Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press) Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (Jim Watson/Associated Press)

Conservatives, as I’ve argued, need to do some hard thinking about national security. The answer to war weariness is not to tell citizens to stop being war weary. The Arab Spring should rightly chasten us; the downfall of creaky authoritarian regimes is not always a positive step. We live in a dangerous world replete with threats, but if conservatives do not formulate a 21st-century foreign policy that recognizes changed circumstances and incorporates our post-9-11 experience, they will send voters running into the arms of those who counsel retrenchment and retreat.

And isolationism or “non-involvement” is no answer. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave a speech on Wednesday in Florida explaining America’s interests in making sure Iran does not get nuclear weapons. He did not utter the word “Israel” because the best argument for deterrence is that it is necessary for our national security. He put it simply: “In the absence of U.S. leadership, there is chaos.”

Indeed, to the left’s proverbial complaint that the United States should not be the world’s policeman, one can say only that we are seeing that now, and it’s not pretty. Rogue states are running wild. Weapons of mass destruction are used with no consequence. The Middle East is riddled with violence and extremism. Human rights from Iran to Cuba to Moscow have weakened.

What is the best way to deter aggression, increase freedom and protect our allies? Conservatives like to quote Ronald Reagan (a lot), but they should go back to President Harry S Truman. In his speech to a joint session of Congress announcing the Truman Doctrine, he argued:

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes. . . .

The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world. And we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.

Great responsibilities have been placed upon us by the swift movement of events.

He did not say that we will intervene ourselves or turn enemies into friends. Both Reagan and Truman championed existing friends and sought to bolster, aid and arm them as needed. Truman did not invade Greece or Turkey; he aided their mostly pro-Western (at the time) regimes. Reagan did not bomb Nicaragua or Angola; he aided rebels trying to overthrow dictatorships in these places.

Whether it is rebel groups or governments, the United States should give aid and assistance to those free peoples who respect minority rights, religious tolerance and civil liberties. The bare minimum for U.S. help — that we expect of “friends” — should be the rejection of violence, terrorism and repression as instruments of statecraft. (Among other reasons, this is why Secretary of State John Kerry’s desire to have a “special relationship” with China’s dictatorship is absurd.) And we should ratchet up support and aid depending on actions on the ground. The more transparency, democracy and rule of law expands, the more we should assist.

Conversely, in those instances in which it is vital to the U.S. interests, we should lay down clear markers and then act when they are crossed, in part to serve as an example to others. The war in Afghanistan was an appropriate response to an attack on the United States, and it was critical to impress upon every regime that if you harbor those who attack, the United States put will put you in our gun sights. The use of weapons of mass destruction (even a little) cannot be tolerated. That does not mean a land invasion, and it may not even be war, but hard power can’t be ignored when countries violate fundamental norms.

In short, the foreign policy of even Democratic presidents after World War II through Bill Clinton sought to protect U.S. interests and encourage free peoples to defend themselves and advance their causes because free, prosperous countries are stable and generally peaceful. It did not mean that we tried to create friends or that we necessarily intervened directly. Sometimes, as in the case of Soviet dissidents, the help was rhetorical, and diplomatic pressure was used to aid them. However, when it was necessary (e.g. the Balkans), we used force in ways that minimized U.S. casualties but still led to victory.

We should use all our soft and hard power to keep peace and expand freedom, but we should exercise conservative skepticism about our ability to micromanage regimes. At times that means ending aid, and at other times that means greatly increasing aid. It means being selective, and that requires top-notch diplomacy, intelligence and cooperation from allies. And, in extraordinary circumstances, it may take a military strike or more.

Conservatives need to talk in the language of self-interest, as Rubio did in Florida, explaining the consequences of inaction and reassuring the public that force is to be used sparingly. And we should remind voters that where successful transitions have been made (e.g. Central America, Asia), we have benefited and increased the family of prosperous, free nations. By contrast, if nothing else, the Obama administration shows the danger and the loss of stature that passivity and retrenchment entail. It is an object lesson, not a model.