Ronald Reagan awarding James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983.
War propaganda often rests on the myth of eternal enmity: the current enemy must be portrayed as perennially and irredeemably vile. George Orwell aptly limned this mindset in his novel 1984: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.” During the two world wars, Anglo-American historians wrote many a book arguing that Germans have always been stinkers from the Gothic barbarians and autocratic Frederick the Great to the amoral Bismarck and psychotic Hitler. This whole literature of eternal Teutonic villainy was conveniently forgotten when West Germany became a pillar of NATO.
Reading the conservative press now you would think that Arabs and Muslims have always and everywhere been the enemies of Western civilization. We’re invited to imagine that the current troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent manifestation of a clash of civilizations that goes back to Mohammed, the Crusades, and the conquest of Constantinople.
Yet within the lifetime of our parents, conservatives were surprisingly pro-Arab. This was particularly true of the most salient issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugee problem. As surprising as this may sound, the mainstream consensus view of American conservatives from the late 1940s until well into the late 1960s was that the Palestinians had been deeply wronged by Israel and deserved restorative justice.
Consider Regnery Publishing. Founded in 1947 by Henry Regnery, it was the premier publishing house of the postwar conservative renaissance, issuing classic books by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham and many other writers. During this period it also published a steady stream of books championing Arab culture and sympathetically describing the plight of the Palestinians. These books included Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel (1953), Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), Per-Olow Anderson’s They are Human Too (1957), and Ethel Mannin’s Road to Beersheeba (England: 1963; America: 1964). Anderson’s book was a collection of photographs taken at Palestinian refugee camps, Mannin’s volume a novel about Palestinian refugees. Utley’s book uttered a sentiment typical for these books: “freedom and justice for Israel depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs.”
In recent years, Regnery press has totally abandoned this pro-Arab tradition and also the habit of publishing high-minded intellectuals like Kirk and Kendall. Instead they focus on partisan political pornography (David Limbaugh’s Bankrupt: The Intellectual and Moral Bankruptcy of Today’s Democratic Party or Bay Buchanan’s The Extreme Makeover of Hillary [Rodham] Clinton) as well as books that paint Arabs and Muslims as the tireless, fast-breeding enemies of Western Civilization (Mark Steyn’s America Alone, Robert Spencer’s Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t). These books are diametrically opposed to the perspective of the Middle East that the founder of the press upheld.
It’s easy to treat Henry Regnery as an anomaly. David Frum once claimed that the publisher “showed a curious partiality, throughout his long career, for anti-interventionist, anti-British, and anti-Israeli books.” The word “curious” makes it sound like Regnery was an oddball, yet the ideas about the Middle East expressed by the books he published books were absolutely mainstream among conservatives. Authors like Lilienthal and Utley frequently contributed to conservative newspapers and magazines (Utley was probably the most famous conservative foreign correspondent of her day).
Examples are easy to multiply. On November 19th, 1956, Leo Strauss wrote a letter to Willmoore Kendall complaining that National Review (the flagship conservative magazine Kendall helped found) was too anti-Israel. Strauss was particularly irritated by an article by that ran in November 17th, 1956 issue that contained this astonishing sentence: “Even the Jews, themselves the victims of the most notorious racial discrimination of modern times, did not hesitate to create the first racist state in modern history.” (Apparently National Review didn’t believe that Jim Crow America, not to say Hitler’s Germany, constituted a racist state.)
James Burnham, the most important and influential foreign policy analyst at National Review, was very critical of Israel, constantly berating the state for inflaming Arab passions by mistreating Palestinian refugees and its internal Arab population. As Burnham wrote in the July 28, 1970 issue of National Review, “The United States cannot base a successful long-term Mideast policy on support of Israel.” Westbrook Pegler, the most widely read conservative columnist of the 1940s and early 1950s was venomous whenever he wrote about Israel. The conservative/libertarian science fiction writer Poul Anderson often mocked liberals for ignoring the plight of the Palestinians.
