Ugly: when status quo apologists lash out at conservative restrainers

A recent QI panel featuring critics of the internationalist order on the right drew special fire, along with ad hominem attacks.

A funny thing happened on the way to 2021: much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment went into a deep amnesia, conveniently forgetting that the American invasion of Iraq ever happened. To a lesser extent, the Global War on Terror — still ongoing through North Africa and the Middle East — has been pushed to the recesses of conventional memory, too.

In less polite terms, this is called “denial.” But how else to describe critics who have come out hard against advocates of restraint on both sides of the aisle, who seem to cling to this notion that American global supremacy has kept “the peace” for 70 years, as though the last seven decades have not been pockmarked with brutal conflict? Worse, they ascertain that the most destructive of these post-WWII conflicts — Vietnam and Iraq being the best examples — were exceptions, mistakes, bugs not features of the U.S.-dominated internationalist system.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be special scorn for the conservatives who have taken on this anti-establishmentarian view. Longtime author and writer James Traub, who at the height of the GWOT wrote a book called, “The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did),” was one of the first skeptics out of the gate when the Quincy Institute launched as a true transpartisan enterprise. At the time, he wrote a piece for Foreign Policy with the subhead, “A new think tank funded by George Soros and Charles Koch wants to end American interventionism, but shows no understanding of what motivates it.”

Last week, Traub wrote a column attempting to reproach a panel I helped organize with co-host George Beebe of the realist Center for the National Interest, called “What Does a Middle Class Foreign Policy Look Like.” To Traub, it seems the only thing worse than a realist critic of the Blobby status quo is a populist conservative one, particularly conservatives who blame Republicans and neoconservatives (read: out-of-touch elites and never-Trumpers) for perpetuating the rot in the system in the first place.

Trump, he writes, “has deposited spores of nationalism across the right-wing world, and they continue to multiply.” The “spores” in this case are clearly my guests — Mike Lind (University of Texas professor), Daniel McCarthy (editor of Modern Age) and Rachel Bovard (director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute). Traub expressed “shellshock” over the general themes expressed by the three guests and my co-host Beebe. 

But to most Americans their ideas aren’t alien. They talked about frustration over decades of economic globalization, led by and supported by neoliberal elites, resulting not only in the loss of American jobs and wages, but also access to affordable secondary education and a middle-class life. Yes, they touched on immigration and China as drivers of the economic gap. But the speakers largely focused on “the overclass,” as Lind put it, as handmaidens of policies that helped tip the playing field in favor of their own accumulation of wealth while leaving the rest of America behind. Add 20 years of war concocted and pushed by the same modern aristocracy, and the result: a complete loss of faith in institutions, a growth in cynicism and despair, a dissolution of the social fabric, and degradation of the culture. 

While feigning confusion, Traub understands perfectly well what is happening here. Anyone not living under a rock since Trump sailed to victory in 2016 is aware of the dynamics these speakers described. He even acknowledges that the Biden administration has all but coopted the message (sans the blame on liberal elites at the top), calling the administration’s “foreign policy for the middle class” pledge part of a new soft nationalism in the Democratic mainstream:

“That agenda, in turn, rests on a belief, which has rapidly swelled to a consensus, that globalization has been a very mixed blessing for the middle class, even as it has proved wildly beneficial for corporations and owners of capital—that is, economic elites. 

Even arch-neoliberals like Larry Summers now advocate a ‘responsible nationalism’ that benefits ordinary Americans whether or not it advances global goods. Biden administration officials are united in regarding China as a dangerous rival.”

Traub clearly disagrees. He called the entire panel discussion “absurd,” and dismissed it all as dangerous protectionism.

But that wasn’t enough. Traub is particularly put off by the messenger — these particular conservatives who don’t play by the rules (like nice Billy Kristol or Liz Cheney, stalwart conservative Republicans who still support the so-called rules-based global order — which is simply a euphemism for U.S. global domination) and carry a whiff of Trumpism wherever they go.

“What’s going on here? Has Steve Bannon executed a hostile takeover of the Quincy Institute and the National Interest?” he quipped. When reaching for the easy ad hominem against a right-of-center opponent, Bannon is always useful, as is Joseph McCarthy, Traub’s next stop in his own detour into absurdism.

Trump, he claims, is responsible for Republicans “turning away from the world, scorning allies, and repudiating not just ‘endless wars’ but the very idea that the United States can shape better outcomes for itself through an active role in world affairs.” Instead, he redirected them to “look for enemies at home.” More:

“Perhaps they didn’t need much teaching; conservatives marginalized themselves in the 1950s by indulging in the paranoid anti-communist rampage of Joseph McCarthy. But there are a lot more liberal elites today than there were communists, or even crypto-communists, in 1952. Trump and his followers have had to advance a comprehensive and elaborate conspiracy theory to explain liberal hegemony.”

Using a not so smooth sleight-of-hand, Traub has all but accused the speakers on my panel — who barely raised the specter of Trump — of being one step away from the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6, sealing his case with this closing swipe:

The alleged debate between conservative nationalists and borderless liberal elites is largely illusory, for the ideological contest actually pits the modest nationalism of a post-neoliberal Biden administration against the virulent and conspiratorial nationalism that has zombified the Republican Party. That’s a catastrophe for serious conservatives.

For someone like Traub, “serious conservatives” look like the masthead of National Review and that’s an easy mistake for a non-conservative to make. But there’s a real fight for the mantle between the old fusionists and the nationalist-populists (and lots in between) right now. Plus there is no “official” conservatism. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is themselves, unserious. However, there is something much more insidious going on here. Traub is clearly disgruntled over the shift in the Democratic Party toward a more populist, post-neoliberal approach — including a rebuke of the prevailing internationalist foreign policy. Take domestic politics out of the equation and Lind, McCarthy, and Bovard are their mirror image. This could be an explosive connection, one that the Quincy Institute wasn’t afraid to tease out in its panel.

But it’s a dangerous collaboration, apparently, and one that needs to be disabused in short order. What better way than to call out these conservatives as not only aliens in their own world, but as a sickness in the broader body politic? This is a tactic that the establishment has always been very good at — keeping the opposition divided.

Just keep in mind that Traub has disagreed with the Quincy Institute’s goals at a fundamental level since he first wrote “Billionaires Can’t Buy Peace.” This most recent critique appears to be an attempt to marginalize our potential allies by making them radioactive. It’s just too transparent to be effective.

More from