U.S. vs THEM – How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security. J. Peter Scoblic. Viking (Penguin,) New York, 2008.

In a work that is well focussed, Peter Scoblic has written an intriguing historical review of the second half of the Twentieth Century on into the recently passed Bush regime. In U.S. vs. THEM, the writing narrows on to a main theme of how the decisions and actions of the conservative/neoconservative mind have only increased the nuclear danger to the world. At times the consistency of that narrow perspective can be irritating as a bit more contextual perspective, a slightly broader sweep could have presented a broader historical picture, but that was distinctly not Scoblic’s purpose and the book needs to be read on that understanding. There is much more to conservative and neoconservative policies and actions than the increasing nuclear proliferation threat, but this work retains an accurate and direct view of the nuclear issue.

There is apparently no real neoconservative policy as such. With the main supporting idea of the theme being the title, us versus them, any ‘policy’ statements were essentially the blind rhetoric of the conservatives seeking U.S. global dominance through the primal element of fear, of good versus evil. That evil had to be redefined midcourse because of the inward collapse of the Soviet Union, the evil being transferred from ‘godless communism’ to ‘fanatical terrorism’, from a state actor with a known base and boundaries to a non state actor without boundaries or minimally much of base other than a diverse and changing population group. Without any real policy, Scoblic highlights the many contradictions between the decisions of the conservatives and the results of their decisions on global security in the nuclear realm.

Scoblic’s introduction presents his ideas accurately. He describes the “foundational influences” of conservatism as “ – an exceptionalism comprising both a moralism and a nationalism – [that] represent[s] enduring traditions in U.S. foreign policy.” He relates how the conservatives, instead of engaging the “enemy” to decrease the terror of nuclear weapons “promoted the opposite tack, deriding containment as appeasement, rejecting mutual assured destruction, and preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.” The second half of the book looks at Bush’s “paradoxical behaviour through the lense of conservatism.”

The rise of conservatism

In the first chapter “Worldview” the discussion examines the underlying concepts of conservatism and how it became a “conflation of moralism – the good versus evil” – anti-communism, and the traditional view of minimal government influence in the lives of the citizens. From there Scoblic runs through the history, with many familiar and a few unfamiliar names and incidents highlighting the story: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bundy, Goldwater, Bernard Brodie (a new name for me), McNamara, Johnson, Nixon, Brezhnev, John Ashbrook, and Phyllis Schlafly (both new), and of primary philosophical importance William F. Buckley of the National Review. The discussion of the moralism and paranoia of the conservatives through the era up to Reagan, through the negotiations on the ABM, SALT and the NPT, leads to the conservative view that “good could not coexist with evil,” that “regime change” was more important than coexistence and containment, and that the conservatives could not understand possible Soviet responses to their rhetoric.

Before reaching Reagan, the conservative coalition strengthened with the arrival of more familiar names: Cheney, Rumsfield, Wohlstetter, Jackson, Kristol, Podheretz – in short all the ‘chicken hawks’ who came back later to populate the Bush regime. Their arguments on nuclear proliferation and the winning of a nuclear war Scoblic argues are “fatuous…grounded in zero sum thinking.” While constantly blaming the Soviets for nuclear developments, and warning of their superiority (which never actually existed), the conservatives “were criticizing the Soviets for a strategy we ourselves were pursuing.” The latter is not too surprising as U.S. actions often contradict their stated intentions and purposes.

Ronald Reagan

Reagan represented a considerable range of these contradictions, being fully drawn into the conservative philosophy, yet during the second half of his leadership, made contrary moves (contrary to conservative beliefs) to attempt full nuclear disarmament of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, to be scuppered by the U.S. insistence on the proposed development of the ‘Star Wars’ defensive missile system. But for Reagan, “the evil of nuclear weapons clearly outweighed the evil of communist states.” As a “paragon” of conservative values, Reagan contradicted them in his negotiations with Gorbachev.

Neither Reagan nor the conservatives come off favourably in Scoblic’s view. As the arch-conservative “Reagan’s ignorance of nuclear matters was matched only by his blindness to how his actions might be perceived by the Soviets.” He describes the lack of “coherence to the Reagan Doctrine” primarily because “there never was [italics in original] an actual Reagan Doctrine.” As for Reagan being the hero of the conservative movement, that was a reinvention of the man to suit the conservative’s viewpoint after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The common conservative argument is that Reagan ‘won’ the Cold War, defeating the Soviets by causing economic distress through the arms race and the incursion into Afghanistan. Scoblic argues that “the Soviet Union suffered no economic distress as a result of the Reagan build-up,” that the SDI (missile defence) did not break “the Soviet bear’s back,” but gives the attribution of the collapse to “Gorbachev’s willingness to reform” and the “endemic weakness of the Soviet state.” The paradox of Reagan, the contradictions of conservative beliefs versus his actions came about because although “Reagan thought in terms of good and evil…he did not translate his worldview into policies that made accommodation with the Soviets anathema and therefore impossible.”


