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Chastened by Iraq

A new GOP foreign policy rises from the ashes.

By From the November 2013 issue

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THE ODDS IN September were in Bill Kristol’s favor. Bashar al-Assad’s army had been caught using sarin gas, the president was beating the war drums, and Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard and an accomplished foreign policy percussionist himself, was optimistic that an American intervention in Syria was coming. Asked on CNN about opposition from congressional Republicans, particularly that of Sen. Rand Paul, Kristol was dismissive. “There are really five senators who are with Rand Paul. There are maybe 30 or 50 House Republicans,” he said. Kristol later warned that Republican lawmakers who voted for intervention might face some blowback from their base, but that ultimately, “Republican primary voters are a pretty hawkish bunch.”

The hawks never flew. The whip counts, which emerged shortly after Kristol made his prediction, were stunning: The House of Representatives would likely vote down a war resolution thanks entirely to Republican opposition. ABC News counted 116 Republicans on the record opposing intervention and only seven supporting. An additional 83 Republicans were likely to oppose while three were likely to support. In the Senate, CNN counted 23 GOP nos and seven yeas. 

While early polling found self-identified Republicans tepidly supportive, an NBC/Wall Street Journal survey in mid-September showed only 36 percent approved of a military strike. At a town hall meeting in Arizona, Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Bomb Now! Caucus, faced a pillorying not seen since the populist anger of the Obamacare debate.

McCain would never get the opportunity to defy his constituents. President Obama was saved by Vladimir Putin, who offered an implausible but politically safe plan for Assad to surrender his WMDs to the international community. Everyone breathed a sigh of belief, John Kerry removed his toy battleships from his bathtub, and the media went back to denouncing Ted Cruz’s posture. As the debate faded into the news cycle, it was hard to escape the conclusion that those who had been most shocked and awed by America’s policy in Syria were hawkish conservatives. Rand Paul—he with the army of five—had scored a serious and unexpected victory.

How did this happen? Why did both the Republican Party and the conservative movement, which spent much of the Bush years rattling sabers with at least three countries while equating foreign policy realism with defeatism and writing books with titles like Deliver Us From Evil, lose their appetite for Middle East intervention? The answer can’t be reduced to any of the readily deployable clichés. There was no tectonic shift or turned corner; no one jumped over a shark, nor was violence committed against the back of a dromedary by an exceptionally consequential piece of straw. Instead conservatives engaged in some self-introspection and gradually changed. This change, nebulous though it was, affected all of the conservative movement, from the positions held by its lawmakers all the way down to its philosophical bedrock.

Go to any conservative conference and you’re likely to be presented with a pamphlet portraying conservatism as a stool supported by three legs—traditional values, economic liberty, strong national defense—and raising furious alarms that one particular leg has gone missing. At the end of the Bush years, those who could most credibly complain about such an amputation were fiscal conservatives and libertarians. Bush had made his name as a post-9/11 national security president while keeping social conservatives entertained and on board. But his record on beating back the state was nearly nonexistent. Beyond tax cuts, his greatest domestic accomplishments were expansions of the federal government’s role in education and Medicare.

Free-marketeers began to drift. Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, called his fellow libertarians “the long-suffering, battered spouse in a dysfunctional political marriage of convenience.” Brink Lindsey threw up his hands and said the rise of a “right-wing Leviathan” meant it was time for libertarians to join with the left. And while these commentators directed the brunt of their ire at social conservatives, Bush’s democracy-exporting and the government activism that it required loomed overhead.

That libertarian discontent exploded at the first GOP primary debate in 2007. Ron Paul, an impish, little-known Texas congressman, railed against the war in Iraq and called for a “foreign policy of non-intervention” which was “the traditional American foreign policy and the Republican foreign policy.” Paul shoved the glaring inconsistencies between hawkish Bushism and individual liberty out in the open, using the phrases “cradle to grave” and “police the world” in the same breath. In the following debate, Paul memorably clashed with Rudy Giuliani after he said the 9/11 attacks were blowback for decades of American involvement in the Middle East.

