Henry Farrell responds to Ross Douthat on the question of whether (and to what degree), when they wrote their infamous paper "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan were more concerned with the political fate of the Republican party than with the national interest.
As Corey Robin has argued, both neo-conservatives like Irving Kristol and David Brooks and more traditional conservatives such as William F. Buckley appear to have been in the market in the late 1990’s for an existential struggle between good and evil, a rationale for crusade that would make politics seem exciting and meaningful. In David Brooks complaint, “The striking thing about the 1990s zeitgeist was the presumption of harmony. The era was shaped by the idea that there were no fundamental conflicts anymore.” It’s obviously easier to cast politics in sweeping moral terms when you can use a struggle of this sort as a metric, even if the struggle isn’t really there, or isn’t the kind of struggle that you claim it is. It’s also easier to galvanize the conservative movement into action:Emphasis mine. I think that such impulses have been pretty apparent in both the behavior of the Bush administration and the rhetoric of its apologists -- the endless references to Churchill and Lincoln and "long wars," etc. I suggested just a few days ago -- in what was hardly an original observation -- that there has long been a link between the Republican party and the portion of Americans, particularly in the elite, who feel a need to attach themselves to some promise of "transcendence." What's fascinating is how performative conservatism seems to have become in many respects -- less a set of beliefs than a way of acting, and a way of watching oneself acting. One very often gets the impression that conservatives are trying to convince themselves that they're well-suited by the costumes they wear. This self-conscious performance moves to the center of the conservative experience, which, as Farrell says, is in turn emptied of any permanent content of its own.[quoting from Kristol and Kagan]Without a broader, more enlightened understanding of America’s interests, conservatism will too easily degenerate into the pinched nationalism of Buchanan’s America First, where the appeal to narrow self-interest masks a deeper form of self-loathing. A true conservatism of the heart ought to emphasize both personal and national responsibility, relish the opportunity for national engagement, embrace the possibility of national greatness, and restore a sense of the heroic, which has been sorely lacking from American foreign policy—and from American conservatism—in recent years.This emphasis on conservatism as a movement which must have a sense of the heroic lest it dwindle into mere selfishness, has the paradoxical effect of emptying out the core of conservatism. Kristol and Kagan suggest that what matters is a sense of “national greatness” rather than a specific set of virtues, or goals, or policies. Rather than being a defence of a particular set of transcendent values, conservatism becomes a kind of perpetual crusade, a continued attempt to create a sense of national greatness and of heroic endeavour. The content of politics – the particular tasks that the heroes must carry out, and the dragons that they must slay – becomes secondary to the heroic form. Here, conservatism is reduced to nothing more than a more-or-less aesthetic disposition towards politics, a kind of “proto-cognitive itch.” Not so much a commitment to a set of transcendent values, or even a pragmatic Burkean attachment to tradition, as a desire that politics provide a sense of the heroic.