Five years into the Obama presidency, we have seen the most left-leaning commander in chief in our history implement the foreign policy many on the left had pined for over the years. He relied on the United Nations to constrain aggressors, “led from behind,” tried to engage Iran, roughed up Israeli’s elected leaders, downplayed human rights, cut the U.S. military and withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq (and maybe, soon, Afghanistan). But the world is more dangerous and the United States is less respected than when he took office. In a sense, he did us a great favor in discrediting a raft of foolish foreign policy ideas. If nothing else, he has made the idea of a nuke-free world a punch line.
It is not enough, however, to discredit the liberal notion that the United States should be less prominent and that relations with foes are the result of “misunderstandings” or U.S. missteps. There must be something to replace the chaos and incompetence that have characterized this administration.
On the right there is a division, it too often seems, between those who think President George W. Bush did everything right and those who think he did everything wrong. Certainly there must be a middle ground between unbridled intervention and neo-isolationism. Finding a conservative middle ground that incorporates the lessons of the past decade should be the work of elected Republicans, former officials and think-tank gurus. They must present a foreign policy that maintains (or restores, when Obama leaves) American supremacy in the world and is also politically sustainable. I would argue there are five main issues to be addressed:
1. Defense spending: Blindly cutting the defense budget is dangerous, but setting an abstract number of Pentagon increases isn’t the way to go either. Defense spending must be reattached to our defense needs, which is a function of the threats we face. It is not reasonable for hawks to say we cannot reform the Pentagon or use taxpayers’ money more wisely. Conservatives need to reiterate the effectiveness and legality of anti-terror programs that have now spanned two administrations.
2. Superpower: Simply bemoaning that Americans are fatigued by war (then insisting they should not be) is not a rational approach to the American electorate. Conservatives need to reiterate what threats we face and why U.S. power must be sustained and list the practical effects if we do not project this power and our values. Self-interest is a perfectly reasonable measure for Americans to use, and it is up to conservatives to explain how our security and prosperity will be harmed if we fail to live up to our international obligations.
3. Democracy: Suffice it to say promoting democracy is a hard, frustrating activity in the Middle East and elsewhere. The choice should not be between U.S. military action everywhere or support for dictators. We must instead develop a framework for helping free peoples to help themselves, conditioning aid and conducting diplomacy to promote respect for civil liberties, protection for minorities and religious toleration. No longer can we try to parachute in (literally and otherwise) when crisis strikes. Rather we must have a consistent policy from one administration to another to develop relationships, size up players, make contacts and provide aid and assistance when appropriate. With regard to major dictatorial regimes (e.g., China, Russia), we need to return to Ronald Reagan’s approach, which entailed solidarity with repressed peoples.
4. Big power conflicts: The administration has let Russia and China smack us around on everything from Edward Snowden to Syria. We don’t want a return to the Cold War, politicians say. But we need to reconstruct an approach for dealing with hostile regimes, maintaining our support for dissidents and checking aggression (e.g., the South China Sea) that threatens our interests and those of our democratic allies.
5. Alliances: Obama has relied on international bodies, which are incapable of ending bloodshed and do not reflect our values or interests. Conservatives need to reassess who our friends are and what their capabilities are. Then we can build on budding relationships that reliably can provide diplomatic, economic and, when needed, military cooperation. Some so-called allies (Turkey, Egypt) no longer behave as such or are in dreadful shape, while our relationships with reformist regimes and other democracies, both in our hemisphere and elsewhere, should be strengthened.
Conservatives have an easy foil in Obama and a plethora of valid criticisms. But they have plenty of work to do in rethinking, re-examining and incorporating hard lessons to formulate a coherent foreign policy that is politically palatable, consistent with our values and militarily sound. In the absence of such an alternative, the danger that Republicans — or the country, more generally — will choose delusional isolationism remains acute.