Traditional philosophy grows from what CONSERVATIVE MIND author Russell Kirk called the wisdom of the ages. Examples of such wisdom include:
"That government is best which governs least because the people discipline themselves."
– Thomas Jefferson
"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
– John F. Kennedy
Why did conservatives forget the importance of Washington's Farewell Address in which he advised us to avoid foreign entanglements and foreign wars?
In 1965 conservative principles such as local control and self-reliance were very strong by today's standards. Both parties supported them. There were energetic challenges to the Establishment by forces of moral and social radicalism, but the challenges were minority movements and might have stayed that way. Popular music and movies of 1965 were clean, and classes on college campuses still emphasized the classics of Western Civilization. Women's rights, civil rights, environmentalism, and even the sexual revolution were respectful movements that were working within the system to expand the traditions of American culture.
The Vietnam War changed all that. Opposition to the war gave the anti-Establishment forces an undeserved windfall of support. Vietnam gave rise to a cultural rebellion that was characterized by sexual hedonism, urban riots, and burning draft cards. Americans did not want to support radical social and cultural forces that would erode the authority of families, religion, and local control; but more than that, they did not want young American men to die in a war for a questionable cause.
The revolution of the 1960's was a coalition of radical forces and average Americans who did not like optional foreign entanglements. They took over the Democrat party, and in a smart political move made it the anti-war party. The revolution that combined forces with widespread anti-war sentiment toppled the Establishment, and took only a decade to erode the influence of families, manners, common sense, local control, religion, and self-reliance. Instead of respect for the wisdom of the ages, the revolution of the 1960's glorified change. Santayana predicted the social results: "when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual." The rise of a progressive culture based on youth, centralization, and litigation was made possible by the Establishment's miscalculation about the use of military force outside of North America or Europe.
Rising rates of divorce, illegitimacy, abortion, litigation, and crime allowed a comeback by the Establishment which led to Reagan's election in 1980 and the congressional Republican victories of 1994. The American people grew skeptical of the welfare state, and tired of the sexual irresponsibility and crime promoted and glorified by baby boomer culture. America was ready for rehab, and the wisdom of the ages is the best rehabilitation program.
George W. Bush misunderstood how fragile the conservative comeback was. He squandered the whole thing.
The conservative response to 9-11 should have been what Pat Buchanan correctly urged us to do: close the borders and play defense. All the attackers came in on student visas. The conservative philosophy that George Washington taught us was to fortify ourselves on the moral high ground, and then practice isolationism.
"Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?"
To prevent another 9-11, what did we do? We pressed thousands of our soldiers into battles in Iraq and Afghanistan so that we lost over 6,000 Americans to prevent another 9-11. 6,000 casualties is a lot more than the 2,700 we lost on 9-11. You could say we didn't prevent another 9-11, we voluntarily inflicted two more 9-11 type catastrophes on ourselves.
I'm not sure what all the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq are, but some of them should be:
1) Public sentiment will eventually turn against an optional war.
2) Public sentiment will eventually turn against a war in which it is not clear who is on our side.
3) Public sentiment will eventually turn against a war in which the people on our side do not have the will or ability to fight for themselves. We can help our allies fight, but we cannot do the fighting for them.
4) As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "No protracted war can fail to endanger the freedom of a democratic country."
5) We win internationally through cultural power more certainly, and at much lower cost, than we do through military power.
When everyone promised that we would remember the lessons of Vietnam, Republican congressmen and Fox News commentators must not have been paying attention in class. Stop cheerleading for more war. We want to win elections at home so we can influence and lead domestic policy. We cannot forget the incredible cultural and political price we pay for foreign entanglements. When considering military force, conservatives would do well to remember the advice of Lincoln who said: "Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed."