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Republicans and Policing the World

Bret Stephens identifies what he thinks George W. Bush did wrong on foreign policy:

Instead of being the world’s cop, we attempted to be the world’s priest.

If this is how he thinks of the Bush record of preventive warfare and torture, Stephens must be acquainted with some very odd priests. The gist of his argument is that Bush wasted time and resources on democracy promotion and nation-building distractions when he should have been committing the U.S. to the role of enforcer. This is what neoconservatism looks like when it dispenses with its (frequently shallow) pretenses to idealism: an appeal to pure power projection and a demand for unending American meddling all over the world in the name of “order.” It doesn’t seem to matter that the interventions of the “cop” often produce more disorder, violence, and instability than they stop. Stephens takes for granted that policing the world is what the U.S. is supposed to do, and so anything that gets in the way of policing the world has to go. He faults Bush for his “idealistic excess,” but Bush’s true failing was that he seemed to believe that idealistic ends justified horrible, immoral, and illegal means. Bush wasn’t too idealistic–he used idealistic rhetoric while pursuing destructive and cruel policies.

Stephens calls this “relearning Republican foreign policy,” but this wasn’t always how Republicans thought about the U.S. role in the world, and it doesn’t have to be the way they think about it in the future. As Walter McDougall reminds us in a recent essay, it was the Republican Benjamin Harrison who said, “We Americans have no commission from God to police the world.” Not only do we have no commission to do this, but it has become painfully clear over the last two decades that we have no idea how to do this. We definitely don’t know how to do it in a way that doesn’t inflict enormous suffering and destruction on other nations. The U.S. is not obliged to be “the world’s cop,” and it couldn’t do the job even if it were. Most Americans have no interest in such a U.S. role in the world, and our government has proven time after time that it isn’t any good at it. It’s long past time that Republicans in particular came to understand that the proper role of the U.S. government is not to police the entire planet.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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