A Conservative Continuum

A Conservative Continuum

Mini Teaser: The sharp divides within the conservative movement are more imagined than real. Any conservative—whether "paleo" or "neo"— would object to a foreign policy bereft of values.

by Author(s): David Keene

But Ronald Reagan was not, to use a term his adversaries liked to toss around, a warmonger. He was idealistic, intractable and optimistic, but he knew where to draw the line. He resorted to military force far less often than many of those who came before him or who have since occupied the Oval Office. He believed, like the Founders, that in the end ideas are more powerful than guns and bombs, and while the United States must be strong enough to resist any enemy and defeat aggression, we should resist the temptation to use our power aggressively.

What's more, he harbored few illusions about the world beyond our shores or our ability to remake it in our own image. He encouraged those fighting our enemies, but wasn't about to send U.S. forces to places like Angola, Poland, Afghanistan or Nicaragua to assist them. He knew that freedom must be won by those who want it and that democracy can't be force-fed to nations and people who neither understand it nor are prepared to exercise it.

Those who see an extension of Ronald Reagan's policies in the willingness to use American power to create a world in our own image are imagining things. His sympathy for those seeking freedom and his willingness to help them was tempered by his realization that there are things we can and cannot do, as well as things that we should and should not do.

The Reagan Doctrine was not a license for adventurism, but a doctrine based on a cautious idealism that forced policymakers to consider the legitimacy of international action and the potential costs of committing U.S. blood and treasure.

In her posthumously published book Making War to Keep Peace, Jeane Kirkpatrick summarizes the guidance the doctrine provided policymakers. "It did not address the question of U.S. military involvement or involvement of U.S. forces in any particular contest", she wrote, recognizing that reasonable men and women could differ even while accepting the same general framework. She continued, "Policy under the Reagan Doctrine was established by prudential determination of the national interest in particular context [emphasis in the original]."

Kirkpatrick also suggests that under Reagan, even when the mere fact was that U.S. involvement might be morally or even legally justifiable, there were times when holding back was the wiser decision, especially after giving weight to "the long term costs and benefits of such action."

After the assault on the Marine barracks in Lebanon, it was questioning the wisdom of U.S. involvement that led Reagan to withdraw our troops rather than dig in. He found no good strategic reason to give our regional enemies inviting U.S. targets. Can one imagine one of today's neoconservative absolutists backing away from any fight anywhere?

The fact is, of course, that there are very few pure isolationists, neoconservatives, realists or idealists running around. What really exists is a sort of continuum, and most of those in each group share many values and goals. Most conservatives backed the Iraqi enterprise at the outset because they believed that a blow to Al-Qaeda and an Iraqi despot believed to be in league with Osama bin Laden would serve our interests. It was, in short, a prudential decision, but they weren't buying into a crusade to create a world in our own image.

Conservatives know that we cannot create a democratic world by snapping our fingers; they also know that sending armies out to convince others by force to adopt our ways won't prove much more effective. I'm not even sure I've met many neoconservatives who really believe we ought to do that.

During the run-up to the Clinton Administration's decision to go into the Balkans, I remember Charles Krauthammer saying that while he believed we should act as an international policeman, every cop knows there are some neighborhoods he ought to avoid. Although Richard Perle argued that we should use force to "inject" democracy into the Middle East, he doesn't see any need to do the same in Zimbabwe.

My point is that there is a bit of the neocon and the realist in all of us.

The hard choices one is confronted with in the real world make it difficult to say in the abstract when the use of force is and is not justifiable. Given the historically fractious nature of the Balkans, Krauthammer was wondering whether we were going to accomplish much at a reasonable cost by going in when our direct interests weren't threatened; Perle was consciously or unconsciously reflecting on the extent to which our national interests would be at stake in Iraq as compared to Zimbabwe.

Although Jeane Kirkpatrick was eulogized after her death as the "queen" of neoconservatives, she shared the traditional conservative doubt that democracy can either cure all ills or that its spread should be the prime imperative of U.S. foreign policy. After all, she came to Ronald Reagan's attention arguing that the magnitude of the threat we faced from the communist world in the 1970s and 1980s justified alliances with authoritarian as well as Jeffersonian states. In her final years, she took exception to the neoconservative impulse to make democracy promotion, rather than our national-security interests, the rationale for our use of military force in the Middle East.

Kirkpatrick argued that U.S. foreign policy should be based first on the protection of this nation's security and economic interests, and secondarily on promoting free institutions at a reasonable cost, without jeopardizing our primary objective. She may have been a neoconservative in some ways, but she was also a realist. In that sense, she was much like the president who recruited her to public service.

Kirkpatrick was profoundly troubled by the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq, although she had wholeheartedly supported the decision to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan. She didn't believe for a minute that it would be possible to create a democracy in Iraq because the nation lacked the prerequisites. She also felt that the fall of Saddam Hussein would not produce leaders willing to undertake the hard work involved in preparing their country for democracy. She knew that had George W. Bush subjected his decision to go into Iraq to the Reagan Doctrine's criteria, it would have come up short.

Ronald Reagan was a believer in freedom and democracy and, at a moral level, never hesitated to align himself with those here and abroad who shared his beliefs. But he never opted for military force when alternatives were available.

Kirkpatrick, as Reagan's un ambassador and in her retirement, was perhaps the one person who understood and best articulated his approach to foreign policy. Her book strikes me as a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in understanding the shape of a conservative foreign policy in the modern world.

Conservatives believe today, as they have in the past, in a strong America prepared to fight when necessary to protect its just interests, but they don't believe it wise or moral to shed the blood of their sons and daughters to impose our views on others. Their belief in American exceptionalism is deep, but most do not see the wisdom or practicality of forcing the rest of the world to accept U.S. values. They harbor a profound belief in morality and human rights, but do not under most circumstances believe American blood should be shed because of the way other nations treat their citizens.

They aren't isolationists, but U.S. nationalists who believe strongly not only in the values articulated by the Founders, but in the need to safeguard the moral and geographic integrity of the nation in which those values have flourished. They are therefore rightly skeptical of multinational agreements that might undermine the sovereignty they consider so central to the successful defense of the country. They believe, like Reagan and the Founders, that ours is a nation that must survive and prosper not only for the benefit of those lucky enough to have been born or moved here, but as an example others might emulate.

As a young conservative, I-like many of my contemporaries-read and digested the wisdom of William Graham Sumner's The Conquest of the United States by Spain, an anti-imperialist, anti-war tract penned as we careened down the road to the Spanish-American War. His point was a simple one. He asked what benefit there would be if in defeating our enemies we became little better than they. It is a question conservatives have asked time and again as we've conducted wars abroad and prepared for them at home.

Today we are told we are involved in a clash of civilizations. Some suggest that the nature of the struggle is such that we can only win by vanquishing our foes militarily while remaking the world around us in our own image and accepting that the values that have guided us in the past may no longer be valid.

Maybe, but we've been through this before. Without surrendering our values, we survived the Cold War against an enemy philosophically committed to a world in which most of what we stand for would have been obliterated. Sometimes our adherence to those values made competing with the Soviets more difficult than some thought necessary, but in the end it was those values and the ideas behind them that made all the difference. We made mistakes then and will in the future, but even as we face a new enemy, most conservatives are as convinced today as Ronald Reagan was in his day that our values and ideas will ultimately prevail.

Essay Types: Essay