Conservatives Missed the Boat on the Power of Culture



Who has the power to shape the future? American conservatives think they know. They have always been single-mindedly focused on politics. Nothing is more important than to elect presidents and members of Congress. That’s where the real power lies.

William F. Buckley’s National Review was an intellectual magazine, but its main concern was to capture the presidency. People in the National Review circle played a central role in getting Barry Goldwater nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. What became known as the conservative “movement” started out as the Goldwater movement.

When Ronald Reagan won the White House, the movement congratulated itself on having finally achieved its objective. Conservatism had “triumphed.”

But the “triumph” was more imaginary than real. General developments within America’s national culture (within academia, the arts, and entertainment) were pointing in a much different direction. These developments would have a greater impact in the long run than the Reagan presidency.

Preoccupied as they were with political victories and strategies, movement conservatives were not very attentive to how the deeper beliefs and sentiments of people were evolving in the United States. Yet, political power is circumscribed by the culture of voters and what it will make them accept or reject.

People live according to deep-seated hopes and fears, which tend to reflect the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic sensibilities that predominate in their society. They will vote for politicians who seem to support their dreams and vote against others who rouse their anxieties — which raises the question of what gives human beings their notion of which is which?

There is no simple answer, but this much should be evident: If there are people who can strongly influence the basic worldview of others, they have the power to shape society’s future. It should be a central task for students of society and politics to know who they are and what views they advocate and to offer criticisms of and alternatives to dubious ideas. But movement conservatives were largely uninterested in what informs the deeper beliefs of human beings. Their eyes were firmly on the need to win political victories.

The outlook and aspirations of human beings are affected from childhood onward by influences that color their views and tastes: the example and guidance of parents, children’s tales, music, novels, movies, teachers, and preachers. We all have had experiences that we know to have affected our view of life permanently. In persons of refined sensibilities, great works of art may permanently color their outlook. Who really familiar with the impressionist painters can see blue skies, fluffy clouds, and water and trees without to some extent viewing them through their eyes? Who familiar with Shakespeare can be unaffected by his view of humanity?

Although we are never just passive recipients of such influences, our sense of what life is like is affected by how others have interpreted the world. We tend to absorb the sentiments and perspectives of creative people who capture our minds and imaginations. Those who are able to enter the innermost selves of millions of people and affect their idea of what will produce happiness and self-worth will have a power unmatched by politicians.

A particularly good example of this kind of power is the profound effect that Hollywood has had on the public. In the last few decades especially, this influence has, for the most part, been deeply subversive of the moral and cultural habits of traditional American civilization. Becoming attuned to the Hollywood view of the world and of the entertainment industry in general has rearranged the values and priorities of many people in the U.S. In the media, the perspectives of news programs and talk shows have conveyed a new notion of what is newsworthy and not, admirable and despicable. Situation comedies and late-night shows have taught people what to laugh at and what to ridicule. Even the churches have absorbed a new type of moral sensibility. The overall result is a way of reacting to politicians and daily events.

In the intellectual life, universities and schools have “deconstructed” American and Western civilization. What might be called the Boston-Berkeley axis and the Hollywood-New York axis have interacted and mutually reinforced each other. Campus teaching and academic books in the one axis and entertainment and news media in the other have, over time, produced a powerful new cultural substratum deeply at odds with traditional American moral-spiritual, intellectual, and artistic life. The now-ubiquitous virtue-signaling pays tribute to America’s new cultural regime.

The counterculture and the New Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s grew out of cultural developments in the preceding decades. The demonstrations, burnings, and violence associated with them subsided, but the radicalism was carried forward and extended in the universities, the arts, music, Hollywood, book publishing, advertising, the corporations, and the churches. It soon permeated the mass media.

Reagan benefited from a grassroots resurgence of earlier American civilization, but the moral, intellectual, and artistic radicalism continued its long march through American institutions.

For students of the sources of human conduct who have also been attentive to the mentioned developments, nothing could be less surprising than the current woke rebellion and cancel culture. This is precisely what could have been expected from what has already happened in “the culture.”

Some intellectuals did warn of the radicalization of the professors. Not as many have warned of corresponding developments in entertainment and the arts, which penetrate even more deeply into the heart of hearts of persons.

But movement conservatives never quite understood the centrality of what lies outside of politics narrowly understood. They assumed and stubbornly persisted in believing that what really matters is political power. They did not realize that once America’s cultural trendsetters had transmitted their radicalism to the general public, it would overwhelm and transform politics.

Will it finally dawn on movement conservatives that, in the long run, the culture leads the way?

Claes G. Ryn is a professor of politics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.

Towards a Catholic Foreign Policy


For decades, American foreign policy has been off track. The United States has launched wars in far-flung corners of the globe that have not only killed and wounded thousands of brave members of the American military, but our foreign interventions have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of others, many of them innocent civilians. The Catholic Church in America, as a singular voice of moral authority in the nation, needs to say, enough.

Consider the moral disaster that was the Iraq War. As of February 10, 2020, the Department of Defense reported that 4,432 Americans have been killed in Iraq with 31,994 wounded in action. Brown University estimates that from 2003 to 2018 at least 182,000 civilians were killed by violence in Iraq, and war costs in the Iraq–Syria theater have totaled $880 billion. Tragically and ironically, the one community devastated most by the invasion of Iraq has been Christians. In 2003, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians who lived in many vibrant communities in Iraq; today only 250,000 remain. And the American invasion unshackled numerous fanatical groups, which led to persecutions, murders, torture, and other atrocities committed against those Christians who chose to stay. More generally, American intervention has destabilized the region and dislocated millions of innocent people.

In the lead-up to the war, the great Pope Saint John Paul II was well aware of the perils of invading Iraq, and he warned world leaders, calling the march to war a “defeat for humanity” that would have terrible “consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.” During a 2003 interview, then-Cardinal Ratzinger backed up the Holy Father: “This judgment of the Holy Father is convincing from a rational point of view… reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist.” As pope, Benedict XVI told world leaders in 2007 that it was time to end these “useless slaughters.”

American Catholics, however, must acknowledge that we did not heed the Vatican’s warnings and, since the Iraq invasion, we have not spoken with one voice in calling for an end to these interminable wars.

To their credit, the U.S. Catholic Bishops did write to President Bush on September 13, 2002, warning the president to “step back from the brink of war.” But an honest assessment of American Catholic leadership during the pre-Iraq War period would indicate that many Catholic leaders were reluctant to oppose aggressively a military invasion that was quite popular with the electorate. Moreover, some “conservative” lay Catholic leaders fully embraced neoconservatism in foreign policy, an ideology that has more in common with French Jacobinism than with traditional Catholic thinking on war and peace.