To the GOP establishment, Paul was a nuisance at worst and a distraction at best: the glazed-eyed drifter standing beside the road holding a sign warning of the apocalyptic potential of pasteurized milk, non-threatening and easily dismissed. But for vaguely right-leaning college students—weary of war, opposed to government interference, suspicious of both political parties—Paul’s themes had real resonance. “I think young people just want to be left alone,” Paul said, summing up his own appeal. Later that year, his campaign held a “money bomb” that raked in $6 million over 24 hours, more than John Kerry raised the day after he secured the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

That dynamic fundraising never translated into political success. Paul spent most of the campaign wallowing in the dregs of single-digit polling. But while the GOP base was never going to award Paul the nomination, they were listening to what he had to say. In June 2007, a month after Paul’s flamboyant debut, CNN political analyst Bill Schneider noticed that “Anti-war sentiment among Republican poll respondents has suddenly increased.” Thirty-eight percent of Republicans now opposed the war. After years of near-monolithic GOP support for the Iraq mission, it was a significant swing.

Paul, who suspended his campaign in June 2008, was never the GOP’s political savior—nor was he its intellectual savior. His theory that anti-Americanism and terrorism were easily attributable to blowback was naïve and simplistic, and his insistence that government was to blame for every woe was much too absolutist. But his campaign had a serious effect on Republicans—not to convert them into Paul acolytes, but to get them thinking about a post-Iraq conservatism that was more cautious about foreign policy. Paul threw all his weight on the anti-war end of the scale, and many conservatives slid a few inches in his direction.

THE TEA PARTY, which came roaring onto the political scene in 2009, had a complex relationship with Paul’s foreign policy views. Many of the movement’s heroes, like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, favored a more energetic role for America in the world than did Paul. But what the Tea Party succeeded at—and what remains its signature accomplishment—was to divorce the conservative movement entirely from the Bush administration, citing irreconcilable differences over the latter party’s promiscuous spending habits. The question, then, was whether it would reject Bush’s foreign policy too. A smattering of news articles asked that question during Obama’s first term, but the movement’s near-exclusive focus on domestic issues left no certain answer.

In retrospect, the Tea Party’s lack of emphasis on foreign policy was probably an answer itself. In February 2007, a Gallup survey found 38 percent of the public thought the Iraq war was the most important issue facing the country, compared with only 7 percent who listed the economy. By July 2010, at the height of Tea Party activism, only 4 percent said war was of paramount importance, while 31 percent said the economy and a further 22 percent said jobs. The Tea Party won the election that year because it tackled the problems of the time, which were rooted in the economic recession and had nothing to do with foreign affairs. The conservatism of the 2000s—with its images of soldiers in the desert cheered on by a grateful, and very employed, American public—seemed like a hazy mirage.

Conservatives were finally forced to show their foreign policy cards in 2011, when President Obama decided to intervene in Libya’s civil war. Strong contingents of Republicans from the class of 2010 meant the Tea Party was driving much of the political debate in both the House and Senate. Sure enough, in line with the Tea Party’s demands for adherence to the Constitution, the GOP leadership demanded that the president consult Congress before striking Tripoli. When Obama didn’t comply and let the missiles fly against Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, Republican skepticism grew. Speaker John Boehner released a statement calling on the president to “define for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is, better explain what America’s role is in achieving that mission, and make clear how it will be accomplished.” Substitute “Iraq” for “Libya,” and the statement could have easily originated from a dark catacomb in Nancy Pelosi’s office circa 2004.

The political lines continued to blur as Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one of the most liberal Democrats in the House, introduced a bill that would have removed American forces from Libya within 15 days. Kucinich initially received substantial Republican support, which faded after Boehner produced a more moderate bill that rebuked the president for not consulting Congress. Boehner’s legislation passed, but Kucinich’s measure to withdraw—to “cut and run” as might have been put a decade earlier—still received a respectable 87 Republican votes. A chorus of interventionists in the Senate, Sens. John McCain and John Kerry among them, countered by introducing a bill approving of the Libyan mission. It passed the Foreign Relations Committee, but five of the committee’s eight Republicans voted no.

