Commentary

Conservatives Need a Humbler Foreign Policy

At last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), movement activists descended on Washington to lick their wounds and debate the way forward in the Age of Obama.

The sentiment at CPAC was heavily behind what Politico has dubbed the “Retro Strategy,” or unified opposition to big-spending Democratic schemes. That’s good news for those of us who oppose bigger government.

But there’s at least one aspect of conservative doctrine that desperately needs rethinking. That’s the Right’s embrace of the neoconservative approach to foreign affairs, which insists that America is weak, threatened on all sides, and can only be kept safe by an aggressive policy of preventive war and democratization at gunpoint.

A humbler foreign policy would be better for the country and more consistent with conservatism. ”

Interestingly, CPAC’s lone panel on the subject stacked the deck with advocates of restraint: Two Iraq War opponents versus one hawk. The latter was Frank Gaffney, who has repeatedly warned that China might set off an electromagnetic pulse weapon in America’s upper atmosphere in order to fry our circuits and bring the U.S. economy to a halt (an odd move, you’d think, for the country that holds the largest share of our national debt).

Yet The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports that there’s no sign of “a major overhaul of national security thinking” on the part of conservatives. York’s probably right, judging by the crowd at CPAC, which gave Gaffney most of the applause, and cheered for every bellicose line in straw-poll winner Mitt Romney’s speech.

But conservatives really should overhaul their approach to national security. A humbler foreign policy would be better for the country and more consistent with conservatism. It might also prove politically popular.

What, after all, was conservative about George W. Bush’s post-9/11 pledges to “rid the world of evil” and “end tyranny in our world?” Conservatives used to believe that there were limits to the federal government’s capabilities. And yet, today, many of the same people who ridicule “midnight basketball” programs at home support ambitious nation-building projects abroad.

Do we really need new aircraft carriers, fighter planes, and a bigger army to fight men who live in caves, and attack us with box cutters? Why, in an era of trillion-dollar deficits, do we spend more on “defense” than the next 12 nations combined, maintain an empire of over 700 bases in 144 countries, and provide defense welfare for South Korea, Western Europe, and Japan, who are perfectly capable of defending themselves?

Conservatives seem to have forgotten the wisdom of one of their intellectual founders, Russell Kirk, who resisted empire and militarism, and maintained that war had to be a last resort, because it might “make the American president a virtual dictator, diminish the constitutional powers of Congress, contract civil liberties, [and] distort the economy.”

Ordinary Americans overwhelmingly reject the globocop role forced on them by liberal and conservative elites. In a series of surveys taken since the collapse of communism, no more than 13 percent of respondents have said that the United States should be “the single most important leader in the world,” and in a July 2006 poll, 76 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “the U.S. is playing the role of world policeman more than it should be.”

The crowd at this year’s CPAC seemed convinced that it was the GOP’s free-spending ways that had led to the party’s recent electoral debacles. But the evidence for that proposition is far less clear than the poll data showing that voters punish Republicans for their foreign-policy adventurism.

Exit polls taken in 2006 showed that 41 percent of voters “strongly disapproved” of the Iraq War, and of them, 87 percent voted for the Democrats. At the end of William F. Buckley’s life, according to longtime National Review hand Jeffrey Hart, WFB believed that “the movement he made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq.”

Buckley’s assessment was probably too grim. But a movement that’s suffered the massive electoral defeat the conservatives have clearly has some rethinking to do, if it wants to survive.

American voters don’t approve of attacking countries that never threatened us, nor do they care for ambitious, expensive schemes to remake the world through military force. In that, they’re more conservative than the conservative movement’s leaders have been for quite some time.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.