In fact, these neoconservative Catholics made arguments in favor of the war based upon dubious interpretations of the Catholic just war doctrine. The just war doctrine is more than a legalistic checklist of the specific conditions necessary to justify a war; the just war doctrine tells leaders to pause before they act, and only to act with restraint and circumspection after a genuine examination of their conscience. Intemperance in the soul, not incorrect reasoning, is the true origin of unjust wars, and the invasion of Iraq was an intemperate act.

Twenty-five percent of the U.S. military consists of Catholics, meaning hundreds of thousands of Catholic lives are exposed if our leaders pursue reckless foreign adventures. The good news is that American public opinion is not where it was in 2002, and many millions of our fellow citizens are now skeptical of war.

The American bishops have issued a number of recent statements exhibiting their increasing discomfort with the seemingly endless American wars and violence. On January 8, in the wake of the recent assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement urging “necessary diplomacy and courageous dialogue” and criticizing “further violence and military action.” That statement also linked to an article in Crux magazine in which Bishop Richard F. Stika questioned the morality of drone strikes and pointed to all the trauma caused by these wars: “I think about all of the individuals I have known who have been harshly affected by being in wars. The PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), lost limbs, trauma.”

One can hope and pray that the bishops find their voice, not only to criticize individual attacks that are problematic, but more broadly to question the recent American wars of choice in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The bishops must also work to shepherd lay Catholics, especially those in leadership and governmental positions, to make them aware that their Church is increasingly skeptical of recent American foreign policy.

What would an American foreign policy look like if it were compatible with the Catholic tradition? It would not be a dreamy, sentimental policy that was unrealistic about the presence of evil in the world; a sound policy must be hard-headed and realistic. In contrast to our recent policies, however, it would also be magnanimous, temperate, moderate and decent, exhibiting good toward all peoples and cultures.

Definitions, Please!



Reactions to globalization, the Trump presidency, and the coronavirus pandemic have turned discussions of American conservatism increasingly into discussions of “nationalism.” Regrettably, terminological confusion is rampant. Both “conservatism” and “nationalism” are words of many and even contradictory meanings.

The strengths of post-World War II American intellectual conservatism have been widely heralded. As for its weaknesses, one trait stands out that has greatly impeded intellectual stringency: a deep-seated impatience with the supposedly “finer points” of philosophy. Making do with loosely defined terms has made conservatism susceptible to intellectual flabbiness, contradiction, and manipulation.

This deficiency is connected to a virtual obsession with electoral politics. William F. Buckley’s path-breaking National Review was an intellectual magazine, but its primary purpose was to prepare the ground for political victories, most of all for capturing the presidency. The desire to forge a political alliance among diverse groups pushed deep intellectual fissures into the background. Having a rather narrowly political understanding of what shapes the future, most conservatives thought that the election and presidency of Ronald Reagan signified the “triumph” of conservatism; but the triumph was hollow. The reason is that in the long run politicians have less power than those who shape our view of reality, our innermost hopes and fears, and our deeper sensibilities. A crucial role is here played by “the culture”—universities, schools, churches, the arts, media, book publishing, advertising, Hollywood, and the rest of the entertainment industry—which is why America kept moving leftward.

For post-war so-called “movement” conservatives, conservatism meant chiefly limited government, a free market, anti-communism, and a strong defense. These tenets were all focused on politics, and vastly different motives hid behind each of them. Why were these tenets called “conservatism”? Rather than point to a few policy preferences, should that term not refer to a general attitude to life, a wish to conserve something, the best of a heritage? One thinks of the moral and cultural sources of American liberty and constitutionalism. But, outside of ceremonial occasions, most movement conservatives placed their emphasis elsewhere.

A striking example of philosophical messiness and confusion is that the conservative movement even incorporated clearly anti-conservative ideas, specifically, the anti-historicism advanced by Leo Strauss and his followers. Strauss championed what he called “natural right,” which he saw as sharply opposed to tradition. He called the latter “the ancestral” or “convention.” To look to them for guidance was to be guilty of the great offense of “historicism,” by which he meant moral relativism or nihilism. History, Strauss insisted, is irrelevant to understanding what is right. Only ahistorical, purely abstract reason is normative.

Hampered by a lack of philosophical education, many Straussians have been oblivious to the far-reaching and harmful ramifications of this anti-historicism. By blithely combining it with ideas of very different origin, they have concealed, even from themselves, its animosity to tradition.

One of Strauss’s most influential disciples, Harry Jaffa, made the radical implications of Straussian anti-historicism explicit. In his view, America’s Founders did not build on a heritage. They deliberately turned their backs on the past. Jaffa wrote: “To celebrate the American Founding is…to celebrate revolution.” America’s revolution belonged among the other modern revolutions. It is mild “as compared with subsequent revolutions in France, Russia, China, Cuba, or elsewhere,” he wrote, but “it nonetheless embodied the greatest attempt at innovation that human history had recorded.” The U.S. Constitution did not grow out of the achievements of ancestors. On the contrary, radical innovators gave America a fresh start. What is distinctive and noble about America is that, in the name of ahistorical, abstract, universal principles, it broke with the past.

This view flies in the face of overwhelming historical evidence. The reason the Founders were upset with the British government is that it was acting in a radical, arbitrary manner that violated the old British constitution. John Adams spoke of “grievous innovation.” John Dickinson protested “dreadful novelty.” What the colonists wanted, Adams wrote, was “nothing new,” but respect for traditional rights and the common law. The Constitution of the Framers reaffirmed and creatively developed an ancient heritage.

The Jaffaite notion that America rejected the past and was founded on revolutionary, abstract, universal ideas contributed to what this writer has termed “the new Jacobinism.” According to this ideology, America is “exceptional” by virtue of its founding principles. Since these principles belong to all humanity, America must help remake societies around the world. “Moral clarity” demands uncompromising adherence to the principles. The forces of good must defeat the forces of evil. Inherently monopolistic and imperial, American principles justify foreign policy hawkishness and interventionism.

Compare this notion of America to what is implied in Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase about what the Constitutional Convention had produced—“a republic, if you can keep it.” To sustain the Constitution, Americans would have to cultivate the moral and cultural traits that had given rise to it in the first place. To be an American is to defend an historically evolved inheritance, to live up to what may be called the “constitutional personality.” Only such people are capable of the kind of conduct that the Constitution values and requires. Americans must, first of all, be able to control the will to power, beginning with self. They must respect the law, rise above the passions of the moment, take the long view, deliberate, compromise, and respect minorities. Whether applied to domestic or foreign affairs, the temperament of American constitutionalism is modesty and restraint. There is no place for unilateral dictates.

