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The Conservative Foreign Policy Alternative to Obama

Jennifer Rubin’s idea of a conservative alternative to Obama’s foreign policy is predictably not very compelling:

Certainly there must be a middle ground between unbridled intervention and neo-isolationism. Finding a conservative middle ground that incorporates the lessons of the past decade should be the work of elected Republicans, former officials and think-tank gurus. They must present a foreign policy that maintains (or restores, when Obama leaves) American supremacy in the world and is also politically sustainable.

Since neo-isolationism doesn’t really exist and even Rubin wouldn’t claim to favor “unbridled intervention,” we can be confident that the “middle ground” Rubin refers to here is not a compromise between her hard-line, aggressive foreign policy and a foreign policy characterized by restraint and respect for the limits of American power. By setting up two extremes that virtually no one favors, Rubin is resorting to the time-honored tactic of presenting her own position as the “middle ground” that will satisfy most conservatives and Republicans. The last several elections suggest that a hard-line approach to the U.S. role in the world isn’t popular with the public at large, and it is becoming less so among Republicans as well.

It should come as no surprise that Rubin makes no effort to incorporate the “lessons of the past decade,” and the only lessons from the recent past that she seems interested in studying happen to be false or wildly misleading. Has Obama conducted “the foreign policy many on the left had pined for over the years”? No, of course he hasn’t, which is why there is discontent with Obama on the left on these issues. It’s impossible for conservatives to craft a credible foreign policy alternative if they endorse the claim that Obama has been “the most left-leaning commander in chief in our history.” This is not only false, but it also shuts conservatives off from the most promising opportunities for criticizing Obama’s record. At some point, conservatives and Republicans have to decide whether they want their criticisms of Obama’s policies to make sense or if they want those criticisms to hit the right ideological and partisan notes.

The surveillance, detention, and targeted killing excesses of the national security state under both Bush and Obama are an ideal target for conservative criticism, but this has been hindered in large part by the acquiescence of most conservatives to these excesses when their party was in power. Conservatives should be clamoring for open and public debate on current Syria policy, which the administration has been trying to keep out of the public eye by going through Congressional intelligence committees. The public overwhelmingly rejects Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition, but judging from most criticism of Syria policy from the right one would think that Obama’s failure is that he hasn’t been aggressive and meddlesome enough. On one issue after the next, many conservatives make alarmist arguments about threats that don’t exist or that can be successfully managed, and for some reason they feel compelled to exaggerate the hostility and capabilities of other governments. Most Republicans suffer from the same problem that afflicted Romney during the campaign. They are so concerned to present Obama as the “weak” liberal that they force themselves into arguing for even more hawkish and confrontational policies that most Americans don’t want and won’t support, and they have wedded themselves to the idea of “American supremacy” to such a degree that they feel compelled to defend every overseas commitment, no matter how costly, imprudent, or unnecessary to U.S. security it happens to be.

A conservative alternative to Obama’s foreign policy wouldn’t automatically support all or even most U.S. overseas commitments, but would reduce those commitments when regional allies and rising powers have the resources to assume responsibilities for security in their own parts of the world. It wouldn’t treat “American supremacy” as an end in itself, and it would recognize that America’s post-WWII and post-Cold War roles were exceptional ones that needn’t and shouldn’t be emulated forever. Unless a treaty ally is attacked, a conservative foreign policy wouldn’t allow the U.S. to be pulled into conflicts where the country’s security wasn’t at stake for the sake of preserving “credibility” or supposed allied solidarity. It also would oppose waging wars of choice. Neither would it reject all security alliances, but it would judge them on a case-by-case basis. A conservative foreign policy wouldn’t encourage other states to become so dependent on U.S. backing that they become liabilities, and it wouldn’t maintain alliances and client relationships that aren’t necessary for protecting U.S. security. Likewise, maintaining the U.S. military budget at current or higher levels can’t be justified by the present threats in the world, and conservatives should be among the first to advocate for making the necessary reductions and reforms to military spending to return it at least to something much closer to pre-9/11 levels.

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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