Ron Radosh

Why Conservatives and Republicans Must Resist the Isolationist Temptation

Judging from the responses to my blog post yesterday on foreign policy issues, 90 percent of those who have commented are furious; these respondents favor a complete non-interventionist foreign policy, a retreat to what in the 1930s was called the “Fortress America” position. The arguments are essentially that we cannot be the world’s policeman, that our country is in a major deficit crisis and we can no longer afford an interventionist foreign policy, and that it is wrong-headed and unnecessary. I suspect that if most of these commentators were voting back in 1972, they would have pulled the lever for George McGovern, whose slogan was “Come home, America” and who used similar arguments against standing up to the Soviet Union.

There always will be those who say that “the cost of one battleship or super airplane” would finance education in fifty school districts that desperately need money. So, they continue, let’s spend our money at home and let peoples in other lands worry about terrorist threats that could destroy them. Despite disavowals, the logic of the position leads eventually to the position of the Buchananite Republicans today.

Indeed, writing a few days ago in  New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat let the cat out of the bag. After comparing the hawkish views of Florida’s Marco Rubio with those of Rand Paul, whom he calls an “antiwar” conservative, he says polls show that Rubio’s views are favored by the Republican Party elite, while Paul’s views are those of the “grassroots” and the Tea Party. Rubio’s views, he says, are “still tremendously appealing.” But when push comes to shove, Douthat too lines himself up with the isolationists. The idea that American can be a “great republic, armed and righteous,” he writes, is one that he wants to believe. Then the shocker of an ending: “Once, I believed it myself. But that was many years and many wars ago, and now I think Rand Paul is right.”

All of the above is bad news, both for the Republican Party and the nation. And no, I am not part of the Republican Party elite. So answers to the new non-and anti-interventionists are needed. Fortunately, two of them have appeared today.

The first is from the editorial page of the online New York Sun, and was most probably written by its editor-in-chief, Seth Lipsky. Speaking about John Boehner’s recent attacks on the president for violating the War Powers Act, the editorial asks: “For what kind of signal does it send to our adversaries to be talking publicly of cutting off funds for a war at a time when our forces are engaged?”

Invoking of that Act during Vietnam, it points out, led to collapse of our South Vietnam ally at a moment when it was on the verge of holding off the Communist onslaught. It continues:

The drama featured a Republican president, Gerald Ford, and a Republican state secretary, Henry Kissinger, pleading with a Democratic Congress to stay with the fight, even though American troops were no longer on the ground there. Messrs. Ford and Kissinger lost the battle but brought great honor to the Republican Party. The Democrats had long since followed Senator McGovern into the wilderness of appeasement and isolationism. When the Cold War was finally won, it was because of the leadership of a Republican president who, in Ronald Reagan, grasped that containment was inadequate, coexistence was unacceptable, but that communism could be rolled back and victory was possible.

Today, both sides in the Republican debate invoke the name of Ronald Reagan. But only one side is right to do that.  But the editorial notes that during the Reagan administration, the Democrats “spent the Reagan years counseling co-existence, disengagement, and retreat.” They made a brief turn-back during the Clinton presidency, when Bill Clinton intervened in Kosovo.

Today, the Obama administration is based on a return to defeatism. The Sun editorial concludes with this warning:

But it would be another kind of folly were the Republicans now to abandon the high ground they’ve won in years since Vietnam just because Mr. Obama has led us into a fight in Libya for which he failed to seek permission, a permission that he deserved to get. That failure was a not a moral mistake but a political one.

The second important article that addresses these issues is in today’s Wall Street Journal, and is penned by its important foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens. His column calls for a  Republican foreign policy based on credibility. Instead of seeking consensus based on the Arab League and the UN, as Obama has done, Stephens suggests that Republicans base their policy on “[t]he credibility of our arms, and of our willingness, when decision is made, to use them to decisive effect.”

Stephens proceeds to both dissect and intellectually destroy Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Here’s one of his examples:

It is not credible to demand within days that Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, an ally of 30 years, step down—but make no such demand, after months of unrest, of Syria’s Bashar Assad, an enemy. It is not credible to assure Israel that the U.S. will not expect it to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas—and then push Israel to adopt Mr. Obama’s negotiating formulas even as Hamas negotiates the terms of its entry into the government. It is not credible to promise support for democracy in Latin America—and then score Honduras for stopping a Chavista putsch while playing every excuse to delay ratification of a free trade agreement with Colombia.

Asking what credible alternative Republicans can come up with, Stephens argues that

It doesn’t help that Republicans in Congress are hamstringing the presidency itself by going on about the War Powers Resolution, one of the worst congressional abuses of the post-Watergate era. It doesn’t help, either, to hear Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann regurgitate, as they did at the New Hampshire debate, Moammar Gadhafi’s talking points about Libya’s rebels being tools of al Qaeda.

And here is what is to me his most essential paragraph:

What would help is a Republican who says: Mr. Obama’s failure in Libya isn’t that he intervened to stop mass murder; it’s that he’s intervened so half-heartedly. It would help to explain that bin Laden’s death does not mean Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan and that an abrupt U.S. withdrawal would simply turbo-charge the Taliban on both sides of the AfPak border. Credibility requires that wars should be fought to a winning conclusion or not at all.

So I ask my critics once again: please think through the issues carefully. Avoid the temptation of defeatism and declinism and avoid getting on the Rand Paul-Pat Buchanan bandwagon. Let’s not adopt the left-wing Democratic position that America’s budgetary problems can be solved by simply cutting Pentagon spending. If you really do believe that, why not suggest that the Republicans nominate George McGovern as their standard-bearer?