Stepping Off the Platform

Clyde Prestowitz is author of "Rogue Nation" and president of the Economic Strategy Institute. He was a trade negotiator in the Reagan administration.

President Reagan once explained his political switch during the 1950s from the Democrats to the Republicans by saying, “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.” In these days of neoconservative ascendancy among Republicans, traditional conservative Republicans like me increasingly understand how Reagan felt. But this time it’s the Republicans who are leaving us.

We conservatives have historically been skeptical of ambitious campaigns abroad aimed at remaking the world. It was the great British conservative philosopher Edmund Burke who cautioned against imperialism by saying: “I dread our being too much dreaded.” It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who argued that “we must not destroy what we are attempting to defend” and who further noted that “an empire on which the sun would never set is one in which the rulers never sleep.” And it was John Quincy Adams who warned that if America became “dictatress of the world” then “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”

Traditional conservatives were pleased during the election campaign of 2000 when candidate George W. Bush spoke of the need for a more humble approach to U.S. foreign policy and for reducing excessive U.S. deployments abroad. It therefore came as a shock when the Bush administration seemed to go out of its way to insult and irritate longtime friends and allies.


Take, for instance, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, a pact beloved by many of America’s allies, including Britain. Traditional conservatives generally opposed it because they thought it unfair to U.S. interests. But it had not been submitted for approval to the U.S. Senate in the summer of 2001 and was not going to be because there was no way the Senate would ratify it. Since it was effectively in limbo, many conservatives wondered why the new administration felt a need to take the treaty out of hibernation and loudly reject it, thereby needlessly alienating our allies.

More surprising and of greater concern was the reversal by a small group of self-styled neoconservatives, in the wake of Sept. 11, of Reagan’s winning Cold War strategy. The U.S. commitment to “no first strike” and deterrence that brought down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union was tossed over the side in favor of a doctrine of preventive and preemptive wars. Out, too, were long-term alliances like NATO, and in their place came temporary and shifting “coalitions of the willing.”

We were told that Saddam Hussein with his weapons of mass destruction and close ties to Al Qaeda was an imminent threat to the United States in response to which we had to strike before being struck. Subsequently, in the absence of any trace of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, we have been told the real reason for the invasion was to change the whole nature of the Middle East by recasting it in an American democratic capitalist mold.

So now America has a “mission” that neoconservatives have openly called one of imperialism. This is not what conservatives voted for, nor is it consistent with America’s historical anti-imperialism.

Even more important than foreign policy is what’s happening on the home front. Traditional conservative Republicans have always been for small government and fiscal responsibility with budgets balanced over time. They have also always emphasized protection of individual rights and supported strong state and local governments. These core conservative values have now been all but rejected.

Take the issue of big government. Although it is often associated with social programs, big government is more often the result of expansion of military programs than of anything else. The Pentagon is by far the biggest part of the U.S. government, and it is growing so fast that its spending will soon top that of all the world’s other military establishments combined. Conservatives have always been opposed to rampant bureaucracy, but the new Department of Homeland Security represents a huge bureaucratic conglomerate only slightly behind the Pentagon.

As for balanced budgets, even the Congressional Budget Office’s projections show that the surpluses of the 1990s have turned into endless oceans of red ink. The Patriot Act along with new visa regulations and guidelines for investigative agencies has imposed the greatest constraints on individual American freedoms since the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Then there is the plight of the states and local governments, of which California is only the most dramatic example. After the federal interventionism of the Clinton administration, traditional conservatives expected a Republican administration to reemphasize, at least to some extent, the rightful powers and authority of state and local governments. Instead, there has been a plethora of federal mandates to the already cash-strapped states, all without any federal funding. Moreover, in areas like educational testing and drug policy, the overriding of state and local government policies through the imposition of federal standards and rules has continued and even accelerated.

The irony here is that it is the supposedly liberal Democrats who are talking about fiscal responsibility, limited government, individual rights and caution on grand missions abroad. So more and more traditional conservatives have been asking the question: Who are really the liberals, and who are the conservatives? Indeed, it was Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican and member of the traditionally conservative Main Street Coalition, who played a key role in capping Bush’s tax cuts at $350 billion; and a large number of Republicans revolted against the neoconservative leadership to vote down new Federal Communications Commission rules allowing further mergers of large media companies. Perhaps this indicates that traditional Republicans are making an important discovery about who they are and where they belong.

There is nothing neo about imperialism. It is just as un-American today as it was in 1776. And there is nothing conservative about the giant military-industrial establishment, budget deficits or failing local and state governments. Far from conservatism, this is radicalism of the right, and it is unsustainable because it is at odds with fundamental -- and truly conservative -- American values.