These contrasting views of America entail wholly different nationalisms. The moralistic universalism of American exceptionalism, with its demand that all respect its dictates runs counter to the American constitutional spirit of compromise, deliberation, and respect for minorities. Exceptionalism does not defuse or restrain the will to power, but feeds it, justifying arrogance, assertiveness, and even belligerence.

During the presidency of Donald Trump many proponents of American exceptionalism who want preferment have recast their anti-historical universalism as “nationalism,” showing that the term can mean almost anything. It is now “nationalist” to demand that American principles be everywhere respected. For example, Mike Pompeo, a person of strong appetites and great ambition, has put this belief behind his campaign of assertiveness and “maximum pressure.”

In a speech in the spring of 2019, Pompeo declared that America is “exceptional.” America is, he said, “a place and history apart from normal human experience.” It has a mission to oppose evil in the world. America is entitled to “respect.” It should dictate terms to “rogue” powers like Iran and confront countries like China and Russia that are “intent on eroding American power.” This speech was given and loudly cheered at the 40th anniversary gala of the Claremont Institute in California, whose intellectual founder was—Harry Jaffa.

What may seem to political practitioners and political intellectuals to be hair-splitting philosophical distinctions can, on the contrary, have enormous practical significance. American exceptionalism is in important ways the opposite of a conservatism or a nationalism that defends the moral and cultural heritage that generated American constitutionalism. Exceptionalism fans imperial designs. The culture of constitutionalism opposes them.

Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics and founding director of the new Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His many books include America the Virtuous and A Common Human Ground, now in a new paperback edition.

Democracy Promotion Abroad, Breakdown at Home


As the United States cascades toward the status of a failed state, an author at The National Interest points out that, “democracy for Iran is one cause that effortlessly unites the left and right in unprecedented ways.” House Resolution 374, which calls on Iran to adopt a “secular democracy,” secured 221 House co-sponsors of both parties and was enthusiastically embraced by the Trump State Department.

Disorder and violence is rampantly spreading in the U.S. The history and traditions bequeathed by our ancestors are being defaced, freedom of speech and religion are increasingly under siege, and rank partisanship and vitriol mark our politics. In response, our nation’s leaders have come together to exclaim to the world: “you need to be more like us.”

You might have thought that when the nation has descended into chaos and whole sections of major cities have become ungovernable, it would be time for a little humility. Not for our puffed up political class. They continue to hector other nations with claims of American superiority at a time when American democracy is displaying clear signs of mediocrity and decay.

As democracy promotion continues to be the animating principle of American foreign policy for both parties, consider the condition of American democracy.

First, the Democratic Party, once a great bastion of John Stuart Mill-style liberals, was at one time populated with politicians who earnestly felt that social problems could be solved by people with brains, sympathy and good will. These liberals—Patrick Moynihan is an example—were rational, inquisitive, insightful and sincere. They were generally formidable interlocutors when discussing the nation’s problems, which they genuinely wished to solve. These traditional liberals were not “conservative” in the sense that they were more respectful of “reason” than of tradition, and they were certainly elitist, but they were civilized, orderly and thoughtful.

Now consider the temperament of those setting the tone in the contemporary Democratic Party. John Stuart Mill-style liberalism is dead, its rationality replaced by a totalitarian ferocity that brooks no dissent and labels opponents as malevolent cretins. A Frankenstein’s monster, who was created on our university campuses and who there instituted a decades-long reign of terror, has now extended his dominion over institutions off-campus, such as the Democratic Party and the media. Like Mary Shelley’s monster in her novel, the Western intellectuals who created the illiberal campus culture insisted that the creature was beautiful when, in fact, he was hideous and violent. And, as in the novel, when the monster—who felt that he was full of virtue and innocence, simply a victim of a cruel world–escaped into the population no one was safe.

It took several decades for the irrationality, ideology and intolerance of campus culture to overtake the Democratic Party, but that takeover is now complete. Politicians on the left no longer wish to debate the nation’s problems and, as is the case for activists on campus, their goal is to shout down, stigmatize, smear, and crush their opponents. In this tribalistic culture, there are no longer any civil rights for the accused in non-favored groups. Accused police officers in urban areas controlled by Democrats will now face the same kangaroo justice that boys on campus faced when they were accused of sexual misconduct. Campus culture is now Democratic Party culture, and its victims will be innocent citizens trapped in urban areas that will go unpoliced and ungovernable for the foreseeable future.

If you think the GOP is the antidote to this chaos, think again. The Republican Party is sometimes labeled as the nation’s “conservative” party. What exactly has the GOP sought to conserve? As the intolerant left marched through all of the nation’s cultural institutions, Republicans did nothing. They had some electoral success, but they accomplished little because they did not understand that public policy is downstream from culture; the options of the policymakers are quite limited when the culture sets the boundaries of acceptable debate.

Conservative “intellectuals,” should have been seriously alarmed by the Maoist-style cultural revolution, instead they abandoned the universities and founded “think tanks” designed to push tax cuts at home and endless wars abroad. How, one might ask The Heritage Foundation, are things going on the American heritage front?

The conservative “movement” ignored the culture and became obsessed with electoral politics and economic growth, meaning that the ultimate goals for “conservatives” became power and money. The philistinism of the Republican Party was captured brilliantly in Sen. Marco Rubio’s declaration during the 2016 campaign that college students should avoid learning Greek philosophy. Rubio’s consistent position has been that compared with money and war, Aristotle is not worth your time. Rush Limbaugh has voiced the same disdain for our foundational classical culture. Is it any wonder that Republican politicians are at a loss and hiding under their beds as disorder sweeps the nation? They simply do not know what to say or do because they have ignored, and sometimes even ridiculed, the traditions that gave us Western order and American constitutionalism.

Populism and nationalism, two trendy buzzwords of conservative intellectuals, simply represent the pouring of old wine into new bottles and reflect the continuing misguided emphasis upon electoral politics. These buzzwords are likely to pass away if Trump is defeated in the election. With Jared Kushner firmly at the helm in the Trump White House, Trump will likely fail to make good on two of his signature campaign promises: immigration reform and exiting the Middle East, thus cinching defeat in key Midwest battleground states. Rather than adopting a 2020 campaign slogan of “Keep America Great,” Trump might consider, “après moi le déluge.”

Thirty years ago, as the Cold War was coming to an end, Jeane Kirkpatrick warned us that, “a good society is defined not by its foreign policy but its internal qualities.” She advised Americans to come home from their global commitments and to work to “make a good society better.” Our leaders of both parties ignored her advice, and we are seeing the results.

William S. Smith is Senior Research Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book Democracy and Imperialism is from the University of Michigan Press.

The Clear Flaws in Trump’s Mount Rushmore Speech


President Donald Trump likes to portray himself as fighting the Washington Swamp. In foreign policy, he represents something new, America First, a break with interventionism and globalism. But the substance of his foreign policy has been largely at odds with his rhetoric. Making key appointments he has repeatedly turned to people on record as having the opposite of his stated views, interventionists like H. R. McMasters, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Robert O’Brien, and Mike Pompeo. He then fights with them to moderate their hawkishness.

This is just one example of the curious incoherence of the Trump presidency. The president has managed thoroughly to offend the Washington establishment, sending Democratic leaders and the media into paroxysms of outrage. Yet there is a striking element of overlap between Trump and his enemies and predecessors. In important ways, he is defaulting to the same old same old, possibly because people in his vicinity keep pushing him in that direction.

The president’s primary purpose at Mount Rushmore was to leave no doubt as to how he views attacks on monuments, civil disturbance, looting, and vandalism. He probably was quite successful conveying to the American people why none of this can be tolerated.

While most listeners probably did not pay close attention to the president’s extended argument for why America’s heritage must be defended, the speech was in this respect another example of the inconsistency of the Trump presidency.

The speech’s overall message regarding the worthiness of America was virtually indistinguishable from the “idealistic” sentiments that neoconservatives and other exceptionalists have expressed in recent decades to promote American intervention and, in particular, to create momentum for war with Iraq. Their fundamental idea, simply put, is that America is—here we go again—exceptional. America is God’s gift to mankind, and America is in a position to work marvels for humanity. These notions have formed the core for what this writer has called “the ideology of American empire.”

Over the past several decades, American exceptionalism has served as the primary justification for the push for American armed global hegemony. The speech at Mount Rushmore was in its appeal to these sentiments remarkable only for its lack of originality. The president was careful to say: “We declare that the United States of America is the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.”

Standard fare, you say? Precisely. But how does it square with criticism of interventionism?

Untutored and ill at ease in the world of ideas, Trump, like President George W. Bush before him, seems to have signed on to what speechwriters put before him. That it did not occur to him or his speechwriters that some other way of defending America’s heritage might be preferable indicates the continuing deep influence of the ideology of the American empire. Is any other defense of America even conceivable?

Having told Americans that “you live in the most magnificent country in the history of the world,” Trump did for a brief moment violate one central tenet of exceptionalist ideology. He said that 1776 represented “the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization.” That sentence suggested that America was the creature of many generations, a product of history—which flatly contradicts the exceptionalist assertion that America was founded on newly discovered abstract, ahistorical principles that gave Americans a fresh start.

But the president quickly contradicted himself by asserting, as neoconservatives and their academic supporters think others ought to do, that America was born out of revolution. For exceptionalists, it is irrelevant what was actually on the minds of Americans when they protested British rule. The colonists were upset that the British government was introducing radical innovation. What the colonists wanted was respect for long-established traditions. As could have been predicted, the U.S. Constitution became a reaffirmation and creative development of a Western heritage that stretched all the way back to Rome and Greece.

But, no, exceptionalists insist, America must be understood as rejecting the bad old days of history and as based on abstract universal principles. Since these principles belong to all peoples, America must help liberate them. For these ideologues, the Declaration of Independence is not a lengthy, elaborate list of American grievances for British violations of the rights of Englishmen and long-standing practices, but consists of the few introductory phrases about “equality” and “happiness” penned by one who was strongly attracted to French revolutionary ideas.

American exceptionalism can be studied in pure form in the thought of the late Harry Jaffa, an influential disciple of Leo Strauss. The latter declared that only abstract “natural right” has any moral authority and is always in conflict with tradition. “To celebrate the American Founding,” Jaffa writes, “is to celebrate revolution.”

And what does Trump believe? In his Mount Rushmore speech, he said that “Our Founders launched not only a revolution in government, but a revolution in the pursuit of justice, equality, liberty, and prosperity.” In apparent agreement with the exceptionalist idea that America must promote its universal principles around the globe, he praised Teddy Roosevelt for recognizing “the towering grandeur of America’s mission in the world.” Roosevelt “sent our great new naval fleet around the globe to announce America’s arrival as a world power.”

“Americans,” the president said, “are the people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean, into the uncharted wilderness, over the tallest mountains, and then into the skies and even into the stars.” He added that “we will teach our children . . . that nothing can stop them, and that no one can hold them down.”

One might defend this aspect of Trump’s speech by saying that at this time of upheaval he has no choice but to appeal to sentiments that the American public thinks have a familiar, uplifting, and self-applauding sound. Yet this dubious American ideology has been tremendously costly for America in every sense of that word. It is a measure of the pervasiveness of this unctuous idealism that even the Great Disrupter should want to employ its rhetoric. It does go well with his foreign policy appointments.

Claes G. Ryn is Professor of Politics and the Founding Director of The Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America. His many books include America the Virtuous and A Common Human Ground: Universality and Particularity in a Multicultural World, now in an expanded paperback edition.

American Foreign Policy and the Failure of Reason


Writing recently in Spectator USA, the estimable Dan McCarthy pointed out that the recent failures of American foreign policy are not simply errors in prudential judgment. There is something deeper bubbling underneath American culture that led our elites to launch misguided military crusades to promote democracy in the Middle East and to engage in other imperial adventures. As McCarthy wrote: “Our foreign policy does need new thinking—but that thinking must go much deeper than foreign policy.”

If one wishes to understand how imperial ambitions can be fueled by a certain kind of cultural imagination, one needs to look no further than Napoleon. How did the nation that produced Descartes, Voltaire, Diderot, and other legends of Enlightenment “reason” come to be ruled by an obscure artillery officer with an undistinguished education? Napoleon himself had a ready answer: “Yes, imagination rules the world. The defect of our modern institutions is that they do not speak to the imagination.” Successful political leaders rule not from cold reason or through appeals to reasonable policies, but by stirring the imagination.

The evidence that American foreign policy is not guided by reason is overwhelming. Trillions of dollars have been spent on unending wars that have caused countless deaths based upon idealistic dreaming. After our overthrow of the Iraqi dictator unleashed a hell storm on the people of Iraq, we adopted the identical strategy toward dictators in Libya and Syria. Our foreign policy elites display a bizarre obsession with Russia, a weak power that is being ruled, not by a totalitarian monster, but by an authoritarian dictator resembling the czars and who is restoring Russia’s great Orthodox tradition. And, despite China’s role starting a global pandemic and its reeducation camps, many members of America’s elites retain a decades-long sycophancy towards a genuinely totalitarian regime. These errors are failures of imagination, not reason.

