Colin Dueck’s thorough analysis of the foreign-policy views of Republican political leaders since World War II has two aspects. As history, it is informative, objective, and broadly useful. As political science, however — and typical of that academic discipline as a whole — it obscures more than it reveals.
Fortunately, the reader can focus on Dueck’s history. He presents a careful, detailed policy analysis of Republican presidents starting with Eisenhower, and includes leaders like Goldwater and Taft who significantly shaped party thinking even without winning the Oval Office. Dueck is, with one exception, generally laudatory of these figures, and his central conclusion is powerful: “The triumph of one foreign-policy type over another is crucially shaped by the president’s own choices.”
This insight alone is significant, emphasizing the key role of individual presidents in shaping and articulating “Republican” foreign policy. For leftist conspiracy theorists, convinced that a small, mostly Jewish secret society of “neoconservatives” has hijacked the party, the better to overthrow foreign governments not beholden to Israel, Dueck has the antidote. As a non-Jewish non-neoconservative who didn’t know I was being hijacked, I welcome his calming explanation of modern Republican views. So should the rest of sane America.
Dueck is unquestionably right to emphasize the continuities in post–World War II Republican foreign policy, and to point out that “the most important such continuity is a consistent, hard-line American nationalism. Republicans believe in American exceptionalism, have sought to preserve their country’s freedom of action in world affairs, and have tried to avoid what they view as excessive accommodation toward hostile or threatening nations.”
In years past, at least some elements of the Democratic party shared these characteristics. Today, of course, no one would accuse Barack Obama of trying to avoid “excessive accommodation” with our adversaries.
Dueck identifies “four broad tendencies or schools of thought” in conservative foreign policy: realism, hawkishness, nationalism, and anti-interventionism. But listing all these “schools” together is an apples-and-oranges mistake, confusing policy with implementation. Nationalism is a policy mindset, a kind of philosophy that informs unfolding policy decisions. But both “anti-interventionism” and “hawkishness,” by contrast, are simply tactical alternatives, operational modalities that flow from policy preferences, and thus are not conceptually equivalent to policies. And “realism,” to Dueck, is the prudent management of foreign affairs for America’s interests, which emerges, in light of his critique of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, as his preference. Dueck’s version of “realism” is thus also implementation rather than policy, and to him a decidedly Good Thing.
Dueck makes another mistake in applying the labels like bumper stickers to individual Republican leaders. Although he concedes that such labels do not accurately describe real-life political actors, he essentially ignores his own caution both in analyzing presidents in office and in prescribing future policy. The sample is, obviously, extremely small. Burkean red flags should be rising up profusely to warn us away from reaching broad conclusions for future policy on so inadequate a basis, or in bandying around labels that hinder analysis rather than facilitate it.
#page#Also problematic is Dueck’s conclusion that “the real story” of Republican foreign policy’s evolution “is not progress to internationalism [from isolationism] but rather the transition to interventionism from anti-intervention.” This erroneous conclusion again confuses policy with technique, and ignores the real-world threats that actually confronted contemporary presidents.
Dueck argues, for example, that George W. Bush’s Iraq policy weakened the Republican brand’s reputation for foreign-policy competence, and should therefore caution us against an excessively interventionist policy in the future. But surely, the lessons learned from any particular intervention must depend on the circumstances that prompted it in the first place, together with an assessment of how it was implemented. There is simply no way, divorced from the precise circumstances, to reach tenable conclusions about “intervention” in the abstract.
Thus, Dueck himself concedes that President Eisenhower’s 1958 military intervention in Lebanon “did maintain a pro-Western government” there. And Dueck likewise concedes that Eisenhower’s 1956 opposition to the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt to reverse Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal “apparently won the United States little gratitude” in the region. In fact, U.S. support for our allies’ Suez intervention could have advantageously and significantly reshaped the Middle East, and also had a dramatic effect on the U.S. role in Europe. The French felt betrayed and humiliated by the U.S. over Suez, prompting German chancellor Konrad Adenauer to predict to French prime minister Guy Mollet, “Europe will be your revenge.” Indeed it was.
