Russell Kirk and 9/11

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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I am not a libertarian. Though I am sympathetic to many libertarian views and believe its current popularity is pushing the GOP in a more limited-government direction, I have long considered myself simply a traditional conservative.

Philosopher and author Russell Kirk had a much less sympathetic view of libertarians, once describing them as “chirping sectaries” whose philosophy was incompatible with true conservatism. Still, discovering Kirk’s groundbreaking 1953 book “The Conservative Mind” at an early age was a significant influence on my political identity. The same has been true for generations of conservatives, or as William F. Buckley once wrote: “It is inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without [Kirk’s] labor.”

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 coincided with the Republican presidential primaries, naturally the candidates were asked to comment on the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history. Alone amongst the GOP field, Congressman Ron Paul has consistently contended that American foreign policy in the Middle East throughout the 1990s — a significant U.S. troop presence on the Arabian Peninsula, constant bombings, sanctions costing millions of lives — ultimately created “blowback” against this country.

“Blowback” is a term that was invented by the CIA to describe the often unforeseen and unintended consequences of foreign intervention. The 9/11 Commission Report lists blowback as a primary cause of the 9/11 attacks. Osama bin Laden also cited American foreign policy as a primary reason for radical Islamic outrage.

So did Russell Kirk. In a 1991 speech to the Heritage Foundation, Kirk called President George H.W. Bush’s Operation Desert Storm “a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf.” Kirk disdainfully added, “After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had been bombed before, Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers — that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated.”

Kirk then questioned the practical wisdom of such interventions: “Now indubitably Saddam Hussein is unrighteous … [but] are we to saturation-bomb most of Africa and Asia into righteousness, freedom and democracy? And, having accomplished that, however, would we ensure persons yet more unrighteous might not rise up instead of the ogres we had swept away?”

What Kirk suggests here is an integral part of blowback theory — that America’s allies can quickly become tomorrow’s enemies and vice versa. We saw this most recently with the ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a fairly recent ally who Republicans as hawkish as Sen. John McCain were trying to funnel American weapons and military aid to two years ago. It is now being reported that the victorious Libyan rebels who President Obama aided and McCain praised as “freedom fighters” might actually be some of the same Islamic terrorists we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, America’s support for the freedom fighters in Afghanistan seemed like a reasonable way to undermine the Soviet Union and the Soviet presence in that country. President Ronald Reagan even invited these Afghan fighters to the White House and compared them to our own founding fathers. But in the years that followed, the United States would come to know these “freedom fighters” by a different name: the Taliban.

Our wisest military decision after 9/11 — a proper defense that Paul supported — was to go after the Taliban in Afghanistan. There was a clear link between those who attacked us and those who harbored them. Why we are in Afghanistan a full decade later is an entirely different question, and many Americans rightly continue to ask it.

But is it wrong to ask questions about the chain of events that brought us into Afghanistan in the first place? Is it “blaming America” to examine whether our history of intervention in the Middle East might have fostered 9/11? Is it unpatriotic to reconsider our foreign policy and examine whether it makes us more safe or less? Paul has asked his fellow Americans to consider these rudimentary lessons of history, common sense and human nature.

So did Russell Kirk, or as he told the Heritage audience:

We must expect to suffer during a very long period of widespread hostility toward the United States — even, or perhaps especially, from the people of certain states that America bribed or bullied into combining against Iraq. In Egypt, in Syria, in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Morocco, in all of the world of Islam, the masses now regard the United States as their arrogant adversary …

Kirk died in 1994, yet some might say he predicted 9/11 a full decade before it occurred.

Many have tried to marginalize Paul’s blowback explanation for 9/11 and his foreign policy views in general as “leftist.” When this hasn’t worked, they often resort to characterizing such views as somehow exclusively libertarian. Yet, Paul has always contended that his Republican brand is closer to traditional conservatism than what many in his party currently represent. Today, I know few, if any, conservatives who reject Kirk, who was certainly neither leftist nor libertarian. I also know few conservatives who would dispute Kirk’s role as one of the most important figures of the post-war American right.

Kirk warned: “For now, in every continent, the United States is resented increasingly as the last and most formidable of imperial systems.”

This was Russell Kirk’s opinion in 1991. Ten years after 9/11, we do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to consider — and ignore the implications — of how the world views us today.

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