Bret Stephens speaks to Editor Gideon Rose about how to bridge the Republican foreign policy divide.
It is the healthy habit of partisans on the losing side of a U.S. presidential election to spend some time reflecting on the reasons for their defeat. And it is the grating habit of partisans on the winning side to tell the losers how they might have done better. Most of their advice is self-serving, none of it is solicited, and little of it is ever heeded. Yet still people pile on.
So it has been following Mitt Romney's defeat by President Barack Obama in last November's election. On domestic policy, pundits have instructed Republicans to moderate their positions on social issues and overcome their traditional opposition to higher taxes. On foreign policy, they are telling them to abandon their alleged preference for military solutions over diplomatic ones, as well as their reflexive hostility to multilateral institutions, their Cold War mentality toward Russia, their "denialism" on climate change, their excessive deference to right-wing Israelis, and so on. Much of this advice is based on caricature, and the likelihood of any of it having the slightest impact on the GOP's leadership or rank and file is minimal: the United States does not have a competitive two-party system so that one party can define for the other the terms of reasonable disagreement.
Put aside, then, fantasies about saving the GOP from itself or restoring the statesmanlike ways of George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Dwight Eisenhower (all of whom were derided as foreign policy dunces or extremists when they held office). Instead, take note of the more consequential foreign policy debate now taking shape within the heart of the conservative movement itself. This is the debate between small-government and big-military conservatives. Until recently, the two camps had few problems traveling together. Yet faced with the concrete political choices raised by last year's budget sequester -- which made large cuts in nondefense discretionary spending contingent on equally large cuts in the Pentagon's budget -- the coalition has begun to show signs of strain.
On the one side, Republican leaders such as Senator John McCain of Arizona have effectively conceded that higher tax rates are a price worth paying to avoid further defense cuts. On the other, one finds politicians such as Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who, when asked in 2010 about what government programs should get cut, said, "There's not a government program that shouldn't be under scrutiny, and that begins with the Department of Defense." However one may feel about these differences, it is important to understand each side as it understands itself. Then, perhaps, it might be possible to see how the differences can be bridged.
LAND OF LIBERTY -- OR LIBERATORS?
For big-military conservatives, a supremely powerful U.S. military isn't just vital to the national interest; it defines what the United States is. Part of this stance might owe to circumstantial factors, such as a politician's military background or large military constituency. But it is also based on an understanding of the United States as a liberator -- a country that won its own freedom and then, through the possession and application of overwhelming military might, won and defended the freedom of others, from Checkpoint Charlie to the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula.
This is a heroic view of the United States' purpose in the world -- and an expensive one. It implies that if freedom isn't being actively advanced in the world, it risks wobbling to a standstill and even falling down, like a rider peddling a bicycle too slowly. It is also a view that is not unfriendly to at least some parts of a big-government agenda and certainly not to the de facto industrial policy that is the Pentagon's procurement system.
On the other side are those conservatives who, while not deprecating the United States' historic role as a liberator, mainly cherish its domestic tradition of liberty -- above all, liberty from the burdens of excessive federal debt, taxation, regulation, and intrusion. These Republicans are by no means hostile to the military, and most believe it constitutes one of the few truly legitimate functions of government. Still, they tend to view the Pentagon as another overgrown and wasteful government bureaucracy. Some have also drawn the lesson from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that well-meaning attempts to reengineer foreign societies will succumb to the law of unintended consequences just as frequently as well-meaning attempts to use government to improve American society do. Far from being a heroic view of the United States' role, theirs is a more prudential, and perhaps more parochial, one. It also contains a sneaking sympathy for Obama's refrain that the United States needs to do less nation building abroad and more at home, even if these conservatives differ sharply with the president on the matter of means.
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