House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) gave a speech today at the Virginia Military Institute that was as sound a critique of the isolationist impulse as any we’ve heard recently. In a direct rebuke to the president and the libertarian/retrenchment wing of the GOP, he said plainly:
America’s friends worry we have lost our way, that we have lost the will to live up to our values or stand up to aggressors. They see a divided, inward-looking America that is focused on its weaknesses rather than its strengths, and they know this is an America that invites challenges and emboldens adversaries. Many Americans, and politicians from both parties, want to believe the tide of war has receded. As was the case in the wake of World War I, many want to believe the costly foreign interventions of recent years can simply be put behind us, that we can simply choose not to be involved.
He reminded the cadets that isolationism can’t be maintained. “The free world chose not to act against Hitler’s aggression until it was too late. Americans, war weary and anxious after experiencing the horrors of World War I, largely ignored the conflict erupting on the Continent, and the prevailing sentiment was to avoid involvement in the burgeoning conflicts in Europe and Asia.”
The world is a dangerous place still and “getting smaller as technological advances bring disparate conflicts closer and closer to our shores,” he argued. He then laid out what, I suspect, will be the prevailing view among responsible conservatives in 2014 and 2016: “American foreign policy should not be guided by hollow rhetoric, unwise or moveable timelines, and unenforced red lines. Instead, it should be driven by clear principles: protect the homeland, defend our allies, and advance freedom, democracy and human rights abroad, while maintaining a military superiority that cannot be matched.”
He continued on, rebuking the president’s approach to Iran and reminding the VMI cadets that the “moderates” continue to support Hezbollah and Syria and brutalize their own people. As for the interim agreement, Cantor said, “Among other shortcomings, the current interim agreement between the United States and Iran explicitly allows Iran to continue enriching uranium and improving its centrifuge designs, despite the U.N. Security Council Resolutions that call for Iran to suspend exactly these activities.” Unlike the president, who would allow Iran to move right up to the point of breakout, Cantor reiterated the position of the United Nations and the critique of experts including President Obama’s former Iran adviser Dennis Ross: Iran cannot become a “threshold nuclear state” without setting off a Middle East nuclear arms race. And he blasted the interim deal for easing sanctions and doing nothing to check the development of ballistic weapons. He urged that we lay the groundwork for additional sanctions and make the threat of force credible.
As too few public officials do, he then connected Obama’s missteps around the globe, portraying a series of errors that now give Iran, Russia and other foes the distinct impression we are not serious about defending our interests (“our actions in recent years have . . . led to distrust among our allies and the strengthening of our adversaries”).
Cantor first tackled the Syrian debacle in which Obama called for Bashar al-Assad to go , issued a red line and then turned tail (“[H]aving led our allies and adversaries in the Middle East to believe we would strike, America backed down, and leapt at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concrete life preserver of a plan to have the United Nations get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons. Six months later, Assad remains in power, still has his chemical weapons, and looks unlikely to ever fully get rid of them.”). And he criticized those (including, presumably, right-wingers) who fail to realize “Syria is not merely a humanitarian disaster, but a slow-motion strategic catastrophe that poses significant threats to America and some of its closest partners. It is not merely ‘someone else’s civil war,’ but a regional sectarian conflict that has become a vortex of jihad.”
Cantor continued around the globe from North Korea to China and Russia, painting a disturbing and deadly accurate portrait of a vacuum created by American retrenchment. Cantor called for strong presidential leadership and a strong commitment to defense, both utterly lacking now: “[G]lobal leadership is not possible if America doesn’t invest in a modern, highly trained, well equipped, and more lethal military. We must invest in combating new threats, including in the field of cyber security, where state and non-state actors pose a risk to our secrets and critical infrastructure.” He added later, “The President and leaders of Congress must also be honest with the American people that all of these efforts cannot be done on the cheap, and they cannot be accomplished without risks.” On trade as well, he urged presidential leadership. And he corrected the impression left by some isolationists that their policies mimic President Reagan. (“Reagan’s clarity of purpose and commitment to rebuilding America’s strength compelled Soviet leaders to make concessions on ground-breaking arms control agreements which paved the way to end the Cold War. An America that leads must regain its clarity of purpose and commitment to prevail for freedom’s sake.”)
He noted the cost of failing to devise an Arab Spring policy. (“As a result, moderate reformers have floundered and extremists have filled the vacuum. In the wake of such promise, we now see the Talibanization of the Middle East”). He emphasized the disaster resulting from neglect in Libya. (“Far from demonstrating the success of the Obama Administration’s ‘light footprint’ approach, Libya today barely exists as a state. It is a vast, ungoverned stretch of desert, awash in weapons, where terrorists, gangs, and militiamen compete for local dominance.”) On Libya he wisely focused on the strategic failure and lack of accountability rather than re-litigating the Benghazi talking points. (“What message does it send to the terrorists that an American Ambassador can be killed with apparent impunity? The situation in Libya has only deteriorated. Libya today has become a safe haven from which terrorists threaten stability throughout the entire region.”)
He took a sober stance on democracy promotion, saying we must “stand on the side of the moderates as they struggle to build pluralistic democratic societies.” He cautioned, “Democracy is not just about elections, and it doesn’t happen overnight. If democracy is to take root in the Middle East, it will require significant protections for individual rights, religious minorities and women – protections that will not materialize if the region lacks a partner to help guide the way.”
He warned in Afghanistan not to replay the mistakes made in Iraq. “Our hasty and total withdrawal squandered the hard-fought gains won by the military at such great cost. . . . In Iraq today, Iran and Al Qaeda are ascendant, and violence has reached levels not seen since the peak of the insurgency. To allow the same thing to happen in Afghanistan would be to invite strategic defeat for the United States.”
In sum, Cantor called for internationalism, born from self-interest. “The inconvenient truth is policies of retreat and retrenchment make conflict more likely.” Cautioning about the spread of jihadists “from Yemen to Libya,” he took issue with the president’s narrative. “The tide of war is not receding, it is flowing, “said Cantor. “An America that leads must have a renewed determination to wage the battle for moderation over extremism. The effort must include a strategy to shape the outcome of the broader political transformations under way in the Middle East. We must renew partnerships with long-time allies who feel abandoned. And we must take aggressive action against terrorist leaders.”
Cantor’s speech was presidential-caliber, mature and impressively detailed — a model for 2016 presidential contenders. It’s a timely reminder that the GOP’s role – like America’s in the world – must be robustly supportive of our international interests and historic values. There’s no better example of what happens if we do otherwise than Obama’s calamitous foreign policy. Republicans who would imitate it are unserious contenders to succeed him.