There are many sensible conservatives, libertarians, and “realist” thinkers who have pointed out the irrationality of this foreign policy and have offered common sense alternatives. If our foreign policy establishment was ruled by reason, many of these policies would never have been adopted, and much blood and treasure would have been saved. Yet the foreign policy establishment simply refuses to move off of their positions.

This is not because they have low IQs or are lacking information but because their imaginations are stirred by a desire for a global American hegemony, of a glorious imperium in which they set the world’s rules. The imaginative appeal of imperial rule has been one of the most powerful motivators in all of human history, from ancient Rome to Great Britain, the Third Reich, and the Soviet Union. A fundamental obstacle to a more sensible foreign policy is that it is nearly impossible to argue American elites out of their views on foreign policy, no matter how much evidence one can assemble proving that our strategies have had a terrible cost.

The great political philosopher Eric Voegelin once wrote an essay titled: “On Readiness to Rational Discussion.” In that piece, he argued that it is of course very valuable to have the freedom to discuss various things, but for progress to occur, the interlocutors must have a readiness to discuss. And, those who have been infected with ideology, with a polluted imagination, will not be open or eager to engage in rational discussion.

Voegelin cited certain tactics used by ideologues to avoid genuine discussion. One of those tactics he called “classification.” “The speaker evades the point at issue by asserting that his opponent’s argument can be classified as being the result of a definite ‘position’. . . the ‘position attributed to it is always selected with pejorative intent.”

The foreign policy establishment employs this tactic of classification regularly and with relish. Those who criticize America’s tragic imperial overreach are classified as “isolationists,” and those employing this label assume that their opponent’s argument has been destroyed by this classification. Or, realist thinkers who argue that power may well be the operative unit of analysis in world affairs are classified by idealistic dreamers as immoral “Machiavellians.” Or consider Tulsi Gabbard’s sensible, yet unconventional, foreign policy views. The Atlantic did not host a symposium to consider the pros and cons of her positions. No, the establishment simply classified this combat veteran as a “Russian asset” and moved on. The use of this classification tactic, Voegelin pointed out, is a sure sign of an unwillingness to engage in a genuine discussion, and this unwillingness makes real progress impossible.

Dan McCarthy is right: the problem goes deeper than an error in judgment by our elites in selecting the “wrong” grand strategy. American foreign policy has gone off the rails because there is something in American culture that has gone off the rails. American culture and education, for example, have the effect of detaching young people from reality, to alienate them from their traditions, and to inform them that character and virtue are not related to personal behavior but are bound up with sympathy for “humanitarian” causes. The older classical and Christian tradition instructed us to reform ourselves, to find the “golden mean” in our own behavior or to conform our own will to God’s will. The new morality instructs us to reform not ourselves, but the world. The embrace of this sentimental humanitarianism is nowhere more evident than in foreign policy.

As Irving Babbitt pointed out, the two most powerful social movements of the last three hundred years have been scientific and sentimental humanitarianism. These movements have not tended to exert a check upon leaders with imperial ambitions, but to flatter and arouse them. The ambition of scientific humanitarianism is to exert power over nature, and the ambition of sentimental humanitarianism is to exert power over other people. Humanitarianism is simply indistinguishable from imperialism. As Babbitt wrote: “The humanitarian would, of course, have us meddle in foreign affairs as part of his program of world service. Unfortunately, it is more difficult than he supposes to engage in such a program without getting involved in a program of world empire.”

When people raised in our current cultural milieu hear that America is on a crusade to democratize the Middle East or that we are unleashing the power of the American military to bring human rights to all the world, they are not appalled at the staggering impracticality of such a scheme or the brutality it would require. They do not raise the obvious cultural objection that republican government arose in America due to important religious and other historical factors and that it cannot be exported like cheese. Instead, the dreamy imaginations of our elites are stirred by the idea of reforming the whole world, and their eyes well up with tears of joy for all the Arabs who will soon be experiencing “freedom and democracy.” The raw power of the American military is put into service of this dream.

When people are living in such dream worlds, it is quite difficult to argue them out of them. The errors of American foreign policy in recent decades have deep cultural and, dare I say, spiritual roots. We have embraced what Irving Babbitt called a “sham spirituality” that equates virtue with sympathy for “idealistic” causes. This has made American foreign policy both unwise and intractable.

Many activist conservatives and libertarians believe that the solution to this errant foreign policy is simply to crank out more policy papers, establish more think tanks, and pen more editorials and opinion pieces. With reason and discussion, we can chart a more reasonable course for American foreign policy.

While one should always welcome sensible policy ideas and transmit them to policy makers, the evidence that relying solely on this strategy of persuasion will alter the course of American foreign policy is quite thin. Proponents of American hegemony simply do not wish to be persuaded by facts and arguments. The unending evidence of the tragedies they have caused are all around them, yet they do not reconsider. They make the same mistakes over and over.

The only remedy is of course to go upstream from policy solutions and to address the deeper, primordial motivations of human behavior. Only through a cultural and educational renovation can future leaders be taught that temperance, self-restraint, and moderation are the proper American virtues. The desire for hegemony derives from intemperance, ambition, and immoderation.

The problem of American foreign policy is the eternal problem of humanity. As Babbitt said, it is the problem of how to exert “a power of control over impulse and desire.” The task of renovation is a difficult but necessary one. It involves a struggle that has always been apparent within each of us: the effort to master our passions so we do not desire to dominate others.

The Republican War over Germany



President Trump this week reaffirmed a promise to withdraw thousands of American troops from Germany. His plan was attacked by members of his own party serving on the House Armed Services Committee for what was called a “Republican War” by the editor of the National Interest.

Thirty decades ago, as the Cold War was ending, former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick sensibly wrote that it was finally time for “drawing down American forces and commitments overseas.” Since the late 1930s, she declared, the United States had an “unnatural focus” on foreign affairs, and the end of the Cold War provided an opportunity for the United States to become “a normal country in a normal time.”

Rather than embracing her advice, however, the United States not only retained such overseas presence across Europe and Asia, it also greatly increased American troops and alliances in the Middle East. Why is it so hard to move back to “a normal country in a normal time”? One clue to answering this question is found in the Republican members of House Armed Services who criticized the withdrawal plan for Germany.

