U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined American Security

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U.S. vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined American Security By J. Peter Scoblic, 1 Viking Penguin, April 2008, 350 pp.

Before I retired as a university professor, I would mentally calculate as each term began what public events that year's freshmen were likely to remember. For today's freshmen, born around 1990, the earliest such memory might well be Bill Clinton's impeachment. As for national security issues, even the rare freshman attentive to such matters would be aware of little before the current Bush administration.

In short, for today's rising generation, America's long history of engagement with nuclear weapons, strategic planning, and arms control must be gleaned, if at all, from books, essays, and perhaps TV programs, not from personal experience. Indeed, with the median age in America now around 36, fully one-half of the population has little memory of events before the early Reagan administration.

A 2006 Washington Post piece on the many 30-something advisers in the Bush White House captured this fact well: "They headed off to college as the Berlin Wall was coming down.... Freed from a constant nuclear standoff as a dominant fact of international life..., [t]heir adulthood has never included a fellow superpower or the need to reach accommodation with an enemy." As one adviser commented, "I often hear about arms control from the old timers, but it's so different now."1 In 2007, White House Press secretary Dana Perino, born in 1972, cheerfully confessed her mystification when a reporter mentioned the Cuban missile crisis. "Wasn't that like the Bay of Pigs thing?" she later asked her husband.

I begin with these demographic and anecdotal observations to underscore the importance of books such as J. Peter Scoblic's U.S. vs. Them. If the younger generation, in whose hands the nation's future and our hopes of avoiding nuclear catastrophe will soon rest, is to possess the knowledge essential to intelligent action, broad public understanding of how we got where we are becomes essential. Scoblic's book represents a major contribution to this public education effort. Executive editor of The New Republic (and a former editor of Arms Control Today), Scoblic has written a deeply researched, highly readable, and compellingly argued account of strategic debates and foreign policy decision-making from the 1950s to the present. Even arms control veterans will find fresh insights and provocative interpretations. U.S. vs. Them should be read not only by those unaware of our nuclear history, but by the new cadre of policymakers who will soon take the helm in Washington.

An important overarching thesis frames Scoblic's historical survey. Since the 1950s, he argues, two contending groups, conservatives and realist-pragmatists, holding radically different worldviews have vied to shape U.S. foreign policy and strategic decision-making. With William F. Buckley Jr., Whittaker Chambers, and James Burnham among their patron saints and Buckley's National Review as their house organ, the conservatives began as a dissident minority but gained strength steadily. Rallying around Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 and reinforced by hard-line Cold War Democrats turned neoconservative Republicans, they reached their apogee of influence in the administration of George W. Bush, with disastrous consequences.

Scoblic's devastating analysis of the current administration's foreign policy and strategic decisions, both pre- and post-September 11, is thus firmly grounded in his explication of a half century of ideological development. The catastrophic Iraq war; contempt for international bodies and diplomacy in general; downgrading of arms control and nonproliferation initiatives; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; affinity for nuclear war-fighting doctrines and weaponry; commitment to a costly, destabilizing, and technologically dubious missile defense program; offer of nuclear know-how to India despite that country's flouting of nonproliferation norms; and muddled handling of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are all convincingly examined as the interconnected apotheosis of a worldview gestated, elaborated, and tirelessly promoted by an identifiable ideological clique. …