A Primer for Conservatives

March 1, 1991 Regions: Americas Tags: PostmodernismSociology

A Primer for Conservatives

Mini Teaser: The eruption of hot war in the Persian Gulf has imposed a ceasefire in the debate raging among American conservatives over the direction of American foreign policy.

by Author(s): Burton Yale Pines

The eruption of hot war in the Persian Gulf has imposed a ceasefire in the debate raging among American conservatives over the direction of American foreign policy.  Muted by the war, understandably and appropriately, are the barbs and criticisms with which this debate was being conducted.  Muted they are likely to remain until the war ends.

When it does, the debate will resume--probably with its ferocity increased by the sacrifices demanded by the war.  For whatever else will have been accomplished in the Gulf and for however military power will have been vindicated and the bravery of American forces confirmed, the war almost certainly will fail to answer the monumental questions that ignited the conservatives' foreign policy debate.  It will fail to do so because the policy that has led America into war, however sound, is a policy conducted ad hoc.  It has lacked from the start a clear or convincing statement of what part the rapid and massive American response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait plays in America's emerging role in the post-Cold War world.

Ad hoc too have been other Bush administration foreign policy actions.  It scrambled Air Force jets in the Philippines to save Cory Aquino, but sat on its hands during a coup in Liberia, long described as America's oldest and best friend in Africa.  The White House lauded what it calls a New World Order but has made no attempt to define it.

The problem with ad hoc foreign policy is not that it guarantees unwise actions.  Some administration ad hoc moves have been correct--drawing the line against Saddam Hussein's aggression, for example.  The problem is that, without the guidance of underlying principles, foreign policy becomes a lottery, depending for its success on lucky gut instincts, lucky timing, and other good fortune--particularly the good fortune of public support.

This has not been changed by the war in the Gulf, for despite the heroism and sacrifices and fine generalship, the war offers little guidance for future American responses to international trouble.  To the contrary, the Bush administration's Gulf actions may set the dangerous precedents of requiring United Nations approval for American actions abroad and of America continuing to bear most of the burden in lives and money for actions that mainly benefit nations (like Japan and those in Western Europe) that well can afford to contribute more.

Instead of operating ad hoc, George Bush must construct a coherent foreign policy that wins American public support.  It must state what the United States seeks and needs from the world and then explain what actions are required for this.

Public support for foreign policy is not something mobilized afresh for each foreign adventure, as it has been for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf.  Rather, public support is a reservoir from which Washington can draw.  It is created by coaxing and nurturing public understanding of American foreign policy's broad outlines and goals.  By 1947, for example, Americans understood that Moscow had become a global threat which the United States had to counter.  Americans then were ready to back Truman's unprecedented emergency aid to Greece and Turkey and America's unprecedented membership in NATO.  The same understanding allowed the United States throughout the Cold War to aid scores of nations, fight in Korea and Vietnam, and help Third World anticommunist freedom fighters.

Successive administrations engaged the nation abroad in a way that was understood by the public as being, by and large, a piece of a broad, coherent policy of waging the Cold War.  To simplify greatly, this policy assumed that what hurt Moscow was good; what helped Moscow was bad; power vacuums were dangerous because Moscow would fill them; and unattached Third World countries had to be wooed (with aid or weapons or both) before they were lured into the Moscow camp.

This Cold War, at least as it was known for four decades, is now over, although Washington-Moscow tensions remain and can grow.  What America needs now, and what the Bush administration has yet to offer, is a new, coherent American foreign policy, capable of winning long-term popular backing.  Such a policy is possible and can be constructed from ten conservative principles.

Principle 1. Foreign policy is domestic policy.

