Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives
by John Whitehead
Editor’s Note: This is the third in the series of blog posts based on presentations at our 30th Anniversary conference, held August 4-6, 2017.
In the United States, political conservatives tend to support American wars and military interventions abroad and generally favor a hawkish foreign policy. People dedicated to peace and alternatives to violence need to persuade such conservatives to oppose U.S. military action more often.
Persuading people, whatever their ideological affiliation, to change their minds is extremely difficult. No one approach is going to work with everyone. I will offer a few suggestions, however, of how at least to encourage conservatives to reconsider support for a hawkish foreign policy. A crucial principle that unites these suggestions is that showing someone how the peace cause is compatible with his or her existing views can open the door to consideration of your argument.
Make arguments based on American interest.
Many American wars or policies can be criticized on practical, self-interested grounds that do not require challenging anyone’s patriotism. For example, the various wars the United States has fought over the past 16-odd years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have not been prudent. Experience shows that overthrowing a hostile regime and replacing it with a stable, friendly government is extremely difficult. Despite all the American lives sacrificed and money spent in those three countries, they continue to be troubled by insurgencies. Moreover, judged by the goal of countering terrorism from groups such as al Qaeda or its splinter group ISIS, these wars have been at best futile and at worst counterproductive
The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was justified because Afghanistan was a safe haven for al Qaeda. However, while the American invasion and occupation may have hampered the terrorist group’s operations somewhat, al Qaeda, ISIS, and others with similar ideologies continue to carry out successful terrorist attacks such as the Barcelona attack this August. When a terrorist attack requires so few resources—a single man in a car can kill or injure many people—investing so much in stabilizing a chaotic, violent nation to prevent it from serving as a terrorist haven seems an inefficient strategy. Moreover, in Iraq and Libya, the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qadaffi led to those countries descending into chaos and civil war and allowed terrorists such as al Qaeda and ISIS to use them as safe havens.
Some conservatives who would probably not listen to arguments that the Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya wars manifest some inherent American malevolence might listen to explanations of how these wars were not in America’s own best interests. Similar arguments can be made against overthrowing the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Connect criticism of US wars or foreign policy with causes conservatives support.
While many conservatives support a hawkish foreign policy, such a policy is not always compatible with other conservative policies or values. For example, American social conservatives who care about stable family life should recognize the damage done to families by war. If a parent is in the military, war or other deployments take them away from children—in many cases permanently. The same process separates spouses and even if the spouse in the military does return home from war, the marriage might not survive. History shows that divorce rates increase after war. This happened in the United States after both world wars, and in the early 2000s, roughly during the first years of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, divorce increased among Army officers.
War separates parents and children in other ways. One result of sending American troops abroad is that men have relationships with women in the countries they are sent to, the women get pregnant, and at the end of his deployment that man will leave, abandoning his former lover and their child. After the Second World War, tens of thousands of children fathered by American servicemen were born in Britain and Germany. Something similar occurred in various Asian nations where American troops were stationed. One estimate in the early 1980s placed the number of children fathered by American servicemen since the beginning of American military involvement in Asia at around 2 million.
Pro-life conservatives might consider the points discussed in this blog post, “War Causes Abortion.” As noted in that post, the hardships and disruptions to normal life that war creates may lead to women having abortions because they believe they cannot support their children. In addition, soldiers on all sides of a conflict have been known to rape women in the countries they fight in and occupy. If these women become pregnant, they might have an abortion. In fact, the same danger applies to the aforementioned cases of short-term consensual relationships between American servicemen and women in other countries. For various reasons, women in these relationships who become pregnant might also abort. Therefore, in addition to the millions of children of soldiers and local women who are born into broken families, untold numbers might have been killed in the womb
Do not lump together opposition to a war or specific foreign policy with liberal/progressive positions on other issues.
The peace organization the Fellowship for Reconciliation once featured the following statement on their website: “we challenge economic exploitation, work to eradicate racism and religious intolerance, and call attention to imperialistic U.S. foreign policy.”
These are admirable and worthy activities, but they are likely to appeal primarily to progressives while potentially alienating those with differing perspectives. Not everyone who opposes or is uneasy about American military intervention necessarily feels comfortable with the characterization of U.S. policy as “imperialistic” or agrees that economic exploitation and racism are closely connected with war.
Cite conservative thinkers or Republican politicians who opposed wars or hawkish foreign policies. Opposition to nuclear arms/warfare is a useful topic to focus on.
Historical examples abound of conservatives or Republicans opposing hawkish foreign policies, from Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to the Mexican-American War to Dwight Eisenhower’s warning of the military-industrial complex. Conservative opposition to nuclear weapons and their use is particularly striking.
In the 1940s, many conservatives condemned the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. National Review even declared, in a 1959 editorial, “The indefensibility of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is becoming a part of the national conservative creed.” Eisenhower, who was commander-in-chief of Allied forces in Europe when the atomic bombs were used, later recounted his reaction to learning of the planned bombings: “I was getting more and more depressed just thinking about it. Then [the U.S. secretary of war] asked for my opinion, so I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon” (quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 688).
The tradition of conservative opposition to nuclear weapons continued past the 1940s. Julianne Wiley, co-founder of Consistent Life Network precursor Pro-Lifers for Survival, recalled Brent Bozell, a major conservative theorist who ghostwrote Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, explaining his belief the nuclear weapons were profoundly immoral. In 2007, four American foreign-policy elder statesmen, including Henry Kissinger, who had been secretary of state under Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and George Shultz, who had been secretary of state under Republican President Ronald Reagan, published an op-ed declaring “We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal.”
In 2015, Jason Jones, a military veteran and politically conservative activist co-produced a white paper, Toward the Abolition of Strategic Nuclear Weapons, to which Aimee Murphy of Consistent Life member group Rehumanize International and I contributed. The paper uses Just War Theory and concerns for the honor of military service personnel to argue for dramatic reductions in nuclear weapons.
These four suggestions are just a few possibilities of how to persuade American conservatives to take a more critical stance toward U.S. military interventions. Peace activists should find additional approaches (The American Conservative and Antiwar.com are good sources for conservative-leaning critiques of U.S. foreign policy). Finding arguments that appeal to people across the political spectrum is vital to the peace cause.
Some anti-war books by conservative authors:
Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-war Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism, by Bill Kauffman
Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, by Justin Raimondo
Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, by Andrew J. Bacevich
Mary Meehan wrote an article on this topic on her web page:
For the similar topic on our own blog, see:
Nukes and the Pro-Life Christian: A Conservative Takes a Second Look at the Morality of Nuclear Weapons
The rest of our series of blog posts from presentations at our 30th anniversary conference in August, 2017:
The History of Framing the Arguments (Jim Kelly)
The Vital Need for Diversity (Sarah Terzo)
Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives (John Whitehead)
My Difficulty in Voting: Identifying the Problem (Monica Sohler)
Common Ground (Jim Kelly)
The Mind’s Drive for Consistency (Rachel MacNair)
See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.