Jacob Heilbrunn

Danielle Pletka's Provocative Summons on Republican Foreign Policy

Where should the Republican party head on foreign policy? Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute has a new essay called "Who Are We Again?" on the Foreign Policy web site, suggesting that the GOP is in the throes of a debate between neocons and realists. It's a stimulating and provocative piece.

Pletka says that she never thought the battle between the neocons and realists would be joined so quickly. The proximate cause, as she points out, is Syria, where President Obama is trying to muddle his way through, with his critics arguing that the muddling is precisely what is making a bad situation worse, a point that both the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial pages—but not the New York Times—agree upon. Has President Obama's refusal to engage in Syria, in fact, made it more likely that he will end up engaging militarily? She also acknowledges that in some areas defense spending could be safely cut. And she notes that realist tenets can themselves become shibboleths about building at home rather than abroad, and so forth. Any credo can, of course, degenerate into a doctrine.

But her basic point is this:

we are in the throes of a minor revolution in national security policy which has ranged the Obama Left with the Libertarian Right, spawning -- forgive the imagery -- an isolationist Frankenstein monster. Chin-stroking denizens of op-ed pages and journals that preoccupy themselves with foreign policy -- this one included -- are clamoring to align themselves with oracular philosophers of op-ed pages past (Walter LippmannD.W. Brogan? Who knew?), seeking a veneer of antiquity authority for their musings about the wisdom of staying home and resting.

A few weeks ago I wrote a review in the Daily Beast, which Pletka cites, of Richard Haass' new book Foreign Policy Begins At Home, a succinct and calm appeal for America to repair itself before it embarks upon repairing the rest of the world. I started the review by quoting the British political scientist D.W. Brogan's famous essay in 1953 in Harper's—well-worth reading today, I think—about the illusion of American omnipotence. Brogan's basic point was that Americans, particularly on the right, tend to think that conspiracies are involved when Washington encounters setbacks abroad. He was pointing specifically to the Soviet Union and China and McCarthyism—the idea that there had been a sell-out, that Alger Hiss had singlehandedly subverted America at Yalta (when he was, in fact, a minor State Department official). Americans, Brogan suggested, needed to abandon the idea that they can alter the world at their whim.

Whether this amounts to isolationism, however, is a different story. Brogan was trying to get Americans to abandon the devil theory of foreign policy and take a more sober look at foreign afffairs. And isn't there a line between choosing carefully when to intervene and when to remain aloof that doesn't have to constitute isolationism? It's too elastic a term to be intellectually profitable. One of the interesting things, incidentally, about the pre–World War II isolationists in the GOP, moreover, is that the term may be something of a misnomer. Many on the right actually admired the Nazis in the 1930s and thought that they would be a useful instrument to help battle the Soviet Union.

Though there may be some on the contemporary right who would embrace isolationism—Ron Paul, for example—it is not even clear that Rand Paul would go that far since it would constitute electoral suicide, at least when it comes to running for the presidency. Pletka may also be overly impressed by the power of the realists that she detects—George F. Will and a few Senators do not yet constitute a burgeoning movement. But there can be no doubting that realism does have an opening and that the GOP is far more receptive to returning to its older tenets than was the case even a year ago.

You could even interpret Pletka's essay as an indice of the apprehensions among neocons about growing realist influence. But there's more to it than that. If anything, it sounds like she is calling for something of a cease-fire in the wars between the realists and neocons. The most interesting conundrum raised by Pletka is where to define America's limits in a country where limitless possibilities have always beckoned even as the world beyond turns out to be more tenebrous than the champions of democracy promotion envisioned. So where Pletka is dead-on is in her challenge to realists to define what America should, in fact, do. She writes, "Fighting about what we don't want to do is an exercise in futility. What is America? What do you want it to be? Answer me that."

Anyone who thinks it's easy to answer doesn't have a persuasive one.