Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
US vs THEM:
How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America's Security
By J. Peter Scoblic,
Review By Jim Miles
ccun.org, March 8, 2009
U.S. vs THEM – How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s
Security. J. Peter Scoblic. Viking (Penguin,) New York, 2008.
In a work that is well focussed, Peter Scoblic has written an
intriguing historical review of the second half of the Twentieth Century on
into the recently passed Bush regime. In U.S. vs. THEM, the writing
narrows on to a main theme of how the decisions and actions of the
conservative/neoconservative mind have only increased the nuclear danger to
the world. At times the consistency of that narrow perspective can be
irritating as a bit more contextual perspective, a slightly broader sweep
could have presented a broader historical picture, but that was distinctly
not Scoblic’s purpose and the book needs to be read on that understanding.
There is much more to conservative and neoconservative policies and actions
than the increasing nuclear proliferation threat, but this work retains an
accurate and direct view of the nuclear issue.
There is apparently
no real neoconservative policy as such. With the main supporting idea
of the theme being the title, us versus them, any ‘policy’ statements were
essentially the blind rhetoric of the conservatives seeking U.S. global
dominance through the primal element of fear, of good versus evil.
That evil had to be redefined midcourse because of the inward collapse of
the Soviet Union, the evil being transferred from ‘godless communism’ to
‘fanatical terrorism’, from a state actor with a known base and boundaries
to a non state actor without boundaries or minimally much of base other than
a diverse and changing population group. Without any real policy,
Scoblic highlights the many contradictions between the decisions of the
conservatives and the results of their decisions on global security in the
Scoblic’s introduction presents his ideas accurately.
He describes the “foundational influences” of conservatism as “ – an
exceptionalism comprising both a moralism and a nationalism – [that]
represent[s] enduring traditions in U.S. foreign policy.” He relates
how the conservatives, instead of engaging the “enemy” to decrease the
terror of nuclear weapons “promoted the opposite tack, deriding containment
as appeasement, rejecting mutual assured destruction, and preparing to fight
and win a nuclear war.” The second half of the book looks at Bush’s
“paradoxical behaviour through the lense of conservatism.”
In the first chapter “Worldview” the discussion
examines the underlying concepts of conservatism and how it became a
“conflation of moralism – the good versus evil” – anti-communism, and the
traditional view of minimal government influence in the lives of the
citizens. From there Scoblic runs through the history, with many
familiar and a few unfamiliar names and incidents highlighting the story:
Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bundy, Goldwater, Bernard Brodie (a new name
for me), McNamara, Johnson, Nixon, Brezhnev, John Ashbrook, and Phyllis
Schlafly (both new), and of primary philosophical importance William F.
Buckley of the National Review. The discussion of the moralism and
paranoia of the conservatives through the era up to Reagan, through the
negotiations on the ABM, SALT and the NPT, leads to the conservative view
that “good could not coexist with evil,” that “regime change” was more
important than coexistence and containment, and that the conservatives could
not understand possible Soviet responses to their rhetoric.
Before reaching Reagan, the conservative coalition strengthened with the
arrival of more familiar names: Cheney, Rumsfield, Wohlstetter, Jackson,
Kristol, Podheretz – in short all the ‘chicken hawks’ who came back later to
populate the Bush regime. Their arguments on nuclear proliferation and
the winning of a nuclear war Scoblic argues are “fatuous…grounded in zero
sum thinking.” While constantly blaming the Soviets for nuclear
developments, and warning of their superiority (which never actually
existed), the conservatives “were criticizing the Soviets for a strategy we
ourselves were pursuing.” The latter is not too surprising as U.S.
actions often contradict their stated intentions and purposes.
Reagan represented a considerable range of these
contradictions, being fully drawn into the conservative philosophy, yet
during the second half of his leadership, made contrary moves (contrary to
conservative beliefs) to attempt full nuclear disarmament of the U.S. and
the Soviet Union, to be scuppered by the U.S. insistence on the proposed
development of the ‘Star Wars’ defensive missile system. But for
Reagan, “the evil of nuclear weapons clearly outweighed the evil of
communist states.” As a “paragon” of conservative values, Reagan
contradicted them in his negotiations with Gorbachev.
Reagan nor the conservatives come off favourably in Scoblic’s view. As
the arch-conservative “Reagan’s ignorance of nuclear matters was matched
only by his blindness to how his actions might be perceived by the Soviets.”
He describes the lack of “coherence to the Reagan Doctrine” primarily
because “there never was [italics in original] an actual Reagan Doctrine.”
As for Reagan being the hero of the conservative movement, that was a
reinvention of the man to suit the conservative’s viewpoint after the
collapse of the Soviet Union.
The common conservative
argument is that Reagan ‘won’ the Cold War, defeating the Soviets by causing
economic distress through the arms race and the incursion into Afghanistan.
Scoblic argues that “the Soviet Union suffered no economic distress as a
result of the Reagan build-up,” that the SDI (missile defence) did not break
“the Soviet bear’s back,” but gives the attribution of the collapse to
“Gorbachev’s willingness to reform” and the “endemic weakness of the Soviet
state.” The paradox of Reagan, the contradictions of conservative
beliefs versus his actions came about because although “Reagan thought in
terms of good and evil…he did not translate his worldview into policies that
made accommodation with the Soviets anathema and therefore impossible.”
