Special Report

Foreign Policy Takes a Vacation

The Reaganite ingredient missing from this year's CPAC debates.

By 2.23.10

"He brings to the presidency a belief in multilateralism unequaled since Woodrow Wilson." So said former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton in his speech Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Bolton was talking about Barack Obama, and he did not mean it as a compliment. Bolton noted that Obama was echoing Wilson's declaration that "the interests of all nations are also our own" when he went before the UN General Assembly and said "the interests of nations and peoples are shared," that "power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation." (Bolton cites the same quotations in this article, where he covers much of the same ground he did in his speech.)

The Wilsonian tradition is one of four strains in American foreign policy identified by Walter Russell Mead in his influential book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, and Bolton's implicit premise that it has no value is not strictly correct. The faith in international institutions like the UN and the willingness to sacrifice American sovereignty and hegemony is indeed a deep weakness of Wilsonianism, but the belief that our interests are intimately tied to the interests of foreigners is not entirely wrong, so long as we don't confuse the interests of people with the interests of their government.

Increasing the freedom and well-being of people around the world does indeed improve our security. This is something that most conservatives understand, because Ronald Reagan understood it, which is why he succinctly stated his approach to the Cold War as "We win, they lose." The "they" in that statement was the Communist regimes, and there can be no doubt that the fall of those regimes and the rise of Eastern European democracy has improved American security as it has improved the lives of the people in those nations.

Bolton's critique comes, more or less, from the Jacksonian tradition, which, as Mead put it in an interview, holds to a simple principle: "Don't bother with people abroad, unless they bother you. But if they attack you, then do everything you can... when somebody attacks the hive, you come swarming out of the hive and you sting them to death." To judge from the discussions of foreign policy at CPAC, Jacksonianism is currently the dominant foreign policy orientation within the conservative movement.

Liz Cheney is usually thought of as a neoconservative. But in the sense that the term came to be used in the past decade, when what had previously described an approach to domestic policy came to refer almost exclusively to an approach to foreign policy (Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan's more apt label "neo-Reaganism" never really caught on), neoconservatism is supposed to combine the Jacksonian and Wilsonian traditions. Neocons believing in fighting for America's national interest as hard as necessary, and are unwilling to be hamstrung by appeals to the opinions of the "international community" -- but also believe that the spread of democracy and freedom is an essential part of that national interest. So it was striking that when Cheney spoke at CPAC on Thursday, her critique of Barack Obama was purely Jacksonian: she attacked the President for weak counterterrorism policies, but said nothing about his weak support for dissidents and democrats.

The only mention of the protests in Iran that I heard in three days of CPAC was a single line in the introduction to a panel called "What Is a Conservative Foreign Policy?" in which moderator Van Hipp said that the Obama administration has been "AWOL" while "hundreds of thousands in Iran, yearning for freedom, try to rise up against the Ahmadinejad regime." This is true, but the impression one got from CPAC is that conservatives are AWOL on that subject, too. The only speaker on that panel -- and indeed at the whole conference -- to discuss at length the link between improving our national security and improving the lives of foreigners was Joanne Herring, the former Pakistani Ambassador at Large (and the conservative activist who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson's War), who discussed the need for aid to non-government organizations in Afghanistan.

The largest rival to undiluted Jacksonianism at CPAC was not neoconservatism but Jeffersonianism, the orientation that views involvement with foreigners as a threat not primarily to safety but to liberty, and is thus reflexively anti-war. This was mainly a function of the large presence of the Campaign for Liberty, the successor organization to the Ron Paul for President campaign. Campaign for Liberty's presence was so large, in fact, that Paul, whose appeal for his supporters came primarily from his anti-war message, came in first in the CPAC presidential straw poll, winning 31% of the vote.

A little bit of Jeffersonianism is a good thing, even an essential one; to run a foreign policy without being mindful of the threat to our civil liberties that is inherent in war-making is to court disaster. The question of how to strike a balance between liberty and security is always difficult, and the debate on the topic, which featured a fairly broad spectrum of views, represented CPAC at its best.

But Jeffersonianism in the pure form that Ron Paul and his supporters espouse is so unworkable that no American President has ever quite embraced it -- not even Jefferson, who sent the Navy to the Mediterranean Sea to fight the First Barbary War. Campaign for Liberty sponsored a panel called "You've Been Lied To: Why Real Conservatives Are Against The War On Terror," where panelist argued that we shouldn't treat terrorist attacks as acts of war at all, merely as a criminal matter. But radical Islamists are at war with the United States today just as just as surely as the Pasha of Tripoli was in 1802, and there could hardly be a better illustration of the fundamental unseriousness of the more-Jeffersonian-than-Jefferson mindset than the spectacle of adults wishing away a reality that their worldview is unequipped to handle.

Jacksonianism, in some iterations, can be nearly as unserious. A panel called "Jihad: The Political Third Rail," sponsored by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer's newly formed Freedom Defense Initiative, neatly illustrated the limits of the Jacksonian mindset. The project of this panel was an important one: Understanding the ideology of America's enemies. It included an excellent presentation by Pentagon analyst Steve Coughlin on how radical Islamists understand the Koran, and several visitors from abroad who explained how conflicts with Muslim groups are playing out in their countries. But there was no talk of how non-violent Muslims understand their religion, or how they can be persuaded not to support the radicals. In fact, it was clear that several of these speakers believe that there is no such thing as a non-radical Muslim -- "Islam is the problem," as one panelist put it. If the Muslim world were as unreformable as they think, though, there would be terrorist attacks every day.

Both the Jacksonian mindset and the Jeffersonian mindset, because they begin with a reluctance to engage in the world, can provide fertile ground for a suspicion of foreigners that can lapse into bigotry. It's not too much of a surprise that one of the speakers on Campaign for Liberty's panel, Philip Giraldi, seems to have roughly the same view of Jews that some of the FDI panelists have of Muslims.

The Obama administration offers up fairly undiluted Wilsonianism, sometimes coupled with some Jeffersonian tendencies (and also a dash of Mead's fourth strain, Hamiltonianism, which is driven by economic interests -- the newly strengthened G-20 is an institution meant to serve Hamiltonian ends). The conservative critique of this approach should aim to do better than a grumpy alliance of Jeffersonians and Jacksonians.

Neocon-bashing has become awfully fashionable in recent years, thanks mainly to the Bush administration's tactical failures (never mind that it was the neocons who crafted the tactical correction that saved Bush's foreign policy from total disaster, namely the troop surge that led to new hope in Iraq). But the Jacksonian-Wilsonian synthesis that seeks to reform the countries where our enemies are bred without hesitating to pursue those enemies aggressively and maintain American hegemony -- tempered with a pinch of Jeffersonian concern for the civil liberties of Americans -- remains the most coherent and effective approach to the world we live in. That approach doesn't seem to have a place on the left these days; if it loses it's place on the right as well, we are in for some dark days indeed.

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About the Author

John Tabin is a frequent contributor to The American Spectator online.