Why were conservatives so hostile to Israel? And why did conservatives turn against Arabs starting in the late 1960s? This is a rich, unexplored topic, one that historians should take up. Here are a few possible factors:
1. Anti-Semitism. One could argue that the “Old Right” (the isolationists of the 1930s and 1940s) were largely anti-Semites and this carried over into a grudge against Israel. It is true that many of the articles that National Review ran were hair-raisingly prejudiced enough to make one suspicious. (See here for examples of how National Review dealt with the Eichmann trial). And Westbrook Pegler was unquestionably a thuggish bigot; he had a tendency to use the word “kike” rather freely, as if it were an especially clever bon mot. Still, some of the conservative critics of Israel were themselves Jewish and others were admirably critical of racism in any form. So this is something that has to be taken on a case by case basis.
2. Anti-communism. Conservatives of early postwar eras were anti-communists above all else. They thought that Arabs and Muslims would be reliable allies against Moscow and feared the Palestinian refugee crisis could radicalize the Middle Eastern masses, making them anti-American. This was a legitimate concern and to some degree an accurate prophesy. Which might explain the turn-around in the 1970s to the 1990: with the rise of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world and the corresponding collapse of communism, the die had been cast and it no longer seemed possible (or necessary) to placate Arab and Islamic public opinion.
3. Power worship. James Burnham, George Orwell once shrewdly observed, had a tendency to worship power, to exalt the strong and mock the weak. This is true of many conservative foreign policy analysts. Israel was a weak, provisional nation in the 1950s and early 1960s but proved its mettle in the war of 1967. After that, conservatives, like nerds attracted to a strongman, decided to sidle up to Israel.
4. Anti-liberalism. American conservatism is a profoundly reactionary movement in a very literal way: its entire orientation is based less on a positive program than a visceral rejection of anything associated with liberalism. With regard to foreign policy, the principal seems to be, “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Liberal and socialists often celebrated Israel in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s; during this era, conservatives were anti-Israel. A small sliver of the left in the late 1960s started expressing concern about the Palestinians, gradually making the Palestinian issue a cause of the left. This leftist solicitude for the Palestinians turned many conservatives into fans of Israel.
5. Projection. National Review‘s harping on Israel as a “racist state” is noteworthy. At that time, National Review avidly defended Jim Crow segregation in the South and apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps the attacks on Israel could be seen as a form of projection, to prove that the other side (the liberals and socialists who supported Israel) were also racist. Or in the language of the school yard, “I know you are, but what am I?”
The point I want to make is not that conservatives were right in the 1950s and are wrong now, or vice versa, that they were benighted in the past and learned better. Rather, what I want to suggest is that there is no essentialist logic governing the clash of civilizations. Foreign policy commitments among conservatives are often contingent and irrational, based not on a realistic assessment of threats but on the hidden logic of tribalism. Many conservatives in the 1950s, it could be argued, hated Israel because it was supported by liberals. Conversely, many conservatives now are calling for a clash of civilization because they dislike liberal multiculturalism. The logic of the tribe, of animus rooted in domestic politics, is what is at work.
During the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives didn’t think of Jews as part of their tribe. As an example, there’s a curious passage in Burnham’s Suicide of the West (1964) where the question is raised as to whether Israel is really a part of Western Civilization. In his letter to Kendall, Leo Strauss tried to address this very line of thought by arguing that Israel “is a western country, which educates its many immigrants from the east in the ways of the West.; Israel is the only country which as a country is an outpost in the West in the East.” In the 1970s, variations of this argument won the day: Jews were accepted by conservatives as part of the tribe, Israel as a bulwark of the West against the barbaric East, and Palestinians now put into the camp of “the other.”
Neither in the 1950s nor now do you find many conservatives that want to make practical suggestions for resolving the Palestinian dilemma. Trapped as they are by the logic of tribalism, conservatives simply know how to support one side or the other, and are loath to offer criteria of universal justice that might solve the problem or support the international organizations and alliances that could offer some realistic redress. The lesson to draw is that conservative foreign policy is almost always a form of theater, of using the international stage to create dramatic morality plays.