Our adolescent nation — let’s call him Sam — is having a bad night. After having had too much to drink, he’s already picked several unwise fights. Though he’s a big guy and the best fighter in the room, he’s sitting in a corner with a shiner, his inebriated mind rather surprised that anyone could have scored any hits at all.
Two people have taken an interest in Sam. One is now pouring shots into his mouth and egging him on with .gifs of Kate Upton’s tits, tapping people on the shoulder hoping they’ll take a swing at him so we’ll get a real show. The other is pleading with him to put his pants back on and comport himself with some goddamn dignity.
Who’s the better friend? Who’s the patriot in this scenario?
Buzzfeed’s editor in chief Ben Smith would like you to believe that these two approaches define the conservative movement’s divide over foreign policy. The fellow with the vodka bong is what Smith dubs a “freedom conservative,” and his opposite is a “liberty conservative.” This is supposed to be some kind of act of linguistic magnanimity from our good editor — hey, it’s better than ‘teabaggers’ versus ‘warmongers,’ right?
Smith is right that the terms with which the media talks about the right are muddy and often poorly applied. But when he tries to limn the intellectual roots of his new categories, he ends up basically describing the Old Right and the neoconservative movement; the former forged in opposition to the New Deal, and the latter from FDR supporters who were “mugged by reality” (he leaves out their Trotskyite dalliances). This is rather curious, isn’t it? There was once a time when journalists would look into the roots of ideas and attempt to explain how they carry on to today; in the Buzzfeed era, just make an arbitrary distinction we don’t really understand, name both sides something inoffensive, and pretend it’s a paradigm shift.
There wouldn’t be much more to say about the essay if it were just “nonsensical compartmentalization written by a total outsider,” as Mediaite’s Andrew Kirell put it. And it is that. But there’s something else going on here.
Though Smith claims these terms “evolved organically,” he admits later in the piece that the term “freedom conservative” was coined by Center for American Freedom chairman, “bullshit artist extraordinaire,” and registered foreign agent Michael Goldfarb. Smith holds up the Center for American Freedom as the bastion of this new not-neoconservatism; CAF literally has a family connection to Bill Kristol, in the form of his son-in-law Matt Continetti. Somehow we are to deduce from this that neoconservative is no longer a relevant term. This is some serious chutzpah.
In other words, Ben Smith appears to have been convinced by one of the neoconservatives’ top operators that neoconservative is no longer a useful label, and has now endorsed that person’s replacement term. Quite a trick, isn’t it? Imagine Lila Rose convincing the Associated Press to start using “pro-life” again and you’ll get a sense of the journalistic malfeasance at work.
It’s clear why someone of Goldfarb’s persuasion would want to rebrand. Neoconservatives are unpopular because Americans are exhausted of the wars they like. Polling continues to show a lack of interest in foreign entanglements, and neoconservative darling Tom Cotton is finding the good people of Arkansas aren’t interested in Kristolian platitudes. It’s worth remembering that even the Romney campaign ran from the label. Indeed, Free Beacon editor Continetti immediately latched onto the new term as well, declaring that he’s “proud to be a freedom conservative.”
What’s less clear is why Smith would take a foreign agent’s new term for his wing of the conservative movement so uncritically as to peck out a big-picture yarn endorsing it.
Perhaps the reason is that Goldfarb has been a very useful source. Let’s have a look at a few possibly relevant facts, shall we?
- According to Foreign Agent Reporting Act files, Smith and Goldfarb exchanged emails regarding Georgia twice in late July and early August of 2011, while Smith was still at Politico, so they’ve had a working relationship for some time.
- The week of September 9, 2012, Goldfarb discussed Georgian issues with Smith, now at Buzzfeed, and Ruby Cramer.
- In October 2013, Buzzfeed hired the Free Beacon’s digital managing editor.
- Ben Smith’s father made significant donations to hawkish luminaries like George W. Bush, John Ashcroft, and Rudy Giuliani. No wonder Peter King’s a fan of the younger Smith.
- Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray is dating a former colleague of Smith’s from the New York Sun, Eli Lake of the Daily Beast (who opposed the first Iraq invasion in the ’90s but has been repenting with the passion of a convert ever since). According to FARA files, Goldfarb arranged an interview for Lake with the former Georgian PM Vano Merabishvili in November 2012. The same week Goldfarb also talked to Gray about the Georgia lobby.
- Goldfarb is often quoted by Buzzfeed reporters. Considering their prior contact regarding Georgia, maybe that’s why he felt like he could talk to Ruby Cramer, despite her piece being critical of CAF’s outsourced research operation.
- Smith provided the kicker quote for Jim Rutenberg’s rather harsh New York Times profile of Goldfarb: “There’s something to be said for stabbing people in the front in a town where everybody goes around all day stabbing each other in the back.”
It’s a pretty cozy relationship.
Why does this matter? The GOP foreign policy debate
Smith’s piece claims that the freedom conservatives get credit for coining “freedom fries,” the silly Bush-era Francophobe nickname, but this is yet another strategic elision. One of the two congressmen who sought the name change, Walter Jones of North Carolina, now regrets his vote for the second Iraq invasion with a conviction that is truly a sight to behold.
To the freedom conservatives, this is an apostasy that merits the congressman’s political destruction. Back in April, the Emergency Committee for Israel, of which Goldfarb is an adviser, ran almost $350,000 worth of television ads against Jones. He won anyway.
One can further point to the Free Beacon’s campaign to have a senior Rand Paul staffer purged, or their smears against anti-war voices, to demonstrate that the neocons are utterly uninterested in having a “debate” in the Republican Party on foreign policy. They do not welcome it, and have done everything in their power to prevent it from happening. These controversies are not about Confederate luchador masks or an unsavory conference someone spoke at one time, they’re about marginalizing the anti-war right, and this is what Smith is abetting with his exercise in lexical subterfuge.
The neoconservatives, whose influence has not really waned at all in Washington, would be far happier if the hayseeds in flyover country just shut up and filled their bodybags, and quit worrying about the deficit spending of which the Pentagon is a significant contributor. And if the rowdy rednecks start getting the impression they’re citizens instead of subjects, they’ll just pick up their money machine and side with Hillary, as the National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn wrote in the Times recently.
Of course, the case could be made that they belong there. Daniel Larison writes that so-called freedom conservatives “regularly favor policies that infringe on and curtail it in practice.”
In fact, for all the hawks’ influence, the Republican Party is far more likely to turn noninterventionist than the Democratic Party is to reject the armed version of the next Kony 2012 campaign. If America is ever to return to a patriotic foreign policy, the “freedom conservatives” will need to be defeated and driven into the other party, not just argued with.
This is worth doing if the GOP wants to be more than the party of defense contractors and hawkish casino magnates; if it wants a different future than torture apologetics, amnesty, a government empowered to kill American citizens without trial, and endless war. The so-called “freedom conservatives” are sunshine patriots, ones that care about America and her institutions only as far as that concern can be enlisted to help export them. It bothers them not a whit that, as Madison wrote, “the means of defense against foreign danger historically have become instruments of tyranny at home,” or that endless intervention abroad corrodes the social and civil fabric of the nation. If they decide to leave, good riddance to them.
To mix metaphor and scripture, if the third leg of your stool sins, cut it off. You may not be able to sit on it anymore, but it’s high time the conservative movement learned to stand upright, and against war.