For the past two election cycles, these Republican members of Congress have collected nearly $5 million in campaign contributions from defense contractors, according to data from Open Secrets. Defense contractors are one industry sector that retains strong pecuniary interests in having the United States retain military commitments across the world.

The willingness of these Republican members of Congress to oppose the president of their own party on a critical security matter signifies that the warning about the military industrial complex must be heeded. President Eisenhower said, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.” He added, “The total economic, political, even spiritual influence is felt in every city, every state house, and every office of the federal government.”

We have some obvious reasons for reducing the financial commitment to protect Germany, as the United States is witnessing exploding debts and deficits. The United States is broke, while Germany is not. In order to deal with the fallout of the pandemic, Germany will increase its borrowing this year to 7 percent of gross domestic product, while the United States will increase its borrowing to 18 percent of gross domestic product.

According to data from the World Bank, the economy of Germany is now over twice the size of the economy of Russia. Germany is thus capable of protecting itself against Russia and it could also be more than capable of protecting its European neighbors. So the United States cannot afford to offer such broad security protections to wealthy countries. Trump should understand that if we can convince Germany and others to invest in their security, the benefit for us must be reduced defense spending.

A more important reason to curtail our military commitments is because a democracy that overreaches does not last. Athens experimented with this but its democracy fell when imperial ambitions led its army to the bottom of the quarry in Syracuse and its navy to the bottom of the Mediterranean. Ancient Rome ceased to exist as one of its imperial military commanders “crossed the rubicon” and diminished authority of the senate.

The most patriotic reason to lessen our military commitments is found in the lessons of history and the warning by Eisenhower. A democracy that overreaches and embraces empire inevitably ends in tragedy.

William Smith is the director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship with Catholic University. He is the author of Democracy and Imperialism.

Article originally published at The Hill.

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick: 30 Years Unheeded



Thirty years ago and as the Cold War was ending, the National Interest solicited essays from leading conservative thinkers for a symposium on “America’s Purpose Now.” The National Interest editors asked: “If the Cold War has ended . . . and the global containment of communism is no longer an urgent task, what central purpose—if any—should inform America’s foreign policy for the rest of this century and beyond?”

The most remarkable essay authored for the symposium was by President Ronald Reagan’s former UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time.” The essay is remarkable in a number of respects, but most of all for presaging the general outlines of Donald Trump’s populist foreign policy and also for the degree to which Kirkpatrick’s advice has been roundly ignored by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The American Enterprise Institute, with which Kirkpatrick was affiliated at the time of her essay, promptly adopted a post–Cold War foreign policy outlook that defied every one of her central recommendations.

Kirkpatrick’s essay begins by insisting that, because of world events since 1939, America has given to foreign affairs “an unnatural focus.” Now in 1990, she says, the nation can turn its attention to domestic concerns that are more important because “a good society is defined not by its foreign policy but its internal qualities . . . by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.” She says unabashedly that “there is no mystical American ‘mission’ or purposes to be ‘found’ independently of the U.S. Constitution and government.”

One cannot fail to notice that this perspective is precisely the opposite of George W. Bush’s in his second inauguration. According to Bush, America’s post–Cold War purpose was to follow our “deepest beliefs” by acting to “support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” For three decades neoconservative foreign policy has revolved around “mystical” beliefs about America’s mission in the world that are unmoored from the actual Constitution.

In Trumpian fashion, Kirkpatrick then goes on to warn Americans about the danger of an unaccountable “deep state” in foreign policy that is immune to popular pressures. She rejects emphatically the views of some elitists who argue that foreign policy is a uniquely esoteric and specialized discipline and must be cushioned from populism. She says that, no, “it has become more important than ever that the experts who conduct foreign policy on our behalf be subject to the direction of and control of the people.”

She points out that because America had for much of the twentieth century assumed global responsibilities, our foreign policy elites had developed “distinctive views” that are different from those of the electorate. Again, in Trumpian fashion, she argued that foreign policy elites “grew accustomed to thinking of the United States as having boundless resources and purposes . . . which transcended the preferences of voters and apparent American interests . . . and eventually developed a globalist attitude.”

In support of Kirkpatrick’s concern, Tufts professor Michael Glennon has more recently argued that the national security establishment has now become so “distinctive” in their separation from our constitutional processes that they represent one wing of a now “double government” that is not unaccountable to, and unsupervised by, the popular branches of government. The Russiagate investigations and the attempt to disable the Trump presidency, aided by many in the establishment, would appear to confirm Kirkpatrick’s warning that foreign policy elites want no part of the electoral preferences of voting Americans.

Kirkpatrick concludes her essay with thoughts on “What should we do?” and “What we should not do.” Remarkably, her first recommendation is to negotiate better trade deals. These deals should give the U.S. “fair access” to foreign markets while offering “foreign businesses no better than fair access to U.S. markets.” Next, she considered the promotion of democracy around the world and, on this subject, she took the John Quincy Adams position: that “Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.” However, she insisted: “it is not within the United States’ power to democratize the world.”

When Kirkpatrick goes on to discuss America’s post–Cold War alliances, she makes clear that she is advocating, quite simply, an America First foreign policy. Regarding the future of the NATO alliance, a sacrosanct pillar of the American foreign policy establishment, she argued that “the United States should not try to manage the balance of power in Europe.” Likewise, we should be humble about what we can accomplish in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: “Any notion that the United States can manage the changes in that huge, multinational, developing society is grandiose.” Finally, with regard to Asia: “Our concern with Japan should above all be with its trading practices vis-à-vis the United States. We should not spend money protecting an affluent Japan, though a continuing alliance is entirely appropriate.”

She famously concludes her essay by making the plea for the United States to become “a normal country in a normal time” and “to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an unusually successful, open American republic.”

Kirkpatrick became Ronald Reagan’s United Nations ambassador because her 1979 article in Commentary, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” caught the eye of the future president. In that article, she sensibly points out that authoritarian governments that are allies of the United States should not be kicked to the curb because they are not free and open democracies. The path to democracy is a long and perilous one, and nations without republican traditions cannot be expected to make the transition overnight. Regarding the world’s oldest democracy, she remarked: “In Britain, the road from the Magna Carta to the Act of Settlement, to the great Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1885, took seven centuries to traverse.”

While at the time neoconservatives opportunistically embraced her for this position as a tactic to fight the Cold War, the current foreign policy establishment would consider Kirkpatrick’s argument to be beyond the bounds of decent conversation, as it would lend itself to an accommodation with authoritarian Russia as a counterweight to totalitarian China.

