My Kind of Conservative

Daniel McCarthy over at The American Conservative has a review of Andrew Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, and describes the author and former army officer this way:

Along with these qualifications comes a moral vision. Bacevich is a conservative and a Catholic, though not a “Catholic conservative” in the sense in which that term is usually meant. In drawing upon progressives like Beard and Williams for his critique of a republic that was corroding into empire, Bacevich made the connection between consumerism as a way of life and the foreign policy of liberal hegemony. His is an old American voice, warning not only against going abroad in search of monsters to destroy but also against the loss of civic virtue. He has given his readers cause to reconsider the ethics of accumulation and expansion, as well as to rediscover the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is worth stressing because of the nature of the war we are in—not this war or that war, in Afghanistan or Syria, but the ongoing war to tame the world for American ideals and markets. The spirit that drives Washington’s post-Cold War foreign policy—and drove much of our earlier foreign policy, too—arises from a view of history and a set of concepts that are compelling, flattering to ourselves, and wrong. To challenge this national orthodoxy, embedded as it is in our elite institutions and popular culture, takes courage and talent of an unusual kind. The task demands a historian with a feel for ethics and history as an organic whole, one who can tell the real story not just accurately but convincingly. That’s what Andrew Bacevich does.

Even his friends may not agree with him on every point. He favors a return to conscription to restore the citizen-soldier ideal—and to raise the cost of war high enough that more citizens will take it seriously. Whether that would be enough to dissuade their leaders from launching more wars like the one in Iraq is open to question. Other admirers of Bacevich are more sanguine than he is about global trade and consumer prosperity enduring—indeed flourishing—absent an imperial foreign policy. But even these optimists stand to learn something from the ethical restraint of Bacevich’s prescription. The lesson he imparts is one of self-discipline, not socialism.

This is the kind of conservative I could be, one that critiques both the market and state in favor of society and community. This is akin to the conservatism I grew up, and it often feels right to me even as it embraces a rhetoric that is frequently contradictory — anti-government and anti-state even as many of those who espouse such views are utterly dependent upon the state for careers and livelihoods. I am drawn to self-discipline, self-sacrifice, restraint, and solidarity — in a European context, I’m probably an old fashioned Christian Democrat. As both a Muslim and a Christian, I was and am drawn to social orders built upon cascading layers of mutual obligation, and that language speaks to me in ways the language of rights does not and never will. A confident assertion that I am responsible for my neighbor, and he is responsible for me. That is a politics build upon solidarity.

Sadly, I don’t see those things on offer much anymore, and have not for some time. All there seems to be is the angry language of rights. And fear. Lots and lots of fear.

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One thought on “My Kind of Conservative

  1. A comment on one detail: Barring an extreme national emergency, conscription will probably never be reestablished in the US. Main reason — the military doesn’t want it. They find it hard and expensive enough to train the people who volunteer. And those people are a self-selected and unrepresentative sample of the young adult population as a whole. Our cultural habits and expectations are such that most people would be useless as conscripts. Wars aren’t fought that way any more. And people aren’t that way any more. That is, unless something really drastic happens which justifies handing out weapons to hordes of unreliable young people. Really drastic.

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