Where Pat Buchanan Went Wrong

I wrote several book reviews at FrontPage Magazine, including virtually every book Pat Buchanan wrote during my tenure there. In hindsight, these were hypercritical and, more damning for me, did not engage with the substance of his arguments. As I place this on my website nine years to the day I first wrote it, I can say this is perhaps the most defensible of my reviews of his work, which is damning my own work with faint praise. The inescapable fact remains: When it came to the wisdom of the war in Iraq, he was right, and we were wrong. — BJ.

We are not hated for who we are. We are hated for what we do. It is not our principles that have spawned pandemic hatred of America in the Islamic world. It is our policies. [1]

Thus did Pat Buchanan sum up his sentiments about the War on Terrorism in his new book Where the Right Went Wrong: How Neoconservatives Subverted the Reagan Revolution and Hijacked the Bush Presidency. The bulk of his book is dedicated to advancing his belief that terrorism is the oppressed Islamic world’s reaction to the “neoconservative” foreign policy, and that isolationism, rather than taking the war to the enemy, is the genuine conservative tradition. The policies that bother Pat most are the liberation of Iraq, “which did not attack us,” and support for Israel. (FPM columnist Don Feder has critiqued the book’s view of the Israeli question in these pages.) In pursuing his views, he has echoed the toxic rhetoric of the far-Left, repeating their assertions verbatim in this first manifesto of the Hate America Right.

Whatever the limitations of Buchanan’s previous books, his prescriptions were couched in the patriotic language of putting American interests first and avoiding the unnecessary loss of a single American soldier. It seems he has now abandoned that line of thought, accepting the Blame America First party line. In Where the Right Went Wrong, Buchanan ascribes all the world’s ills to the conspiratorial influence of perfidious “neoconservatives” whose disastrous policies inspired (perhaps demanded) the violent terrorist whirlwind we now reap. The War on Terrorism ought not to be curtailed because overextending American influence is bad for our nation; today Pat argues the American presence around the world must be curtailed because our nation is bad, ipso facto an “imperialist” bully. The Hate America Right, like the Hate America Left, now asserts terrorism is best explained by our own wicked policies, forced upon the country by a tiny “clique” of shadowy, pro-democracy, capitalist (and, coincidentally, prominently Jewish) ideologues whose only allegiance is to the bottom line of their sponsoring multinational corporations. Their conclusions may diverge (although not as substantially as one would think), but their rhetoric is identical.

This is most disturbingly underlined by Pat’s borrowing the Left’s “root causes” logic and his seeming absolution for 9/11:

U.S. dominance of the Middle East is not the corrective to terror. It is a cause of terror. Were we not over there, the 9/11 terrorists would not have been over here. [2]

Suicidal fanatics dedicated to imposing an Islamist interpretation of Shari’a law on all the world would have been “over here” as long as The Great Satan resisted Allah’s merciful, compassionate embrace. In Buchanan’s world, though, they are the righteous victims of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. And by pinning the blame on his opponents’ policies, Buchanan has made terrorists the neoconservatives’ moral superiors.

The old Pat never would have countenanced this kind of jaw-dropping naïvete on behalf of the Kremlin. Moral clarity for a time became the exclusive domain of the Right. (“The difference between us and them,” wrote William F. Buckley Jr., “is not that we are saints and they are sinners, but that we seek to be saints and they seek to be sinners.”) But the tendency to Blame America First appears to be a staple of Pat’s post-Cold War thinking.

He takes this to sickening extremes, declaring, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” As an example, Pat inexplicably likens the Jewish fighters of ancient Masada to modern Palestinian suicide bombers. He then concludes, “[I]f Iraqi insurgents and Islamic warriors are willing to die indefinitely to drive us out of [Iraq] and their world, the probability is that they will one day succeed.” [3]

Taken together, Pat’s thoughts convey a thought spoken more cogently by Michael Moore, when he said: “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘terrorists’ or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION and they will win.”

Pat’s policy critique differs in no meaningful way from that of Moore. In Where the Right Went Wrong, Buchanan, well, liberally cites discredited media heroes Richard Clarke, Gen. Anthony Zinni and Paul O’Neill.

