As Congress and the President debate over whether America should “intervene” in—i.e. launch war against—Syria, self-declared conservatives would be well served to revisit their political tradition’s stance on war generally.
Neoconservatism, the political orientation underwriting the anything-but- humble foreign policy of President George W. Bush, is most definitely not conservatism—a truth acknowledged unapologetically by none other than Irving Kristol, the “Godfather” of neoconservatism and the person responsible for having given it its name. Classical or traditional conservatism, in stark contrast, is actually quite dovish, even if it is in no ways compatible with pacifism.
Conservatives didn’t need Sherman to inform them of war’s hellish nature, its death and destruction. That all war entails the killing of human beings, and not infrequently the killing of innocent human beings, as well as the destruction of other goods that invest human life with value, does not preclude the possibility of just wars. It does, however, mean that decent people can wage war if and only if all other options have been thoroughly exhausted.
This is the first, and most obvious, reason that conservatives have been slow to enter war.
Secondly, human reason has none of the omniscience that we all too frequently attribute to it. The best laid plans of men often run aground on the unforeseen obstacles that life throws up. Our intentions have unintended consequences. Whatever our goals, however noble they may be, the pursuit of those goals can easily give rise to evils even greater than those that we’re trying to uproot.
In other words, that, say, Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad are bad people who the human race is better off without is an insufficient basis upon which to launch war.
The good combat evil, but they will prevail only if they do so wisely or prudently. This, conservatives have always known.
Thirdly, the 20th century conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott noted that since its emergence close to five centuries ago, that peculiar association that we call “the state” has been interpreted in two fundamentally different ways. Some have regarded it as a “civil association.” Others have ascribed to it the character of an “enterprise association.”
The members of a civil association are joined together by, not a common purpose or shared vision of the good, but a shared “interest” in the preservation of the laws that compose their association. Laws, as opposed to orders, commands, or policies, do not tell citizens what to do. Rather, they tell citizens how they must avoid acting regardless of what they choose to do.
For example, the law doesn’t tell us that we must or mustn’t have sex. What it tells us is that if we choose to have sex, then we are forbidden from doing so coercively. The law forbids rape. Similarly, the law doesn’t instruct us to kill or refrain from killing. It does, though, inform us that if we kill, we cannot do so murderously.
In a civil association, there is liberty, for citizens are engaged in the pursuit of their self-chosen ends—not some grand plan prescribed to them by their government.
Conservatives have traditionally favored the reading of the state as a civil association.
In an enterprise association, individuality is subordinated to the common purpose of the association, a purpose in the pursuit of which the government takes the lead. As Oakeshott explains, each person is cast into the role of a servant to the goal or goals for the sake of which the association is held to exist. “Redistributive justice,” “social justice,” “economic equality,” and the like are the standard goals or purposes that we hear most about today.
It is precisely because conservatives have staunchly rejected this understanding of a state that they’ve been extremely reluctant to embark upon war, for never is civil association more in peril than when a state is at war. It is during war that everyone is expected to “sacrifice”—i.e. part with their liberty, their time, labor, wealth, and even their very lives—for the sake of “the common good” of “victory.” That collectivists home and abroad are well aware of this explains why they are forever seeking to assimilate their pet domestic policies to the language and imagery of war: the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, etc.
Self-avowed conservatives must take all of this to head and heart as they contemplate interjecting their country into but another Middle Eastern country.