Kirkpatrick died in 2006 and had, like many neoconservatives, evolved from a Humphrey Democrat into a member of the GOP establishment. With William Bennett and Jack Kemp, in 1993 she cofounded a neoconservative group, Empower America, which took a very aggressive stance against militant Islam after the 9/11 attacks. However, she was quite ambivalent about the invasion of Iraq and was quoted in The Economist as saying that George W. Bush was “a bit too interventionist for my taste” and that Bush’s brand of moral imperialism is not “taken seriously anywhere outside a few places in Washington, DC.”

The fact that Kirkpatrick’s recommendations in her 1990 essay coincide with some of Donald Trump’s positions in the 2016 campaign (if not with many of his actual actions as president) make her views, ipso facto, not serious. The foreign policy establishment gives something like pariah status to arguments that we should negotiate better trade deals, reconsider our Cold War alliances and, most especially, subject American foreign policy to popular preferences. If she were alive today and were making the arguments she made in 1990, then she would be an outcast. That a formidable intellectual like Kirkpatrick would be dismissed in such a fashion is a sign of how obtuse our foreign policy debate has become.

William S. Smith is Senior Research Fellow and Managing Director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book, Democracy and Imperialism, is from the University of Michigan Press. He studied political philosophy under Professor Jeane Kirkpatrick as an undergraduate at Georgetown University.

No One Has a Clue What to Do About China



It’s been clear since before the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s even clearer now: Everyone is anxious about China’s rise and nobody has a clear idea of what to do about it.

The Trump administration has been consistent on the point—in its planning documents, if not in the various eruptions from the presidential podium. Both the 2017 National Security Strategy and the 2018 National Defense Strategy turned from the Middle East and pointed their crosshairs on Beijing. “Great power competition” became the watchword.

But in the wake of the coronavirus, politicians and pundits are climbing over one another offering proposals to poke Beijing in the chest. Revoke China’s sovereign immunity in the U.S. courts to allow Americans harmed by coronavirus to sue the Chinese government? Check. Get into a snit with the G-7 about whether to call the coronavirus the “Wuhan Flu?” Check. Freeze American contributions to the World Health Organization as a reaction to China’s influence there? Check. Somehow isolate the U.S. debt owed to China and renege on some of it? Check. Throw America’s diplomatic weight fully behind Taiwan? Check.

Now the administration is allegedly preparing unspecified retaliatory actions against China for its mishandling of the virus. For his part, Joe Biden used the occasion of his first foreign policy ad to promise that he would be tougher on China than President Donald Trump. With apologies to Seeley, America seems to have jumped into an epochal struggle with China in a fit of absence of mind.

The combination of Chinese misconduct in handling the virus and elite opinion in the United States appears to have turned American opinion against China. According to Pew, 72 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats have a negative view of China. Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones reports “Americans’ views of China have rarely been positive over the past four decades, but they have never held the country in lower regard than they do today.”

For all the demonizing, no one has suggested a policy that would slow China’s ascent. Three factors are preventing a coherent U.S. response to China. First, U.S. economic and security policies are working at cross purposes. Our economic policies make our security goals harder to achieve. Second, American allies are shirking their share of their own defense. Their economic atrophy and ambivalent attitudes to their defense load a disproportionate share of the burden onto Americans’ shoulders. Finally, the United States remains bogged down in the Middle East. From Syria to Iran to Iraq, American elites have baggage in the Middle East they are reluctant to leave behind. Before jumping headlong into an epochal struggle with China, Washington needs to face these fundamental flaws.

Washington’s policy toward China has been incoherent for decades. China’s economic growth, closely tied to global trade, was producing a relatively more powerful China. Everyone liked trade, but everyone disliked a more powerful China. Nobody wanted to square up to this contradiction, so America muddled along, with U.S. economic policies making American military objectives more difficult and costly to achieve.

The solution one hears most often is “decoupling” the American economy from China’s. As the Belfer Center’s Paula Dobriansky puts it, the United States just needs to “set up new supply chains, restructure trade relations, and start to create an international economic order that is less dependent on China.” Wang Jisi, a leading Chinese scholar of U.S.-China relations, calls decoupling “already irreversible.”

People should show their work. Decoupling makes logical sense given Washington’s desire to constrain Chinese power, but it is extremely difficult to see how policy can achieve this goal in a timely fashion at an acceptable cost. China is simply too big, and too central a part of the global economy to isolate and deny access to the American economy. If Washington somehow erased China’s contributions to global production, then who would take its place? These are enormous problems that are only beginning to garner attention in Washington.

For their part, China doves like Daniel Drezner tend to elide the security dimension, emphasizing instead that decoupling “would harm both economies and worsen the security situation.” The question hawks would ask is “harm whom more?” The doves are right to argue that the panic in Washington outstrips the gravity of the situation, but the trend lines on security are headed in the wrong direction if one supports U.S. aims in Asia.

American elites would be at peace with a much wealthier China that behaved as China behaved in the 1980s or 1990s, but that defies most of what most people know about international politics. Even relative doves like Robert Zoellick admit they want Washington to remain “the umpire of China’s choices.” Beijing, for understandable reasons, doesn’t like this idea, preferring fewer restrictions on its choices.

The unfortunate fact is that just as realists predicted, as China’s power has grown, so has its view of its interests and assertiveness in pursuing them. Just in recent weeks, Beijing has engaged in naval exercises off the coast of Taiwan, including an aircraft carrier; formally claimed Chinese-controlled islands that are the subject of territorial disputes with Vietnam and other nations; attributed the coronavirus to a U.S. conspiracy; and sent coast guard vessels into waters disputed with the Philippines. This is the picture of the future.

But in this context, the United States is carrying a disproportionate share of the burden of defending China’s neighbors. Washington is focused on finding more U.S. resources and attention to devote to China. Congress inserted a provision in the 2020 defense budget requiring the commander of Indo-Pacific Command to draw up a wish list by March. That commander has done so, asking for more than $20 billion in additional funding, all of which is focused on competing with China in its border regions.

American allies have been sleepwalking. According to figures from the IISS Military Balance reports, in 2009, Japan was spending roughly 75 percent as much as China on defense. By 2019, that figure was down to under 27 percent. In 2009 Taiwan was spending roughly 14 percent as much as China. Even with increases during the decade, by 2019 the figure dropped to 6 percent. (To be sure, Chinese spending has increased in relation to U.S. spending as well.)

What China is buying is relevant here. China’s focus on A2/AD capabilities can support modest, defensive goals, not global domination. Beijing is trying to push the United States out of its face. Instead of buying gold-plated American systems, American partners in the region should be pressed to emulate China, complicating any Chinese plans for offense just as Beijing has complicated any American plans for an offense.