Moreover, while Dueck is right to assign responsibility for post-Saddam U.S. difficulties in Iraq to Bush, his theoretical, political-science constructs lead him to conclude wrongly that their cause was Bush’s abandonment of prudent realism. While Bush did in fact take an excessively optimistic view about the prospects for and pace of democratization in Iraq, his real mistake was the failure to provide clear direction within his own administration. The disquieting gap between the short, sharp conflict that overthrew Saddam Hussein and the 2007–08 “surge” strategy — and everything that went wrong during that gap — was a failure of presidential leadership in operational matters. What caused that precise failure remains debatable, but it was not a failure of the original decision to intervene and remove Saddam from power, and eliminate the threat he posed to U.S. interests and friends in the Middle East.
Proving the point that there was a failure of White House leadership on operational matters are the dramatically different understandings of our post-Saddam Iraq policy displayed in the memoirs of Jerry Bremer (My Year in Iraq) and Doug Feith (War and Decision). Bremer headed the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, and Feith was under secretary of defense for policy. Here are two highly intelligent, honest, dedicated, hard-working senior officials, both of whom worked to implement what they thought U.S. policy to be. Yet any fair-minded observer carefully reading their respective books would be justified in concluding they were working in parallel universes for two different presidents. It is simply not possible that two such individuals, over a sustained period of time, misunderstood or consciously deviated from their policy instructions. The only explanation is that they were receiving mixed, indeed contradictory, signals from the White House. It explains further why, I regret to say, Dueck is correct (albeit for the wrong reason) that the Bush White House damaged the Republican reputation for competence in foreign policy.
#page#Consider also the criticism from Europe and the American Left of Bush-administration “unilateralism.” This too elevates a tool into an abstraction. No one working for Bush arose each morning asking, “What unilateralist policy can I pursue today?” We asked instead which of several alternative tactical lines would be most likely to achieve our policy objectives. All the decisions that generated so much criticism — withdrawal from the 1972 ABM Treaty, unsigning the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, and rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, to name three — rested on substantive assessments of the policies’ defects, not an unconstrained desire for “unilateral” action. Indeed, where Bush was seduced into pursuing a traditional multilateral course (as in seeking new and arguably unambiguous Security Council authority to overthrow Saddam), he suffered. And yet, notwithstanding these travails, the administration did not hesitate to create new forms of multilateralism, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, where appropriate to advance American interests.
Thus, endless cud-chewing over interventionism or unilateralism in the abstract is ultimately unenlightening, because real-world operations are never carried out in the abstract. Nonetheless, as we enter another presidential season, it is worth remembering Dueck’s central insight about the importance of presidential discretion in shaping foreign policy. Once a Republican president takes office, the various factions within the party defer to their elected leader in a fashion very different from their conduct on important domestic issues. Although the 2012 Republican candidate will doubtless fall within the broad outlines of contemporary party thinking, there is every prospect that his or her views will not be carefully examined prior to the party’s nomination. The conventional wisdom is that domestic policy will dominate the primary/caucus and general-election campaigns, given our current circumstances, and the aspirants will not have to articulate their foreign- and national-security policy preferences beyond the level of platitudes.
Perhaps even more likely, foreign-policy naïveté or outright incompetence, in both formulation and execution, will not stand out in the career patterns of the vast majority of candidates. Thus, there is every prospect that, absent a vigorous pre-nomination debate, anomalous views, or professional or personal inadequacies, might emerge only after a president has been sworn in. This is obviously far too late. We need, therefore, a more robust vetting on foreign-policy issues during the candidate-selection process. While far from foolproof, this vetting process is the only thing that stands between the Republican electorate and potentially disastrous foreign-policy and political consequences. Otherwise, conservatives and Republicans might well succeed in defeating Obama, only to find they have elected a foreign-policy wild card at a time of grave international peril.
– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.