Forbes.com, September 2, 2013
–Op-Ed by Ying Ma
With the Obama administration beating the drums for “limited” strikes against Syria last week, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called for decisive military action and chastised his Republican colleagues who might disagree. On MSNBC, he said, “We’re going to have to have a debate about the future of the party…[about] isolationism versus internationalism.”
However much Christie and McCain might wish to claim the mantle of internationalism, their attacks on the so-called isolationists of the Republican Party actually mask fundamental differences among the GOP’s internationalists, and reveal that the party’s foreign policy debate is still mired in the unhappy legacy of President George W. Bush.
Republicans cannot move past that legacy by taking potshots at libertarians and Tea Partyers who question the prevailing GOP wisdom on domestic and foreign policy issues. Instead, the party will have to resolve internal differences and chart a more coherent course for foreign policy. Welcoming the newcomers who articulate and apply conservative principles to the nation’s priorities would be a great start.
Thus far, many Republican internationalists have remained silent, concurred with, or participated in waging hysterical attacks against Paul and the two overlapping groups he represents: libertarians who prize civil liberties and Tea Partyers who abhor big government and are weary of more than a decade of war in the Middle East. The attacks have boiled down to one central theme: Those who dare to question the wisdom of endless foreign interventions or the expansive snooping powers of the federal government are inherently isolationists.
Little has been said about the fact that many Republican internationalists, unlike their more interventionist colleagues, firmly believe that the United States should pursue a foreign policy—and risk American lives—first and foremost to defend vital American interests rather than to mouth amorphous, feel-good concepts like freedom and democracy.
The differences have manifested themselves in the debate about whether to cut off U.S. aid to Egypt in the wake of the military’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. On the one hand, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton—both Republicans with impeccable internationalist credentials—have stressed that the Egyptian military plays a crucial role in protecting U.S. national interests in the Middle East (such as keeping open the Suez Canal and maintaining peaceful relations with Israel). As such, the military, however flawed and repressive it might be, deserves America’s continued support.
On the other hand, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who shares many of McCain’s policy positions, have pushed for a suspension in U.S. aid. Citing U.S. law and American values, both condemn the military’s coup of a democratically elected government and its violent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood. That the Brotherhood is not exactly a paragon of political moderation and pluralism and is unlikely to further U.S. interests if they ever prevailed against the military does not matter. To Mr. McCain, “our values are our interests.”
Similarly, a split among the GOP’s internationalists has surfaced on other foreign policy issues. Amb. Bolton—and other Republicans such as House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA)—have expressed serious misgivings about the merits of launching military strikes against Syria. A couple of years ago, when massive pro-democracy protests in Egypt erupted and demanded the ouster of President Hosni Mubarrak, numerous prominent Republicans—including former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—were deeply critical of the Obama administration’s quick abandonment of the longtime U.S. ally. On these issues, McCain, Graham, and their supporters have disagreed, each time advocating much more robust U.S. military action and political intervention.
McCain and Graham like to portray their foreign policy worldview as in line with President Ronald Reagan’s “peace through strength” approach. Critics, such as conservative columnist George Will, see a “promiscuous” interventionism that clamors endlessly for the use of force (as in Libya and Syria) and leaves no room for understanding Americans’ war weariness since 9/11.
In the absence of any clear Republican leadership on foreign policy, it has been left to the GOP’s “isolationists,” most notably Paul and fellow Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), to reject promiscuity and the proposition that hawkishness is inherently synonymous with strength, and recklessness with sound strategy. Along the way, they have infused some much-needed intellectual rigor and resurrected conservative principles—such as prudence and skepticism of large government undertakings—in the GOP’s foreign policy debate.
It was, after all, economist Milton Friedman, a hero to libertarians and conservatives alike, who taught that “the great threat to freedom is the concentration of power” and that a “government solution to a problem is usually as bad as the problem and very often makes the problem worse.”
If conservatives accept that intrusive government solutions (like welfare programs) have created inefficiencies and unintended consequences, they should not be surprised by objections to massive government undertakings in the foreign policy realm.
To be sure, Friedman himself defended the government’s role in national security and foreign affairs. Even the Nobel laureate could not think of a way to privatize the very public task of keeping the peace and defending the country. Nevertheless, the noted economist recognized that waste existed in defense as it did in other government undertakings and warned against the danger posed by militarism to freedom.
Meanwhile, it was another conservative intellectual giant, Russell Kirk, who reiterated Edmund Burke’s advice that in the statesman, “prudence is chief among virtues.” Such prudence stems from conservatism’s belief that “there exists an enduring moral order,” and “human nature is a constant.” In this moral order, “the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” To Kirk, conservatism is not ideological dogma, but “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” Just as the conservative’s prudence makes him abhor massive disruptions to the family, society, and tradition brought about by leftwing social movements such as the hippie fest of the 1960s, the same disposition would lead him to recognize that the world is not infinitely malleable, even to U.S. wishes.
Taken together, Friedman’s distrust of government and Kirk’s prudence go a long way in explaining where many libertarians and conservatives find themselves today: questioning poorly defined foreign interventions and an ever expanding national security state.
