IN FEBUARY 2013, Senator Rand Paul delivered a speech at the Heritage Foundation. It was called “Restoring the Founders’ Vision of Foreign Policy.” In it Paul sought to outline a fresh foreign-policy path for the Republican Party, which was tepidly beginning to debate the limits of intervention abroad. At the outset Paul declared, “I see the world as it is. I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.” He argued that radical Islam posed a threat to the United States but that the best way to defang it wasn’t to engage in permanent wars in the Middle East. Instead, he invoked the shade of George F. Kennan, asserting that a containment policy toward Iran and other countries would be the most effective way of deterring America’s foes:
I think all of us have the duty to ask where are the Kennans of our generation? When foreign policy has become so monolithic, so lacking in debate that Republicans and Democrats routinely pass foreign policy statements without debate and without votes, where are the calls for moderation, the calls for restraint?
Anyone who questions the bipartisan consensus is immediately castigated, rebuked and their patriotism challenged. The most pressing question of the day, Iran developing nuclear weapons, is allowed to have less debate in this country than it receives in Israel.
Paul’s speech did not receive much attention, but the following month his thirteen-hour-long filibuster of John Brennan’s nomination to become CIA director did. Paul became something of a folk hero for his rather sweeping denunciation, on civil-liberties grounds, of the Obama administration’s widespread use of drones to kill suspected terrorists. Paul said he would “speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court.”
Two years later, as the Republican presidential race heats up, however, the GOP is doubling down, whether the issue is government surveillance or confronting foreign adversaries. One possible presidential aspirant at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference said this about the need to counter the virulent threat posed by the Islamic State: “When I look at spending and what we should spend money on—this or that or national defense—for me, the priority is always national defense. . . . Our freedom is threatened from outside our borders.”
In books like The Conscience of a Conservative and Why Not Victory?, Goldwater expounded upon the necessity of confronting foreign bad guys. Goldwater, who was influenced by both Buckley and Gerhart Niemeyer, a fanatical anti-Communist professor at the University of Notre Dame, said that triumphing over Communism was imperative. It was a mistake to regard nuclear war with the Soviet Union as “unthinkable” since that would automatically confer an intolerable advantage on the Kremlin. “A tolerable peace,” Goldwater said, “must follow victory over Communism.”
Goldwater’s political heir was Ronald Reagan. Reagan led the charge against Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s promotion of détente with the Soviet Union. In 1976, Reagan, who battled Gerald Ford for the party’s presidential nomination, said at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City that “Henry Kissinger’s recent stewardship of U.S. foreign policy has coincided precisely with the loss of U.S. military supremacy. . . . Under Kissinger and Ford this nation has become No. 2 in military power in a world where it is dangerous—if not fatal—to be second best.” As president, though, Reagan was too cautious and pragmatic to act upon his words. He engaged in an arms buildup, but he also adhered to the terms of the SALT II treaty even though it was never officially ratified by the Senate. What’s more, Reagan relied on proxies rather than attempting to engage directly in regime change, apart from a minor operation in Grenada in 1983. By the end of his term he had signed sweeping arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union. This Reagan, along with his successor, George H. W. Bush (who performed the diplomatic heavy lifting that ended the Cold War peacefully), has been airbrushed out of the picture.
Much of this has occurred because the terrorist attacks of September 11 prompted George W. Bush to revive the militant Goldwater credo. Just as Goldwater had declared that “we must always try to engage the enemy at times and places, and with weapons, of our own choosing,” so Bush said at West Point in June 2002 that containment was “not possible.” Instead, he argued, “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” This remains the lodestar for hawks such as Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Tom Cotton. The Iraq War has proven to be no more than a temporary speed bump for the promoters of a new confrontation with Iran.
In a talk at the Heritage Foundation in January, for example, Cotton revived the Bush-Cheney gospel. Iran is a “radical Islamist tyrannical regime”—which is true but does not distinguish it from a number of other countries in the Middle East. The negotiations with Iran, he said, were a “sham”—which may turn out to be correct but isn’t yet clear. It was time to turn to the military: “Congress can do so not only by imposing new sanctions, but also by offering to transfer advanced weapons like surplus B-52 bombers and 30,000-pound bunker-busting bombs to Israel.”
THIS TRUCULENT disposition is the main driver of Republican foreign policy. Already Republican budget hawks are running up against defense hawks. With off-budget maneuvers being employed in the House of Representatives to bolster the defense budget, it seems unlikely that the former will prevail against the latter. It will be very difficult for any Republican candidate to deviate from orthodoxy during the primaries. The truth is that the triumphalist camp is resurgent, molding and shaping the general tone of the foreign-policy debate.
Nevertheless, the questions that Paul raised a few years ago in his Heritage address about American power and Kennan’s legacy of containment remain pertinent and urgent—even if he himself has stopped raising them. The United States does face some threats from abroad that can’t be stopped simply by diplomacy and require military force. But there is a difference between containing threats and attempting to extirpate them as part of a crusade to end evil. It can never be sufficiently stressed that the injection of a strident moralism into American foreign policy has consistently had pernicious effects, whether it was in World War I, Vietnam or the Iraq War.
Indeed, as David Bromwich notes in this issue, while it is easy to interpret the age of American power from 1945 to 2003 as a narrative of unalloyed good—one that moves seamlessly from the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bombing of Yugoslavia and the rise of an independent Kosovo—another, less benignant interpretation is also possible. It would begin with the Vietnam War, move on to the interventions in Central America, followed by the expansion of NATO by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and conclude, for now, with the bungled wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. If Republicans wanted to mount a serious critique of Obama, they would focus not on the peripheral issue of Benghazi but on the fact that his incursion into Libya has further destabilized the Middle East, partly by sending fresh weapons and jihadists into Syria. So far, however, they have indulged in a culture of irresponsibility when it comes to foreign affairs. To promote the notion that Washington can safely and effectively conduct a new round of regime change around the globe isn’t simply mistaken. It’s utterly detached from reality.
As the moralistic fervor of this crew reaches new heights, it would be an error to forget that, as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once observed, “The Anglo-American tradition . . . has long been addicted to the presentation of egoism in the guise of altruism.” And so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has, more or less, not simply attempted to maintain a preponderance of power but actively nursed the byssine illusion of omnipotence. But the very attempt to establish dominance has undermined it. As Kennan observed at the height of anti-Communist hysteria in 1954, “A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all.” Wise words, then as now.
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest