Daniel Larison

CUFI and “God’s Foreign Policy Statement”

Dave Weigel reports from the Christians United for Israel conference:

“I’ll bless those that bless you and I’ll curse those that curse you,” said Hagee, quoting from the book of Genesis. “That’s God’s foreign policy statement, and it has not changed.” [bold mine-DL]

I confess that I don’t really understand Hagee and his organization. Oh, I know what the organization wants and why it thinks its activism on these issues is important, but that’s not what I mean. I still don’t understand why any group of Christians in this country believes it is so important to agitate so vehemently on behalf of another state, nor do I understand how they reconcile this uncritical boosterism with the Gospel. If we were being frank, we would all readily admit that God doesn’t have a “foreign policy statement” as such and that the idea of such a thing is obviously so much self-serving nonsense. At the same time, as Christians we would also have to acknowledge that God doesn’t call us to make excuses for injustice or defend policies that inflict death and devastation on people made in His image. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is primarily what CUFI exists to do.

Christians in America are of course free to organize and support political causes of their choice, and some will favor a far more hawkish foreign policy than I think wise, but I have to admit that the zealous enthusiasm for another country and unflinching support for virtually every action taken by a foreign government don’t make any sense to me. There would never be a similar Christian group dedicated to boosting the relationship with any other government, nor should there be one. The simple reason for this is that it makes no sense for Christians to have such a strong attachment to any other country besides their own, especially when Christians are taught that they are sojourners in this world. The enthusiasm for the current state of Israel is at best a gross misinterpretation of Scripture, and at worst the substitution of a secular ideological agenda for Christian teaching.

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Substituting Storytelling for Foreign Policy

Peter Beinart flagged a telling quote from Hillary Clinton’s interview on the Daily Show last week:

What I found when I became secretary of state is that so many people in the world—especially young people—they had no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis, fighting the Cold War and winning, that was just ancient history. They didn’t know the sacrifices that we had made and the values that motivated us to do it. We have not been telling our story very well. We do have a great story. We are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back to telling it, to ourselves first and foremost, and believing it about ourselves and then taking that around the world.

Beinart commented incredulously:

As a vision for America’s relations with the world, this isn’t just unconvincing. It’s downright disturbing. It’s true that young people overseas don’t remember the Cold War. But even if they did, they still wouldn’t be inspired by America’s “great story about [promoting] human freedom, human rights, human opportunity.” That’s because in the developing world—where most of humanity lives—barely anyone believes that American foreign policy during the Cold War actually promoted those things. What they mostly remember is that in anticommunism’s name, from Pakistan to Guatemala to Iran to Congo, America funded dictators and fueled civil wars.

That’s a perfectly fair point, but Clinton’s error goes beyond feigning ignorance about what the U.S. did during the Cold War and how other nations view those actions. Her emphasis is entirely on rhetoric and messaging, as if other nations weren’t buying “our story” because we haven’t been telling it to them often enough or in the right way. This reminds me of the Bush administration’s dubious efforts to promote U.S. foreign policy by way of spin-doctoring by Karen Hughes. Leon Hadar wrote about the multiple failures of this venture back in 2005:

Indeed, as the famed marketing guru made clear in his workshop, “You can’t sell a soap that doesn’t wash.” Or to apply that overused cliché, “It’s the policy, stupid.” Sworn in early in September, Hughes became the latest top official charged with repairing a U.S. image abroad soured by the war in Iraq and complaints in Europe and the Middle East over Bush’s policies and leadership. In fact, she is the third person that President Bush has appointed to this position since 9/11—more proof that what the White House needs is not another Madison Avenue PR executive or K Street spinmeister. Hughes’s predecessors—Charlotte Beers, a successful advertising hand who helped produce a pathetic propaganda film targeted at Muslim audiences, and Margaret Tutwiler, Secretary of State James Baker’s impressive spokeswoman, were driven out of office not because they couldn’t get a handle on the mechanisms of public diplomacy as a way of fostering goodwill toward the United States and its culture and values.

The assumption behind those efforts and Clinton’s remarks is that the world just needs to hear “our story” told accurately, and their view of how the U.S. conducts itself around the world would quickly improve. There’s a vague belief that the U.S. needs to communicate with foreign publics, but there is absolutely no idea how to go about combating anti-American sentiment because there is such a poor understanding of the causes of that sentiment. Changing the substance of policies is never seriously considered, because there is little or no recognition that these policies need correction or reversal. This takes for granted that opposition to U.S. policies is mostly the product of misunderstanding or miscommunication rather than an expression of genuinely divergent interests and grievances. I don’t know that Clinton is naive or oblivious enough to believe this (I doubt it), but it’s instructive that she thinks this is a good argument to make publicly. She is more or less saying that there is nothing wrong with U.S. foreign policy that can’t be fixed by better marketing and salesmanship, and that’s just profoundly wrong. It’s also what we should expect from someone as conventionally hawkish and “centrist” on foreign policy as Clinton is.

Another curious omission in that quote is the complete neglect of the last twenty years of U.S. policies overseas. Clinton tells us what people in around the world think of as “ancient history,” but fails to mention the impression that more recent U.S. actions abroad have made on public opinion in other countries. If she had, she would have to acknowledge that U.S. activism around the world over the last two decades has produced much of the resentment and resistance against America that we see today, and that the things that people in many nations remember best about U.S. foreign policy from recent years reflects very poorly on us. That’s not because we haven’t been telling “our story” to anyone who will listen, but that U.S. policies have been causing harm in many parts of the world to the point where large numbers of people in many nations no longer care about or believe what our government has to say.

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The Ends Still Don’t Justify the Means

Yishai Schwartz makes a terrible argument in support of Israel’s military operation in Gaza:

There is, however, a way out of this paradox. And we find it at the moment we realize that Hamas’ actions have made this war about more than Israel or Palestine; it’s a war about future of morality in armed conflicts. For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack [bold mine-DL].

This is less straightforwardly awful than the op-ed I criticized last night, but it is nonetheless perverse. Schwartz is defending the use of indiscriminate force in a densely populated area by saying that it is necessary to do this to keep us from living in a world where indiscriminate force is used. It is taken for granted that “the moral” should be protected from indiscriminate violence, whereas the population that is now under attack from “the moral” evidently should not. Schwartz makes it seem as if Israel’s government has no choice in any of this, but it does. Terror groups will always try to twist morality to their own ends, which is why they are so despicable, but the answer to this is not to mimic them by carrying out attacks that can’t be justified. Consider this example, and ask yourself if you find this morally defensible:

When the strike leveled a four-story house in the southern Gaza Strip the night before, it also killed 25 members of four family households — including 19 children — gathered to break the daily Ramadan fast together. Relatives said it also killed a guest of the family, identified by an Israeli human rights group as a member of the Hamas military wing, ostensibly Israel’s target.

One could hardly ask for a more clear example of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force in this operation than this.

In general, whenever someone tries to elevate a local conflict into something grand and important to the entire world, that person is usually trying to change the subject and mislead his audience into supporting his preferred side in that conflict. If the operation in Gaza is seen as serving a nobler, higher end, that is somehow supposed to mitigate its obvious futility, stupidity, and injustice. The essence of the argument is this: “We have to be prepared to kill these civilians for the sake of future civilians.” If we just pretend that the conflict is a struggle for high-minded principles, that is supposed to make us more comfortable with actions that trample on those same principles and on the dignity of other human beings. One cannot defend “a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory” by repeatedly violating that morality. Not only do these tactics make a mockery of the justification being offered for them, but this is ultimately the most immoral of arguments that the ends justify the means.

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Non-Combatants and Gaza

Thane Rosenbaum unintentionally endorses the logic of every terrorist group in history:

On some basic level, you forfeit your right to be called civilians when you freely elect members of a terrorist organization as statesmen, invite them to dinner with blood on their hands and allow them to set up shop in your living room as their base of operations. At that point you begin to look a lot more like conscripted soldiers than innocent civilians. And you have wittingly made yourself targets.

