In the Syrian rubble of Barack Obama’s foreign policy lies a moment of opportunity for conservatives. It is a moment for building a muscular foreign policy based on a recognition of good and evil; on an unapologetic conviction that the United States stands firmly on the right side of that ledger because it stands for the liberty and equal dignity of every human being; and, therefore, on an unwavering commitment to have our interventions guided solely by American national interests.
It is a Ronald Reagan moment. Now, all we need is a Ronald Reagan. For now, we have only pretenders, split into two camps.
There is the progressive McCain wing, heirs to the Bush “Islamic democracy” quest. It lurches incoherently from crisis to crisis, such that the local al-Qaeda jihadist in Baghdad, who went there to wage a terror war against American troops, need only cross the Syrian border — and, voila, he is America’s ally. How’s that? Well, we’re told, we must hold our nose and support — indeed, arm — this “rebel” because he now fights the Assad regime, which is the cat’s-paw of Iran . . . the same Iran that — details, details — has been colluding with al-Qaeda for 20 years.
Even McCainiacs sense that this nonsense world is straight out of the Looking-Glass. So, while empowering al-Qaeda, they maintain that they actually seek only to strengthen al-Qaeda’s rivals, the “moderates” . . . hoping you won’t notice that these moderates prominently include the Muslim Brotherhood. You won’t hear a Republican mention the Brotherhood, of course. But the anti-Assad “rebels” themselves have no such compunction about the Brotherhood’s key role.
In fact, the Syrian National Council — the rebel leadership bureau the McCain wing initially demanded that we back — was a Brotherhood creation. When that proved embarrassing, the Syrian National Council changed the sign on the door to “Syrian National Coalition” and expanded its membership, ostensibly to dilute the Brotherhood’s influence. But even the non-Brotherhood rebels concede that the Brothers are still a highly influential force, and the faction they share power with represents . . . wait for it . . . the Saudis — the Wahhabist sharia kingdom. Feel better now? Probably not, but understand that when McCain and the Obama administration talk about supporting the “moderates,” this is who they mean. Understand, too, that the Brothers have always done business with Iran — a longtime backer of Hamas, the Brothers’ Palestinian terrorist branch — and that the Saudis’ governing ideology (to say nothing of their money) spawned al-Qaeda.
What could be more “moderate” than that?
The other pretender is Rand Paul and his nihilistic brand of libertarianism. On the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities, in which Islamic-supremacist jihadists murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, the senator refused to distance himself from the repulsive assessment of his father, Ron Paul, that the United States had brought the attack on herself. “America’s chickens, comin’ home to roost,” as Jeremiah Wright memorably put it.
The senator is trying to be the silk glove over dad’s ham-handed fist — to make Ron Paul’s noxious substitution of “Blame America First” for “Know Thine Enemy” respectable. Asked about his father’s assertion, Paul the Younger tried to change the subject, opining that why someone attacks the U.S. is irrelevant — that sometimes the cause could be “our presence overseas,” and sometimes not. What really matters, he said, is “that we defend ourselves from attack.”
It is thin camouflage. While McCain would insert the United States into every controversy, no matter how contrary to our interests, Paul sees our government as incapable of acting beneficially in the world. One can easily understand why Paul has a surface appeal for young Americans. In their lifetimes, an era of progressive dominance in foreign affairs, to act in America’s interests has become disreputable. The McCain approach — champion Qaddafi, oust Qaddafi; condemn the Muslim Brotherhood, support the Muslim Brotherhood; surge against al-Qaeda, arm al-Qaeda — has brought dizzying discredit to American action on the world stage. The Pauls exploit this to a fare-thee-well.
Nevertheless, the Pauls’ indictment is against government when the real culprit is wayward government policy in the execution of an essential government function. The Paul fantasy, like the Left’s, is that we can refrain from being judgmental about other countries: Just trade with everyone while pretending to be Switzerland, and then those nations disposed against us will like us better, and if they don’t we can always respond forcefully — after they’ve killed a few thousand of us.
Conservatives do not want Teddy Roosevelt’s pro-American progressivism. If, as is usually the case, you don’t have an extraordinary TR-type at the helm, what you’re left with is progressivism run amok and anything but pro-American.
Neither, however, are conservatives anti-government. In a 1997 essay diagnosing “What Ails the Right,” Bill Kristol and David Brooks famously called for government that is “limited but energetic.” I respectfully disagree: “Energetic” proves too promiscuous a license, eviscerating the Constitution’s limits. As TR is said to have remarked — perhaps apocryphally, historian Paul Johnson cautions — “What’s the Constitution between friends?” What conservatives want is a central government that does very few things — only the ones it is expressly assigned, the ones only a national government can do — but does them exceedingly well.