Editorial Column: Afghan War, Defence Spending Betray True Conservatism

Times Colonist

April 3, 2008 – Hate mail is useful stuff. First, it proves that somebody is paying attention; second, it reveals public prejudices. Recently, the House of Commons voted to extend the military mission in Afghanistan until 2011.

This, I said in a television interview, was a mistake. Sure enough, a hate message soon came rolling into my inbox. “You must be a card carrying NDPer,” it said in part, “so go back to your safe little classroom with the rest of your left-wing students.”

Of course, being left-wing does not necessarily mean that you are wrong, although in fact, far from being a Birkenstock-wearing, bearded, tree-hugging leftist, I’m a suit-wearing, clean-shaven former soldier, who is a research associate at the French military academy at Saint-Cyr, has lectured at West Point, Sandhurst and the Royal Military College of Canada, and writes for The American Conservative.

Why is it that people assume that if you are against the West’s current military adventures you must be on the left, and that if you favour military intervention and more defence spending you must be a conservative?

Favouring military activism and higher defence spending is not a conservative trait. Rather it is the position of neo-liberal idealists smitten by what the British philosopher John Gray recently called “right-wing utopianism.”

There was a time when conservative-minded folk regarded standing armies as dangerous forces, liable to be used to suppress liberty.

Quite how this tradition vanished is not clear, but a possible turning point was when British politician Joseph Chamberlain left the Liberal party and sided with the Conservatives in protest over Irish Home Rule in 1885.

Chamberlain was a radical liberal by the standards of his day, and he imported into conservatism a form of liberal imperialism that was profoundly un-conservative in nature. Over decades the original distrust of armed forces and military expeditions overseas disappeared.

The Cold War cemented conservatives’ love of the defence establishment. The right identified itself by its hostility to communism and as a result married itself to the military. In doing so, it lost its ideological bearings.

Conservatism is hard to define, but if there is a hard core at the centre of it, it consists of skepticism about the perfectibility of the human condition and the ability of man to reshape his environment using reason alone.

On this basis, there is nothing conservative about the belief that we can reform the world for the better using military power. The true conservative is willing to use violence to defend the things he prizes against direct attack, but he doubts that exporting western values by force is ever likely to work.

Indeed, the post-Cold War interventionist phenomenon has been driven largely by those on the political left. The proponents of ideas such as “humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect” have been men such as former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy and ex-British Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who proudly proclaim themselves to be “progressives.”

By allying itself with this movement, Canada’s Conservative party has shown that it is truly a party of the left, not the right.

Similarly, the preference of the Conservative party for higher defence spending is anomalous. For years, the Tories have preached the virtues of free markets, lower taxation and reduced government spending. They express regular skepticism about governments’ ability to solve social problems by increasing spending.

Yet for some unfathomable reason, defence is exempted from this logic. Magically, more defence spending will produce better security.

Yet the defence sector is notoriously inefficient. The procurement project that comes in on time and even remotely close to its projected budget is so rare as to be almost unheard of.

The true conservative position is hostile to war and hostile to defence expenditure. During the recent battles for the Republican presidential nominations, only one candidate could be truly described as anti-war: Ron Paul, probably the most conservative Republican of all.

Today’s so-called Conservative party is a party devoted to rapid increases in government spending, which has entered into a thoroughly un-conservative alliance with liberal imperialists.

This manifests itself in a naïvely utopian military policy. Criticizing this is a mark of realism.

If being anti-war really does make one a “card carrying NDP-er,” as my hate mailer believes, that must mean that the NDP has become the only truly conservative party out there.

Paul Robinson is a public and international affairs professor at the University of Ottawa. He was previously a military intelligence officer in both the British army and the Canadian Forces.


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