Opinion

Choosing wars

International Military InterventionsNational SecurityGlobal ExpansionPoliticsUnrest, Conflicts and WarDiplomacyIraq

Today, Continetti and Antle determine whether an activist foreign policy has any place in conservative ideology. Previously, they debated the president's fiscal policy. Later in the week, they'll discuss the religious right, social engineering through tax incentives and more.

If we don't maintain world order, who will? By Matthew Continetti
Jim,

Today's prompt asks us, "Is interventionism an organic plank of conservatism, or is it the cancer that's destroying it?" I am going to take issue with the way the question is framed. Not only is "interventionism" not "destroying" conservatism, there is also nothing particularly "conservative" about interventionism. For the United States, whether it likes it or not, periodically intervening in a world order that it has done so much to establish is the only game in town. The job of conservatives is to ensure that those interventions are aligned with American interests and ideals.

The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a belligerent Iran seeking nuclear weapons, an unresolved Korean peninsular crisis, a rising China and an autocratic, aggressive Russia have made many Americans anxious about the world and our place in it. But there is no escaping U.S. global involvement. Foreign policy writers Robert Kagan and Ivo Daalder calculate that the United States intervened in other countries' affairs "with significant military force" every 18 months on average between 1989 and 2001. Since 2001, the United States has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq; sent troops to the Philippines and Liberia; and conducted missile strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. American military commitments extend from Colombia to Kosovo to Japan. Including proposed supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration has budgeted more than $600 billion in defense spending for fiscal year 2009. As is often pointed out, that amount is about the same as the combined defense budgets of the next 12 to 15 nations.

These circumstances did not spring up overnight, and they are not solely the product of President Bush and the neocons. Since the end of World War II, the United States has adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy to first contain Soviet communism and then, once Soviet communism had been destroyed, expand the sphere of liberal democratic nations. The net result of this foreign policy has been a richer, freer, more peaceful world. These are the fruits of American "interventionism."

As the United States has adopted this new international role, however, the American people have also maintained their traditional ambivalence toward the rest of the world. We think most people are like ourselves and then become disappointed when they do not live up to U.S. standards. We are reluctant to deploy military force and eager to withdraw once those forces are deployed. We grow frustrated with allies for not doing their "fair share" of maintaining global order. We often wish our problems would go away.

They won't. Truth is, if the United States were to renege on its commitments and allow the international order that it has maintained for 60 years to fall apart, another order would take its place. The transition from one to another would be characterized by conflict. And the new order, once it was born, would not be pleasant. It would be less free, less prosperous and less peaceful than the world we know today.

You can see what happens when Americans turn inward by reading the history of the 1970s. It is not a pretty sight. U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam marked the beginning of a period of global catastrophe, as the Soviet Union expanded its influence in Central Asia, Africa and Central America and the Iranian revolution provided the first state vehicle for jihadism's war on the West. These crises engendered others in the U.S. government and the global economy. Going back even earlier in our history, when you look at America's failure to maintain the post-Versailles Treaty order that it had helped build following the World War I, you see the same pattern. Illiberalism was allowed to expand, the world economy tanked and more war followed.

We know what happens when the United States decides to reject "interventionism." Let's not make the same mistakes again.

Best,

Matt

Matthew Continetti is associate editor at the Weekly Standard and author of "The K Street Gang: The Rise and Fall of the Republican Machine."


Military power: good for killing terrorists, bad for building nationsBy W. James Antle III
Matt,

Let's revisit a couple of points from yesterday's discussion about interventionism at home before moving on to interventionism abroad. You point out that in the current political climate, it is not possible to accumulate a perfectly conservative record. But perfection versus progress toward policy goals strikes me as a false choice. If Bush had made progress toward restraining the growth of the federal government, I wouldn't criticize him for not doing perfectly. I criticize the president because he has gone in the opposite direction.

You contend that Medicare Part D isn't as bad as its conservative critics allege because it has (so far) come in under budget and seniors are happy with it. On what grounds then will we be able to oppose moves to expand the federal role in healthcare under the next Democratic administration? On what grounds can we defend the president's prudent veto of the State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion? When the next administration, Democratic or Republican, seeks to impose price controls through the prescription drug benefit, the program will probably still be popular and under budget (if you really can call something that adds trillions of dollars to Medicare's unfunded liabilities "under budget"). Should conservatives just be happy when some liberals are irritated that we didn't adopt a single-payer system instead?

In foreign policy, I think you present another false choice between maintaining unsustainable commitments and interventions versus repudiating the entire international order. As the early neoconservatives once reminded us, government policies often have unintended consequences despite our best intentions. We conservatives often have trouble remembering this in foreign policy, perhaps because we have forgotten it in domestic policy as well.

The United States faces an extremely dangerous world. But even as a superpower, we have limited resources. That means we must make the right choices when deciding to intervene militarily and also when deciding which commitments from bygone eras we wish to maintain. Not every intervention makes us more secure; some may make us less secure.

We came down on different sides of the debate over Iraq. I feared that an invasion would increase the regional power of Iran, bog down large numbers of our troops while we were already at war with terrorist supporters in Afghanistan and result in the arming of rival ethnic groups that might later turn against U.S. forces. You, if I'm not mistaken, favored regime change to forcibly disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction. We probably still disagree about who was right. But clearly, weighing the costs and benefits of the Iraq war differently is not the same as arguing over America's involvement in the international order.

The Iraq venture may have eroded conservatives' credibility in the eyes of our countrymen, but we can regain that credibility if we keep a few things in mind. U.S. action, as well as inaction, can have unintended consequences. Military force is good for killing terrorists, but not so good for creating democracies or reshaping cultures. And politicians don't become all-knowing just because they are spending our money beyond our borders.

That sounds like good old-fashioned conservatism to me.

Jim

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.

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