As Congress and the President debate over whether America should “intervene” in—i.e. launch war against—Syria, self-declared conservatives would be well served to revisit their political tradition’s stance on war generally.
Neoconservatism, the political orientation underwriting the anything-but- humble foreign policy of President George W. Bush, is most definitely not conservatism—a truth acknowledged unapologetically by none other than Irving Kristol, the “Godfather” of neoconservatism and the person responsible for having given it its name. Classical or traditional conservatism, in stark contrast, is actually quite dovish, even if it is in no ways compatible with pacifism.
Conservatives didn’t need Sherman to inform them of war’s hellish nature, its death and destruction. That all war entails the killing of human beings, and not infrequently the killing of innocent human beings, as well as the destruction of other goods that invest human life with value, does not preclude the possibility of just wars. It does, however, mean that decent people can wage war if and only if all other options have been thoroughly exhausted.
This is the first, and most obvious, reason that conservatives have been slow to enter war.
Secondly, human reason has none of the omniscience that we all too frequently attribute to it. The best laid plans of men often run aground on the unforeseen obstacles that life throws up. Our intentions have unintended consequences. Whatever our goals, however noble they may be, the pursuit of those goals can easily give rise to evils even greater than those that we’re trying to uproot.
In other words, that, say, Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad are bad people who the human race is better off without is an insufficient basis upon which to launch war.
The good combat evil, but they will prevail only if they do so wisely or prudently. This, conservatives have always known.
Thirdly, the 20th century conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott noted that since its emergence close to five centuries ago, that peculiar association that we call “the state” has been interpreted in two fundamentally different ways. Some have regarded it as a “civil association.” Others have ascribed to it the character of an “enterprise association.”
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.