This is perverse and absolutely wrong, but it’s the sort of argument that one will end up making in order to defend a military operation that has already killed hundreds of non-combatants. Civilian deaths reportedly make up the overwhelming majority of Palestinian casualties in Gaza over the last few weeks, and these have resulted from the indiscriminate use of force in a densely populated area. More to the point, Rosenbaum’s argument is extremely similar to the justifications that terrorist groups use when they target civilians in their own attacks. It is based on the completely false assumption that there are no real innocents or bystanders in a given country because of their previous political support for a government and its policies, which supposedly makes it permissible to strike non-military targets. It is very important to reject this logic no matter where it comes from or whose cause in a conflict it is being used to advance, because this is the logic that has been used to justify countless atrocities down through the years.

Rosenbaum muddies the waters a bit by talking about civilians when he is really talking about non-combatants. Non-combatant status can be forfeited only by becoming a combatant, and that doesn’t happen by having voted for the current rulers or simply by living under their rule. Forfeiting non-combatant status requires taking up arms or directly lending aid to those that are fighting, and that doesn’t appear to apply to the civilian victims killed during the current operation at all. It may please Hamas to make use of these victims’ deaths for their own purposes, but that doesn’t absolve the Israeli government of its responsibility for causing those deaths. If Hamas benefits politically from these civilian deaths, and it seems likely that they do, it would seem obvious that Israel should not want to cause any more, and yet at each step over the last few weeks Israel’s government has responded with tactics that are guaranteed to continue killing many more non-combatants for as long as this operation continues.

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Grassroots Republicans and Foreign Policy Reform

Jim Antle considers the prospects for Republican foreign policy reform. He writes that hawkish arguments still have greater emotional appeal with rank-and-file Republicans:

But it is equally true that even today the arguments marshaled by reflexive hawks hit the right emotional buttons for the Republican grassroots in a way that more dovish conservatives’ appeals for caution, prudence, and restraint frequently do not.

Based on what I’ve seen, that depends heavily on what the issue under debate happens to be. Proposed interventions and other policies that have little or nothing directly to do with U.S. security understandably leave grassroots Republicans cold. The fact that their policy and political elites are constantly trying to sell them on new conflicts to join and new international causes for the U.S. to take up may be gradually having the unintended effect of making Republicans sick of hearing about the need to “do something” in response to virtually every crisis around the world. Far from hitting the right emotional buttons, hawkish arguments may now be grating on the nerves of a very large number of Republicans.

When intervention in Syria was being debated last year, like most other Americans most Republicans were remarkably immune to the arguments that the U.S. had to take military action for the sake of our “credibility.” Invoking “credibility” is one of the most common hawkish rhetorical moves, but most Republicans evidently found it a very poor justification for resorting to the use of force. Even taking the inevitable partisan reasons for opposition into account, Republican opposition to attacking Syria was impressively high. Republican aversion to deeper involvement in Ukraine was almost as great as that of other Americans. If some Republicans still respond favorably to boilerplate hawkish claims, just as many now seem to be rejecting them.

There is also broader skepticism among many conservatives and other right-leaning Americans that the U.S. has the ability to remedy international problems, which should make them very receptive to the case for restraint. Except among so-called “business conservatives,” there would seem to be little confidence that U.S. involvement overseas is beneficial. I would assume that there is likewise little support among conservatives for the conviction that the world’s problems are made worse by an absence of U.S. “leadership.” In fact, socially conservative populist Republicans are more likely to believe that U.S. involvement makes international problems worse:

Majorities in Three Groups Say U.S. Global Efforts Make Problems Worse

Except when it concerns direct security threats to the U.S., rank-and-file Republicans are not really all that receptive to knee-jerk hawkish demands for greater U.S. involvement overseas, and in that respect they are not all that different from the rest of the country. That suggests that there is less of a need for non-interventionists and conservative realists to pander to an imagined hawkish audience and a much greater need to articulate a coherent alternative to the alarmism and threat inflation that so often pass for foreign policy arguments on the right.

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How the U.S. Keeps Enabling Reckless Clients

Shashank Joshi criticizes the slow U.S. response to the conflict in Gaza:

Eleven days ago, discussing the paucity of possible mediators, I warned that “unless someone steps up, Israel and Hamas could find themselves hurtling into a wider war that neither truly wants”. This is precisely what has happened. Those with leverage over the combatants [bold mine-DL] have shown themselves to be every bit as useless as I feared.

