When a number of conservative Republican senators and congressman began calling for an end to foreign aid to Libya, Egypt, and Pakistan, Senator Lindsey Graham disagreed, dismissing this push as “the libertarian view.” This “libertarian view” on ending foreign aid was shared by Republican congressmen Michelle Bachmann and Allen West as well as James Inhofe. The opposite view was held by not only Sen. Graham, but also Democratic senators John Kerry, Harry Reid and President Obama.
The definition of what is and isn’t “conservative” has been in dispute in a post-Bush Republican Party living through the age of Obama. On foreign policy this has been perhaps most true, where not only issues like what justifies foreign aid are being debated, but justification for war itself. One of the more revealing parts of the 2012 Republican primaries was when last spring candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on President Obama for not intervening in Libya sooner than he did—only to reverse his position days later, saying the U.S. had no business being in Libya in the first place.
Gingrich’s conservative instincts were confused by the ongoing redefinition of that term—Bush-era conservatives were typically for all military interventions, and thus Gingrich spoke in that vein. But in 2012, Newt found himself running against Tea Party influenced presidential candidates who had staked out bashing the president for his Libya military actions as the conservative position.
Or would that have been the “libertarian view?”
Perhaps the best definition of what constitutes conservatism proper was laid out by the right’s most popular icon — Ronald Reagan. Reagan believed that conservatism was a three-legged stool, consisting of religious conservatives, national security conservatives and economic/libertarian conservatives. Reagan though each of these legs integral to any proper conservatism.
Throughout most of the last decade, when most Republicans would have reflexively been for foreign aid or in favor of going to war, the national security conservatives were represented well. Perhaps too well, as President Bush’s Iraq War is still considered by many a testament to their “success.” These war hawks, or neoconservatives, represented an extreme in American foreign policy that went far beyond anything Reagan ever envisioned—there is a significant difference between national defense and an irrational offense. Religious conservatives also had a place at the table when issues like gay marriage were front and center during the 2004 election, or when President Bush promoted faith-based federal initiatives.
The group lacking a place at the table was the economic/libertarian conservatives, as a Republican president doubled the size of government and ushered in the greatest expansion of entitlements of a half-century. During World War II, Americans rationed food and bought bonds to help pay for the high cost of war. Post 9/11, President Bush simply added these monstrous war costs to a rapidly mounting debt and urge Americans to “go shopping.”
Fiscal responsibility and limited government were simply not a priority for Republicans during that time. Reagan’s three-legged stool became a double-barreled shotgun of statism—fired wantonly under a “conservative” brand.
The decision to halt foreign aid to countries that do not represent our best interests is unquestionably a conservative view. By definition, one might expect conservatives to apply a cost-benefit analysis to such situations. Certainly, America borrowing billions from China to arm radical Islamists in the Middle East is of little benefit at too high a cost.
But questioning the wisdom of foreign aid is indeed also a libertarian position—the third leg of the conservative stool. To the degree that Republicans are earnestly for limited government, they are unavoidably thinking in libertarian terms. Barry Goldwater’s statement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” is a libertarian dictum, as is Reagan’s observation in 1976 that libertarian ideas represented the “heart and soul of conservatism.” The Goldwater-Reagan legacy is conservatism defined. It is also libertarianism refined.
To say that opposing foreign aid is merely a “libertarian view” is an attempt to say that it is somehow separate or distinct from conservatism, when in truth adopting such libertarian positions represents the first time conservatism has been represented as a whole in the way Reagan defined the term. Consequently, Dave Weigel of Slate magazine now describes cutting foreign aid as “the next conservative cause.”
With the rise of the Tea Party, we have seen the reintroduction of popular concern over government spending into the American Right. That discussion now naturally bleeds over into foreign policy and issues like foreign aid.
These are now the new conservative discussions. They are also libertarian discussions. And the only people who will be left out of the conversation are Republicans who continue to insist that Reagan’s conservative stool somehow works just fine with only two legs.
Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul. The views presented in this essay are the author’s own and are independent of any campaign or other organization.