Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Realism Returns

Representative Randy Forbes; Senator Rand Paul; Senator Bob Corker (Getty)
The Republican party is recovering its foreign-policy heritage

The most remarkable aspect of Senator Rand Paul’s “conservative realism” speech on October 23 in New York was that it was seen as remarkable at all. For the fact is that, despite the hubbub about the speech in outlets such as Vox and the Washington Post, much of the case that Paul was making would have fallen squarely within the broad mainstream of Republican thinking in the pre-9/11 era. A GOP politician’s making similar points even 15 years ago, let alone 30 or 40, would have been hardly worth mentioning.

Thus Paul’s statement that “America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory,” for instance, echoes the Weinberger/Powell Doctrine formulated by Republicans in the post-Vietnam era to distinguish themselves from the Democrats who they (and many Americans) believed had allowed the nation to be drawn into a searingly painful war without any real vision for how to end it. During the Cold War, many Republicans thought of quagmires such as Vietnam as “Democrat wars,” as Bob Dole put it in the 1976 vice-presidential debate. By comparison, George H. W. Bush’s decisive and clearly defined victory in the Persian Gulf War of 1990–91 was regularly held up by Republicans as the classic example of a “Republican war” — one in which, as GOP statesmen such as James Baker put it, the United States triumphantly achieved its aims with few casualties and ended up in the financial black owing to the active support of coalition partners.Paul’s admonition that the nation take pains to avoid getting sucked into quagmires resembles old-school Republican and former secretary of defense Robert Gates’s 2011 warning that anyone who recommends a major land war in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa needs to have his “head examined.” Meanwhile, Paul’s critique of nation-building and wars unconnected to important interests, such as the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya, hearkens back to charges that many Republicans leveled against Bill Clinton’s wars in the Balkans. Conservatives were up in arms, for instance, against Madeleine Albright’s suggestion that wars for humanitarian purposes are morally superior to those connected merely to parochial American interests. And of course then-candidate George W. Bush spoke eloquently against ambitious nation-building in the run-up to the 2000 election. Paul’s argument that the country should look to “cultivate allies and encouragers among civilized Muslim nations” is not so far from Nixon’s effort to urge Asian and Middle Eastern allies to assume greater shares of the work of containment, or from Eisenhower’s view that Europeans should eventually defend themselves without relying too much on American power.

This is not to say that there is nothing in Paul’s speech with which many Republicans, conservatives, and realists would disagree, in some cases vehemently. Paul’s proposition that the United States should avoid wars in which the best outcome is stalemate may set too high a bar for intervention and thereby encourage potential adversaries such as Russia, China, and North Korea to think that, if they can figure out a way to avoid giving the United States an opening to decisive victory, they can get away with limited but still major attacks on U.S. interests and allies. Paul’s criticisms of drone strikes, meanwhile, leave unexplained how the United States can keep the requisite intense and unyielding pressure on the fanatics Paul rightly says hate us and are looking to do us and our allies and partners grave harm. The explicit congressional authorization for each conflict on which Paul insists may well be more than is constitutionally necessary and too restrictive for the prompt and decisive action that the nation’s interests may necessitate. His softer tone on China is strange, given that that country’s growing might, including its increasingly formidable and capable military and its strategic ambitions to displace the United States as the top power in the Asia-Pacific region, pose by far the most significant challenge to American primacy. And there are other substantive problems in the speech, both conceptually and in detail.

Nor are concerns limited to what Senator Paul said in New York. Many have raised questions about the genuineness of his commitment to a policy of conservative realism rather than to something more like the quite different approach of his father, former congressman Ron Paul, an approach for which Senator Paul appears to have had at least some sympathy in the past. Ron Paul’s foreign policy is a far cry from the prudent internationalism of conservative realists. Rather, his is one of genuine retrenchment and thoroughgoing non-interventionism; for instance, he advocates bringing all U.S. troops home and abandoning the strategic architecture of alliances that the United States has set up since 1945. Senator Paul contends that his views have evolved, and he is hardly the first politician, or thoughtful individual, to have changed views. But given the importance of the issues, and particularly in light of his apparent interest in running for president, there is reason to test the durability and depth of his conversion.

#page#But the most interesting aspect of the speech and its reception is not the debate about Rand Paul and how much he espouses conservative realism. Rather, it is that a major Republican political figure is once again advocating a foreign-policy approach that reflects some of the deepest strands in American conservative thinking. This alone is encouraging — because the unfortunate reality is that, until recently, few prominent Republican politicians had been taking this line. For a variety of reasons, the Republican party and other major sources of conservative thinking shifted away from foreign-policy realism in the years after 1991. This is a serious problem, both from the point of view of the nation and from a more narrowly conservative and Republican one.

From the standpoint of the national interest, the country needs politically credible and influential voices advocating a policy of strength and determination in the service of preserving the American-built international order, coupled with a clear-eyed vision about the need to be strategic in picking one’s fights and the limits of what force can achieve. Leaving conservative realism aside might have had its attractions when the country seemed to have smooth sailing ahead, as in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but this is no longer the case. Rather, the United States dearly needs to re-adopt this approach as the international landscape becomes a great deal more contentious and competitive.

And as a matter of politics, the Republican party and conservatives more generally would benefit from bringing conservative realism back into vogue. Today’s GOP, while doing better on questions of foreign policy, is still punching well below its weight. Compare today’s tight competition between the parties over foreign-policy credibility — even after President Obama’s unimpressive performance abroad — with the near-unquestioned ascendancy on international affairs that the GOP enjoyed during most of the Cold War. Much of this change stems from a sense among voters today that the Republican party does not offer the firm and steady hand it did during the Cold War. Rather, it seems to present a distasteful choice between an unrepentant maximalism destined to embroil and exhaust the country in peripheral conflicts and an antediluvian isolationism that is of little relevance to our contemporary problems. Hence the unfortunate and ultimately misleading characterization of the debate within the GOP as being between “interventionists” and “isolationists.”

The Republican party would be far better off if it offered the country the sensible middle ground between those two extremes. That position recognizes both the vital role the United States plays in maintaining a stable and congenial world order and the consequent necessity of intervening when necessary and the limits of our power and the wisdom of restraint when the use of force would be unavailing or too costly.

Fortunately, there is reason to hope that the situation is improving. A number of leading Republican politicians have begun to strike notes that are in harmony with conservative realism and free of any hint of isolationism. Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker (Tenn.), for one, has been a voice for this approach, as has Representative Randy Forbes (Va.) in his statements on Asia and defense issues. Representative Paul Ryan, meanwhile, emphasized themes quite close to those of conservative realism in his first foreign-policy speech since the 2012 campaign, delivered at the Center for a New American Security’s annual conference in June. And prominent conservative thinkers such as George Will and Peggy Noonan have been vocal in calling for the GOP to return to realism.

This is to the good. But Republican leaders should push much farther in this direction, for the party is still leaving mostly untouched a great swath of political space that naturally belongs to conservatives. This will be especially important as the 2016 election heats up in the coming months. If more leading Republicans gravitate toward the realist approach, then the American voter will see that the GOP offers a safe and strong pair of foreign-policy hands — an important electoral asset that the GOP can hardly afford to discount. Far more important, of course, such a move by conservatives would help the country by promoting a foreign policy that, in its greater judiciousness, would better sustain America’s strength and resolve for the long haul. The Great Republic deserves nothing less from those whose special calling has always been to draw the attention of their compatriots to how important and how difficult such a task is — both at home and abroad.

– Mr. Colby is the Robert M. Gates Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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