Patrick J. Buchanan is not a man who any conservative should dismiss lightly. He fought the good fight for a long time. He was an effective conservative commentator back in the lonely days of the Great Society, and a stalwart Cold Warrior who articulated the anti-Communist case brilliantly when he directed communications for President Reagan. Today, Pat Buchanan commands a sizable following and continues to offer insight into the mindset of America's heartland. Some conservatives argue that Buchanan is "coming back" to mainstream conservatism. That point is debatable, to say the least. But Pat Buchanan will never be accused of pulling punches.
In his latest book, Buchanan argues that "neoconservatives" within the Bush Administration have recklessly led America into an imprudent war for the worst of Wilsonian Internationalist reasons, namely, to force democracy upon an Arab world that has never known it. Buchanan further insists that this neoconservative cabal betrayed true conservatism because they never really believed in it. In fact, he insists, they had a radically different view of the world all the time.
In making his case, Buchanan can sometimes sound like a McGovernite for the new century echoing the old "Come Home America" strategy. Sometimes, he's an apologist for Islamic terrorism, arguing that they hate us because of our decadence, while ignoring the promise of seventy-two virgins delivered to successful suicide bombers in the Islamic afterlife. Sometimes he's Jacques Chirac's favorite conservative Republican. And sometimes, Pat Buchanan, the Cold Warrior, the hawk, the advocate of an assertive and muscular foreign policy, is counseling appeasement in the face of a fierce and deadly enemy.
Buchanan begins his book with a gallop through history discussing the "American Empire at Apogee." He argues that American world dominance today is more complete than British dominance a century ago. He then goes on to warn his readers that America might follow the British example of collapse and oblivion if we are not careful. He speaks of "imperial overstretch," taking a page from Paul Kennedy, not realizing that this particular argument was advanced and largely refuted in 1987, with Kennedy himself admitting that his thesis had been undermined by subsequent events.
The Buchananite interpretation of history is highly selective and given to oversimplification. He is correct in asserting that all civilizations pass away and his musings on the fall of the Roman Empire are largely accurate, if not exactly a challenge to Edward Gibbon. In his discussion of the decline of the British Empire, however, Buchanan accepts as fact the simplistic idea that "the embrace of free trade led to her fall" from world power. This fits in nicely with Buchanan's protectionist views but can hardly be the entire cause of British decline. Peregrine Worsthorne astutely observed that the acceptance of socialism by the British public paralleled the decline of the British Empire. The impartial historian might suggest that the bloodletting of the 20th century played a key role also.
Buchanan's discourse on American history is no less prone to selectivity, contradiction, and inaccuracy. He says that our churches are emptying out while many studies continue to find that Americans are the most religious people in the world. He argues that Americans never fight unless we are attacked first, forgetting Jefferson's preemptive strike against the Barbary pirates, as well as the Spanish-American War, and arguably the War of 1812 and World War I. The reader also wonders what Buchanan means when he says that we have "no mighty and ideological empire arrayed against us." The hosts of Jihad most certainly are arrayed against us, and the Chinese threat, while yet to hit full stride, is gathering steam.
The heart of this book is Buchanan's case against the neoconservatives. But his attack on them shares more in common with MoveOn.org than with conservative Republicanism. In fact, Pat Buchanan essentially makes the liberals' argument that President Bush is an amiable nitwit who cannot think for himself and is a captive of the evil Svengalis who have hijacked his agenda. Who are these princes of darkness? Buchanan is not afraid to name names: Elliot Abrams, Bill Bennett, Robert Kagan, John Bolton, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld. He also claims that "Four years before 9/11 they had publicly called for an invasion of Iraq. 9/11 would be the pretext for a war they had been devising for a decade."
Buchanan describes the Iraq conflict as the greatest strategic blunder in forty years. He seems to take some satisfaction in the possibility that Bush, Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell now appear to be looking for a way out of what he calls "the Mesopotamian morass." In a pitiable mood worthy of Jimmy Carter, Buchanan muses that "there are limits to our power and we are approaching them." His final judgment on the Bush team? They are "marinated in conceit, and their hubris may yet prove their undoing."