After all, despite the Bush administration’s predictions of a “cakewalk” in Iraq and promises of a democratic revolution in the Middle East, freedom in Iraq came haltingly and at great cost. In Iraq alone, some 4,500 Americans perished. Prudence would not have looked kindly on President Bush’s sloppy rhetoric, which gave the impression that democracy would materialize in unfree places as long as Americans mouthed the word “freedom” frequently and fervently. Nor would prudence have smiled on the intellectuals, policy wonks, and commentators who gleefully embraced the idea of an American empire and exhorted the administration to be more ambitious in its foreign ventures.
To be sure, Paul was not yet in the U.S. Senate when his colleagues from the interventionist wing helped save Iraq from the tragedy of terrorism and insurgency during the Bush years. Most notably, McCain and Graham, along with former Sen. Joseph Lieberman (a Democrat turned independent from Connecticut), championed a “surge” in troop levels in Iraq long before the Bush administration adopted it as policy, and stood with the President despite intense opposition from Congress and the general public.
The surge worked, convincing the interventionists that a more robust intervention in Iraq was the right answer in the first place, and that the disaster all along had been the Bush administration’s efforts to fight Iraq “on the cheap” with insufficient troop levels. Relieved that American prestige had been salvaged and that Iraq was not going to descend into chaos, the Republican Party since then has shown little interest to re-litigate the issue.
Then the Tea Party swept into Congress after the midterm elections of 2010, and their brightest stars began to voice objections to the heavy burden that lies at the heart of the interventionists’ grand ambitions for America. As Paul said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation earlier this year, “When candidate John McCain argued in 2007 that we should remain in Iraq for 100 years, I blanched and wondered what the unintended consequences of prolonged occupation would be.” Meanwhile, Cruz has repeatedly emphasized that “U.S. foreign policy should be directed at one central purpose: protecting the vital national security interests of the United States.” The clear message is that neither the Obama administration’s policies nor the saber rattling of his more hawkish Republican colleagues achieves that central objective.
On issues ranging from arming Syrian rebels to bombing Syria, from supporting the National Security Agency’s creeping (and creepy) surveillance of Americans to providing foreign aid (including to Egypt’s military), Paul, Cruz, and many of their libertarian and Tea Party colleagues have refused to be led by the nose.
Not surprisingly, McCain and Graham have led the charge against the growing “isolationist movement” in the Republican Party. Graham has repeatedly insisted that this movement must be “contained and pushed back against.” McCain has labeled those he considers to be the key purveyors of isolationist sentiments, Paul and Cruz, as “wacko birds.” Chris Christie was merely chiming in on an ongoing debate earlier this summer.
Certainly, it is easy to attack the new kids on the block—they may not have the best foreign policy prescriptions or even have a full grasp of the foreign policy frameworks on which they legislate. For instance, eager to distance himself from those on the right who clamored for war and empire in the Bush years, Paul has referred to himself as a realist. It is an absurd proposition, especially as realism—which celebrates the cold calculation of national interests, comfort with moral compromises, and disinterest in democracy’s power to protect freedom and promote peace—simply collides with Kentucky senator’s first political and philosophical commitment: individual liberty.
Regardless, these “isolationists” do not march in lockstep and are not nearly as isolationist as they are maligned to be. Cruz, who has proudly defended his record of “standing with Rand” in the Senate, has taken positions that are somewhat different from those offered by his colleague from Kentucky. For instance, although both Cruz and Paul oppose arming the Syrian rebels for fear that American weapons would fall into the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists who are part of the opposition, Cruz has repeatedly called on the Obama administration to prevent Syria’s chemical weapons from being misused against America or its allies. His solution? Develop “a clear, practical plan to go [into Syria], locate the weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out.” Paul, who is much more averse to military actions that do not constitute direct self-defense, has expressed no interest in and made no mention of such a plan.
Whatever the disagreements among the freshmen lawmakers, anyone who takes conservatism seriously should appreciate their collective challenge to the reigning interventionist dogma of the GOP. It was not that long ago that conservatives could express reservations about interventionism without being labeled an isolationist. Notably, the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s former ambassador to the United Nations, characterized George W. Bush’s foreign policy as “a little too interventionist for my taste, frankly.”
Certainly, there is a difference between Kirkpatrick–who favored Bush’s actions in Afghanistan and did not oppose the invasion of Iraq—and many of today’s libertarian and Tea Party grassroots supporters, who at times appear inclined to walk away from U.S. military involvement everywhere. This excessive rejection of overreach no doubt stems from the staggering cost of U.S. interventionism abroad since 9/11, but it is also a direct response to the GOP’s failure to articulate a more coherent foreign policy than the trigger happiness of McCain and Graham.
Chris Christie may think that it is sufficient to dismiss Rand Paul and his allies in Congress as engaging in “esoteric, intellectual debates,” and has noted that the Republican Party is not “a debating society” but a “political operation that needs to win.” Those with longer memories know well that the modern conservative movement, which helped bring to victory conservatives like President Reagan, was founded on a body of ideas that could withstand rigorous debate.
At the moment, the debate inspired by the “isolationists” and the “wacko birds” has refocused attention on whether Republicans are living up to conservatism’s commitment to prudence and its skepticism of government overreach. Now that Obama has sought authorization from Congress for waging a military attack on Syria, allegations of isolationism will no doubt be flying off the walls of Congress as members debate the wisdom of war. For Republican internationalists who reject reckless interventionism, finding the intellectual fortitude to answer the challenge from both Obama and the party’s own ranks might just help them emerge from the shadows of past mistakes and offer a clearer foreign policy vision for the future. For the GOP as a whole, this esoteric, intellectual debate is one very much worth having.
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