Can American Conservatism Ever Be Responsible?

Ross Douthat expresses the hope that “the chastening impact of the Iraq War and the changing of the generational guard provides an opening the revive the pragmatic, empirical meliorist style of neoconservative politics.”

That would, indeed, be a positive development. But there is nothing in the statements of leading neoconservatives, nor in the development of neoconservatism, that indicates that it’s taking place.

Conservatism in the world’s most powerful country— a country committed to a robust, assertive foreign policy— is always at risk of lapsing into mere jingoism. If we’re the world’s “last, best hope,” a city on a hill, then what are the grounds for opposing Product Proposed Invasion X?

As its founders made clear, neoconservatism is grounded on the belief that patriotism is good, and that identifying enemies is really important. These are worthwhile principles, to be sure. But if those are principles 1 and 3, and there’s no mention anywhere of humility, empiricism, or consciousness of the scarcity of resources, catastrophes such as the Iraq invasion are the natural outcome of neoconservatism, not some horrible misrepresentation.

Earlier in his post, Douthat described the “two faces” of neoconservatism:

the neocon reaction tended toward hardheaded realism on the one hand, epitomized by Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which Berkowitz’s op-ed references, and a sweeping faith in American power on the other, epitomized by … well, a host of recent examples spring to mind.

The “hardheaded realism” was a way to excuse overthrowing democracies and installing friendly dictatorships, and to profess indifference to suffering so long as it was inflicted by a putative ally. The “sweeping faith in American power” wasn’t “on the other hand,” it was another manifestation of that jingoism.

Now, the USSR was bad. As are terrorists. But when we let our fear and jingoism be our guide, instead of a calm, well-grounded appreciation of the threat, we are certain to make miscalculations, which can exacerbate the real threat.

The “Conservatism of Doubt,” for which Andrew Sullivan is an unlikely, erratic spokesman, calls for humility in policymaking. That’s a call for a return to a style of conservatism that is dead in this country, at least in the Republican Party.

It’s quite unclear why Douthat would turn to neoconservatism, of all things, for a return to humility and empiricism.


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2 Responses to “Can American Conservatism Ever Be Responsible?”

  1. jposty Says:

    I hate to use the term conservative republican… i instead would like to see more constitutionalist republicans take office. Basically the same thing… but without the negative connotation that comes along with the perversion that Bush I & II and even god himself Reagan committed under the moniker of conservative republicanism.


  2. Elvis Elvisberg Says:

    I feel bad for people who are genuine conservatives— as in, people who favor limited government and a more humble foreign policy. It’s a perfectly respectable way of thinking, and it’s always worth engaging.

    Unfortunately, though, they seem to make up about 1/100 Republican officials, and not too many more Republican voters.

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