becoming suicide bombers, MTV programs our children into self-destructive, sexual time bombs."

This is an extreme view and it would be unfair to say that all theocons hold it. But the sentiment is real. Some radical theocons even averred in the past two months that the role of Islamic women under the Taliban was not an unmitigated evil. This dour religious conservatism was never a mainstream idea in the United States--and, although it helped galvanize the Republican base, it also helped prevent conservatism from becoming a majority public philosophy. But after September 11, theoconservatism is even more out of sync with most Americans, not to mention "leave-us-alone" conservatives of a more libertarian or politically secular bent. It is hard to fight a war against politico-religious extremism if you are winking at milder versions in your own political coalition. So far the strains are mild. But what might once have been a useful sinecure for a tiny extremist part of the base is now political suicide. The result may be a temporary muting of this religious emphasis among leading conservatives, and even its eventual abandonment. In a war with terrorist theocracy, America's political secularism--allied with its civil religiosity--seems one of the Constitution's sterling achievements, and not one that many Americans would want unraveled any time soon. Many conservatives recognize this. The problem is that the theocrats within the movement are too embedded to be removed without enormous struggle.

But perhaps the biggest conservative victim of the war has been cultural pessimism. Not long ago, leading paleoconservatives were denouncing America as a country, in Robert Bork's words, "slouching toward Gomorrah." Moral decline was almost irreparable; civil responsibility was a distant memory; pop culture was sapping any social fiber we had; and the evils of feminism, homosexuality, and Hollywood were corroding the country's ability to believe in itself or defend its shores. None of this was ever true--at least to the degree that some paleocons portrayed it. Anyone with passing acquaintance with the actual country knew that its moral collapse was greatly exaggerated. Support for President Clinton during his impeachment was less a sign of the country's descent into moral chaos than a pragmatic choice of the lesser of two evils. The unremitting pessimism of many on the right was a form of self-righteous narcissism. And it began to segue into an incipient, conservative anti-Americanism, an odoriferous philosophy that helped turn off many voters from the broader Republican message.

The response of the American people to the events of September 11 surely disproved these scolds once and for all. The heroism of rescue workers, the courage of the passengers on Flight 93, the phlegmatic public response to anthrax attacks, the overwhelming support for a difficult war, the resurgence of a simple, ennobling patriotism that has rarely degenerated into jingoism--all these are signs that the central social fiber of America was and is resilient and profoundly moral. In fact, the details of the American response devastated many of the stereotypes the paleocon right had constructed about America. Which of these cultural pessimists would have named David Letterman and Dan Rather as two of the most endearing emoters of patriotism in the wake of disaster? Which of them would have thought that an openly gay rugby player, Mark Bingham, would have been a hero on Flight 93, or that a gay Roman Catholic priest, Mychal Judge, would have confounded prejudice and fear in doing his duty in the collapsing wreckage of the World Trade Center? How many of them would have foreseen that some liberals would be among the strongest defenders of the war--from Tom Friedman of The New York Times to Christopher Hitchens of The Nation? Surely what post-9/11 America has shown is that those who viewed this country as socially decadent, morally confused, culturally bankrupt, and in need of a drastic spiritual revival were baldly, incontrovertibly wrong. Beneath the cultural flotsam of the 1990s was a sturdy moral and cultural tide--more inclusive, more tolerant, more diverse than ever, but just as unmistakably American as any previous generation. The fact that some dour conservatives insisted on seeing nothing but gloom for so long is an indictment of their lack of faith in the American people, and ultimately in the American experiment itself.

The war represents, then, an important opportunity for American conservatism. It can and should be a time when conservatives reassess their country and abandon some of the tired, fixed ideas that have hamstrung them in the past--moral Puritanism, cultural pessimism, libertarian escapism, neoconservative nostalgia. Don't get me wrong: Many of the schools of thought I've discussed here have important insights. But they need adjustment to new social realities and new geopolitical opportunities. Neoconservatives need to trust the administration more; libertarians need to face the reality of a country under mortal threat; theocons need to grasp more deeply the genius of the separation of church and state; paleocons need to open their eyes and see the health in contemporary American culture, as well as its problems. We have an imaginative and pragmatic administration--more culturally diverse than any previous Republican White House--leading a popular and important war. This war offers an opportunity to reintroduce Americans to a different kind of conservatism--pragmatic, decisive, inclusive, dedicated to a smaller but more effective government.

What would this mean? Not a drastic change. Junking the stimulus package would be a good start. Conservatives need to argue that September 11 showed deep decay in basic government functions, decay whose correction should take immediate precedence over other domestic policy concerns. Instead of bemoaning American popular culture, conservatives should also celebrate its openness, its growing tolerance, and its multicultural diversity as strengths that the war highlighted. But they should also argue that such diversity needs to be tempered by a unifying government and culture. I'm not the first to propose this, but why not take on affirmative action and bilingual education as impediments to a unified multicultural America? Why not tackle the scandal of teaching history in our public schools to help young Americans better understand the context of the defense of American freedom today? Why not appeal more aggressively to the demographic groups who were among the most heroic in the past two months--the rescue workers, cops, average businessmen and women, and middle-class patriots--who often feel alienated from the yuppie liberal ethos of some parts of the Democratic Party? Why not reach out to those American Muslims who have taken a stand against Islamo-fascism, rather than cozying up to some of the worst offenders? And why not win some gay votes by noting and praising the way in which gay Americans--from Mark Bingham to Father Mychal Judge--acted as patriots and heroes in an integrating national crisis? The alternative is to invite the left to use a successful war and a mobilized government to argue for a more intrusive, more meddling, and more stifling government when the conflict is over. It has happened before--ask Churchill or the first President Bush. And only conservatives can prevent it from happening again.

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.