America Must Engage

by Quin Hillyer
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.

Without relitigating all the questions about weapons of mass murder, the number of “boots on the ground,” the decision to purge all Baathists from post-war civil authority, and about whether Barack Obama, post-surge, extracted defeat from hard-won victory, we can still look at the results from American efforts in Iraq and see many concrete benefits.

Saddam Hussein was a menace who wanted to reconstitute a major weapons program; consistently fired on American planes; aided terrorists such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ramzi Yousef, and Abu Nidal; trained terrorists at Salman Pak, near Baghdad; and emboldened Muslim extremists everywhere by continually roiling the waters in the Middle East. It is good that he is gone.

Moreover, toppling Saddam also helped us in our war against al-Qaeda. Remember that Moammar Qaddafi was so moved — by his own admission — by the sight of Saddam’s fate that he decided to comply, for several years, with American wishes. Qaddafi dismantled a nuclear program that turned out to be far more advanced than the world had known; he turned over huge caches of weapons to us; and he gave the West extremely valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, including the nuclear network of A. Q. Khan.

For those reasons, Saddam’s eviction increased the safety of the American homeland. One cannot prove a negative, but it is quite reasonable to posit that many thousands of Americans are alive today who might have fallen prey to terrorists if Iraq had remained under Saddam’s boot and Qaddafi had continued his evil designs.

It was a hundred years ago this June that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand launched a world war whose horrors were ended only through the decisive intervention of the United States. For a full century now, the United States has been an overwhelming, worldwide force for good — and while altruism has played a considerable part in American efforts, American interests, along with those of freedom-seekers everywhere, clearly have benefitted from our global engagement. American military might protects the vast and essential operations of trade that enriches our lives and wallets, fills our tables with produce no matter what the season, and provides raw materials for an immense variety of American industries. American diplomatic efforts helped free numerous nations from the yoke of oppression, Communist (too many regimes to mention) and otherwise (e.g., the Philippines, South Africa, Colombia, Thailand). Again, the benefits here at home have been extensive: Virtually every time a nation becomes more free, its trade and alliances provide material support for our way of life.

The Cold War surely taught us that Communist ideology must be opposed and defeated. But we also should have learned an equally vital lesson: American leadership is necessary to fill voids that thugs will otherwise muscle in on, and there is no substitute for diplomatic and moral leadership, backed by the capability of military force, exerted by a stable, constitutional republic of the size, resources, and good will of the United States.

This is neither fuzzy-headed idealism, as Paul supporters might call it, nor imperial arrogance, as leftists everywhere decry it. It’s realism, informed by both human decency and common sense. When America withdraws, chaos will follow — and that chaos, inevitably, will one day harm America, too. We must be smart enough and tough enough to avoid that fate, and instead to secure prosperity and freedom, and to exercise responsible stewardship of the common weal.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.