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Robert Nisbet

Winston does well in bringing Robert Nisbet’s teaching to bear upon the basic problems we confront (War, Crisis and Centralization of Power). An assigned reading in my contemporary American conservative course at Georgetown is Nisbet’s The Present Age. While this work incorporates much of his previous thought and findings, I assign it primarily because it is a scathing indictment of our interventionist policies since the First World War. He remarks on the “prominence of war in American life since 1914, amounting to a virtual Seventy-Five years war,” noting as well “the staggering size of the military establishment since World War II.” He contends that there are irrepressible forces at work, namely, “the whole self-perpetuating military-industrial complex and the technological scientific elite that Eisenhower warned against” which shamefully exploits a widely accepted, but sham “American exceptionalism.” I think it fair to say that Bush II’s foreign policy and rhetoric embodied just about everything Robert Nisbet loathed. He would have been disappointed, but not at all surprised, that his “Seventy-Five years war” is now almost a “Hundred years war.”

What I want my students to see from Nisbet’s account is that traditional conservatives are not mindless war hawks (think Max Boot) contrary to what one might glean from the talking heads on TV or the main stream media. My having to do this, however, only indicates the extent to which neoconservatism has somehow morphed into just “conservatism.”

Be that as it may, Nisbet’s observations, coupled what has transpired under the Bush and Obama administrations, point to a state of affairs that troubles me mightily. Specifically, as I see it, there is a gulf, separation, or disjunction (there are perhaps better words to describe this) between sensible, ordinary Americans and those who are making the decisions to commit our nation to sustain hostilities. In fact, and significantly, the separation is more extensive than this: During the run up to the Iraq invasion virtually all the “opinion leaders” — high ranking officials, the influencial editors and columnists, the gurus from the Council of Foreign Relations, the “talking head” experts on cable TV — tacitly seemed to assume that military intervention was necessary. For the most part, these individuals were not concerned with the questions surrounding whether we should invade Iraq; rather their concerns centered on when we should invade, what our tactics ought to be, what effects the invasion and the removal of Sadam would be on the Middle East or America’s stature in the world, and so forth. While one might have imagined that launching a “preventive war” would have sparked considerable and heated debate, this issue was largely ignored by those in power and their minions. To a lesser degree, Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan illustrates the same phenomenon: His ultimate decision, much like Bush II’s to invade Iraq, seemed like a forgone conclusion once the elite establishment publicly pushed the matter to the forefront as involving the security of the nation.

Perhaps better evidence of the gulf or separation to which I refer is the fact that lies and deception are seemingly necessary to gain popular support for wars. It is now well documented, for instance, that Roosevelt II told the people one thing (your sons will never fight on foreign soil) while he endeavored in various ways to involve the nation in hostilities. Likewise, lies and deception, albeit in a different form, marked our interventions in Vietnam and Iraq. While, in my opinion, this by itself is deplorable, my point is that this practice indicates at least the existence of a separation in outlook and thinking between the decision makers and ordinary citizens. What other reason would there be for the lies and deception if not to bring the people around? Moreover, as Goebbels remarked, such a transformation is not too difficult for those who control government to achieve.

If I am essentially correct, forces other than those identified by Robert Nisbet are at work to keep the nation on war footing; that is, the military-industrial complex and the scientific elite to which Nisbet refers have powerful allies in the elite establishment.

My concerns with this state of affairs are multiple, but I am now most intrigued by the question of what accounts for the separation between the leaders and opinion elite, on the one hand, and the ordinary citizens on the other. What accounts for the difference in views? Is it that those who have or seek power possess an imperial mindset which sets them off from ordinary individuals? Is it that the preoccupations of the elite — i.e., international relations and national security — are such that they are blind or insensitive to the wider world about them? Could it be that since foreign policy, broadly speaking, is relatively free from the obstacles encountered in formulating domestic policy, the elites have little sense of accountability? Or might it be that somehow the military-industrial complex now has the means to bring elite opinion around?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to this question. But I do believe that there is a relatively incestuous elite — officials and opinion leaders — that holds to markedly different views regarding America’s role in the world than probably a very healthy majority of the general population. Given enormously tragic consequences of our following interventionist policies — hundreds of thousands have been killed, even more who have been wounded and maimed, millions have been displaced, and the entire effort is estimated to have cost us over two trillion dollars — I hope I am right about the basic good sense of the American people. They constitute perhaps the best hope we have to put an permanent end to these policies.

Are there other ways to rein in this elite short of a popular uprising of sorts. Is it possible to bring its views more into line with that of the American people? I can think of two. One would be the institution of a draft that would make our decision makers think real hard about any future intervention; it would probably preclude anything along the lines of Bush II’s preventive war. (That a draft would have this impact is further evidence of the gulf or separation to which I refer.) Of course, a draft is pretty much out of the question. So long, however, as our military consists of volunteers, prospects of curbing interventionism are significantly reduced.

A second means of control would take the form of a healthy war tax. Certainly the decision makers would have to take popular opinion into account knowing that such a tax would be levied. The mere prospect of losing an election over such a tax is more than sufficient to insure a healthy moderation.