To paraphrase the classics loosely, foreign policy is the conduct of domestic policy by other means.  This does not mean that domestic politics should drive foreign policy.  It does mean that the sole reason for expending American lives and other resources in dealing with nations is to secure and improve the lives of the American people.  As such, foreign policy is not an end in itself.  Nor is it an excuse for crusades or for missionary expeditions, as virtuous as conducting these may make some Americans feel.  Nor is it the fulfillment of a process.  As John Foster Dulles advised in 1958, "There is nothing mysterious about the goals of United States foreign policy.  It seeks to defend and advance the interests of the United States."  These interests are advanced only by measures creating a global environment in which Americans gain the greatest possible degree of liberty, freedom, and opportunity.  Policies failing to serve these purposes are not in the national interest.

Principle 2. Morality should not drive foreign policy.

Advancing human rights or advancing democracy should not, by themselves, drive foreign policy unless these actions directly protect Americans from threats or directly advance American interests.  If they do not, it is unjust for Washington to tax Americans or put American lives at risk in pursuit of such policies.  Typically, of course, human rights and morality are advanced around the globe as the happy by-product of specific American policies.  But advancing human rights and morality should not be the reason for the policy.  At the times when they have been, they have fathered disaster.  Jimmy Carter's disregard for American interests in Iran and his obsession with human rights, for instance, undercut the Shah and opened the door for the repressive ayatollahs.  Similar Carter policies allowed the Sandinistas to take over Nicaragua.

By contrast, a wise appreciation of national interests allowed Washington warmly to support Chile, Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan despite their authoritarian and at times even harsh regimes.  National interests also prompt America to overlook Mexico's decades-long one-party rule and rough treatment of the political opposition.

Relegating human rights and morality to minor goals does not prevent America from rhetorically championing them nor even from supporting them with token grants from the National Endowment for Democracy or similar government agencies.  Nor, of course, does this prevent individuals, churches, corporations, and voluntary organizations from crusading for democracy and human rights in Burma, China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the host of other repressive lands.  Nor, most important, does it dim the beacon of the American model.  As Dulles said: America shows "men everywhere the way to a better and more abundant life."  It was this that Ronald Reagan had in mind when he repeatedly reminded America that it remains a City upon a Hill and a Zion in the Wilderness.  Yet neither Dulles nor Reagan made the mistake of exporting this idealism at the expense of America's security or other interests.

Principle 3. Ambitious foreign policy poses domestic dangers.

The big government required to conduct an ambitious foreign policy threatens individual liberty.  The Founding Fathers recognized this when they divided federal power to make it difficult for America to conduct an assertive, activist foreign policy.  Arguably, George Washington's warning against foreign involvement was intended as much to protect America from a powerful internal central authority as to shelter a weak new nation from external entanglements.  Indeed, today's mammoth federal government is the product not so much of the New Deal but of the massive power assembled in Washington to wage World War II and the Cold War.  The huge Pentagon, of course, has preserved America's freedom; the problem is that the Pentagon's size legitimizes the vast centralization of power and gigantic bureaucracies required to run the huge domestic programs started by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.  Thus while conservatives accepted the large Pentagon needed to wage the Cold War, with Soviet power now waning, conservatives would welcome a dramatically smaller Pentagon and State Department.  Only when national interests are directly at stake should foreign policy be permitted to expand government.

Principle 4. Deal with world reality.

This should seem self-evident.  Yet real world conditions are ignored by those who imply that the United States can withdraw into a Fortress America and by those who sagely counsel that, for the first time in history, military power counts for far less than economic might and that unprecedented global economic interdependence makes independent national action almost impossible.

The would-be isolationists seem blind to the dangers still posed by the world to America.  Whether it is denying America access to natural resources, interdicting trade routes and sea lanes, endangering Americans abroad, or igniting brushfires that could flare into major wars, such potential actions require some American involvement--even selective intervention--in the world.  Blinder still to world reality are those, like former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, co-authors of the 1988 tract, American Agenda, who dismiss the efficacy of military power.  It should not have taken America's lightning response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to prove the obvious: the ability to flex military muscle is still the measure of a great nation.

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