Moreover, to justify his Terror War pacifism, Pat has resurrected the tired moral equivalence arguments of the McGovernite Left – on behalf of Communism, as well as terrorism:

[I]f the Chinese [military] buildup appears alarming, even ominous to us, consider how we must appear to the Chinese…How would we react to Chinese bases in Mexico, Cuba, British Columbia, and Novia Scotia “to fight terrorism.” [4]

Acting upon similar logic, President Jimmy Carter ordered U.S. nuclear weapons unilaterally withdrawn from South Korea within one day of his inauguration. The Soviets interpreted this and similar Carter “inducements” as acts of weakness, emboldening them to react with greater ferocity and impunity. Pat Buchanan understood those principles then, but he has since lost his bearings.

Beyond his lack of moral sense, Where the Right Went Wrong misrepresents the history of the neoconservative movement, the legacy of (at least) two presidencies and a swath of world history.

Ronald Reagan, Buchanan claims, never shared neoconservative views. However, Reagan and the neocons (many of whom, Pat points out, were among Ronnie’s closest advisers) shared the belief that we must take the war to the enemy. Reagan often urged support of freedom fighters on his radio commentary in the late 1970s, and as president he backed insurgencies in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Moreover, his invasion of Grenada was preemptive. Like Iraq, Grenada “did not attack us” and had not harmed American medical students on the island – and Reagan moved to make sure the pro-Castro regime did not get the opportunity. But then Buchanan has a long history of misreading Reagan; Nancy Reagan used to object to Buchanan’s speeches in the mid-80s, saying, “His ideas aren’t Ronald Reagan’s ideas.” They still aren’t.

Buchanan also claims George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy of non-intervention, but the neocons “hijacked” his presidency after 9/11 (a poor choice of words, to be sure). The Bush of 2000 was dedicated to non-intervention, Pat tells us now. That’s certainly not how Buchanan saw the matter in 2000, when he launched a third party presidential bid to keep America “A Republic, Not an Empire.” If Bush-43 had been a Buchanan clone, there would be no need for Buchanan’s hopeless run.

Buchanan’s hypercritical assault on the president’s foreign policy faults Bush for rejecting “containment,” although the anti-Communist Right consistently rejected that doctrine. Buchanan himself dedicated an entire chapter to the topic in his 1988 autobiography Right from the Beginning. Mr. Culture War also mocks President’s Bush’s decision to base foreign policy on “morality,” deriding such talk as “Manichean.”

Buchanan repeats the left-wing assertion that the neoconservative “cabal” of “Vulcans,” who exercise “disproportionate influence” on young Mr. Bush had drawn up a blueprint for the overthrow of Iraq “before 9/11.” One wonders how Buchanan would have reacted to FDR. Franklin Roosevelt ordered the military to draft the “Rainbow Plan” to “defeat Germany and her ally Japan in the Far East” six months before Pearl Harbor – and the plan paved the way for the eventual Allied victory. Having a ready plan for possibly explosive contingencies is the height of responsible defense stewardship. Yet the man who hoped Ronald Reagan would appoint him supreme commander of NATO failed to see its value.

Congress, too, receives a taste of Buchanan’s ire. That body, he writes, has surrendered its power to make war – ignoring, for instance, the 1973 War Powers Act. But President Bush went into Operation Iraqi Freedom only after having won a Congressional authorization of force vote. Echoing the Left’s rhetoric, Pat blames Bush for breaking the international anti-terrorism coalition forged after 9/11 by insisting on a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Instead, Pat – who opposed Operation Desert Storm, too – now praises Bush-41 for his coalition building, a move he then considered a usurpation of American sovereignty by the United Nations. Pat should have preferred the younger Bush’s approach to that of his father; Buchanan (rightly) lambasted the elder Bush when he said, since he had UN authorization, he needed no Congressional authorization for the first Gulf War. This president puts America – first – yet it wins him no quarter from Pat.

These matters aside, the book is teeming with historical inaccuracies and hyperbole. Buchanan’s book is wrong literally from the first sentence: “Not even the British Empire at its zenith dominated the world in the way the United States does today.” Which foreign governments pay tribute to Washington? Isn’t it Washington that doles out foreign aid to them? Wasn’t this a major Buchanan theme during the 1992 and 1996 GOP primaries?

