Yes, America should come first in its foreign policy

If Twitter is useful for one thing, it’s keeping your finger on the dying pulse of American intellectual debate. There was a point in the most recent Republican debate — was it the 42nd or 43rd such event? — when Ted Cruz mentioned that he wanted an “America-first foreign policy.” I’m late commenting about this, but it’s amazing what’s controversial these days: Cruz’s critics seized on the remark as evidence of some alleged “isolationism.” Their trick was to link Cruz to the America First Committee of the early 1940s, designed to keep the United States out of the Second World War and backed by genuine isolationists like Charles Lindbergh.

Of course, anyone who pays attention to what his opponents actually say, as opposed to what he wants them to have said so he can wage reputational warfare on them, knows that this is not what Cruz or his like-minded contemporaries believe.

I think Max Boot is a smart guy, but he is way too prone to this kind of knee-jerk flailing, seeing even modest skepticism of “spreading democracy” as something too dark and feverish even to consider. Jennifer Rubin is another culprit. (Ironically, both are supporters of John McCain, whose 2008 presidential campaign slogan was “Country First.” But that’s “different,” right?)

Ed Morrissey of Hot Air has clarified the issue perfectly:

Cruz wants a muscular foreign policy with plenty of intervention, but combined with a realpolitik approach that comes much closer to Brent Scowcroft than Charles Lindbergh. He’s not arguing for isolationism by opposing regime-change strategies, especially those from Barack Obama. He’s saying that those strategies get deployed to benefit the interests of others rather than pursuing American interests in directly targeting our own enemies. That may be too simplistic — Saddam Hussein was an enemy, for instance, by 1991 and afterward — but it’s a long way from the America Firsters of 1940.

Morrissey quotes David Harsanyi, who, writing at The Federalist, has his own fair and intelligent comments to offer:

What I heard wasn’t a case for isolationism but one against Middle Eastern democracy-building—a project that’s been a persistent and bloody failure; one that’s sidetracked foreign policy from its “first” task, which is defeating the enemy.

Harsanyi points out an important and therefore ignored point: Actual isolationists opposed the Persian Gulf War, while Cruz-style conservatives see Operation Desert Storm as the epitome of the smart deployment of American military force — powerful, swift, limited, focused, and unapologetically concerned with U.S. interests.

As I’ve written on this blog, there are indeed many who cloak their anti-Americanism, pacifism, or dictator-apologetics in the language of realism and its related concepts — containment, balance of power, realpolitik, etc. But if we are to be intellectually honest with one another, we have to concede that most people do not believe in one of two extreme positions on any given issue.

Cruz represents a conservative foreign policy that rejects the outdated Wilsonianism of the Iraq War era. Those who hew to this more old-fashioned approach look over the past 14 or so years of U.S. military engagements and see lots of corpses with little to no tangible benefit for American security.

This approach to foreign policy is not really new; it’s essentially what every president in American history before George W. Bush believed. This includes Ronald Reagan, laughably cited by many conservatives as someone who “spread democracy,” but who in fact did no such thing — at least not in the post-September 11 meaning of the term. Reagan was great at speaking about democracy and freedom; the actions he took abroad, however, whether diplomatic or military, were always primarily about advancing American strategic interests (e.g. Central America) or protecting American lives (e.g. Operation Urgent Fury and Operation El Dorado Canyon).

To reinforce Morrissey’s most crucial point, many have seen U.S. foreign policy morph from the smart use of hard and soft power to benefit Americans to a kind of militarized social-work project on behalf of everyone except Americans. The choice, then, is not between “intervention” and “isolationism,” as Jennifer Rubin & Co. define those two terms. The choice is actually between intervention that benefits others and that which benefits Americans.


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