When it comes to US foreign policy, what exactly does it mean to be a conservative?
Before the Vietnam War, conservatism in foreign policy had less to do with principles than with temperament. As president, Dwight Eisenhower represented the very embodiment of that temperament. From his days as a soldier, Ike knew war well enough to treat it warily. Raised in the heartland, he was something of a prairie nationalist, with an aversion to crusades and a limited appetite for risk. This did not imply passivity, and Eisenhower made his fair share of lamentable mistakes—instigating coups in Guatemala and Iran, initiating the US commitment to South Vietnam, and overreacting to the Cuban Revolution, among them. Yet his overall approach to the business of statecraft emphasized prudence and even circumspection. Say what you will about US foreign policy in the 1950s, it could have been much worse. Indeed, Ike’s immediate successors, disdaining his stewardship, wasted little time in demonstrating this point, most disastrously in Vietnam.
In the wake of the war in Vietnam and as a direct consequence of the defeat the United States suffered there, conservative thinking about foreign policy acquired a pronounced ideological edge. By denouncing the Evil Empire and scrubbing the American past clean of ambiguity, Ronald Reagan made himself a favorite on the right. Among those succumbing to the allure of the Great Communicator, Reagan’s willingness to condemn adversaries as unabashedly wicked seemed to restore to US policy the moral clarity it had lost during the 1960s. Even so, Reagan’s rhetoric did not necessarily translate into action. While he might demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall,” nowhere in that demand was there any implication that if the Soviet leader refused to comply, Reagan himself would do the bulldozing.
Only after 9/11 did Manichaeism become the explicit basis for action. When it came to rhetorical flourishes, George W. Bush outdid Reagan, setting his sights on destroying a 21st-century Axis of Evil en route to forcing large chunks of the Islamic world into compliance with his Freedom Agenda. Unlike Ike—no longer in the pantheon of conservative heroes—Bush knew next to nothing about war. Perhaps for that very reason, he evinced supreme confidence in his ability to put America’s matchless military to work.
The defining features of American conservatism now became hubris and vainglory. Prudence? That was for wusses. Circumspection? A euphemism for cowardice.
Not everyone on the right climbed aboard the Bush bandwagon. But the great majority did, led by the most fervent crusaders—commonly known as neoconservatives—who promptly set out to expel dissenters. Writing in National Review in March 2003, with the US invasion of Iraq just under way, David Frum announced the purge, declaring that conservatives daring to oppose the Iraq War were treasonous. “They deny and excuse terror,” Frum charged. “They publicize wild conspiracy theories.” Some even “yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies.” No alternative existed but to banish them from the conservative movement altogether. “In a time of danger, they have turned their backs on their country. Now we turn our backs on them.”
Frum’s “we” promptly led the United States into a debacle of monumental proportions, its mournful consequences continuing to mount even today. As a direct consequence of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a name chosen without a trace of irony, the right’s claim to foresight and wisdom in the management of national security affairs took a major hit. Names such as Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Feith now became bywords for arrogant incompetence.
Few readers of this magazine will view with regret the blow to their reputations sustained by the architects of the Iraq War. Yet the disaster over which they presided has produced a further perversion in what passes for an ostensibly conservative approach to foreign policy. Rather than inspiring a return to prudence and circumspection, the failures and frustrations endured in Iraq and other post-9/11 military campaigns now find expression in compulsive truculence.
As the embodiment of this truculence, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, today finding favor among Republicans desperate to derail Donald Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination, stands alone. From the very outset of his candidacy, Cruz has depicted himself as the one genuinely principled conservative in the race. And in comparison to Trump, who is ideologically sui generis, Cruz does qualify as something of a conservative. When it comes to foreign policy, however, Cruz offers not principles but—like Trump himself—raw pugnacity.
Cruz has gone out of his way to deride the pretensions of democracy promoters, mocking “crazy neocon invade-every-country-on-earth” types wanting to “send our kids to die in the Middle East.” On the stump, Cruz advertises himself as Reagan’s one-and-only true heir. As such, he endorses “the clarity of Reagan’s four most important words: ‘We win, they lose.’” Upon closer examination, Cruz is actually advocating something quite different: “We win, they lose, then we walk away.”
