Foreign Policy: Torture Isn't Conservative It's somewhat outrageous for real conservatives not to be outraged by all this. Conservatism has never been, and should not become now, the pro-torture movement.
NPR logo Foreign Policy: Torture Isn't Conservative

Foreign Policy: Torture Isn't Conservative

Barry Goldwater bobble head Susan Walsh/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Susan Walsh/AP

I'm having trouble figuring out why staunch conservatives aren't as outraged by the torture memos and practices as the American public. Maybe it's because they've become so estranged from the public. Republican leaders have stumbled around, since the closing of the Bush era, much like a duck whacked on the head, as Abraham Lincoln once quipped about one of his generals who was chasing Lee's forces. Or maybe it's because of high, and justified, concerns over national security. Or considerable, again justified, preference for presidential leadership over that of the Congress (especially one with the twin faces of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid).

But still... It's somewhat outrageous for real conservatives not to be outraged by all this. Conservatism has never been, and should not become now, the pro-torture movement.

My conservatism was established by the philosophy of Barry Goldwater, and molded by the outlook of neo-conservatism. [Truth in commenting: I am not strictly a "neo-con," since I was never in fact a liberal. Neo-conservatism must be the only movement to stigmatize someone for not having been wrong for many years. But that's a discussion for another day.]

The conservatism of Goldwater, like all American conservatism, stressed limited government — not only in programs and budgets, but also in the power and reach of the state. Hence it leads to firm stands on civil liberties, perhaps even stronger than among the liberal left (though there continues to be lots of overlap). The staunch conservative Bill Safire, for instance, was just as staunch a civil libertarian. We didn't want government strong enough to control, or even poke around, in our personal lives — let alone having enough power to torture citizens.

So the conservative jaw should drop when Philip Zelikow — who knows both the law and the anti-terrorism field — concludes that these Justice Department memos legally empower the government to subject American citizens to the same "enhanced interrogation techniques" as practiced on the terrorists. That's such a gross violation of Goldwater-conservative principles as to make any of us still-believers wince, rather than ponder, explain, or (worst of all) justify.

Second to me are the neo-con principles. Yes, I know — I got the memo. I realize that the term "neo-con" has become exclusively a derogatory term, which even Richard Perle disputes had any real content to it. But I differ from my friend Richard here. Neo-conservatism meant — to me, at least — that there is and should be a moral element at the center of foreign policy.

Maybe the post-Holocaust phase "never again" hit Jews like me most powerfully, causing outsiders to contend that neo-conservatism was basically a Jewish movement. But "never again" shouldn't hit Jews any harder than others with a conscience. My mentor, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, sure felt as strongly, and reinforced my views for decades. Reading those Justice Department memos, and the practices they allowed, ignores — indeed, violates — the notion that much morality was operating in our foreign policy.

Torture is not only immoral; it's not conservative. And conservatives shouldn't be defending it.