Finally, American policymakers have shown that they are incapable of strategic focus. For instance, an unbelievable amount of attention in 2019 was devoted to Trump’s December 2018 false promise to remove U.S. troops from Syria. Whether from inertia, the influence of interest groups, or sheer laziness, American elites have been slow to realize that the Middle East is, from a military point of view, mostly a waste of time.

If policymakers are as worried about China as their rhetoric suggests, they should do two things. First, they need to make the U.S.-China relationship the organizing focus of American statecraft. To the extent Washington is set on continuing to try to run the Middle East, this is detrimental to clarity and focus on China. Big, powerful states matter more than small, weak states. If American elites focus on the latter, then it is to the detriment of their policy regarding the former.

Second, American policymakers should make a public show of examining allied burden-sharing. Until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ended them in 2004, the Defense Department issued annual Reports on Allied Contributions to the Common Defense. DOD mostly acted as a lawyer for America’s allies, but Trump should instruct the Pentagon to start issuing the reports again, with particular emphasis on Asian allies. (DOD should take care not to conduct the burden-sharing discussion as a protection racketeer, as Trump tends to.)

And if the executive branch will not lead a discussion on burden sharing, Congress should. In 1988, the House Armed Services Committee issued the Report of the Defense Burdensharing Panel, which had convened testimony and hearings in the months before. That report concluded pointedly that “As long as Americans pay most of the cost and assume most of the risks and responsibilities for the defense of the free world, the allies will be prepared to let the United States do so.” In 2019, bills were introduced in both the House and Senate to reinvigorate discussions of burden-sharing in Europe and the Middle East. There is no reason for Congress to leave these questions to the executive branch. Burden-sharing discussions die in darkness.

Decoupling is both a logical predicate for achieving American policy aims, and unthinkable. Equitable burden-sharing is both vital for American strategy and hard to envision. Clear-eyed focus on China as the most important issue for American statesmen is both essential and foreclosed by bureaucratic and domestic politics. If Washington wants to influence China’s role in the world, then it needs to reconcile these contradictions.

Justin Logan (@JustinTLogan) is director of programs and a research associate at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at Catholic University.

Article originally published at The National Interest.

Time to Break up the FBI?


Fittingly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was founded by a grandnephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte, during the Progressive Era. Bonaparte was a Harvard-educated crusader. As the FBI’s official history states, “Many progressives, including (Teddy) Roosevelt, believed that the federal government’s guiding hand was necessary to foster justice in an industrial society.”

Progressives viewed the Constitution as a malleable document, a take-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. The FBI inherited that mindset of civil liberties being optional. In their early years, with the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts during World War I, the FBI came into its own by launching a massive domestic surveillance campaign and prosecuting war dissenters. Thousands of Americans were arrested, prosecuted, and jailed simply for voicing opposition.

One could write a long history of FBI abuses and failures, from Latin America to Martin Luther King to Japanese internment. But just consider a handful of their more recent cases. The FBI needlessly killed women and children at Waco and Ruby Ridge. Anyone who has lived anywhere near Boston knows of the Bureau’s staggering corruption during gangster Whitey Bulger’s reign of terror. The abuses in Boston were so terrific that radio host Howie Carr declared that the FBI initials really stood for “Famous But Incompetent.” And then there’s Richard Jewell, the hero security guard who was almost railroaded by zealous FBI agents looking for a scalp after they failed to solve the Atlanta terrorist bombing.

But it was 9/11 that really sealed the FBI’s ignominious track record. The lavishly funded agency charged with preventing terrorism somehow missed the attacks, despite their awareness of numerous Saudi nationals taking flying lessons around the country. Immediately after 9/11, the nation was gripped by the anthrax scare, and once again the FBI’s inability to solve the case caused them to try to railroad an innocent man, Stephen Hatfill.

With 9/11, the FBI also began targeting troubled Americans by handing them bomb materials, arresting them, and then holding a press conference to tell the country that they had prevented a major terrorist attack—a fake attack that they themselves had planned.

9/11 also opened the floodgates to domestic surveillance and all the FISA abuses that most recently led to the prosecution of Michael Flynn. I am no fan of Flynn and his hawkish anti-Islamic views, but the way he was framed and then prosecuted really does shock the conscience. After Jewell, Hatfill, Flynn, and so many others, it’s time to ask whether the culture of the FBI has become similar to that of Stalin’s secret police, i.e. “show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.”

I am no anti-law enforcement libertarian. In a previous career, I had the privilege to work with agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and they were some of the bravest people I have ever met. And while the DEA can be overly aggressive (just ask anyone who has been subjected to federal asset forfeiture), it is inconceivable that its agents would plot a coup d’état against the president of the United States. The DEA sees their job as catching drug criminals; they stay in their lane.

For the FBI, merely catching bad guys is too mundane. As one can tell from the sanctimonious James Comey, the culture at the Bureau holds grander aspirations. Comey’s book is titled A Higher Loyalty, as if the FBI reports only to the Almighty. They see themselves as progressive guardians of the American Way, intervening whenever and wherever they see democracy in danger. No healthy republic should have a national police force with this kind of culture. There are no doubt many brave and patriotic FBI agents, but there is also no doubt they have been very badly led.

This savior complex led them to aggressively pursue the Russiagate hoax. Their chasing of ghosts should make it clear that the FBI does not stay in their lane. While the nation’s elite colleges and tech companies are crawling with Chinese spies who are literally stealing our best ideas, the chief of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Section, Peter Strzok, spent his days trying to frame junior aides in the Trump campaign.

Some conservatives have called for FBI Director Christopher Wray to be fired. This would accomplish nothing, as the problem is not one man but an entire culture. One possible solution is to break up the FBI into four or five agencies, with one responsible for counterintelligence, one for counterterrorism, one for complex white-collar crime, one for cybercrimes, and so on. Smaller agencies with more distinctive missions would not see themselves as national saviors and could be held accountable for their effectiveness at very specific jobs. It would also allow federal agents to develop genuine expertise rather than, as the FBI regularly does, shifting agents constantly from terrorism cases to the war on drugs to cybercrime to whatever the political class’s latest crime du jour might be.

Such a reform would not end every abuse of federal law enforcement, and all these agencies would need to be kept on a short leash for the sake of civil liberties. It would, however, diminish the ostentatious pretension of the current FBI that they are the existential guardians of the republic. In a republic, the people and their elected leaders are the protectors of their liberties. No one else.

William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director at the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His new book is Democracy and Imperialism: Irving Babbitt and Warlike Democracies (2019).

Article originally published at The American Conservative.

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