Was Bill Buckley a foreign policy leftist?

Some of the loudest voices on the right continue to categorize Ron Paul’s foreign policy views as “leftist.” It is true that like many on the left, Paul has been a staunch opponent of the Iraq War, our decade-long presence in Afghanistan and the recent intervention in Libya.

Paul believes that the only just war is a war of defense. When America was attacked on 9/11, Paul supported going into Afghanistan because he believed what most Americans believed — that the Taliban was harboring those behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. When America is attacked, she defends herself. This is what most Americans think of as “national defense.”

But what Paul’s critics on the right call “national defense” is often something quite different. The concept of preventive war — that is, going to war with nations that “might” be a threat at some point — is something new and without precedent in our history. This part of the Bush Doctrine, coupled with the notion that America can — and must — spread democracy throughout the globe, has become many conservatives’ default foreign policy position.

But this is a strange position for conservatives, because it is not conservative. President Woodrow Wilson’s notion that it was America’s mission to “make the world safe for democracy” was a clarion call for liberals and progressives of his era — and was considered utopian gobbledygook by conservatives. In a 2005 interview, columnist George Will and William F. Buckley explained:

WILL: Today, we have a very different kind of foreign policy. It’s called Wilsonian. And the premise of the Bush Doctrine is that America must spread democracy, because our national security depends upon it. And America can spread democracy. It knows how. It can engage in national building. This is conservative or not?

BUCKLEY: It’s not at all conservative. It’s anything but conservative. It’s not conservative at all, inasmuch as conservatism doesn’t invite unnecessary challenges. It insists on coming to terms with the world as it is …”

Will then noted the radical transformation the right underwent during the Bush era: “But something odd is happening in conservatism. And we have a president and an administration that clearly is conservative, accepted as that. Yet it is nation-building in the Middle East. And conservatism seems to be saying government can’t run Amtrak, but it can run the Middle East.”

Will outlines an obviously un-conservative premise of the Bush-era right. Buckley would go on to denounce Bush as not a real conservative and, as early as 2004, would admit concerning Iraq: “If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”

Both Will and Buckley initially supported the Iraq War, believing as many Americans did that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States. After this turned out to be false, Will and Buckley expressed regret for their former position. Today, Will is one of the fiercest critics of our decade-long intervention in Afghanistan.

Are Buckley and Will liberals?

One could also point to conservatives like Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and Jack Kemp — all of whom opposed the Iraq War from the very beginning, just as Paul did. These high-profile conservatives took positions that many on the right still lazily characterize as “leftist” when discussing Paul’s foreign policy.

Are Buchanan, Novak and Kemp liberals too?