Four pages later, Buchanan intimates America fought in World War II for only 11 months. “Not until four years after Hitler overran France did the Higgins boats appear off Normandy, just eleven months before V-E Day.” In both world wars, Pat writes, “we played Fortinbras in Hamlet, coming upon the carnage in the final scene in the bloodstained throne room to take charge of affairs.”

This is some salute to the half-million men who died playing Fortinbras in the Battle of the Bulge, Iwo Jima, and Omaha Beach. More importantly, it is an intellectually dishonest conflation of all of World War II with the European theater, of the European theater with the war against Hitler, and of the war against Hitler with D-Day.

FDR initiated wartime mobilizations as early as September 1940, when he instituted the first peacetime draft, followed by the Lend-Lease Act six months later. American vessels then occupied Danish-ruled Greenland and began escorting British ships through the U-Boat infested North Atlantic, authorized to sink Nazi ships in self-defense. The first gunfire – and the first American casualty – of the war against Nazism took place at sea in September 1941. Anti-interventionist historian Clarence B. Carson rightly described this stage of the war by saying, “The United States was, in effect, engaged in an undeclared naval war against the Axis.” [5]

However, the European theater involved more than the war against Hitler. U.S. ground troops first tasted battle in northern Africa in the summer of 1942, followed by the rapid but bloody battle to conquer Mussolini’s Italy. Even the European theater saw action for nearly three solid years (four, if you begin with the naval salvos). This is made all the more impressive when one considers that the entire time, the United States fought a two-front war against two of the world’s leading industrial powers.

The historical facts are much different than Pat’s caricatured 11-month victory lap. Worse, Pat is aware of his dishonesty. During the last presidential election, Buchanan wrote A Republic, Not an Empire to develop a scenario whereby the United States could avoid a hot war against Hitler, which he averred would have spared Americans the heavy, “needless” losses we sustained.

The new book also fuels the fears of those who believe Buchanan is motivated by anti-Semitism. In his book, Pat cites Holocaust Revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes, Old Right anti-Semite Garet Garrett and Gen. Anthony Zinni, who claims we toppled Saddam to bolster Israel’s position in the Middle East. He crudely compares Richard Perle to the avaricious Jew Fagin from Oliver Twist. In a variant of his infamous 1990 statement (“There are only two groups that are beating the drums for war in The Middle East – the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States.”), he writes, “Who would benefit from these endless wars…Who would benefit from a ‘war of civilizations’ with Islam? Who, other than these neoconservatives and Ariel Sharon?” [6]

On race, too, Buchanan gives off troubling signals. He denigrates Congress for “surrendering its law-making power to judges” on “the issues of religion, race, morality, and culture that define us as a people.” Judicial activism, he writes, began – not with FDR’s court packing scheme or its justification of some provisions of the New Deal – but with Brown v. the Board of Education. His hero in the battle? The Bigot in Birmingham. “Governor George Wallace told this writer he stood in the schoolhouse door…because the order had been handed down by a federal judge.” [7] Buchanan’s admiration for Wallace stretches back at least a decade. In the mid-Seventies, Buchanan proposed a 1976 third party “dream ticket” featuring Ronald Reagan – as vice president. The top spot, Buchanan explained in an early book, would go to George Corley Wallace, since he was the “senior” partner in the revolt against government control. Many conservatives mistook Wallace’s not-so-subtle racial demagoguery as Goldwater conservatism; it is disconcerting to see that Buchanan still does.

This book has exactly two mildly redemptive factors: its suggestion that term limits be applied to federal judges and its call for Congressional Republicans to cut domestic spending (although he does not specify how this should be done). Both ideas take up a miniscule portion of the book, both originated elsewhere, and both have been expressed far better by other writers. If you wish to absorb the only traces of wisdom found in Pat Buchanan’s new book, read Joe Scarborough’s Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day; if you wish to read his foolishness, read the ravings of the Hate America Left, which appear to be Pat’s chief foreign policy resource these days.

ENDNOTES:

1. Buchanan, p. 80.

2. Buchanan, p. 236.

3. Buchanan, pp. 124-6.

4. Buchanan, p. 140-1

5.  Clarence B. Carson. A Basic History of the United States. (Wadley, Alabama: American Textbook Committee, 1997), Vol. 5, p. 110.

6. Buchanan, p. 52.

7. Buchanan, p. 222.

This article originally appeared on Friday, October 1, 2004, on FrontPage Magazine.