In this, the third and final installment of Christie Watch’s look at so-called “reform conservatism,” we report on the question of the reformicons’ foreign policy ideas, or lack thereof. You can read Part I of the series here and Part II here.
It turns out, as Scott McConnell points out in The American Conservative, that left unmentioned in most of the pieces about the reformicons is the crucial question of foreign policy. Given that many of the main actors behind reform conservatism are neocons, what does that say about how foreign policy figures into what the reformicons stand for? Taking off from the Tanenhaus piece in The New York Times, McConnell writes:
Tanenhaus presents to a wide general interest audience the “preeminent conservative intellectual of the Obama era” and yet erases from consideration the Iraq war or any other foreign policy question. So while it is true that Levin has interesting ideas about what’s wrong with Obama’s health care plan, we are left in the dark about whether he has thoughts about war and peace or America’s role in the world. Perhaps we can infer the answer from Levin’s association with some of the most prominent propagandists for that two-trillion dollar war of aggression, which, more than any war in America’s history, was a war conceived and successfully lobbied by intellectuals based in magazines and think tanks. Does Levin favor, as does Bill Kristol, starting a new American war against Iran? Does he favor, as also does Kristol, an American war against both the Sunni extremists in Iraq and their Iranian enemies at the same time?… It is not especially reassuring to find Kristol and David Frum featured so prominently among Levin’s major boosters.
McConnell blames Tanenhaus for leaving national security and foreign policy out of the picture, but he ought to be blaming National Affairs itself. In its archives, twenty issues long, there is almost nothing—nothing!—about foreign policy. In its subject archive, which lists thirty categories of types of articles alphabetically (“Children, Family and Marriage; Civil Society; Corporations; Crime” and so on) there is only one heading for anything to do with the world outside America’s borders, called “National Security.” And, in that category are only ten articles, most of which don’t deal with foreign policy at all, instead focusing on immigration, prison reform, and policy toward veterans! So, for the editors of National Affairs, at least, foreign policy doesn’t exactly loom large—though McConnell is right to suspect that wherever there is neoconservative smoke, you’ll find foreign policy fire.
Responding to McConnell, one of the reformicons’ leading lights, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writes in Forbes that reformicons just ain’t all that interested in that foreign policy stuff:
Why the reform conservative silence on foreign policy? And aren’t some prominent reform conservatives close to…sit down now…neoconservatives? And, McConnell seems to darkly hint, isn’t this silence perhaps due to the fact that we’re all closet neoconservatives who want to invade everything and are quietly pouring these ideas into the GOP punch bowl? But if McConnell understood what I’ve written above, he would understand very well the reason why reform conservatism does not have a foreign policy: it is a response to an identified domestic policy problem, to which it presents policy and political solutions. That’s it. It’s simple as that. Reform conservatism is a response to (and identification of) a very specific problem, and this specific problem is a problem that is wholly of the domain of domestic policy (except in the highly fuzzy sense that everything in policy is connected to everything else).
To be sure, Gobry is pathetic when it comes to foreign policy ideas, although in one piece for Forbes he does lay out his own, insouciant version of what a “Grand Strategy” for the United States ought to look like—though he makes clear that the ideas are his own, not reform conservatives’—and it’s clear that Gobry is no Henry Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski. He says things like: “Our goal should be to expand Pax Americana.… We need a new American century.” But he’s, umm, a little short of specifics. When it comes to the Middle East, an area that is a virtual obsession for neoconservatives, Gobry actually says this (look it up!): “Sorry. I have nothing. Too much of a mess. If I get a revelation I will get back to you, promise.” And on Europe he suggests a one-word solution: “Ignore.”
In a blog post at The New York Times, Ross Douthat—who calls himself “the Prominent Reform Conservative”—argues rather weirdly that the reformicons have too much on their plates, what with all that sweat over domestic policy, to have to worry about foreign policy, too. He writes:
Does the intra-conservative conversation desperately need Brad Wilcox to stop working on family policy for six months, or Frederick Hess and Andrew Kelly to drop their education work for a summer, so that they can develop a semi-coherent position on whether we should be involved in Syria’s civil war? Again, I would say no.
Well, maybe not Hess, Kelly and Wilcox. But someone, yes.
Andrew Sullivan, in his take on the reformicons, agrees with McConnell that the reformicons seem unlikely to repudiate Cheneyism, rein in Israel or avoid war with Iran, for instance:
But the reformicons have never issued a clear rejection of Cheneyism, and indeed seem, for the most part, like unreconstructed neocons abroad. I can’t see any of them demanding some concessions from Israel for a two-state solution, for example, or any policy toward Iran but war. But they’re mainly silent on these questions—which also marginalizes them. The most important Republican debate, it seems to me, is about the role of the US in the world in the 21st Century. Hegemon? Democratizer? Or simply great power? On this, the reformicons are silent. Their predecessors in the debates of the 1970s weren’t.
Among the 2016 contenders in the GOP, none of them have explicitly embraced reform conservatism—yet. On foreign policy, though, with the exception of libertarian-isolationist Rand Paul, those who might be see by the reformicons as possible standard-bearers, such as Marco Rubio or Chris Christie, have clearly thrown in with the neoconservatives on foreign policy. Rubio, in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, thundered about the need for America to stand tall around the world and to confront enemies, real or imagined, everywhere. And Christie, who’s been angling for Sheldon Adelson’s support, has been sounding more and more hawkish (and pro-Likud) with every speech.