America Must Engage
Isolationism and military cuts are dangerous.


The ongoing crisis in Ukraine should awaken Americans, especially conservatives, from the dream in which the United States self-indulgently looks inward while the rest of the world takes care of itself. In truth, the best interests of the United States demand that American diplomatic and defense policies be proactive and robust.

Anything that smacks of isolationism is for losers.

Now, before fleshing out these assertions, let me dismiss the nonsensical charge that a robust foreign policy is merely the province of some benighted class of ogres known as “neocons.” (The very term is an anachronism: The real neoconservatives were already well ensconced as fully conservative, no prefix needed, a full three decades ago.) Instead, what’s needed is none other than a return to the conservative tradition in the broad orbit of Goldwater, Buckley, Reagan, Kemp, and William Clark. This approach marries a very strong military force with bold and assertive foreign policy; it also maintains a reasonable caution against direct military engagement unless other means prove ineffective.

Reagan’s insight that weakness and isolation invite aggression has been borne out again and again in hard experience — perhaps the most familiar examples are the rise of the WWII Axis powers and later that of the Soviet empire during the Carter presidency. Today, the al-Qaeda ascendancy is proving Reagan’s point. Al-Qaeda’s growth in the 1990s owed as much to Clinton’s fecklessness as it did to bin Laden’s ability to convert ordinary Muslims to his brand of jihad. (Looking further back in American history, we perhaps should have learned our lesson, first and forever, from Thomas Jefferson’s mistake of gutting the Navy, which encouraged the British predations that led to the War of 1812.)  

Yet now we see an entire strain of conservatives who applaud Senator Rand Paul — even when he promulgates nonsense about not “tweaking” Russia about Ukraine, or when he spews tendentious, ahistorical jackassery mistakenly blaming the Reagan administration for having directly “armed bin Laden.” Just as one need not have been part of a “war caucus” to advocate support for the mujahiddin against the Soviets, one also can advocate a strong response to Putin’s Crimean incursion without counterproductive saber-rattling. 

Ukraine’s geostrategic importance, both to Europe and to the United States, is hardly negligible. It is the largest country entirely within Europe, with territory just shy of the size of Texas and a population nearly 70 percent bigger than the Lone Star State’s. In 2011, it was the world’s third-largest exporter of grain, and it boasts a heavy industrial base and key port access to Black Sea trade. An independent Ukraine serves as a buffer against Russia’s renewed hegemonic aims; a Ukraine subservient to Russia or, worse, partially reconquered by Russia, would encourage Putin to eye other “Russian-language populations” in Eastern Europe as targets of similar aggressive actions. Given all this, one can see why a host of experts have recommended that the U.S. take strong actions such as evicting Russia from the G-8 and the World Trade Organization, freezing various Russian assets, and imposing further sanctions against Russian kleptocrats.

Ukraine’s plight, however, should be only part of our concern. More broadly, the growing public aversion to military spending and diplomatic involvement is more than a little disturbing. (Rasmussen reported last week that the percentage of Americans favoring greater military spending is down another few points, to just 34, while 26 percent still think we spend too much even after recent massive retrenchments.) For decades, conservatives especially have understood that military penury and diplomatic weakness can lead to danger and tremendous expense later. That view now is far from universal on the right. Witness the widespread conservative complacence last year about the effects on the military of the otherwise salutary budget sequestration. Witness the January Pew poll showing that even among Republicans, only 52 percent now think the decision to evict Saddam Hussein from power was the right one. There was a time, of course, when the American rescue of Iraq was supported by 90 percent of the GOP electorate.