Although US President Barack Obama has called for an “immediate ceasefire”, and US Secretary of State John Kerry was caught on tape sarcastically criticising Israel (“It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. We’ve got to get over there. I think we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around”), Washington has been unpardonably slow to act. There is no sign that the White House did anything to caution Israel against escalation, and only today – Monday – has Kerry travelled to Cairo.

Joshi makes many fair points here, but there is unfortunately nothing surprising or unusual in Washington’s tardiness in half-heartedly trying to restrain its client. U.S. politicians make ritual declarations of support for Israel’s “right to defend itself,” which is expanded as needed to apply to whatever Israel happens to be doing, and then some of them later call for restraint after the client escalates the conflict with their blessing. The calls are usually too late to do any good, and they are always ignored anyway because the client government knows that it won’t suffer any consequences for paying no attention to them. Despite being complicit in what Israel does during its military operations, the U.S. tries to create the impression that it is not fully endorsing Israeli actions. Washington does this for the benefit of the international audience, but I don’t think very many people outside the U.S. are buying it. This leads to an odd arrangement of giving the client a blank check on the one hand and feigning shock at the client’s excess on the other.

He refers to the leverage that the U.S. has over Israel, but he and everyone else knows perfectly well that the U.S. won’t use whatever leverage it has to get Israel to halt its current operation (or to do anything else). U.S. clients know they can behave however they wish, and U.S. aid will continue to flow because enough people in the U.S. have convinced themselves that we cannot afford to “lose” these clients. We saw something similar in the wake of the coup in Egypt: the U.S. was never willing to cut off aid to Egypt or seriously penalize its military for what it had done for fear of “losing” Egypt, so any leverage the U.S. might have thought it had was useless. Washington didn’t want to risk losing its limited influence, and in the end had none at all. Likewise, everyone involved knows that the U.S. will never cut off its aid to Israel or firmly oppose its actions even when Washington may consider them to be foolish, because the administration and members of Congress are much more anxious to demonstrate their support for Israel than they are interested in putting conditions on that support. The U.S. doesn’t really have any leverage over its clients because there is absolutely no desire in Washington to use the aid it provides to make the clients change their behavior. The U.S. enables the reckless behavior of clients with its unconditional support, and its clients will keep behaving recklessly for as long as they can do so with impunity.

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The MH17 Disaster

Last Thursday’s downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was an inexcusable crime. It fully deserves to be condemned, as the U.S. and other governments have already done, and there seems little doubt as to who the responsible parties are. Available evidence tells us that rebels opposed to the Ukrainian government and supported by Russia shot down the plane, and they did so with weapons that they would almost certainly not have had if Russia were not providing them with arms and support. Russia appears to bear significant responsibility for what has happened in two ways: by encouraging rebellion inside Ukraine, and by providing rebels with advanced weapons and assistance. The downing of the plane was presumably unintentional, since neither the rebels nor Moscow could be so stupid as to have done this knowingly, but that doesn’t change the fact that this horrific mistake killed almost 300 civilians who had absolutely nothing to do with the conflict below them. The Ukrainian authorities shouldn’t have been letting the plane fly there, but that hardly absolves the killers of their guilt.

It would be much wiser for Moscow to denounce the act and accept some responsibility for helping to create the conditions that led to this disaster, but it appears that the Kremlin would prefer to make lame attempts to shift the blame onto others. It would also be wise for Moscow to take this opportunity to withdraw or at least significantly reduce its support for rebels inside Ukraine, but I wouldn’t expect this to happen, either. It would be ideal if the disaster served as a catalyst to bring the war to an end, but that seems least likely of all.

Fortunately, it also isn’t going to serve as the spark for a larger conflict, because no one’s interests are served by escalation. The arguments against supplying U.S. arms to Ukrainian forces remain just as persuasive as they were several months ago and may even be a bit stronger now. If there is one thing that can be learned from this awful slaughter, it is that providing weapons to proxies can have dangerous and unexpected consequences, and it makes the patron complicit in whatever the proxies then choose to do with the weapons they receive. On top of that, providing arms doesn’t necessarily mean that the patron has the ability to control the proxies, which can drag the patron deeper into a conflict that it might prefer to avoid.