The us versus them view continued to develop through the Bush I and Clinton years in spite of not having direct access to power. Exemplified by John Bolton – “the quintessential example of the us-versus-them worldview – the neoconservative perspective extended the individual right to be free from government interference at home to “America’s right to be free from the interference of treaties, institutions, or any other formal diplomatic arrangement abroad.” It signalled the arrival of “Fortress America, which was able to strike anywhere around the world without entangling itself directly in foreign affairs.” Unilateralism, pre-emptive nuclear war designs, and supreme military global dominance for the ‘new American era’ became part of the rhetoric for neoconservatism. The us versus them philosophy floundered for a while, until 9/11 offered the perfect chance for a global and timeless enemy to appear.

With the Bush regime as well there was a” blurring, if not erasing, [of] the line between conventional and nuclear weapons and lowering the threshold at which the nation would go nuclear.” Now the weapons would “serve not only a deterrent function but also a counterforce function” to be used against even non-nuclear enemies. The Bush conservatives brought the us versus them worldview back in full force, moralistic, but not necessarily moral. Again, Scoblic leads the reader through the actions that have increased the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terror in contradiction to the rhetorical statements and beliefs of the neocons for U.S. security.

U.S. actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, in failed efforts to control Iran, North Korea, Libya, India, and Pakistan are all discussed as actions that have increased the likelihood of a future nuclear incident, all contradictory to the neocons position to achieve security and safety from the “evil” other. Ideology trumped intelligent action in all their endeavours.

The future

Conservatives at the end of the Bush era and on into the future have clung to U.S. exceptionalism and the ideology of us versus them. By maintaining an atmosphere of fear – fear of communism, fear of terrorism, fear of crime, drugs et al – and by “depicting one’s group as special and uniquely valuable,” they become “especially effective for terror management,” in the sense of using terror to control the political will of the people. With his analysis of events leading up to Iraq and the dealings with the other ‘terror’ countries, Scoblic establishes that conservative behaviour is “empirically irrational.”

He offers a solution, the main one being not continuing to see the world as good and evil, us versus them, followed by practical means such as reaffirming nuclear weapons for deterrence only, strengthen the NPT treaty (and ultimately nuclear disarmament). He calls for other concrete ideas such as closing Guantanamo and reaffirming the Geneva Conventions. The former he has called for, the latter is mostly rhetorical as rendition and torture applied elsewhere have not been denied by Obama.

Finally he calls for – very briefly – the “creation of a Palestinian state,” an interesting end note in a book that only mentions Israel in passing, although it has had significant influence on U.S. policy, and unfortunately continues to have the full pledged support of the new Obama government. Recall that I said above that Scoblic remained within a very narrow focus of U.S. conservatism and its effects on foreign policy, and while Israeli lobbying and policies are fully intertwined with U.S. policy, he chose to keep that element out of the discussion, even though many of the conservatives are born again fundamentalist Christians who fully support Israel.

Once again, exceptionalism rises

Before his final practical arguments listed above, Scoblic argues, “we should not blame America first,” that “America is [emphasis in original] exceptional.” It is only natural that a U.S. citizen and writer would not want to “blame America first,” (and be accused of being treasonous and disloyal as argued by the conservatives) yet to the rest of the world they are the biggest, baddest proliferator in action. They have denied the treaty its effective force by their own unilateral actions, they have not reduced their arsenals significantly (overkill is overkill), they have supported Israel and India with the development of their own arsenals outside the NPT, and in general have only used the NPT in a unilateral manner as it serves their own objectives and incorrectly as it applied to their arguments with Iraq. So yes, the rest of the world can “blame America first” – the buck stops at the world leader, the head coach, the boss, the most powerful position, the one that does need to either lead effectively or cede leadership to an international standard of disarmament. Accept the blame and start acting on it, and then others will follow the lead.

As for exceptionalism, yes the U.S. is exceptional, but not because of their moral leadership and ongoing rhetoric and jingoism about democracy, freedom, and rule of law, all of which are used only as convenient. The U.S. is exceptionally fearful, exceptionally in debt, exceptionally contradictory with its energy and global climate change, exceptionally militaristic. These are the empirical “exceptionalisms” without entering into the psychological or philosophical realm.

The solution to the nuclear problem them not only involves getting rid of the conservative us versus them ideology and rhetoric, but also getting rid of the exceptionalism rhetoric that Scoblic describes as part of the conservative attributes that he is attacking.

Generally, U.S. vs. THEM works well as history within its defined focus, reasonable but not exceptional. It is not a flawless work, but it does provide a good account of the conservative who’s who and of the ideology and rhetoric around the U.S. nuclear program and ideology.

Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.