Was Bill Buckley a foreign policy leftist?

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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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?

Is Barack Obama a “conservative” for having a foreign policy similar to Bush’s? If “Bush kept us safe” was a mantra conservatives were comfortable using to obscure his big-government record, has “Obama kept us safe” by carrying on with the same wars, starting a new one in Libya and taking out Osama bin Laden? Ron Paul now attacks Obama’s foreign policy just as viciously as he did Bush’s and on the same grounds.

Is Obama the conservative and Paul the liberal?

Paul constantly asks his fellow conservatives to stop and reflect on what America’s military can do, should do, should not do, and what we can afford to do. Paul’s critics seem to believe it heresy that any right-winger would do what Will and Buckley did — assess the wisdom of America’s wars by applying the same principles to foreign policy that conservatives apply to domestic policy.

The problem with some of the loudest mouths on the contemporary right is that they really don’t know the history of their own movement. For example, many of today’s hawkish right-wingers love to call themselves “Reagan Republicans,” but former senior Reagan adviser Pat Buchanan reminds us of his former boss’s more traditionally conservative approach: “[Reagan] took the world as he inherited it. His mission was simple and clear: Defend the country he loved against the pre-eminent threat of the Soviet Empire, avoid war, for time was on our side, and accept the assistance of any friend who would stand with us. Reagan did not harbor some Wilsonian compulsion to remake the world in the image of Vermont.”

Of course, Reagan was part of a generation old enough to remember conservatism’s origins. So was Buckley. In a 2007 interview with Townhall.com, just a few months before his death, Bill Steigerwald asked Buckley:

“You know who Ron Paul is — the congressman. He’s derided and discounted by many conservatives and his fellow Republicans as a kook. Yet his strong stands in favor of limited constitutional government, lower taxes, more personal freedoms and nonintervention overseas make him in many ways sound like a conservative of old — a Robert Taft, or a Coolidge kind of conservative in some ways.”

Buckley replied: “I agree.”

Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.