April 11, 2005

Historical Illiteracy At LewRockwell (tip to DF)

LewRockwell, a paleo-libertarian and vaguely neo-Confederate site full of articles and political commentary, frequently gets both the facts and interpretations wrong in its stories. The linked article, by Anthony Gregory, seems to have an extremely limited understanding of the history of US parties in foreign policy.

Specifically, he seems to believe that the trend pushed by George W. Bush to defend and expand human liberty as a path to peace is new. Frankly, this is either hopelessly ignorant or hilariously ill-informed.

The Republican Party, moreso than the Democratic Party, has always been animated by entwining both morality and freedom into a cohesive whole. This is especially present during discussions of trade, expansion, borders and wars.

It doesn't mean that they're always consistent or always good, and it doesn't mean they were always respectful of others, but the Republicans throughout history can often be counted on to take the more freedom-oriented stance than the Democrats.

1) The expansion of slavery into the free territories and the Civil War. The Republicans had a cohesive, comprehensive view on the world that steadfastly opposed the expansion of slavery into the colonies. They linked slavery (and polygamy, i.e. the Mormons) to barbarism, and said that unfree labor caused economic despair and laziness. They had a very deeply rooted view that free labor, the system of working hard and making your own fortunes, was the opposite of slavery. This isn't foreign policy in the normal sense, but it tied into the direct result of foreign policy (the acquisitions from the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican War).

When the Civil War came around the Republicans and Yankees supported the war for two reasons: the Union and freedom. The Union was linked to the republic, the belief that representative government was tied inextricably to the union, and that disunion would mean the end of republic on the continent. Most Yankees believed that the end of the union would turn North America into Europe: constant, internecine struggles between princes and potentates squabbling for scraps of territory and undermining the liberty of their citizens. Maybe they were right, maybe they were wrong, but the point was they fought that war for what we today call democracy. Don't believe me? Ask Abe:

"...that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion... that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." - Gettysburg Address

Moreover, they eventually began to embrace abolitionism with greater and greater zeal. Abolitionism at first represented a small minority of Yankees, somewhere hovering between 5 and 20 percent of the population (depending on the definition). But quickly the natural sympathies of Yankee Americans to oppose the expansion of slavery turned into opposing it anywhere. Again, if don't believe me, then listen to the most famous pro-Union song of the time:

"As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." - Battle Hymn of the Republic

Pretty strong endorsement of the war-as-abolition justification: free the slaves to honor Christ. They didn't start the war to free the slaves, but a strong minority of them definitely worked hard to persuade the rest of that cause. They weren't total idealists or perfectly moral, but they definitely went in for a host of idealistic reasons and idealism propelled their views on the free territories.

2) The Cold War. This offers a more direct comparison than the Civil War, or than WWI or WWII, because this lasted longer and had a lively exchange between the sides. Most people think the Republicans wanted to fight more and harder and the Democrats wanted more conciliation. This is true in that it generally was how they came down, but it's hopelessly inadequate to explain the justifications of each.

The Republicans tended to expound on the evils of communism: the devaluation of human life, the attack on human liberty, the deprivation of representative government, the confiscation of wealth and the generally despicable behavior of communist tyrants. Democrats tended to accept many of these arguments but when they did so it was an echo of the GOP. The distinction is not in whether you agreed Communism was bad, but what you wanted to do about it.

The Republicans tended to endorse what's called Rollback or Liberation theory: the idea that communism is evil and we can enlist the support of the resistance in communist-occupied lands to aid us in the fight. This was closely linked to the idea that all people thought communism repugnant except those in the ruling elite, and therefore a great many people would love to revolt. That idea proved correct. All too correct, in fact. When the Hungarians revolted in 1956, the Republicans balked; they couldn't start a nuclear war with the Soviets over Hungary. They ought to have tried harder to push for Hungarian freedom, but ultimately there was little to do when tanks came rolling in.

Rollback also saw play in Korea, when the Republicans decided that they should go beyond defending South Korea and actually free North Korea from Communist domination. It was much more successful (in the immediate scope) when implemented through local partisans, as in Afghanistan. While ultimately this came back to bite us (i.e. the Taliban) it was otherwise a fairly well-intentioned idea: give freedom fighters the tools to fight oppression.

The Democrats wanted to stick with Containment: hold the communists in place and don't let them capture anywhere new. In this way we can hold our ground and be done with it. In other words, do enough to protect us, then call it a day. Forget the people stuck under communist domination, forget the people struggling to live, think or speak freely, forget the assassinated and imprisoned political heroes, and do the practical thing to protect us and only us.

It was really just pragmatic and denied a great deal of idealistic arguments. How could anyone see this as idealistic when it prevented millions of people from even entertaining the idea that America would support their freedom? Because people confuse avoiding war with idealism. That's a flawed connection. There's very little idealism in avoiding war, only in avoiding unjustified war. Avoiding war, on the contrary is the pragmatic thing.

