“The Republican Party, which achieved its greatest vigor in this century during the presidential terms of Ronald Reagan, now seems in the sere and yellow leaf.” – Russell Kirk, February 27, 1991, the day before President George Bush declared victory with Operation Desert Storm.
Scholars Bradley J. Birzer and Adam Fuller reflect on Russell Kirk’s assessment of the First Gulf War of 1991.
Bradley Birzer: President George H.W. Bush had destroyed Reagan’s honor, the honor of America, and the honor of western civilization, Dr. Kirk thought, and we would pay for this crime for a century. All for the sake, as Kirk put it, “of the oilcan.”
Adam Fuller: This wasn’t one of Kirk’s better moments. Why is it a destruction of America’s honor to win a war? Moreover, how was the waging of the first Gulf War such a departure from President Reagan’s principles of statecraft? Reagan used military force several times, including in the Middle East. I see it as an extension of the honor Reagan wanted to leave as America’s legacy, not its demise.
Birzer: Adam, this is one of the most important discussions any American—or, frankly, any citizen of the West—can have. It is, probably, the most crucial question that needs to be asked by us and our children and grandchildren. We have, I fear, failed miserably at understanding the complexity of a post-ideological world, a post-communist world. While Kirk might have always chosen the most prudent word when it came to his passionate reaction to the George H.W. Bush administration, he foresaw a number of problems. Kirk was, admittedly, moving toward a radical pacifist position. But, for sake of argument, if we can dismiss this for a moment, there’s much to be taken seriously in Kirk’s complaint and fear. He believed in and trusted Ronald Reagan, and he thought the build-up of the military crucial to bring the Soviets to the negotiating table. Kirk’s goal—like Reagan’s—was never to use the military, except when absolutely necessary. To Kirk’s mind, there was a huge difference between having a huge military and expanding that military abroad. That is, he was a hawk of sorts, but a one centered on home rather than empire (as he would’ve put it).
Fuller: But Reagan certainly used the military on several occasions, most notably Beirut, Grenada, and Libya. In fact, in Grenada he restored the ousted regime, which is the same as what President Bush did with Kuwait. Did Kirk oppose those operations, too? If not, why were those “absolutely necessary” while the Persian Gulf wasn’t? Certainly, Reagan didn’t want an armed conflict with the Soviets, but hardly anyone wanted that, neither on our side nor on the Soviet side. Nuclear parity created a reality of mutually assured destruction, which indeed made it possible for the threat of an escalated conflict to be dealt with diplomatically. This is not so when it’s the powerful free West versus tin-pot tyrants like Saddam. Reagan’s position was that these tyrants have to know where the line is drawn that they can’t cross, and that America’s vast military arsenal is rendered meaningless if we’re not prepared to actually use it when our enemies cross that line. I would also add that, like Reagan, George Bush led a broad international coalition. It wasn’t just America acting alone. I also find the term “empire” to be overused hyperbole by critics of neoconservatives, but we can deal with that issue later.
Birzer: Thanks, Adam. I’m certainly no expert on foreign affairs, and, for better or worse, I did try to avoid the term imperial in my previous comment. When it came to Reagan, he was, by no means, perfect, of course. Who is? He carried out his foreign affairs in two important ways. First, he only went for limited action. That is, when necessary (whether in retaliation or preemption), he struck forcibly, and he struck hard. He also struck quickly. With the exception of Lebanon, his military actions did not leave us in the region beyond the most fleeting of moments.
Second, his foreign policy in the Americas reflected his own ideal visions of what government should do at home. That is, it intervened, but it did so by arming the locals and would, therefore, empower them to reclaim their own lands. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in his arming of the Moskito Indians (Contras) in Nicaragua. He did the same in Afghanistan and in Angola and elsewhere. In Eastern Europe, he did this through the passing of information rather than weapons.
In Grenada, he saw the hand of the Soviets through the Cubans, and he determined not to allow the creation of another Soviet proxy in the area. He intervened very directly and forcibly there. Let me note, further, that Reagan had no problem with force, but he did fear getting bogged down anywhere. An invasion of Grenada, close to home, was an entirely different matter than an invasion of Iraq, which required months and months of troop deployments, thus necessitating (if only as a means of PR, but of course for other reasons as well) a continuous presence in the region to guarantee such an expenditure of lives and material had been worth it.
Fuller: Brad, thanks for the thoughtful response and the spirited discussion. My reply is simply that the Gulf War met the same standards that you say Reagan applied to his foreign policy. The action was limited, forcible, hard, and did not prolong. It was done, as Machiavelli describes a well-used cruelty, “at a stroke.”
Although that war had its detractors here at home, President Bush handled it well and was rewarded with high public approval. I’m still not sure why Kirk opposed it. The only reason I’ve seen him give for opposing it is that he thought it was carried out for political economic reasons—hence, the “oilcan” metaphor. It is also possible that he viewed it as serving Israel’s geopolitical interests more than our own. As the Russell Kirk expert between the two of us, you would know more about that than I do, but he did give that infamous speech at the Heritage Foundation in 1988 in which he alleged, “neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” As a Jewish American, I don’t consider that remark anti-Semitic, so that’s not where I’m headed with this. I just think it’s an immensely inaccurate depiction of neoconservative motivations. As for the economic motivations behind the war, I believe that there was a vast array of vital Western (and humanitarian) interests being served in both Iraq wars, and yes, one of them was oil. During the second Iraq War, I even said at the time that it was absolutely imperative that America can’t allow a thug like Saddam Hussein to have so much control of the world’s supply of oil—an absolutely vital commodity that the free world absolutely needs to sustain life for our people. Nations have fought over resources since the beginning of time and it has always been seen, only until very recently, as a legitimate reason for war. Fortunately, the modern age has provided us with numerous peaceful ways of resolving our disputes over such things, and I think that’s far more preferable, but sometimes we have little choice other than to engage in armed conflict. Part of being a conservative is recognizing that we can’t change human nature, and war is a reality of human nature.
Lastly, I think it’s important in this discussion to distinguish between the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War. The first one—which is what Kirk was talking about, because that’s the one he was still alive during—met the standards that you just applied. The second one did not, I agree. While I still believe that the Iraq War was justified for a host of reasons, I think many unnecessary mistakes were made in the waging of it and in its aftermath, such as disbanding the Ba’athists, and insisting on democratization. I think in places like Iraq, the best solution, as Aristotle taught us about such societies, is to install another tyrant, but one who rules at the privilege of the United States and thus crosses no lines we set on human rights and doesn’t work against Western interests.
I want to conclude by thanking Brad for the great discussion. Although Dr. Birzer and I are each of the Right, there is no foreign policy approach that is definitively “conservative.” Each of us has a claim to a proper and prudent course, and each of us believes the answer—though contested—is the means by which we should understand not only the recent events of the past but also the events sure to occur over the next decade or two.
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