On Friday, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program hosted its fourth annual conference honoring the 50th anniversary of James Burnham’s book “Suicide of the West” — which argues that the spread of liberalism is causing the downfall of Western societies.
The Buckley Program held three panels that afternoon, followed by a gala featuring former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden that drew roughly 200 people. In his keynote speech, Hayden said that the debate surrounding the NSA’s surveillance is not an argument between positions of right and wrong. It is a balancing act of fundamental American values, he said.
“When these debates happen in our society, there is a default option where we talk about these things in terms of the forces of light and the forces of darkness,” Hayden said. “What we are debating here in the United States is not good versus evil — it’s good versus good. We are attempting to balance two things that are virtues: our liberty and our security.”
Hayden said controversial NSA surveillance programs, such as the ones that mandated seizures of phone data and information from common Americans, were undertaken with three considerations in mind: lawfulness, technological feasibility and effectiveness. Only when a proposed action on the part of the NSA meets these three conditions, he added, does the agency proceed with the action.
In his time at the CIA Hayden said he found a fourth condition that was not considered by the NSA in its deliberation prior to implementing the NSA’s surveillance program: political feasibility.
Hayden also said in his speech that there is the presence of a singular U.S. perspective on foreign policy that has emerged since the Bush and Obama administrations. Because of both presidents’ consistent focus on national security and targeting of terrorist activities, leaders in the rest of the world have come to recognize that U.S. foreign policy is now distinctive of American society and public opinion.
Caitlyn Walsh ’18 said she expected Hayden to be a stern figure, but she was pleasantly surprised by his congeniality and ability to connect to his audience.
“He was very balanced and honest in his concerns about American exceptionalism and the similarities between the foreign policy of Bush and Obama,” Walsh said.
Amalia Halikias ’15, a Buckley Program student fellow, said that every year she is surprised by the sheer amount of support the Buckley Program receives and that she was impressed by Hayden’s accomplishments.
The afternoon panels fielded voices from the son of the honored author James Burnham to the editor of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion website James Taranto to the editor and principal author of the Forbes blog on health care policy and entitlement reform Avik Roy. The three panels tackled hydraulic fracturing, the recent Russian expansion into Ukraine and U.S. intervention in the Middle East.
The third panel discussed the “The Drift of US Foreign Policy and the Challenges to Western Survival,” featuring Fox News national security analyst Kathleen McFarland, journalist James Kirchick ’06 and author and prominent critic of Islam Ibn Warraq. McFarland said that utilizing America’s energy resources through fracking holds the greatest potential for creating millions of jobs in the U.S. and eliminating foreign powers’ grip on the energy industry.
In his discussion on U.S. tensions with Russia, Kirchick said that the former Cold War adversary is again on the move and its people are being manipulated by government lies and propaganda.
Warraq said the threat of militant Islamists in the Middle East is not the result of concepts of western imperialism or U.S. intervention. Instead, groups like the Islamic State are motivated by the fundamental underpinnings of their interpretation of Islam.
“I think the annual Buckley conference is an excellent way to navigate the salient questions in contemporary American politics,” Josh Altman ’17, membership director for the Buckley Program, said. “It’s great that the Buckley Program is able to bring together such a diverse group of people with different angles to address these pertinent questions.”
The Buckley Program published the second paperback edition of Burnham’s “Suicide of the West” in conjunction with Encounter Books. The book has been out of print since 1985.