The us versus them view continued to
develop through the Bush I and Clinton years in spite of not having direct
access to power. Exemplified by John Bolton – “the quintessential
example of the us-versus-them worldview – the neoconservative perspective
extended the individual right to be free from government interference at
home to “America’s right to be free from the interference of treaties,
institutions, or any other formal diplomatic arrangement abroad.” It
signalled the arrival of “Fortress America, which was able to strike
anywhere around the world without entangling itself directly in foreign
affairs.” Unilateralism, pre-emptive nuclear war designs, and supreme
military global dominance for the ‘new American era’ became part of the
rhetoric for neoconservatism. The us versus them philosophy floundered
for a while, until 9/11 offered the perfect chance for a global and timeless
enemy to appear.
With the Bush regime as well there was a”
blurring, if not erasing, [of] the line between conventional and nuclear
weapons and lowering the threshold at which the nation would go nuclear.”
Now the weapons would “serve not only a deterrent function but also a
counterforce function” to be used against even non-nuclear enemies. The Bush
conservatives brought the us versus them worldview back in full force,
moralistic, but not necessarily moral. Again, Scoblic leads the reader
through the actions that have increased the threat of nuclear proliferation
and nuclear terror in contradiction to the rhetorical statements and beliefs
of the neocons for U.S. security.
U.S. actions in Iraq,
Afghanistan, in failed efforts to control Iran, North Korea, Libya, India,
and Pakistan are all discussed as actions that have increased the likelihood
of a future nuclear incident, all contradictory to the neocons position to
achieve security and safety from the “evil” other. Ideology trumped
intelligent action in all their endeavours.
Conservatives at the end of the Bush era and on into the future have clung
to U.S. exceptionalism and the ideology of us versus them. By
maintaining an atmosphere of fear – fear of communism, fear of terrorism,
fear of crime, drugs et al – and by “depicting one’s group as special and
uniquely valuable,” they become “especially effective for terror
management,” in the sense of using terror to control the political will of
the people. With his analysis of events leading up to Iraq and the
dealings with the other ‘terror’ countries, Scoblic establishes that
conservative behaviour is “empirically irrational.”
He offers a
solution, the main one being not continuing to see the world as good and
evil, us versus them, followed by practical means such as reaffirming
nuclear weapons for deterrence only, strengthen the NPT treaty (and
ultimately nuclear disarmament). He calls for other concrete ideas
such as closing Guantanamo and reaffirming the Geneva Conventions. The
former he has called for, the latter is mostly rhetorical as rendition and
torture applied elsewhere have not been denied by Obama.
Finally he calls for – very briefly – the “creation of a Palestinian state,”
an interesting end note in a book that only mentions Israel in passing,
although it has had significant influence on U.S. policy, and unfortunately
continues to have the full pledged support of the new Obama government.
Recall that I said above that Scoblic remained within a very narrow focus of
U.S. conservatism and its effects on foreign policy, and while Israeli
lobbying and policies are fully intertwined with U.S. policy, he chose to
keep that element out of the discussion, even though many of the
conservatives are born again fundamentalist Christians who fully support
Once again, exceptionalism rises
final practical arguments listed above, Scoblic argues, “we should not blame
America first,” that “America is [emphasis in original] exceptional.”
It is only natural that a U.S. citizen and writer would not want to “blame
America first,” (and be accused of being treasonous and disloyal as argued
by the conservatives) yet to the rest of the world they are the biggest,
baddest proliferator in action. They have denied the treaty its
effective force by their own unilateral actions, they have not reduced their
arsenals significantly (overkill is overkill), they have supported Israel
and India with the development of their own arsenals outside the NPT, and in
general have only used the NPT in a unilateral manner as it serves their own
objectives and incorrectly as it applied to their arguments with Iraq.
So yes, the rest of the world can “blame America first” – the buck stops at
the world leader, the head coach, the boss, the most powerful position, the
one that does need to either lead effectively or cede leadership to an
international standard of disarmament. Accept the blame and start
acting on it, and then others will follow the lead.
exceptionalism, yes the U.S. is exceptional, but not because of their moral
leadership and ongoing rhetoric and jingoism about democracy, freedom, and
rule of law, all of which are used only as convenient. The U.S.
is exceptionally fearful, exceptionally in debt, exceptionally contradictory
with its energy and global climate change, exceptionally militaristic.
These are the empirical “exceptionalisms” without entering into the
psychological or philosophical realm.
The solution to the
nuclear problem them not only involves getting rid of the conservative us
versus them ideology and rhetoric, but also getting rid of the
exceptionalism rhetoric that Scoblic describes as part of the conservative
attributes that he is attacking.
Generally, U.S. vs. THEM
works well as history within its defined focus, reasonable but not
exceptional. It is not a flawless work, but it does provide a good
account of the conservative who’s who and of the ideology and rhetoric
around the U.S. nuclear program and ideology.
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular
contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine
Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other
alternative websites and news publications.