As Joshua Keating argued last week, in spite of all the claims that the destruction of MH17 will be a “game-changer,” it will probably change very little:

When the story eventually falls out of the headlines—and it certainly already has competition—the conflict will likely remain. I should note that while all the examples of passenger planes being shot down mentioned in my last post raised global tensions, none of them actually led to a war, or ended one.

The U.S. shouldn’t rush to take any action, and it should coordinate its response with its allies in Europe, especially the Dutch, since they have suffered the greatest loss and have the most at stake in this case. Russia should be called on to make a formal apology for the downing of the plane, and it should be expected to make restitution to the families and the countries of the victims. Slapping more sanctions on Russia will be as useless as ever, and pushing for additional sanctions is more likely to fracture whatever unity the U.S. and its European allies have in the wake of the disaster. There will understandably be a strong temptation to take some “tough” but foolish action now, but this is exactly the sort of outrage that requires a calm and cautious response so that it does not become the cause of even more bloodshed and conflict.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

The war for the “Greater Middle East.” Andrew Bacevich summarizes the reasons for America’s entanglements in the affairs of the region over the last thirty years.

Oakeshott’s idealism. John Gray reviews Michael Oakeshott’s notebooks.

Iraq and longing for Vietnam. Gregory Daddis explains why hawkish Iraq revisionists want to liken the current situation in Iraq to the end of the war in Vietnam.

Britain’s Cabinet reshuffle as it happened. The Spectator reports on Cameron’s major changes to his government.

Reform conservatism’s blind spot. Justin Logan explains why reforming Republican foreign policy has to be part of the agenda.

Rick Perry’s nine sins. Sean Kay and Ryan Evans list the many errors in the Texas governor’s recent op-ed.

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Israel and Partisanship

Pew finds an increasingly large partisan gap in sympathy for Israel:

Mideast sympathies topline party break

I have long thought that the framing of this question is guaranteed to give a misleading result, since it asks respondents which side in the conflict they sympathize with more. Respondents are rarely asked whether they think the U.S. should be actively backing one side or the other. When they are asked this, Americans overwhelmingly favor neutrality, and this is obviously not the position that the U.S. takes in the conflict. The sympathy question greatly overstates the degree of American support for Israel.

Considering how uniformly and uncritically “pro-Israel” our politicians tend to be, it is remarkable that only 51% say that they sympathize more with Israel in the conflict. If popular support for Israel were as great and widespread as is commonly claimed, one would expect it to be much higher. The partisan gap is interesting in that it comes entirely from a huge increase in Republicans’ sympathy for Israel over the last twenty years or so. Sympathy among independents and Democrats is identical to what it was in 1978, but among Republicans it has shot up twenty-four points in the same period.

The influx of evangelicals into the Republican coalition may account for some of that, but it can’t explain all of it. This large increase is almost certainly driven in large part by the relentlessly positive coverage given to Israel in conservative media and the near-total “pro-Israel” uniformity among conservative pundits. Not only have Republicans been constantly propagandized on this subject in one direction, but being “pro-Israel” in a particularly hawkish way has become for all intents and purposes an important litmus test for being a “good” Republican in the eyes of party elites. For the most part, rank-and-file Republicans go along with this, or at least do not strongly object to it. I suspect that this isn’t because most of them have a particularly strong attachment to or enthusiasm for Israel, but because this is something that party leaders and pundits say that Republicans are supposed to believe.

If we look at all non-Republican political groups, we find that sympathy for Israel is not a majority view with any of them:

Mideast sympathies race age education ideo religion

The partisan gap is also a generational one. Older respondents are much more likely than younger ones to sympathize with Israelis. To some extent, that is a measure of how much less conservative and Republican most younger Americans are, but it is telling that the Americans that have come of age over the last thirty years are much less likely to be sympathetic. For Americans under 50, the Israel that they have seen on the news is the one that invaded and occupied Lebanon, consistently expanded its occupation of Palestinian territories, bombed Lebanon and Gaza more recently, and openly talks about doing the same to Iran. Younger generations of Americans see fewer reasons to sympathize with Israel than their parents and grandparents do, and Israeli governments are giving them more reasons not to, and that suggests that American sympathy for Israel is going to keep dropping in the years to come while Republicans will be increasingly identified–to their gradual political detriment–as the “pro-Israel” hawkish party.

