“You’re either with us or against us” was a popular Bush-era phrase, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Once meant to describe whether countries were aligned with the United States in the war on terror, the hawks’ lexicon has since been updated: you’re either with them on most important foreign-policy questions or you don’t care about national security at all.
If that seems like an exaggeration, witness the reaction to Rand Paul’s proposed military response to ISIS. Depending on the specific pundit’s point of view, Paul was viewed as flip-flopping or joining forces with the country’s most hawkish foreign-policy voices.
Whatever the merits of Paul’s plan for confronting ISIS, it should seem plain that we are not limited to choosing between neoconservatives and liberal hawks on the one hand and virtual pacifism on the other. Skepticism about the use of force in Iraq, whether in 2003 or today, doesn’t require ruling out military force everywhere under every conceivable circumstance.
That there is a lot of space between these two extremes may seem obvious, but too many foreign-policy debates proceed on the basis of this false dichotomy. It’s certainly implicit in much of the criticism of Paul—he’s permitted to believe either that ISIS is a threat requiring a military response or that our recent military interventions in the region were counterproductive; he cannot believe both.
This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”
Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”
This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.
Sometimes there is genuine misunderstanding about what kind of foreign policy not wanting to wage war in Iraq or preferring alternatives to bombing in dealing with the Iranian nuclear question actually commits us to. But many hawks have a vested interest in making the options as simplistic as possible: it makes their own foreign-policy views seem less extreme.
Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere. Likewise, realists—who provided the center of gravity for the GOP’s foreign-policy thought from Eisenhower’s time until George H.W. Bush’s—must nowadays be presented as amoral or cruel, indifferent to the suffering of oppressed peoples and soft on the dictators who oppress them.
Libertarians, antiwar conservatives, and realists are certainly not perfect. But they were right about many things in Iraq—the scope of Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, the extent of his ability to be an extraterritorial menace, the fragility of postwar Iraqi unity—which their hawkish detractors clearly got wrong. Some of these same hawks then repeated these mistakes in Libya. Yet they are generally not chastened by these errors when giving advice about future conflicts.
A great many Republicans of all camps know that their party was gravely damaged by the fiasco in Iraq. By now we should have seen the limits of apocalyptic thinking about the Middle East. We might also have learned that bad things in that region can always get worse, even when the United States acts. There are difficult real-world problems here, and many conservative virtues—prudence, skepticism about projects that smack of central planning, an appreciation of history and tradition—can be applied to the search for solutions.
But the only likely Republican presidential contender who has broadened his circles beyond the people who were wrong about Iraq to include some who were right is the much-maligned Rand Paul. Libertarian by background and conservative by temperament, he has reached out to realists while also retaining more hawkish advisers like Trygve Olson.
Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and the rest of the top-tier prospects don’t boast such a diverse circle. And some GOP hawks don’t want them even to have the option—thus the campaigns to read even such mild realists as James Baker, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, and Jon Huntsman out of the Republican mainstream. Reading hawkish descriptions of Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy team, you would think that Robert Zoellick was Robert Taft.
Just because the excluded voices got important things right about Iraq doesn’t mean they will always be correct. But it would behoove a party that wishes to govern at least to listen to contrary voices and cast a wide net. Instead, too many hawks avoid debate by caricaturing everyone who disagrees with them. This is bad for the Republican Party and bad for the country.
It’s true that some relative doves on the right also oversimplify important distinctions. They too speak as if the only alternatives are full-blown neoconservatism or the strictest forms of noninterventionism. What these conservatives and libertarians must recognize that this is the political equivalent of the unwinnable wars they counsel against—and for that reason it’s precisely the war their ideological opponents want them to fight.
At a time when the country needs all the creative leadership and robust debate it can get, Republicans are at risk of retreating into an echo chamber, one that reflects a narrower range of opinion than that of the foreign-policy hands who advised Reagan and the elder George Bush.
It’s the one closed shop some conservatives support. It’s time to open it up.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?