Conservatism Does Not End at America's Shorelines

Conservatism Does Not End at America's Shorelines

By Thomas Skypek - June 24, 2011

Since the end of the Cold War, neo-conservatives have routinely employed two powerful words to criticize traditional conservatives uneasy with their big government approach to international affairs: appeasement and isolationism. On ABC's "This Week," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) employed both words, labeling Republican criticism of the military adventure in Libya as "isolationist" all while making an allusion to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the costs of appeasement.

With a $14 trillion national debt, the United States simply cannot afford to continue to engage in the type of military adventurism embodied by the Libya campaign and advocated by McCain, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and prominent neo-conservative thinkers William Kristol and Robert Kagan.

Neo-conservative influence on Republican foreign policy thinking peaked during the first term of George W. Bush and has been waning ever since. However, the fear of (falsely) being labeled an appeaser or isolationist has silenced many conservatives and impressionable congressmen who simply equate high defense budgets with sound national security strategy and policy. Of course, throwing money at a problem is profoundly unconservative and speaks to a broader inconsistency of thought within the conservative intellectual movement. Why is it okay for conservatives to advocate for limited government at home and big government abroad? Conservatism does not end at America's shorelines.

Last year, I was at a gathering of prominent conservatives in Washington. During the cocktail hour, the subject of foreign policy came up and I voiced my concerns over the cost, sustainability, and wisdom of our current grand strategy and the influence of neo-conservative thinking. The gentleman with whom I was speaking inched closer and told me that while he agreed with me it's risky to voice such concerns in the present company. He was dead serious. And that was the end of our conversation. The good news is that this stigma continues to be eroded as realism replaces Wilsonian idealism in Republican foreign policy thinking and mainstream Republicans inject a measure of restraint into the foreign policy debate.

Recently House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) threatened to cut off funding for the non-hostility campaign (the White House's words, not mine) in Libya. Rep. Michele Bachman (R-MI) also challenged the wisdom of the Libya campaign arguing that the country does not constitute a "vital national interest." GOP front-runner Mitt Romney called for a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan summing up the American experience there in a way that was sure to draw the ire of neo-conservatives: "Americans cannot fight another nation's war of independence."

What many conservatives, including myself, are advocating is not isolationism but instead a more measured approach to foreign affairs which is grounded in a limited conception of the national interest and the idea that the fundamental aim of Washington's international engagement must be the preservation of American political and economic liberty.

This grand strategy rests on a national interest comprised of three pillars: (1) the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the United States, (2) the safety, security, and liberty of United States citizens, and (3) the ability to conduct trade and engage in commerce. It acknowledges that American military power will remain the ultimate guarantor of U.S. national security and will remain the most important instrument of grand strategy but recognizes that force should only be used in defense of America's national interests-not for the purposes of nation-building, peacekeeping, or democracy promotion.

It is in no way isolationist as the United States will remain engaged diplomatically and economically with the rest of the world. In fact, such engagement is required to advance the national interests. The major difference is the use of America's military might. Rather than whimsically engaging in costly military conflicts with unclear political objectives, America's military will reduce many of its commitments abroad. Most Americans would agree that we do not need a military presence in 150 countries.

Conservatives used to criticize their liberal counterparts for championing a do-gooder foreign policy that was overly idealistic, costly, and unattainable. The lines have been quite blurred and it's difficult to tell the difference between a neo-conservative and a Wilsonian. The GOP leadership in Congress and the 2012 presidential candidates must stay resolute in the face of misleading neo-conservative attacks and help to usher in the return of the conservative realist tradition.

Thomas M. Skypek is a Washington Fellow at the National Review Institute, a former Nuclear Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a national security consultant in Washington, DC.

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