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Shirley, You Can’t Be Serious

In an op-ed published in the Investor’s Business Daily, longtime Republican and conservative activist Craig Shirley adds his thoughts to the ongoing debate about the future of conservatism. Shirley makes one claim that is worth highlighting because it reveals a confusion about conservatism that others might share.

According to Shirley:

The foreign policy right will have a more difficult task coming to terms with what it stands for in a post-Bush world. Traditionally, the internal affairs of a sovereign nation were not of concern to conservatives unless that nation threatened America. They believed only in projecting American power to protect American interests.

Driven by the “neocons” who are neither “new” nor “conservative,” this has gone off the tracks badly in the past eight years. Traditional Reaganites are already clashing with the neocons who inspired the “Bush Doctrine,” but I suspect that eventually this too will be reigned in and the neocons brought to heel. Making the world safe for democracy has never been the business of conservatives.

Shirley is using lazy caricatures and making sloppy arguments. Let’s try to untangle some of them.

Perhaps the place to start is by pointing out that the projection of American power during the Bush years was to protect American interests. There were two “projections of American power” during the Bush years. The first involved a military response to the attacks on September 11, 2001. Presumably Mr. Shirley supported the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but perhaps not.

The second instance was the Iraq war. Of course, the reason the majority of the country, the Congress, and conservatives alike supported the Iraq war was because the United States believed, along with the rest of the world, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Beyond that, Saddam was the most ruthless and aggressive dictator in a region that that (a) has its share of awful ones and (b) is of enormous interest to the United States. His invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s was the triggering event for the first Gulf War. The implication that Iraq and what happens in the Middle East has nothing to do with American interests is silly.

As for the notion that “the internal affairs of a sovereign nation were not of concern to conservatives unless that nation threatened America:” Shirley is (again) wrong. Is it his view that conservatives should be utterly indifferent to genocide unless it occurs in a nation that threatens America?

The internal affairs of sovereign nations is our business if that nation is engaging in persecution, oppression, and mass death. That doesn’t mean that we ought to use military force in such instances; there are  limits to our capacity to restrain evil in the world. But there are a range of options short of military force that can be used. And even where our instruments of action are limited, the notion that genocide is “not of concern” to conservatives is wrong-headed and startlingly callous.

Beyond that Shirley – who invokes Ronald Reagan’s name worshipfully – argues that conservatism has gone “off the tracks” because of a belief in promoting liberty to foreign lands. Well, now. Shirley might be interested in the words and philosophy articulated by Reagan in an important June 8, 1982 Westminster Address. In that speech, Reagan said this:

While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings…. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy….

What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people…. [T]he task I’ve set forth will long outlive our own generation. But together, we too have come through the worst. Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best — a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. For the sake of peace and justice, let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.

Craig Shirley appears to be part of that strand of conservatism that finds the work of advancing democracy to be an unworthy aim of American foreign policy and genocide to be a matter of moral indifference. That view is wrong and, if taken seriously, morally offensive. Fortunately it has nothing to do with authentic conservatism. And that is something  Ronald Reagan, thankfully, knew.

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