The final report from the American Internationalism Project, a bipartisan call for U.S. leadership co-founded by former senators Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), cautions against a “fortress America” mentality:

Most arguments calling for a reduced global profile for the United States are more developed than the crude “Let them kill each other.” Rather, they are usually sophisticated and shortsighted appeals to selfishness, to penuriousness, to fear, and to bigotry. Throughout history, there are more moments of quiet retreat and abdication than Chamberlainesque appeasement or Lindbergh-like isolationism. But forfeiting American leadership in the world is neither wise nor consistent with American values. Nor would it prevent others from acting to fill the vacuum in ways that threaten our security, prosperity, and well-being.
We no longer need to pledge in the soaring rhetoric of JFK that we will “pay any price, bear any burden” to ensure the survival of freedom in the world. As serious as our global challenges are, they are within our means to address while simultaneously handling pressing needs at home. Foreign aid represents one penny out of every federal dollar; military expenditures are at near-record lows as a percentage of GDP. We have many tools at our disposal that if deployed actively and consistently, can help avoid the need to go to war while still advancing our values and interests. And we have more democratic allies to help address global challenges than at any time in our history.

The left, led by the White House, has followed the path of “quiet retreat and abdication” in lieu of an effective international policy. (On the perception that $1.7 billion in “ransom” was paid to Iran, the Wall Street Journal reports: “A senior Iranian military official has publicly stated that the clearing of the $1.7 billion was a key factor in Tehran’s decision to release the imprisoned Americans, most of whom were charged with espionage.”) It plays down and misrepresents risks to U.S. security as a way to justify inaction. The White House adopts a fatalistic tone, leaving to “history” the downfall of our adversaries as though we are not makers of our own history. It churns out straw men in an attempt to paint critics as “warmongers” and paint land wars involving hundreds of thousands of troops as the sole alternative to its passivity. And both President Obama and his advisers confuse their own emotions (concern, disappointment, anger, etc.) with action. There is in all this a stunning complacency about suffering, for how else could the president consider our Syria policy a success?

Whether sincerely or simply in an effort to cater to the lowest common denominator in the GOP, too many of its presidential candidates, most especially Donald Trump and Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Ky.), share in the moral indifference and strategic delusion that other countries can work it out, that regional players (whether in regard to Ukraine or to Syria) have more at stake than the United States (which is the guarantor of the nation state system and security for the Free World) and that there is an antiseptic, easy solution (no ground troops, no military investment) to what ails us. These anti-internationalists also mistake words for action, as if bellicosity and meaningless phrases (“carpet bomb,”neocon,” “America First,” etc.) take the place of a coherent policy and reasoned arguments. There are several defenses made by respected conservatives for this sort of foreign policy that require a response.

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First, Trump/Cruz/Paul apologists say, the candidates do not really mean what they say. They are simply conscious, the reasoning goes, of the public’s exasperation with overreach in the George W. Bush years. Once in office, their defenders assure us, they’d be right in the mainstream of conservative foreign policy thinking.

Well, listen, Democrats says the same thing about Hillary Clinton. (Sure, she defends Obama, but she’ll be better!) The response is self-evident: If one does not have the courage in a campaign to tell the public forthrightly what one’s beliefs entail, one is unlikely to grow a spine in office, and if by chance one does, the public will not support such a president and instead will have every reason to feel betrayed.

Second, we should not forget that these politicians, along with more responsible candidates, can influence right now the decision-making of our adversaries and friends alike. Does Saudi Arabia go after its own bomb? Does Vladimir Putin risk more aggressive moves, betting that the next president won’t have the nerve to roll back gains made in the last year of Obama’s presidency? Do our Asian allies lose heart and make side deals and compromises with China? Do Arab countries throw their lot in with Iran and/or Russia, rather than hold on waiting for relief in just 12 months?

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Third, if the Trump phenomenon has taught Republicans anything, it is that bad ideas (xenophobia, protectionism) and habits (vulgarity, appeals to fear, non-fact-based arguments) that are not confronted become normalized and rooted in the body politic. Conservatives have always railed against a post-modernist mind-set that treats facts as ephemeral and history as a flexible record to be manipulated for desired ends. They therefore should stand firmly against blatant misrepresentations (e.g., Moammar Gaddafi was our friend, dictators were islands of stability, the United States “created” al-Qaeda, the National Security Agency program entails listening in on Americans’ phone calls), not slough them off as mere campaign piffle.

As we get closer to voting, Republicans need to decide whether they want to be the party of serious, grown-up foreign policy. If so, they should look for candidates who sound just like they would want the commander in chief to sound a year from now.

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