The bottom line is this: We live with a dissonance. For reasons I can’t determine our decision makers and elites embrace imperial ends. Yet, the American people are simply not an imperial people; they are unwilling or incapable of making those sacrifices necessary for empire. I would submit that our republic, if we can still call it that, is endangered so long as the imperialists have their way.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Thanks very much for this, Professor Carey. Not surprisingly, you offer profound questions and astute observations. The paradox definitely seems troubling. I wonder if this distance between "the people" and the leaders indicates several fundamental flaws on the part of "the people"–inability to focus, inability to remain virtuous, inability to find common purpose, etc.

    Having spent the last three weeks in the West (and half of my lifetime there), I remain amazed at how happy people are, at how purposeful they seem, and how stable society in the West is. And, by West here, I mean the Dakotas, Montana, and Idaho. The same could be written of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

    Again, my thanks for a meaningful piece.

  2. George,
    I wrote a long comment earlier this morning that I guess did not make it on the site. It boils down to this: thanks for the moral center of your piece. I have missed having discussions with you for the last couple of years.
    Best, John

  3. While I VERY much agree with the general thrust of George Carey's essay, a few caveats, since the matter of today's terrorism remains:

    It is a fact that the planners of the two World Trade Center attacks, Ramzi Yousef and Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed are nephew and uncle. It is a fact that they were from Baluchistan. Is it a fact the Saddam and the Baluch were close allies in the Iran-Iraq War. It is a fact that Yousef flew to Baghdad, on an Iraqi passport, right before the first attack (which he planned) on the WTC, and it is a fact his co-conspirators referred to him as "Rashid the Iraqi". Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed, we now know, planned the second, 9/11 attack.

    It is a fact Saddam worked with al Qaida all through the 1990s — see the excellent journalism of Christopher Dickey in NEWSWEEK — and ran a terrorist training camp (including a 747 for hijacking practice at Salman Pak near Baghdad). It is a fact that Saddam was behind the attacks on the U.S.S. Cole and the two embassies (sovereign U.S. territory according to international law, hence acts of war) in Africa.

    It was these attacks which one of Rumsfeld's inner circle urged be used as the case for war on Iraq, only to be overruled by the CIA's "slam dunk" estimate that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction — a disasrous decision for Bush as it turned out. (He ended up fighting the right war for the wrong reason.)

    It is a fact that before he was arrested Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bombing partner of Tim McVeigh made more than fifty phone calls to a radical Islamic cell in the Philippines, probably the same cell which was working there — at the same time — with the same Ramzi Yousef on a plot (foiled) to hijack eleven airliners from Manila.

    It is a fact that all the so-called "stateless terrorist groups" are penetrated and largely financed and directed by the state intelligence agencies of Syria, Pakistan, Iran, Saudia Arabia and other players in the region, also the case when Iraq was ruled by Saddam. None of terrorist groups can function without the intelligence, training, and money supplied by states.

    My conclusion: the decapitation of the Ba'ath/Saddam regime in Iraq was appropriate, since it had attacked us (proven in the case of the U.S. S. Cole and our embassies in Africa, "not proven" — but it is a highly likely accurate deduction — that Saddam was behind the two WTC attacks).

    What was stupid of the Bush administration was then occupying and nation-building, trying to foster democracy in Iraq instead of just leaving, "mission completed". One does not create democracies in tribal countries where the average IQ is in the eighties.

    Leaving immediately, with a provisional government already determined, was, it is my understanding, Rumsfeld's original plan — a merely punitive action, not occupation — until the neocons and State and the CIA decided to play empire. Ditto with respect to everything we did and are doing in Afghanistan.

    I sure hope Rumsfeld's forthcoming memoir gets all this down on paper.

    In other words, we were dealing with states in the middle east and not random terrorists angry at our commercial, cultural or military presence in the region. Pat Buchanan's writing on this subject is just speculation, without any of the necessary factual foundation.

    To conclude, re terrorism, one useful initiative would be to end the Saudi financing of almost all the Islamic schools and mosques in the United States AND other western countries, also defaulting the selection of our military and prison Islamic chaplains to these same schools. The Wahabbist ideology promoted in these schools is a minority, heretical sect of Islam and is indeed dangerous — as the mass murder at Fort Hood showed — particularly when backed by the wealth of Saudi Arabia.

    Jameson Campaigne

    • Excellent points. But even if it were possible to foster democracy by armed occupation, “democracy” in America means a society in which millions of children are causally slaughtered, thousands of young men murder each other in every large urban area, the most fundamental construct of human society is under assault from government-sponsored elites, and profligate government spending is bankrupting financial stability. Promoting Western-style secularism by armed intervention is fundamentally repellent. Establishing Planned Parenthood clinics and “gay” marriage in the Arab world is not worth the blood of a single American soldier. Messianic secularism is not sustainable, either fiscally or morally; it is even incapable of recognizing its real enemy — eg. the Fort Hood “workplace violence” incident.

