As much as one should respect Andrew Sullivan’s near-obsession with rooting out the inner errors that led him and his movement so wrong on Bush, signs indicate that he has a few more posts to go.
We all trusted them to be honest with us, suckers that we were, because we didn’t think that after a tragedy like 9/11, the president would scam us.
Actually no, many of us never trusted the Bush administration to deliver the facts straight. There was nothing reflexive about my skepticism, it was simply a common sense response to character traits that a serious observer could have picked up since before Cheney picked Cheney as a running mate. “We,” meaning now the people who got the Iraq debate right on the first try, had very practical a priori reasons to view the government’s case with skepticism.
But really, the story is worse than that. One hardly needed a jaundiced eye to doubt the government’s chicken little picture of a towering, evil Saddam who fired glowing red anthrax beams from his eyes and blew mushroom clouds out of his ass. A reasonable viewing of the government’s case found it sketchy, constantly shifting, based heavily on hearsay and too often (mobile labs, aluminum tubes, yellowcake, terror drones) refutable with information available to any moderately intelligent citizen. It would please me immensely if late bloomers like Sullivan could experience the entire pre-Iraq media circus a second time just to get a sense of how ludicrously unconvincing the entire experience was.
God knows this post would have been satisfying if I just knocked down another instance of the annoying “everybody got it wrong” argument. I have had my patriotism and allegiance slandered often enough that I probably won’t ever tire of reminding the hysterical war brigades, even reformed ones, of who walked out of that debate with credibility intact. All that is fine, but Sullivan perfectly illustrates what I think is a far more important point.
Think about it this way. Sullivan doesn’t just exemplify the reasonable face of modern conservatism. He wrote the book on it. Significantly, his conservatism winnows out the culture war noise and narrows conservatism to its putative core: private enterprise, skepticism of freely expanding government power and government solutions, and a reluctance to solve global problems by sending American kids with guns. But when you go back to Sullivan’s own description of what happened in 2002 – “we trusted them to be honest with us,” certainly describing nearly every war-hungry Bush supporter in those years – none of that attitude is evident at all.
What happened? Either the Andrew Sullivan who wrote the book on skeptical conservatism was created entirely fresh some time between 2003 and today, or else it only took one terrorist attack for him (and, clearly, everybody else in modern conservatism) to abandon the principles that define their movement. If Bush had not proved himself a criminally incompetent nincompoop I have little doubt that most of these “conservatives,” Sullivan included, would still feel just as unquestionably trusting towards a strong benevolent government (think of it as a big, tough “brother” keeping away the mean schoolyard kids) as they did on September 12.
I find it unlikely that Andrew Sullivan had one of those character-redefining born-again experiences in the last few years, mostly because I consider those to be vanishingly rare in grown adults. Rather, Sullivan’s extremely valuable introspection helps to underline the obvious point that like nearly all modern “conservatives,” his conservative principles were not all that deeply held. All it took was a single terrorist attack for American conservatives to not just suspend their principles but negate them almost entirely, enthusiastically supporting reckless military adventurism and wildly expansive government violations of privacy and private lives. Some have argued that if you scratch a conservative you’ll find a libertarian. Well, 9/11 scratched conservatives and revealed something else entirely.
For many like Sullivan the scratch has healed, one would hope in a deeper sense as well as superficially. The only real test will come the next time a terrorist succeeds in attacking American soil. But for others represented by Malkin, Hewitt and (too often) Glenn Reynolds, the wound remains open, raw and ugly. For them I suppose one can say that conservatism has gone entirely and that something else, a tribalistic authoritarianism that lies somewhere down that slippery slope to fascism*, has taken its place.
(*) Tarrists want to kill us.