Some years back I would have described myself as a conservative Republican. My understanding of what that meant was shaped by two leading conservatives of that era, during my college years William F. Buckley, and somewhat later, Pat Buchanan. Both were Catholics who embraced essentially traditional social values, as did I, were suspicious of big government, and were willing to endorse strong national defense in confronting the Soviet Union but reluctant to engage overseas unnecessarily.
Back then there was a certain suspicion of someone who was seen as too assertive vis-à-vis foreigners. Barry Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson in part because Johnson was able to portray him as being reckless due to his “conservative” anti-communism. Indeed, for most pre-Vietnam 1960s Republicans, foreign policy was worn lightly with little beyond the usual flag waving, but this has all changed. Now nearly every Republican calls himself a conservative and the label implies a general belligerence in dealing with all foreigners except Israel, coupled with general tolerance for a police-state mentality at home. And, of course, it is all backed up by the Bible.
Even Republican mavericks have to toe the line over the institutionalized craziness. An e-mail last week announced that the Rand Paul-leaning Campaign for Liberty was organizing a drawing for supporters because “…each and every one of us has a God-given right – and duty – to defend freedom. That’s why C4L is giving away a brand new Daniel Defense DDM4 AR-15. The AR-15 will come with Magpul MBU.S. front and rear sights and two Magpul mags.” An AR-15 is the semi-automatic version of the M-16 assault rifle, while a Magpul mag is a combat magazine that holds 30 rounds, what we Vietnam-era vets used to refer to as a banana clip.
The irrepressible Sarah Palin, much beloved by faux conservatives and the Tea Parties, as well as anyone else willing to cough up her reported $100,000 speaking fee, meanwhile told a National Rifle Association convention audience that those jihadis who are out to get us have to learn that if she were president “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” The audience roared. I am an experienced gun owner myself and consider it a fundamental constitutional right, but I would also note that the freedom of all Americans has been under unrelenting attack for the past thirteen years with little or no resistance from the heavily-armed populace, which compels one to ask: “What are they waiting for?” And, more seriously, when handing out assault rifles and chattering about torturing people to produce a laugh come center stage, it is time to stop and consider whether or not we have finally entered the twilight zone.
So I no longer believe the Republicans to be saying anything credible and no longer consider myself one of them, even marginally, since Ron Paul retired. Well, what about the libertarians? They want small government or even no government, want people to leave them alone, and aren’t interested in getting involved in overseas wars. But hang around with a few of them for a while and you will discover that their distaste for government sometimes veers into the unsympathetic and the uncaring. What their heroine Ayn Rand referred to as “ethical egoism,” but sometimes without the ethical. They generally believe in the “non-coercion” principle which essentially means that the individual should not be forced to do anything by the state, a viewpoint that sometimes fuels a deplorable tendency to unfairly demonize those they see as agents of the government. Cops, in their view, become homicidal monsters and soldiers are baby killers.
It is hard to imagine what a libertarian foreign policy would look like as it would be a contradiction in terms. Many libertarians want to make the armed forces and intelligence agencies go away to be replaced by heavily armed citizens who have a duty to resist an invader, as long as nobody is pressured into joining in the fight, which would violate individual liberty. Open borders and free trade are also on the agenda with no concern for who gets to come into the country and how many Americans wind up getting harmed in the process, because many libertarians really don’t believe in nationalism.
I will largely pass over progressives (as liberals currently refer to themselves since the “L” word has fallen out of favor) because they are now sadly in power in Washington and are demonstrating their utter cluelessness. There has been considerable jesting about a recent op-ed by one Anne-Marie Slaughter explaining how “Stopping Russia Starts in Syria.” Slaughter, a former Hillary Clinton appointed State Department Director of Policy Planning, is a relative heavyweight within the foreign policy establishment. She is currently at Princeton and wants the U.S. to bomb Syria “until the game has changed” to send a message to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. And if one is not convinced by Slaughter’s solution or her highly dubious linkage of two quite separate crises I would point to the empty utterances and perverse “humanitarian”-driven bellicosity of folks named Obama, Rice, Clinton, and Power that have together brought us Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. Progressive interventionists are particularly dangerous as they are sitting in the White House and believe they have a mission.
Finally there are the realists. Put simply, for realists foreign policy and the use of force overseas is to serve national interests, a basically nineteenth-century notion. That would make sense, but only if one assumes that the United States has an extraterritorial and extrajudicial right to arrange things overseas to suit its own needs, as the enforcer of some kind of latter day Pax Britannica. That certainly can be challenged and the realist agenda itself can be considered to be somewhat light on ethics. Whether it is right to entertain regime change if one has an interest to do so, as the case was made with Mohamed Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953, certainly can be questioned, and even a “realistic” analysis of the results of that particular intervention would suggest that the ensuing blowback made the entire venture counterproductive.
The point of all of the above is that for too many of the political class, ideological packaging conditions and ultimately trumps sensible policies, meaning that reasonable discussion across party lines becomes impossible. Former CIA Officer Paul Pillar calls it a “Tyranny of Labels.” Ironically there is quite a lot that most Americans would probably agree about if one could get past the ideological divisions and return to the initial organization of the federal government by the Founders. What did they expect from the newly minted War Department and the Department of State? According to the Preamble to the Constitution, the federal government exists “for promotion of the general welfare” of all citizens. Both war and relations with foreigners were seen as instruments that, when needed, were intended to benefit the American people. The tendency to introduce other extraneous agendas and interests through the conflation of defense and foreign policy into a “national security” package is a relatively recent development.
The Founders’ reluctance to embrace a standing army reflected the view that war making should be limited to the ability to defend the nation’s borders. It would not include fighting a war in Ukraine as a form of forward deterrence. Likewise, an ambassador, as the personal representative of the president, was not intended to function as an offensive weapon. He was delegated to serve as a channel for extending the protection and assistance of the United States government to its traveling citizens and to serve as the conduit for negotiating treaties that would facilitate that function. It was never expected that the U.S. ambassador should serve as an instrument to interfere with or critique the sovereignty of the Turkish Sultan or the Russian Tsar.
If there is any confusion about the objectives of U.S. diplomacy, they should be dispelled by George Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he stressed the need to “Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.” In spite of his own revolutionary experience, Washington would not have approved of sending ambassadors overseas to openly meet with opponents of the local government, and cultivating “regime change” would shock him. He would agree that while it is accepted practice for an ambassador to report on developments in the country to which he is assigned, involvement or interference in local politics should never be on the agenda.
A return to constitutional concepts of diplomacy and war making might not be as difficult as it seems. It would largely be a change of tone requiring a ratcheting back from the past decade’s policies made on steroids and the restoring of a respectful interaction with the world, what George W. Bush once referred to as a “modest and humble foreign policy.”
Nearly all Americans understand that the primary role for U.S. armed forces is to defend the United States. Most would also accept that the State Department should protect and assist U.S. citizens overseas and facilitate functional interactions with all foreign nations. We Americans can agree to disagree over what foreign crises constitute genuine threats, but most would likely admit that the use of force as a first resort over the past 13 years has been an expensive failure. Getting rid of the blinders that mandate what a conservative, libertarian, progressive, or realist is “supposed to do” or think and getting back to basics would be an enormous step forward, freeing the government to return to what should have always been its primary mission: reducing its footprint overseas and acting in a minimalist fashion to secure the “general welfare” of all Americans.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.