  4. Jameson Campaigne’s Wisdom

    When David was called by the Lord through Samuel, and when he went out to face Goliath, he knew that he was on a mission that came from “Hear, O Israel, that the Lord Thy God is One Lord.”. The story that almost everybody can recite is that David beat the Big Guy with a slingshot stone to the forehead. Killed him dead. My Dad once had a slingshot with a telescope on it, and could take out garage windows from blocks away. He was also a veteran of the Good War, in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, England, France, Germany–whack over to the Pacific, Saipan, Okinawa, Japan, Shanghai, Manila; he signed up on December 8, 1941, as a doctor who didn’t have to go, and came home in the spring of 1946 after the Great War had been over for several months. He never thought we had a mission from God.

    The David story is important for what we tend NOT to remember. David cut Goliath’s head off. He held it up, blood dripping. He probably let out a Tarzan yell, a Celtic war cry, an Alabama football cheer. My Dad never wanted to bring home Hitler’s head, or Tojo’s for that matter. He thought the war crimes trials were morally and legally ridiculous. OK, so for what do we fight?

    Thirteen generations of Willsons have fought and bled and died and killed to defend their patria. Some of them, I think the ones in Lincoln’s War, thought that they were doing what David did. Most did not. Now here is where we get to Jameson’s wisdom.

    I’m a simple guy, who believes that if we have an army its job is to kill people who are trying to kill us. In a republic an army is never meant to create other republics. It’s to kill the bad guys and go home. We should not, for example, be ruling Okinawa 55 years after we blew the hell out of the place, and we should not be completing (try to find this on your internet) the largest embassy complex IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD in Iraq. To do what with it?

    Jameson’s “facts” are just that. Sometimes we have to find out who is trying to kill us and kill them first. My New England ancestors had a clear idea of gun control: every citizen was required to own guns. They did bad things with guns sometimes, and what people, family, community, sate, country hasn’t? But do we have to say things like “Israel is the solemn ally of the western world” and therefore do anything we can to let them slaughter people while we claim that others are the slaughterers?

    I do, solemnly, truly believe that Jameson has put facts on the table, and I can’t respect him more for the lack of ideology in his argument. But remember, David ended up staying home while Joab took the army out, and had Uriah killed so that nobody would know that he brought Bathsheba to his bed. He did eventually become again the man that God wanted him to be, but does anything we are doing in the Levant relate in any way to the purposes of the Created Order?

  5. I'm afraid the Bush II years gave me a new appreciate for Bush I and Clinton, both of whom were terrible in foreign as well as domestic policy, but both of whom at least had the minimal good sense not to attempt nation-building on the scale endeavored by George W. (and now Obama). Sometimes I fear the best we will do is a return to the relatively petty Panama/Kuwait interventionism of Bush I.

    On the other hand, a conservative realism or practical noninterventionism might have a chance if there were some institutions to support such a thing. Grassroots conservatives fell into line with the neoconservatives by default: the neoconservatives had an articulate, practical vision and the pull within the "conservative" media world to communicate that vision. They sold their neo-imperialism as a natural continuation of the principles that had informed conservative foreign-policy thinking during the Cold War. "Paleo" conservatives who offered a different vision had few outlets and — it must be said — did not always use the outlets they did have particularly well. As a result, they were easily marginalized.

    The patently disastrous policies of the last eight years, however, have started to break up the coalition neoconservatives built around hyper-interventionism. Thoughtful younger conservatives have been searching for alternatives — and for that matter, thoughtful older ones have become more vocal about their dissension from the Weekly Standard's (and National Review's) program. The trouble is, there are very few sources of institutional support or eduction for conservatives who are not neos. We all know of good traditionalist organizations, but for historical reasons they tend not to focus on foreign policy questions that might divide the "right."

    The ingredients for a conservative counter-elite in foreign policy are readily available — the brainpower is out there, and there are already elements in the "realist" tradition in international relations that are somewhat compatible with a conservative outlook. But the political and para-academic institutions that we need are absent. Our side has little money, hence no think tanks like AEI, and the Republican Party is so warped at this stage that getting a hearing for common sense is exceedingly difficult. If these institutional barriers can be overcome, though — well, a truly conservative foreign policy outlook might at least have a fighting chance.

  6. Oddly, weirdly, the decision to support the invasion of Iraq by Bush II is becoming something akin to the issue of Alger Hiss. The differences are, of course, enormous and obvious. The similarity is how "smart" people react to the issue long after the central facts are well-established. Many on the left, e.g. Tony Lake, could not admit in public that Alger Hiss was a spy and a communist — even after his nomination to head up the CIA (on Tim Russert's show).
    There are those who still cannot acknowledge that the central decision, to invade Iraq, was a historic blunder that has badly damaged the United States while doing little, beyond killing Saddam, for Iraq and its people.
    My friend, Jameson, is still working his way to good sense. But he still has a way to go. A far more damaging roster of "facts" could be assembled for the Soviet Union, China, Israel. Many other countries have done things: kill Americans, spy on us, etc. Yet, the US did not invade those countries. The injudicious decision to connect only the facts connecting Iraq, in addition to "false facts" and arguments that led us into Iraq.
    And recall the "unpatriotic" argument made in National Review against those who argued prudence, even granting some of Jameson's facts.
    Bob Schadler

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