Senator Tom Cotton is often called a foreign policy “hawk,” not least because he is eager to intervene in Iran. Cotton, the Republican from Arkansas who has at times been rumored to be in line for the position of CIA director, recently confirmed his stance on Tehran, telling radio host Hugh Hewitt: “Whether [Donald Trump] renews the sanctions waivers under the nuclear deal or not, the president should certainly impose new sanctions in the other authorities he has as punishment for what the regime has done during these protests over the last couple of weeks.” If that sounds relatively mild, a year ago, he was much more candid: “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran…I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.”
While Cotton wonders about American safety, it might be more prudent to ask about the potential dangers of his strategy. What imminent threats to the lives or liberties of the American people, if any, are currently posed by Iran? After long and largely fruitless military struggles in the region, what has been gained? What could be gained with this new theater of operations? What might be lost?
These are serious questions that deserve serious reflection, in accordance with the restrained foreign policy Americans appear to want in 2018. In recent months, Democrats and Republicans alike, both inside and outside Congress, have echoed some of President Trump’s campaign trail themes: there is too much war (without victory), too much nation building abroad (and crushing debt), and too little focus on problems at home. Far from a new American foreign policy, the one suggested by these sentiments is pretty old. Depending on who you ask, it is as old as the Declaration of Independence itself.
Indeed, Americans have long believed that the document that enabled our separation from England held a similar promise of liberty for other peoples. This precise issue came to a head in the early 1800s when a young congressman from Kentucky took the time to articulate just what the Declaration demanded of the United States on the world stage.
Thirty-four-year-old Henry Clay was elected speaker of the House on his first day in office in 1811 as a “War Hawk,” agitating for open fighting with Britain if London did not fully recognize and honor American independence. A few years later, when several colonies in South America began demanding their independence from Spain, Clay and others saw an opportunity to push back against the “old world” and establish a protective hedge against any spillover from European wars. But more than that, Clay saw something familiar in the movements towards independence: “I maintain that an oppressed people are authorized, whenever they can, to rise and to break their fetters. This was the great principle of the English Revolution. It was the great principle of our own.”
So far, Clay’s principles seem to support Cotton’s calls for regime change in Iran. Though Cotton has yet to frame the struggle in the terms of the Declaration, his rhetoric lately centers on “support” for the Iranian people. Upon further examination, however, it’s clear that Clay and this older understanding of the Declaration might not satisfy Cotton and his ilk.
Far more helpful to Cotton would be the more abstract and militant understanding of the universal rights of man articulated in the French Revolution of 1789, when a flawed conception of the nature of universality led that society to break customary restraints, disdain moderation, and erode the rule of law. Clay seems to have been aware of this dangerous possibility in the universalistic words of the Declaration, which is why he made it clear that, in advocating a foreign policy based on that document, “I am no propagandist. I would not seek to force upon other nations our principles and our liberty, if they did not want them. I would not disturb the repose even of a detestable despotism.”
Contrast this with Cotton’s statement that no one is safe while Iran exists as it does. Later, bringing the words of the Declaration explicitly to bear, Clay mentioned a vision he had of a South American fighting for freedom and obtaining in that struggle the “rank which nature, and nature’s God, intended for him.”
For Clay, this stance was not, of course, all about benevolence, with no gain for U.S. interests. He was convinced that American ideals were fully compatible with his own concerns for “our politics, our commerce, our navigation.” But to him, it was fundamentally outside the purview of a country animated by the Declaration to decide political questions for another one. The nature of the new South American governments was:
a question for themselves…. Anxious as I am that they should be free governments, we have no right to prescribe for them. They are, and ought to be, the sole judges for themselves…. Our own Revolution stands on the basis of the right of a people to change their rulers. I do not maintain that every immature revolution, every usurper, before his power is consolidated is to be acknowledged by us; but that as soon as stability and order are maintained, no matter by whom, we always have considered, and ought to consider, the actual as the true government. General Washington, Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Madison, all, while they were respectively presidents, acted on these principles.
Neither Washington, Jefferson, Madison, nor Clay were pacifists or isolationists. And none was an unprincipled realist, if there is such a thing. They balanced American interests and American principles—and this balance resulted in a foreign policy of principled restraint that can be traced to a main touchstone of the American political tradition, the Declaration of Independence.
What would a potential CIA director Cotton say to this? He would say the world today is too dangerous a place for this sort of talk, this sort of policy, this sort of principle. He would say the threats today so far outstrip those of the 18th and 19th centuries that their examples cannot possibly apply. But if that’s true, it is worth pondering whether this change in the nature of the threat has fully demanded a revision of our own picture as to who we are as Americans. If the world is too dangerous to adhere to a foreign policy of respect for the freedom of other peoples, we ought to wonder whether we any longer possess due respect for our own tradition of liberty and free government, both abroad and closer to home. We ought to wonder, in short, whether the world has become far too dangerous to be an American.
Justin Litke is assistant professor of government and political philosophy and director of the St. Thomas More Program on Statesmanship at Belmont Abbey College. He is the author of Twilight of the Republic: Empire and Exceptionalism in the American Political Tradition.