The 2016 election revealed something important about the Republican party—it has never fully come to terms with the legacies of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. The GOP candidates weren’t, for the most part, able to articulate clearly whether it was a good thing or a bad thing, whether it was an example to be followed or a warning to be heeded.
This tension was on full display last week on the Tucker Carlson show, when Carlson had a tense exchange with conservative guests Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters and Max Boot. Carlson argued forcefully (and rather caustically) that both men had been seriously mistaken when it came to the Iraq war, and that their views about foreign policy ought, therefore, to be questioned when it comes to overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al Assad and considering the threat Russia poses to the U.S.
Peter Beinart concluded in The Atlantic that in Carlson, the conservative party finally has someone willing to stand up to the neoconservative establishment: “In his vicious and ad hominem way, Carlson is doing something extraordinary: He’s challenging the Republican Party’s hawkish orthodoxy in ways anti-war progressives have been begging cable hosts to do for years. For more than a decade, liberals have rightly grumbled that hawks can go on television espousing new wars without being held to account for the last ones. Not on Carlson’s show.”
Beinart also points out that conservative foreign policy has tended, over the past century, to oscillate between anti-interventionists like Rand Paul and neoconservatives who think America ought to spread democracy around the world (like it tried to do in Iraq). Beinart of course concludes that the anti-interventionist view is the right one, and hints that Carlson’s outlook ought to be the way forward for conservatism. But he’s wrong.
What the conservative movement in America really needs is to find a foreign policy that falls somewhere between anti-interventionism and neoconservatism. Carlson is right that the neocon vision of foreign policy was largely refuted in the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq (he of course put it in much harsher terms). But he’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Carlson speaks for many libertarian-leaning Republicans (or former Republicans) who seriously underestimate America’s role in preventing and containing conflicts—not because America must police the world, but because prudent intervention helps to prevent the very military overextension they decry.
We Have To Anticipate Threats Around The Globe
Carlson appears not to understand a fundamental tenet of good foreign policy, which is to anticipate future threats and act early and with force before a given situation boils over into a full-blown crisis or war. He argued last week that Iran doesn’t pose a domestic threat to the U.S., asking Boot, “how many Americans in the United States have been murdered by terrorists backed by Iran since 9/11?”
Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Syria aren’t directly threatening America, that’s true. But Carlson fails to see the ways Iran’s influence in the Middle East will shape American foreign policy for the next generation, and especially the dangers it will pose down the road when (not if) the revolutionary regime becomes a nuclear power. Having a solid foreign policy strategy means looking beyond the next few years—or the past few—and being responsible to those who will inherit today’s decisions.
North Korea serves as a useful example. The isolated nation appears to have both nuclear weapons and, as of earlier this month, an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach Alaska. Few doubt that Pyongyang poses a threat to America. But what if we had applied the same argument Carlson makes about Iran to North Korea? That prior to developing those weapons, it wasn’t really a threat? Good foreign policy requires projecting into the future, anticipating the likelihood that a country like North Korea will acquire this technology and assessing the threat it will then pose to the US.
This was the mistake allied powers made in the inter-war period of the 1920s and 30s. Many Europeans were so resistant to getting involved in another war that they made policy decisions that directly led to a large-scale conflict. Had Britain and France acted against Hitler when he first broke the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, they might have been able to stop him before his war machine was unstoppable. Instead, they waited until Germany had invaded Poland in September 1939 before they declared war—and then did nothing as Hitler prepared to invade France and the low countries the following spring.
Neoconservatives made a similar mistake in not thinking about how the decision to topple Saddam Hussein would actually play out on the ground. Carlson was right to point out the risk of repeating the same mistake in Syria when it comes to deposing Assad. But his own solution—that America shouldn’t really concern itself with what happens in Syria—is equally short-sighted.
The Obama administration erred in the same way with its full-throated support of the Arab Spring and the toppling of dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. For many of those countries, it was the authoritarian strongman who held the country together and prevented it from falling into chaos and civil war. Libya is a prime example. As much as we might despise those regimes, we have to be realistic about what it would mean to bring them down. In many cases, the alternative to a strongman is a failed state: a haven for warlords, organized crime, and terrorist groups.
We Can’t Wish Away Global Threats
Carlson’s argument that if a country doesn’t pose a direct threat to the U.S. then it’s none of our concern is naïve about the realities of the international order as it stands today, and the danger of a sudden dismantling of that order. We’ve had our finger in the dam for so long that pulling it out suddenly would be disastrous. Obama tried to do this with his foreign policy of “leading from behind,” and it left the American people with a significantly less stable world, especially in the Middle East.
But the libertarian view is not without merit. Carlson rightly pointed out that the U.S. must think carefully about where and how it can act abroad, that it must prioritize. There are of course limits to our capabilities, and our leaders and policy makers must be aware of them. We ought to prioritize which regions are most important, something we already do to a certain extent. Take almost all of Africa, where there are ongoing wars and conflicts in places like Nigeria and the Sudan. The U.S. doesn’t intervene significantly in these clashes because they aren’t strategically linked to core American interests.
In regions like eastern Europe, however, where countries like Ukraine are trying to build democracies, we have an interest in pushing back against a revanchist Russia and promoting stable democracies in former communist bloc countries. Likewise in Asia, where we have a vested interest in promoting the democracies of South Korea and Japan, and protecting them from the encroachments of authoritarian regimes in China and North Korea.
By contrast, Carlson’s foreign policy priorities are a mess. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights’ shows, he called it absurd to put Russia in America’s top five priority list, saying it’s “hard to see why” Putin is a threat to the U.S. Here, he is echoing the worst naïveté of the Left—repeating Obama’s derision toward Mitt Romney during the 2012 election, when Romney called Russia America’s greatest threat. Carlson seems to want to wish away America’s global adversaries because he wants to recede from the world stage wherever possible. But, as they say, wishing ain’t getting.
Conservatives Need A Third Way
Conservatives need to find a third way for American foreign policy. There must be room in the debate for an approach that lies somewhere between the quasi-libertarian views of Carlson and the full-blown neoconservativism of Max Boot. We need an option for a foreign policy that is more robust than Rand Paul’s and less hawkish than Dick Cheney’s. We need something akin to Henry Nau’s conservative internationalism, which prioritizes regions of the world where democracies border authoritarian states and where robust American engagement can do the most good.
After the combined 16 years of the Bush and Obama presidencies, it’s time for a new framework for international engagement that is neither unrealistically ambitious nor an abdication of America’s role in the world. Conservatives needs to bring their century-old dichotomy between pro- and anti-interventionism to an end—preferably before the next major crisis hits. In other words, as soon as possible.