Unfortunately, the daunting task of rollback in Europe was nearly impossible, and in Asia was not very successful (of course, why would rollback be successful in Vietnam when it was a war prosecuted by containment-men LBJ and Nixon?). Containment, as both simpler and more practical was the dominant strategy even as rollback was the more persuasive rhetoric. Rollback/liberation rhetoric is what won Republicans the loyalty of East-Europeans in the 1950s and 1960s. Those of Polish, Czech and other East European extraction weren't satisfied with the "save our own ass" of the Democrat, whom they also saw as handing over Europe at Yalta. They ran to the Republicans for the idealism of their foreign policy and the simple reason that they had relatives living under tyranny in Europe.

Clearly the Republicans had the more idealistic rhetoric and policy recommendations, if not the actual policy and implementation to back it up. Of course, a lot of support for anti-totalitarian authoritarians was justified or even lauded, which is hardly idealistic, but considering the extent to which most mainstream politicians supported the practice, it's fair to say that it's mostly a wash. Many of the people who stood against this most odious practice defended the authoritarian of Soviet-friendly leaders, so there's not a lot of good to be found on this front.

When it came to global theories and the theme of foreign policy, the Republicans were leaps and bounds out front on idealism in the Cold War. The oft-described image of a mindless warmonger is seldom correctly placed in context with a healthy respect for liberty and a fierce opposition to tyranny.

3) The War on Terror. In many ways, the Cold War dichotomy of containment versus rollback has returned in the War on Terror.

The Democrats want containment: fight the enemy where we need to, limit our engagements, stick to pragmatism, don't rock the boat. Don't destabilize the Middle East, just build up our own security and fight the problem case-by-case.

The Republicans are back to rollback, only this is much more powerful than rollback in the 1950s or even the 1980s. Going beyond the rhetoric that failed the Hungarians, President Bush and his administration are actually giving real support, diplomatic, economic, moral and martial, to democracy and to democrats. Anyone who reads Bush's AEI speech from February 2003 can tell that the theory of democratic domino theory is in play; by flipping Iraq from a horrible dictatorship into a liberal democracy, the trend is supposed to spread across the region.

And it has. Anyone who doubts that there has been a shift in the Middle East is kidding himself. Peaceful, public anti-regime dissent is growing increasingly accepted in countries across the MidEast. The Bush regime is aiding democrats in Lebanon, encouraging reforms in allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and underwriting democratic reconstruction in Iraq. It's not perfect, but it's a very real and critical time.

And if the Democrats had been in charge, it probably never would have happened. Bush and the Republicans didn't do it alone by any means, but the Iraqi elections - replacing a terror-supporting dictator with free, multiparty elections is a big deal - acted as a catalyst. And the last thing Democrats wanted to do was put any real risk into creating Iraqi sovereignty or democracy.

There is little change in the GOP ideology. Republicans tend to want the same thing over history, granted with many fluctuations and defections. Essentially it is this: support for representative government, support for the economy and the market, the primacy of human freedom over other concerns.

After all, was there any real risk of a Dixie invasion of the Union? Doubtful. What were they going to do, shove cotton balls in Yankee mouths and serenade Washington with a spirited rendition of Bonnie Blue Flag? No, they had little interest, time or money for a fight until the Union fought them. The Yankees didn't invade for security from invasion, they went for the security of freedom and the security of republican Union on this Earth. The Civil War was fought for ideals: unionism, republicanism, free labor and subsequently abolitionism.

By a similar token, the Republican ideology in the Cold War and the War on Terror have one major thing in common: abiding and central concern for the liberty of foreigners, and how tyranny abroad relates to security at home. In other words, we ought to free these people because their subjugation is a threat to us but their freedom is an aid to us.

The difference is that the Republicans have gone far enough in their idealism, both in rhetoric and action, that Democrats can claim their containment strategy is based in pragmatism. The Democrats aren't backing down from prosecuting a war on terror, well at least most of the mainstream ones aren't, but they are backing down from a war for democracy. This keeps the Republicans looking idealistic, fighting for a cause, and the Democrats looking pragmatic, pursuing solutions without idealism.

Make no mistake, Republican idealism, whether in foreign policy or not, goes straight to the root of the GOP in the 1850s, and is far from new. The Republicans in the War on Terror fight for liberal-democratic governance, just like they did in the Cold War and in the Civil War. You don't have to think they do it well or do it without hypocrisy, but you can't think that it's a recent development.

UPDATE: I've added this post more or less en toto here to my editorial issue articles here.


Anonymous Anthony Gregory said...

"LewRockwell, a paleo-libertarian and vaguely neo-Confederate site full of articles and political commentary, frequently gets both the facts and interpretations wrong in its stories. The linked article, by Anthony Gregory, seems to have an extremely limited understanding of the history of US parties in foreign policy.
Specifically, he seems to believe that the trend pushed by George W. Bush to defend and expand human liberty as a path to peace is new."

Where do you get the idea that I think Bush's foreign policy is so new? I disagree with the premise that it is based on, or is successful in, "expand[ing] human liberty." But I make clear that the GOP is simply returning to its roots of war in the name of freedom.

As I wrote, "Statism unites both parties, and the Republicanization of the Democrats we now see only follows the Democratization of the Republicans from the Cold War to the second Bush regime, which similarly followed the first Republicanization of the Democrats in the early 20th century." Clearly, it was the Republicans first who championed wars in the name of freedom, with the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, only to have the Democrats take it to a new level in the two world wars.

I have written about this before, in other articles:



April 11, 2005 4:04 PM  

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