The key to “winning” is to unleash American military might. “If I am elected president, we will utterly destroy ISIS,” Cruz vows. “We won’t weaken them. We won’t degrade them. We will utterly destroy them. We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion…. We will do everything necessary so that every militant on the face of the earth will know…if you wage jihad and declare war on America, you are signing your death warrant.”
Yet rather than Reaganesque, Cruz’s prescription for dealing with Islamist radicalism represents a throwback to bomb-them-back-to-the-Stone-Age precepts pioneered by Gen. Curtis LeMay and endorsed by the likes of Barry Goldwater back when obliteration was in fashion. The embryonic Cruz Doctrine offers an approximation of total war. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out!” he promises with evident enthusiasm.
Nowhere, however, does his outlook take into account costs, whether human, fiscal, or moral. Nor does it weigh the second-order consequences of, say, rendering large parts of Iraq and Syria a smoking ruin or of killing large numbers of noncombatants through campaigns of indiscriminate bombing. In essence, Cruz sees force as a way to circumvent history—a prospect that resonates with Americans annoyed by history’s stubborn complexities.
A similar logic—if we can call it that—is at play in Cruz’s promise on “day one” of his presidency to “rip to shreds” the Iran nuclear agreement. He has compared the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to the “Munich Deal of 1938, allowing homicidal maniacs to acquire weapons of mass murder.” Apart from causing consternation among the several other signatories to the agreement—the other permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—US withdrawal would accomplish nothing of substance. Even so, Cruz’s insistence that he will do so—begging the question then what?—assures his supporters that he, like they, inhabits a world in which good guys are pitted against bad guys. In such a world, diplomacy simply plays into the hands of the enemy. “We stop the bad guys by using our guns,” Cruz insists, not by talking to them. His implied willingness to use guns to stop the bad guys in Tehran is unmistakable.
Not least among Cruz’s objections to the JCPOA is that it represents a “fundamental betrayal” of Israel, a country to which he professes great devotion. Cruz’s antagonism toward evildoers finds its counterpart in his deference toward Israel. More specifically, Cruz expresses unabashed admiration for the current head of the Israeli government, conferring on Benjamin Netanyahu the supreme conservative accolade of being “Churchillian.”
In reality, the comparison is an odd one. As a statesman, the quality setting Churchill apart was imagination, which he possessed in abundance—as prime minister, he was perpetually hatching wild schemes. Netanyahu’s defining characteristic is his absolute dearth of imagination; he is a willing prisoner of the status quo. Still, by paying homage to the Israeli leader—more broadly aligning himself with the eye-for-a-tooth Israeli approach to security policy—Cruz affirms his own bellicosity. Not surprisingly, Cruz promises to invite Netanyahu to attend his first State of the Union address. Going a step further, he has already previewed the greetings he will employ on the occasion: “Mr. Prime Minister, let me say, I enjoyed seeing you just recently at the grand opening of the new American Embassy in Jerusalem, the once and eternal capital of Israel.” Again, the question left hanging is unanswered: Then what?
Whether Cruz possesses the capacity even to recognize the existence of such questions appears doubtful. All that matters is to project an attitude of toughness.
So too with his recently announced team of foreign-policy advisers, consisting in large part of certifiable loonies, Islamophobes, and zealots keen to wage the Christian equivalent of global jihad. Members of the team broadly share the candidate’s own assessment of “Islamic supremacism,” whose adherents are intent on forcing the world to “submit to their form of Islam or die.”
Representative of this crew as a whole is Michael Ledeen, unrepentant proponent of preventive war. Preliminary efforts to destroy the Axis of Evil have not fared well. Ledeen’s prescription? Broaden the problem set and double down. “We now face a more potent Axis of Evil,” he writes, one that incorporates “Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries, and terrorist groups including al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and the Islamic State.” This new axis “includes Sunni and Shi’ite radical Muslims, Communists and other radical leftists, and nationalistic secular tyrants.” Together, they have “succeeded in wrecking hopes for a peaceful world.” The only way to eliminate this all-encompassing threat is through relentless and implacable war, from which, Ledeen concludes, there is “no escape.”
Under no plausible definition of the term does Ledeen qualify as even remotely conservative. That the leading “conservative” candidate for the GOP nomination has recruited such a wacko to advise him is itself evidence of how unhinged the American political right has become.
Think nothing could be worse than a Trump presidency? Think again.