President Obama’s favorite rhetorical devise is the straw man. He poses a choice: His way or some extreme, unpalatable alternative. But conservatives are known to have a few straw men of their own. One is that the alternative to the foreign policy of President George W. Bush is isolation and disarmament. Now, it is true that there are some on the left (and libertarians and others on the right) who take extreme positions, but just as the GOP needs to do some reflection on immigration, gay marriage and its populist appeal, it is import to do some analysis on the foreign policy side.
This is not a merely a matter of electoral politics, for national security rarely determines elections. But a foreign policy look-back and any course correction that follows would influence budget decisions (do we cut more from defense?), inform critiques of or support for the president, and shape the party’s long-term thinking. There is a danger in over-correcting and going the isolationist route. But there is also a danger in ignoring our experiences since 9/11 and refusing to recognize changed circumstances.
The tendency among conservative hawks is to complain about Obama’s execution of policy and argue that if he had done this exactly as a Republican president would have, everything would be going swimmingly. There is much to that. As Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute writes, “If the United States had stayed in the game in Egypt, troubled itself about the rise of terrorists in Libya, spent less time badmouthing Bibi Netanyahu, sided with the better among the Syrian opposition early, and so much more, we might have had a chance to steer a better course. But we didn’t. And so full circle, whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
That said, we will have distracted presidents, disengaged presidents and incompent ones. A policy that ignores the inevitable pendulum swings in American policy and demands consistent, highly nuanced execution that many presidents don’t attain is not one grounded in (domestic) political reality.
Critical questions need to be asked, such as: What did we accomplish in the last four years in Afghanistan? One hawk with whom I spoke this week predicts that “in four years, it may look like a debacle.” Another, however, insists that it is now “virtually impossible for the Taliban to take over Afghanistan.” Well, that’s a discussion worth having. And it is noteworthy that even the more optimistic of these conservatives caution: “Counterinsurgency, if done right, will be successful, but that takes time (a decade) and lots of boots on the ground (both allied and increasingly Afghan). And what one sees, if resourced right, is a quick change for the better, as we saw in Iraq and in Helmand when the surges happened. But if you don’t build on it, stay with it, the locals never get the sense of whom the winning side will be, and hence the continuing instability.” That may be problematic when conservatives don’t hold the White House and when the public tires of these exercises, as we have seen.
Conservatives who pride themselves on a sober analysis of human nature, skepticism about government and respect for history, culture and religion as forces more powerful than politics should bring a healthy dose of skepticism and modesty to the foreign policy review. Did we imagine Kabul was easier to reform than the U.S. federal government? What are our expectations of new democracies, and what are they capable of doing? Is Egypt a warning sign or a work in progress if what we are seeking is more democratic, stable regimes than the tin pot dictators of yesteryear?
The exuberance that many felt for the Arab Spring has subsided. The reality of jihadist terrorists swarming in Mali, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere is and should be sobering. The time afforded Bashar al-Assad to kill thousands more has also allowed jihadists to establish a foothold there. In examining our ability to influence events, promote democracy and maintain allies, we must be cognizant of the real Arab world, not the Arab world of our dreams, in which secular reformers and constitutional scholars create Switzerland in the sands of the Middle East. Ambitions should be tempered by reality.
The U.S. is an exceptional nation with an interest in and responsibility to act on the side of peace, stability, human rights and democracy. But that does not mean, as Bush unfortunately put it in his second inaugural address, that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That’s an unattainable and even unwise proposition that will lead to exhaustion, lack of focus (where is our best opportunity to success?) and a good deal of failure.
This does not counsel that we abandon support for freedom fighters or give dictators a free pass. No, this should be the beginning of a mature discussion about what tools are available and what results are in the realm of possibility. It should return the focus to the human rights role the United States played in the Cold War in which we assisted others and were consistent in our rhetoric. Doing it all, and everywhere, is not likely to lead to success anywhere. Whereas limited, focused action that delivers improvement (development of civil society, more respect for human rights, enlarging the sphere of economic freedom and trade), may in turn accelerate success elsewhere.
Of all people, conservatives should be the advocates of discretion and humility in governance — in both foreign and domestic policy. If conservatives fail to practice these virtues, they will lose the confidence of the American people and undermine the objectives they seek. The conservative reform agenda should not exclude national security.