Buchanan insists that the main cause of Islamic terrorism is the American presence in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. "If we were nor over there, the 9/11 terrorists would not have been over here." If this is true how does Buchanan explain Islamic terrorism in India, Sudan, Indonesia, and the Philippine Islands? These nations are not defiling the sacred soil of Islam, yet they are targets of terrorist attack. What about terrorist acts committed in the 1980s by the likes of Abu Nidal, Abu Abbas, the Libyans, and others? Buchanan cannot blame these acts on "[o]ur presence on the sacred soil of Mecca and Medina."
When the discussion turns to the war on terrorism, Buchanan identifies al-Qadea as the enemy. He claims that our attack in Afghanistan was a wise response, although in 2001 he predicted a massive anti-American uprising throughout the Islamic world. He further argues that the attack on Iraq played into Osama bin Laden's hands. Buchanan counsels that in the future we should combat al-Qadea by working with our allies to hunt the murders down. Work with our allies? The feckless Germans and French? There is a place for Pat Buchanan in the Kerry campaign! Buchanan finishes his critique by calling for a retreat to fortress America. This is a call for surrender by any standard of measurement.
Buchanan also reviews our Middle East policy in general and finds it wanting. He seems to overlook the fact that Palestinian terror bombers are no longer receiving bounty payments from the Iraqi government. He places most of the blame for unrest on Israel and Ariel Sharon for denying the Palestinians their own nation-state. This ignores the historical reality that Jordan is the Palestinian nation-state, by terms of the 1947 peace agreement. It also begs the question: How much more land can Israel be expected to give up? Do we really expect a nation that is only nine miles wide in some places to submit itself to a partitioning? Apparently, Buchanan thinks this will assure peace in our time. Buchanan criticizes the Sharon peace plan, noting that National Security Council aide Elliot Abrams, a dreaded neoconservative, had worked out the plan. Interestingly, Buchanan didn't have a problem with Abrams when they were working together (quite effectively) against the Sandinistas in the mid-80s.
The rest of the book is filled out with a rehash of old Buchananite themes. He sounds the alarm bell about the economic crisis facing the nation and suggests protectionism and the gold standard as remedies. He laments the passing of the Anglo-Saxon state and sternly argues in favor of a moratorium on immigration. He inquires into the political correctness of those who call themselves conservatives, and calls those who fail his litmus test "conservative impostors." There is also the obligatory blast against judicial usurpation and the abdication of the legislative and executive branches of government to the judiciary.
Of course, when the subject moves to trade Buchanan is on very shaky ground. He denounces the multi-national corporations for "economic treason." This phrase reminds one of Jesse Jackson twenty years ago blasting corporate America for committing "economic violence" without defining the term. Does Buchanan believe that improving corporate efficiency is treason? Is he suggesting that we rollback the information revolution that he blames for the loss of American jobs? Should Americans stop buying Mazdas and Toyotas and put all of their American employees out of their jobs? While we are on the subject when will Pat Buchanan see fit to sell his BMW?
In a section that Buchanan entitles "Ideological Fissures," he returns to one of his pet themes: the culture wars. Buchanan predicts an ideological earthquake in the GOP, which will, of course, be the fault of the neoconservatives. The reader will certainly be excused for thinking that he has heard this song before. Pat Buchanan's battles with the neoconservatives over supposed anti-Semitic tendencies are well-chronicled and require no further illustration. Now, he attacks the neocons for their insufficient reverence for the American South and the Confederacy. For Buchanan, this is nonsensically just another example of his conviction that the neoconservatives are not really conservatives at all. To Buchanan, "[t]hey are impostors and opportunists. They were leftists in the 1930s, New Deal and Great Society Democrats through the 1960s, and slid to the right and the Republicans after Nixon and Reagan began rolling up forty-nine state landslides…" But among those who defected from the New Deal in the 1960s was an ex-film star named Ronald Reagan, the same Reagan whose revolution Buchanan continually lays claim to. Does Buchanan mean now to imply that Reagan, too, was not really a conservative?
After all is said and done, Buchanan tacks on an endorsement of George W. Bush for a second term of office. This seems disingenuous given the thrashing the administration takes in the previous pages. Buchanan may approach eloquence in the final summation of his work, but he is preaching a doctrine that his party, and the nation, will not accept.