Politics & Policy

In the Market for a Foreign Policy

What are Republicans offering for 2016?

Conservatives like to talk about “the marketplace of ideas.” I’m in the market for a foreign policy. Whatcha got?

The last new one conservatives had was the 2001 model that the voters traded in in 2008, and some of us are looking back on it with nostalgia. Not me: The Bush approach has some serious miles on it and has been in at least one major wreck. I liked George W. Bush’s style, but I am not in the market for any new nation-building campaigns or idealistic crusades for global democracy. My threshold for another commitment to open-ended war is pretty high right now.

John McCain’s “Gates of Hell” model, which had sat for years unused — mint condition, never driven — seems to have been dusted off just recently by the Obama administration, in rhetoric if not in reality: “We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside.” That’s not John McCain in 2008 — that’s Joe Biden in 2014.

I wonder if anybody takes that seriously. The Obama administration’s model of foreign policy is really no policy at all. Obama’s strategy in 2008 was: “I’m not George W. Bush.” Obama’s strategy in 2014 is: “I’m still not George W. Bush,” and, sotto voce, “though I may find myself forced into doing a pretty good imitation of him.” As many abler critics than I have pointed out, its key problem — other than failing to secure U.S. interests — is that it leaves both allies and enemies uncertain as to how the world’s most powerful nation will react in any given situation. That makes for national insecurity, not national security.

The major Republican figure whose views normally are closest to my own is Senator Rand Paul, but his foreign policy is starting to resemble the Frankenstein’s monster of a Cadillac in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time,” a conglomeration of pieces from models that don’t quite fit together. One day he’s sniffing at Hillary Clinton as a “war hawk,” the next day soaring right beside her. His recent have-it-both-ways stand on the Middle East — “I think we are doing the right thing but just in the wrong way” — strikes me as being too much like a Hillary pantsuit: a little too artfully tailored, with an eye to the audience.

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy — like McCain’s, it’s mint condition, never driven — was autobiography: “I’m smarter than these other guys, I have a better grip on how the world works, and my day-to-day management will provide the results we want if not necessarily the moral clarity we desire.” In retrospect, that looks pretty good. “Romney was right” has emerged as a minor journalism genre, and on a great many foreign policy questions — the character of the Russian government, the prominence of Syria among our challenges — Romney proved prescient. As a manager of complex enterprises, it is impossible to imagine that a Romney administration would have done anything other than outperform the feckless fumblers currently bouncing around global affairs like a bunch of human pinballs.

But a Romney policy only gets you part of the way there. I’d trust a Mitt Romney, a Rick Perry, or a Scott Walker to do the job the right way. But we need a foreign policy that answers two related but not identical questions: What should we do? What are we going to do? All the competence in the world is of no use if you’re super-competent at the wrong thing.

What else do we have on offer? Senator Marco Rubio gave a big foreign-policy speech in which he began by demolishing a straw-man version of Senator Paul’s stance. “There have always been those who argue that America shouldn’t concern herself with the affairs of the world,” he said, but that’s not really true. Senator Rubio gives a very good speech, but the substance of his remarks — spend more money, kick more ass, and kick it with a bigger boot — was mostly familiar stuff. But we should acknowledge that he is one of the few prominent figures on the right, or in public life, for that matter, with the brass to bluntly and unapologetically link defense spending with entitlement reform: You want to spend more on ships and airplanes, you have to cut elsewhere, and happy talk about “waste and fraud” isn’t going to cut it when by far the biggest chunk of the budget is made up of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. So, to that extent, at least, advantage Rubio. But I’m far from sold on his basic model of return to maximum hawkishness.

Which is to say: I’m still shopping.

The Islamic State’s rampage in Syria and Iraq represents a typical U.S. foreign-policy dilemma: Should we let al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists run wild, or should we fight a war that in the end inevitably serves the interests of the atomic ayatollahs in Iran, our most dangerous enemy in the region?

If I thought that the United States could be Switzerland, I’d be tempted to import that foreign policy: Trade with everybody, get rich, and be armed to the teeth in case you have to keep the global riff-raff at bay. But the United States is not a tiny, landlocked, Alpine country noted for its excellence in banking and watch-making. But I am in the market for some creative thinking about how to use our economic weapons — from trade to our newly abundant energy supply to the fact that the elites of every country, including our bitterest rivals, want to send their children to college here — to supplement what we’re all calling “boots on the ground” now. I would not object to dispatching some serious green-eyeshade types to the Pentagon to figure out how it has come to pass that we’re still spending far too much money on defense while seemingly cutting all the wrong spending.

And while I sympathize with Jonah Goldberg’s view that “National Honor Matters,” I am very open to the prospect of simply buying off those who can be bought. While the prospect may rankle, if doing so means lower expenditures in treasure and blood both, consider Sun Tzu’s advice to those in his time who resisted the use of spies, considering the proposition either too expensive or dishonorable: Failing to make use of available advantages, “simply because one grudges the outlay of a hundred ounces of silver in honors and emoluments, is the height of inhumanity.”

What I am most in the market for is a foreign policy that marries a humane and prudent vision of our national interest to the operational competence necessary to ensure that we do not spend decade after decade scrambling to react to the mistakes of the immediate past. So far, I’m not buying what anybody’s selling.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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