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Retro Israel panel defies 'America First' foreign policy

Retro Israel panel defies 'America First' foreign policy

The future is knocking but at the National Conservatism Conference, old school remnants still dominate

Analysis | Washington Politics

The National Conservatism Conference, which professes to represent a new conservatism to “understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing,” has a foreign policy problem.

On the one hand the organizers and proponents rail against a globalism dominated by supranational neo-liberal institutions, and progressive litmus tests and ideas, but on the other they want borderless solidarity with other like minded nationalists across the globe. And for some reason this precludes them from talking too much about the biggest U.S. foreign policy issue in years, the Ukraine war, for which there is no panel scheduled over the course of the event, Monday through today.

It also means talking about Israel from a predominantly Israeli nationalist perspective. And talking about the Gaza war purely in the frame of Islamic extremism and the “mullocracy” of Iran. In other words, this is only an American interest insofar as, according to the speakers on Tuesday, U.S. presidents are accused of going too easy on Iran, which in part led to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. And now Washington has to help fix it.

Moreover, American political elites have allowed the “Islamosupremacists” to influence college campuses and Democratic administrations and turn Americans (in this case, Democrats) against not just Israel, but all Jews.

As Ben Weingarten charged in the one Israel panel — “Islam, Israel & the West” — the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas have had a grip on Washington since the George W. Bush administration, where the then-president had the temerity to declare that “Islam is peace.”

If that sounds familiar it is because the same people in the room today, 20 years older and graying at the ears, said the same exact thing after 9/11. But the difference here is that Israel is fighting its own war and making it an American war on terrorism and Islam is not going to work this time. What this national conservatism conference was missing was a true conversation about what is in America’s interest as it pursues policies with Israel, Iran, and the greater Middle East.

Instead we got old chestnuts from Weingarten, an “investigative reporter” for the Federalist, talking about “the troubling views held by large percentages of American Muslims (who) are or subscribe to the same worldview as Islamic supremacists who seek to impose… a theopolitical, Sharia-based ideology on America, wholly antithetical to our constitutional republic; while leftists and Islamic supremacists are in some ways polar opposites, traditional patriotic Americans are the chief stumbling block to each side achieving its objectives.”

To him, American protests against Israel’s military operations in Gaza, which have resulted in at 38,000 (or more) dead, the vast majority of the population displaced and hungry, most of the Strip’s civilian infrastructure (homes, electricity, hospitals, schools) damaged if not destroyed by American-made bombs, is merely the “the predictable consequence of an unholy alliance between progressives and Islamic supremacists that has for several years been fundamentally transforming not only the Democratic Party but America.”

Eugene Kontorovich, an Israeli legal scholar who now teaches at George Mason University's Anton Scalia Law School, spent his time on the panel railing against international institutions including the United Nations, which he said were dominated by anti-Jewish, pro-Islamist ideologues that were in essence working for Hamas. This conveniently renders, at least to his mind, International Criminal Court charges against Israel, including the deliberate starvation of the Palestinian population, absolutely meaningless (plus, as he has suggested, the U.S. military does it too, a favorite justification among Israeli military apologists since Oct. 7).

Instead he calls the Israel operation in Gaza "clearly the most restrained war in modern times, with the lowest proportion of civilian casualties of any war in modern times." Again, no conversation about whether the current U.S.-backed strategy will actually protect Israel in the long-term or destroy it from within, or whether it is in America’s interest to push it along.

No doubt, the discussion appealed to the paranoia among this retro crowd that Islamists have more power than they actually have in Washington (which is why Netanyahu is getting a red carpet on Capitol Hill this month, weapons and money slushing to Tel Aviv, and votes sailing through Congress cutting off aid to Palestinians and the very institutions Kontorovich abhors?).

But the National Conservatism conference, founded by the Edmund Burke Foundation under the tutelage of Israeli nationalist Yoram Hazony, should not be confused with the America First foreign policy now being debated in conservative circles today. After three days of programming, that much is clear.

There were a few counterbalances — a thoughtful discussion about the future of NATO, which included realist Sumantra Maitra, and remarks from Elbridge Colby, a self-described conservative realist. During a plenary speech, he said U.S. foreign policy must be rooted in the goals of preserving fundamental American interests of freedom, security, and prosperity, and cast in the lens of prioritization and power balancing. While North Korea, Russia, and Iran pose threats, he contended, they are regional threats to traditional U.S. allies and partners but not existential threats to those aforementioned American core interests. Therefore, he said, they are not foreign policy or security priorities for which the U.S. needs to militarize.

He does suggest, however, that China is a threat to the U.S. economy and the security of our allies in the region, and that requires priority. “Strategy and conservative realism would call for balance of manifest strength in Asia, but also openness to a modus vivendi in China. We must be laser focused on the rightful conservative goal here, to preserve peace, if at all possible, but decent peace, one that ensures Americans are safe, free, and prosperous, and most high necessity prevents China from dominating Asians.”

While not all realists and restrainers agree with Colby’s China perspective here, his brief against the primacist foreign policy of the last 70 years sits well with a growing faction of conservative foreign policy (American interest-focused) today, much to the contrast of the Israel panel dominated by the throw-back ideological rhetoric of the past.

National Conservatism conference, Washington, D.C., July 9, 2024. (Kelley Vlahos)

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