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Commentary (November 26, 2004)

Irony Lost on Conservatives

Gregory Clark (Vice President, Akita International University)

The Japan Times editorial of Oct. 11, titled "Almost all wrong on Iraq," strongly criticized the foreign policies of the conservative U.S. administration. But on the same day and on the same page the conservative U.S. commentator George Will was quoting heavily from a book written by two London Economist reporters called "The Right Nation," which praised conservative U.S. domestic policies.

Who is right? Both, maybe. Few would deny the foreign-policy disasters caused by U.S. conservatives over the years. Even the conservative London Economist with its patronizing assumptions of infallibility now admits its support for the United States over Vietnam was wrong, that it might also have been wrong over China and is beginning to waver on Iraq.

Conversely, progressives (leftwingers, liberals, call them what you will) who usually get it right in foreign policy often get it wrong in domestic policy. Progressive policies of excessive welfare protectionism created a subclass that believed it could exist forever on government handouts. Conservative pressure was needed to force individuals to take more responsibility for their lives and their futures. Conservatives also fed heavily on the backlash against the progressives' excessive leniency toward crime, pornography, environmental extremism, dubious asylum seekers, immigration floodgates, demands by homosexuals and a range of other social issues.

There is a reason for this contrast. Conservatives by nature are instinctual people (they leave the reasoning and rationalizing to their ideologists, such as George Will and The Economist). As such, they are closer to the instinctive grass roots of their societies, which is often a better basis for domestic policies than those fueled by the idealism and intellectualism of progressives.

But precisely because they are so instinctual, conservatives tend often to get it wrong in foreign policy. They like to divide the world into forces of good and evil. They tend instinctively to distrust foreigners who think or act differently from themselves. Demonizing the foreigners one does not like -- be it the former Soviet Union, Cuba, China, North Korea, Serbia or Islamic militancy -- does not provide a good basis for sensible foreign policies.

Western conservatives seem strangely unable to distinguish between cause and effect. They focus heavily on the fact of Islamic militancy, lugubriously described as "terror." They ignore the way this militancy was spawned by almost a century of Western intervention in the affairs of Islamic societies. Much of the unnecessary trauma of the Cold War was due to conservatives being quite unable to see how their own actions might appear in the eyes of others. The lack of remorse for the devastation suffered by Vietnamese people in the past, and the lack of conscience over what is going on in Iraq today, makes one doubt whether conservatives can even extend their thinking enough to realize that their alleged enemies are also human beings with flesh and blood.

But the ultimate irony is that the foreigners being demonized, be they Islamic militants, procommunists or what have you, are often themselves led by conservatives. Washington today seeks to encourage moderate Islamists to oppose militant Islamists. But the militant Islamists, with their fundamentalist attitudes toward crime, sex, pornography, God, religious scripts and women's rights, match closely the attitudes of fundamentalist conservatives in the West, especially in the U.S.

The moderate Islamists, which the U.S. today says it wants to encourage, resemble Western progressives in their attitudes. Ironically, there would be many more Islamic moderates today if the U.S. and other Western conservatives had not encouraged Middle Eastern and Islamic Asian regimes to hunt down and kill domestic leftwingers, in Iraq, Iran and Indonesia especially.

The former Soviet Union provided a classic example of this conservative/progressive confusion. I worked there for two years in the early 1960s during the liberalization introduced by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In the Moscow University student cafes I visited -- the same cafes future Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife visited just three years before me when they were students -- the frequent talk was how to create a better and fairer Soviet society. Those student attitudes then resembled closely those of progressive students in the West.

Sadly, the Khrushchev liberalizations would be cut off by the corrupt conservatives around Leonid Brezhnev who, together with U.S. hawk conservatives, worked so hard to overthrow Khrushchev. Twenty years of meaningless Cold War confrontation -- U.S. hawk conservative vs. Soviet hawk conservative -- were needed before the progressive Gorbachev generation could take power and push the Soviet Union into much-needed reforms.

Ironically, the U.S. conservatives whose Cold War confrontationism had done so much to delay the emergence of these Soviet progressives then turned round and claimed Gorbachev's eventual emergence as a victory for conservative U.S. Cold War confrontationalism.

Worse was to follow. In 1991 truculent Soviet conservatives, many in the military, staged a coup to end the Gorbachev reforms. They published a manifesto that, in its condemnation of rising pornography, crime, disorder and contempt for the military together with its pleas for love of flag and nation, mirrored almost word for word the manifestos of U.S. conservatives. The coup leaders were opposed, and defeated, by rioting crowds of young anticonservatives whose slogans and attitudes matched almost exactly those of the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators of the '60s.

Once again the U.S. conservatives saw no problem in seeing the defeat of their psychological clones, the Soviet conservatives, at the hands of their psychological opposites, the Soviet progressives, as a victory for conservative U.S. foreign policies. It's a topsy-turvy world, and a very dangerous one as a result.

(This article appeared in the November 23, 2004 issue of The Japan Times)

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