ONE OF THE president’s advisors described the military strategy in Libya as “leading from behind,” a statement hawks have been rubbing in Obama’s face ever since. But for many congressional Republicans, even a secondary role for America went too far. This new foreign policy paradigm had become even starker by early 2013, when, predictably, our latest Middle East intervention produced a deadly unintended consequence. Following Gaddafi’s fall, the ex-potentate’s weapons were smuggled to the North African country of Mali, where they fell into the hands of Islamists. Mali, once a paragon for democracy in the region, quickly unraveled. France, which was uncharacteristically ablaze with war fever, sent troops to North Africa, and the United States once again led from behind, providing logistics and training to Malian soldiers while letting the French do the fighting. The president never tried to deploy the military for combat operations, and Congress almost certainly wouldn’t have let him.

By this point, there was speculation that non-interventionism was gaining ground in the GOP, fueled by rumors of developing rivalries between doves like Rand Paul and hawks like John McCain. After the Justice Department refused to rule out killing an American citizen with a drone strike, conservatism’s simmering foreign policy vat finally bubbled over. Paul took to the Senate floor for an old-timey filibuster, and was quickly joined by a handful of other Tea Party senators. Support for Paul mushroomed on social media, and by the end of the night, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had joined Paul in an impressive display of solidarity. The next day, Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham, grey-faced and ornery, shuffled out to the podium for the official hawk response. As they grumbled positively about drones and made other Bush-like noises, it was hard not to imagine cobwebs being spun on the dispatch box and musty books dissolving into a fine powder. Something had changed—something that was palpable.

Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s most prized secrets saw many conservatives backing away from Bush again, with many going so far as to defy public opinion and support a resolution, introduced by libertarian Rep. Justin Amash, that would have limited the spy agency’s power. The right-wing rift over foreign policy was widening. So when the president got himself into a jam on Syria a few months later, it was entirely predictable that conservatives would be divided. Sure enough, McCain and Paul reprised their roles as dueling partners, one the most vocal advocate for intervention, the other its loudest foe. The Weekly Standard editorialized in support of a strike while Glenn Beck was opposed. But this time, the anti-war
conservatives prevailed, and did so after publicly rallying the public behind them. After years of symbolic victories and glorious defeats, this new foreign policy was not just ascendant on the right, but was, at least for the moment, victorious in Washington.

A pessimist might argue that conservatives only softened on foreign policy because domestic issues were hogging the spotlight. An embittered cynic might claim that it was nothing more than instinctive distrust of President Obama. And while both of those were probably factors, there was something more there. Conservatives felt chastened by the failures of the Iraq war and the Bush Doctrine. While arguing with liberals, the right was also wrangling with itself, reexamining its first principles and searching for a way to break with the past.

IT IS AT THIS point that the N-word must intrude on our discussion: neoconservatism. This is always risky because neoconservatives like to claim that neoconservatism doesn’t exist, is a misnomer, or even constitutes an anti-Semitic slur. These are tough claims to believe, especially when you consider that Irving Kristol, the intellectual godfather of neoconservatism and father of Weekly Standard editor Bill, wrote a book titled Reflections of a Neoconservative. Inasmuch as it’s unlikely that a writer as prolific as Kristol spent much time hurling anti-Semitic slurs at himself, we should feel free to examine neoconservatism as both a real set of beliefs and something distinct from traditional conservatism.

It’s difficult to summarize a political philosophy as vibrant and controversial as neoconservatism in such a cramped space. But generally, neoconservatives were former liberals who migrated to the GOP after being turned off by the Democrats’ hard-left turn during the 1960s. They favored an aggressive foreign policy. Many were more comfortable with big government than their conservative brethren. And they disdained libertarianism—among other examples compiled by the scholar C. Bradley Thompson, Milton Himmelfarb once described neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss as having “despised” individualistic conservatism, and David Brooks and Bill Kristol have declared that “wishing to be left alone is not a governing doctrine.”

