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Relearning Republican Foreign Policy

bret_stevens_wsj.jpgAmerica needs to be a policeman, not a priest.

by Bret Stevens, WSJ, 11/4/2014

It’s been nearly a decade since George W. Bush delivered his second inaugural address, which contained this remarkable line: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

If the GOP takes the Senate on Tuesday and wants to learn how to speak foreign policy again, it has to unlearn that line.

Republicans know what’s wrong with Barack Obama ’s foreign policy. He has given the U.S.

 the reputation of a faithless friend and feckless foe. He sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan with no intention of defeating the Taliban, raising the cost by cheapening the goal. He squandered a hard-won win in Iraq with a fumbled exit.

He announces initiatives—the pivot to Asia, the arming of moderate Syrian rebels—then fails to follow up. He is gutting the military. He repeatedly shows that he is disengaged, ill-advised and stunningly ill-informed. Tell us, Mr. President: Is al Qaeda, core or otherwise, still on a “path to defeat”?

And so on. You know the record. It’s easy to lambaste and lampoon.

A Republican Congress will have to take serious, if not main, responsibility for the conduct of foreign affairs. So a few pointers toward that end:

A policeman is not a priest. George W. Bush’s foreign policy went wrong when, seeking a substitute rationale for the war in Iraq following the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, he turned his freedom agenda into the core pillar of Mideast policy. In doing so, he transformed the role of the U.S. from a great power with the will and the wherewithal to maintain order, deter aggression and punish rogues, into a missionary cause intent on redeeming broken societies through the salvific medium of elections. Instead of being the world’s cop, we attempted to be the world’s priest. Bad move.

The point of the war in Iraq was getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the modern Middle East’s ultimate weapon of mass destruction. We’re still better off because he’s gone. But bringing gender balance to the Iraqi Parliament, or negotiating equitable oil distribution schemes, was another matter. The world needs America as Mr. Big, not Mr. Busybody.

Isolationism is not an option. Call it what you want: Realism, non-interventionism, nation-building-at-home-ism. There is an ancient strain in the American political tradition that holds that an active foreign policy is a net drain on domestic priorities, that our allies are merely freeloaders, that we are bankrupting ourselves on military spending, that every U.S. intervention is destined to be a Vietnam-sized disaster, and that the rest of the world should sort itself out.

This was the foreign-policy recipe that led to the disasters of the 1930s, the late 1970s, and the entirety of the Obama administration. Like it or not, there is no substitute for American power. Britain in 1945 had the good fortune of being able to hand its responsibilities to a benign and capable partner. Today, the alternative to Pax Americana is a constellation comprising the U.N.’s Ban Ki-moon, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Islamic State’s Omar al-Baghdadi.

Reagan was not God. He committed major blunders, from condemning Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor to putting Marines too hastily in—and then taking them too hastily out—of Lebanon, to the covert arms deal with Iran.

Nonetheless, he was a very good president. Like Mr. Obama, Reagan dreamt of a world without nuclear weapons. Unlike the current president, he knew how to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and so he built the MX missile. He was not opposed to negotiation, at least when he found a trustworthy interlocutor, as he did in Mikhail Gorbachev. But he was also prepared to let talks fail rather than compromise on principle, as he did at Reykjavik in 1986. His broad faith in human nature was tempered by his understanding of the political wickedness of America’s enemies.

Defense spending is an investment. In national security. In international stability. In the reassurance of allies and the deterrence of foes. In the human capital of active servicemen and capable veterans. In the one industrial base that can’t be off-shored. So Republicans should take care to treat defense as a core function of government, not just another wasteful bureaucracy.

The president, not Congress, is still the commander in chief. And Republicans should respect the president’s constitutional prerogatives when it comes to war-making. The GOP’s lowest foreign-policy moment in years came in August 2013 after the chemical attack in Damascus, when Republicans in Congress loudly demanded a vote on the use of military force, sounding very much like the post-Vietnam Democrats with the War Powers Resolution. The result was de facto Republican participation in Barack Obama’s signature moment of foreign-policy infamy. We’ve been living with the consequences of the meaningless American red line ever since.

Someday, maybe, a Republican will be in the White House again. If that’s to happen, Americans will need some reassurance that the GOP knows how to steer a straight course between the temptations of Barack Obama’s strategic timidity and George W. Bush’s idealistic excess.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com

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Relearning Republican Foreign Policy
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