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Reform Conservatives and Foreign Policy (II)

Ross Douthat responds to criticisms that reform conservatives are omitting foreign policy from their agenda:

I suppose I must fall under the “exceptions” Larison cites, but I’m uncertain who’s establishing the rule. There’s my co-author Reihan Salam (though his self-proclaimed neoconservatism is highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly), and a few others with more hawkish views in the reformocon tent … but mostly it seems that my friends are being judged primarily on their associations (working at the American Enterprise Institute, publishing in the Weekly Standard) and friendships rather than on anything remotely resembling a hawkish movement line.

Is this judgment fair? Well, no in one sense, maybe in another. No, because internal conservative debates are generally in a pretty unsettled place right now, the wider debate over foreign policy is equally unsettled, and I don’t see any necessary reason why people focused on rebuilding a coherent conservative domestic policy must simultaneously choose sides on national security at a time when it isn’t always clear what the stakes are or even what the “sides” are.

Douthat is right that it isn’t entirely fair to expect people that focus almost all of their attention on other issues to take clear positions on contemporary foreign policy questions. It isn’t all that productive to complain that people that specialize in one area of policy haven’t spent much time working in or writing about another. That said, I still think that reform conservatives would benefit from taking more of an interest in distinguishing themselves on foreign policy, and that could have a salutary effect on Republican foreign policy and on the broader foreign policy debate.

Reform conservatives have a few reasons why they should want to take a more active interest in foreign policy. First, it is in their interest to put as much distance between themselves and the Bush legacy on foreign policy, especially because they are generally more closely associated with Bush’s domestic policy agenda than anyone else on the right. Second, they should know better than anyone just how ruinous the Iraq debacle was for the political fortunes of the GOP, and that has also made their task far more difficult than it would have normally been. Avoiding similar foreign policy blunders in a future Republican administration should be a relatively high priority for those that want to have the opportunity to pursue a domestic reform agenda. That will require challenging the party’s worst instincts on foreign policy with a reasonably coherent alternative, and that will mean taking sides in at least some current debates.

Many conservatives complain that they aren’t represented by neoconservatives or non-interventionists, and they are looking for someone to represent their foreign policy views. That could be the role for at least some reform conservatives. Or they can make the same mistake that they made in the last decade and leave foreign policy to the same people that drove the U.S. into a ditch.

One reason that the omission of foreign policy from the reform agenda seems so notable is that foreign policy is one of the largest, most glaring policy weaknesses that the GOP has. In addition to being responsible for the costly policy failures of the previous administration, Bush-era foreign policy has been politically toxic for Republicans in three of the last four national elections. There is good reason to assume that it will continue to be an important liability in future presidential elections unless the party makes a clear break with at least some of its Bush-era assumptions and positions, and for the most part that isn’t happening at all. Until that happens, everyone outside the party will reasonably assume that the GOP hasn’t changed, that it has learned nothing, and that it still shouldn’t be trusted with the responsibility to conduct foreign policy. It seems unlikely that a domestic reform agenda will even get off the ground as long as the public doesn’t trust a Republican president to carry out some of his most important primary responsibilities.

Douthat acknowledges the importance of restoring that trust:

It’s that trust that was forfeited by some of the Bush administration’s follies, and that needs to be recovered if the G.O.P. is to deserve anybody’s vote. But because it’s a trust, ultimately, in competence and caution, it’s a bit hard to say exactly what this kind of “new realism” or “realist internationalism” or “chastened idealism” (or whatever phrase you prefer) would look like case by case….

If it is hard to say what it would look like in each case, it might be useful to begin by reviewing the “follies” mentioned here and identifying the assumptions and unrealistic goals that produced them and then throwing out assumptions that have been shown to be unfounded or misleading. The next step would be to consider what the U.S. should do in one specific, high-profile case (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program), and then build from there. Obviously, reform conservatives don’t have to do any of this, but to the extent that they stay silent on these questions they make it a little easier for hard-liners to dictate the party’s foreign policy agenda to the detriment of all of us.

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