Rather than piddle down at the level of the individual, neoconservatives had a grand, momentous notion of politics. Leo Strauss, the patron philosopher of neoconservatism, argued that virtue was derived from abstract universal principles and criticized those who thought morality was passed on through history and at the local level. Francis Fukuyama, another neoconservative thinker, believed we were approaching an end to history during which all men would find political recognition through democracy. Fukuyama’s inspiration, Hegel, pronounced, “We stand at the gates of an important epoch, a time of ferment, when spirit moves forward in a leap, transcends its previous shape and takes on a new one.” For contemporary neocons, Big Things were happening in our time and America was the driving force behind them, the seat of democracy in the new world.

All this cosmic philosophizing about universal principles and democracy was refracted through two prisms—America’s post-Cold War emergence as a superpower and the 9/11 attacks. Eventually the operating neoconservative belief, which found a home in the Bush administration, was that it was America’s duty to fight not just our enemies, but regimes that stood against the tide of democracy. “There is a value system that cannot be compromised, and that is the values we praise,” said President Bush. “And if those values are good enough for our people, they ought to be good enough for others.”

In Iraq, many of the others quickly decided they were more interested in rehashing the old Sunni-Shiite conflict than participating in democratic government. Stopping the violence claimed 4,500 American lives, at least $3 trillion, and neoconservative credibility. Today when discussing conservatism, young Republicans often hastily add the qualifier: “I’m not a neocon or anything though.” The irony is, for all its definitional elusiveness, a popular consensus has finally been reached on what neoconservatism means: too bellicose, too idealistic, a pejorative for those who go to war too easily.

Post-Iraq conservatives, then, began by rejecting neoconservatism. As the recession hit and the debt exploded, there was a sense that, having tried to spread freedom around the world, we’d started to lose it here at home. The housekeeping that received little attention during the Bush years—balancing the budget, paying down our debts, sculpting a sensible housing policy—had been neglected and we paid the price. The new conservatism views liberty not as an abstraction destined to blanket the globe, but as something that exists at the individual level, precariously balanced, easily lost, in constant need of cultivation. Having looked outward for years, conservatives looked inward.

Despite its origins, the new conservative foreign policy can’t be called “libertarian.” The coalition of ascendant conservatives is a variegated candy bowl that includes libertarians, but also paleoconservatives, traditionalists, constitutionalists, and others. What unites them is a skepticism of big, idealistic, government projects—you can’t engineer universal healthcare at home; you can’t engineer democracy abroad. This conservatism is sober, grounded in the realism of Edmund Burke and the principles of our Founding Fathers, intrigued by seemingly tedious subjects like monetary policy.

It’s also still somewhat inchoate, as far as foreign policy goes. Conservatives don’t want a return to the Bush years, but what do they want? Rand Paul has been trying to provide an answer. In a recent interview with our own Matthew Walther, he sounded like a captain charting a course between Scylla and Charybdis: “Neoconservatives seem to want boots on the ground everywhere, to be involved in every single war around the world,” Paul said. “Isolationists want us never to be involved anywhere around the world. Realism is a sort of in-between position.” What ultimately fills that in-between isn’t yet fully sketched.

But whatever it is, the wonky, demure Paul may be its perfect intellectual face. Paul has already distinguished himself by introducing a slew of foreign policy initiatives in the Senate, most notably a prescient amendment that would have cut off foreign aid to Egypt after a military coup deposed its president, Mohamed Morsi. Best of all, Paul seems to have emerged at the right time. The country has a listless president and a discredited foreign policy establishment. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that, thanks to Syria, Republicans had regained their status as the party most trusted with foreign policy, after losing it in 2006. The time may be ripe for a new conservative foreign policy—pragmatic, prudent, realistic, tough but careful, promoting peace through strength instead of rushing headlong into battle. 

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Matt Purple is The American Spectator's assistant managing editor.