The New Conservative Foreign Policy Needs Work
During his presidency, Donald Trump’s most controversial foreign policy act was the decision to drone Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani after a series of attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq. Naturally, those who supported the decision were mostly conservatives. Fast forward to Thursday and Friday and President Biden’s decision to issue his own retaliatory strike after a similar serious of attacks against, not a uniformed general, but militia in Syria and a significant number of conservatives balked.
One does not have time to list all of them, so here’s just one example from Rep. Lauren Boebert:
The failure to distinguish a piece of real estate that used to define Syria, but is now operated by militants and terrorists and Syrian state property is one that is to be expected from hard left professors, not self-styled America First conservatives, but here we are. Also, Trump not only bombed the place that used to be called Syria, he actually did bomb Assad regime property less than three months into his term.
If Trump ordered retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed militias (as he did on occasion), conservatives would be tweeting at Ben Rhodes “sorry about your friends.” Biden does it and the establishment’s love of forever war is back. The contradictory responses should lead to conservatives asking are hawks on Iran or are we doves?
That’s the specific question, but the bigger picture push among conservative-populists to move beyond forever war needs to be further intellectualized for it to become not just a credible philosophy that can gain academic respect, but real world successes.
But by distinguishing forever war from war, people have created a bumper sticker slogan pretending to be a serious policy. One can arguably claim the mantle of being an opponent of forever war by advocating for a isolationist policy where the United States retreats from alliances and other responsibilities and only goes to war if directly attacked.
However, this policy has been largely discredited by history and modern weapons technology and economic structures have made the world smaller, making it almost practically impossible. Politically, it would also be logically inconsistent for a Republican Party that has started to see China as the new Soviet Union.
Another much more plausible, if not desirable, option would be to treat being opposed to forever war as means to an end and the end of itself. Under this strategy, the point of the U.S. defense policy is deter aggression from other great powers, mainly Russia and China, but also secondary powers like Iran and North Korea. Wars like that in Iraq or interventions in Libya or Syria distract from the really crucial interests the U.S. has such as defending NATO, Iranian and North Korean nukes, Iranian hegemonic ambitions, and China’s expansionist dreams and drive to surpass the U.S. as the top global power.
These wars are bad not just because they take policymakers’ eyes off the ball, but, in the event they become protracted, they can force the military to spend more endless amounts of money on a never-ending adventure of debatable strategic importance, rather than investing in the air and naval assets it needs to deter a Chinese move on Taiwan, for example.
Both these groups can be accurately described as being against forever war, but that is about all they share in common as the second still requires the post-1945 robust military presence in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, with its strong regional partners and unbreakable alliances.
Which one is the one conservatives really want?
The anti-forever war crowd makes some good points and forced, at least Republicans, to return to basic national security questions such as asking why the military exists. But, bombing three trucks in Syria in a retaliatory strike is not a war, let alone a forever war.
There was a lot of talk in the Trump era about conservatism’s relationship with expertise. That was a bit overstated since you can always find someone with a fancy degree to tell you what you want to hear, but Boebert, her fellow freshman Madison Cawthorn, and others do represent a problem. It’s not so much a dismissal of expertise, but a flippant disregard for accumulated knowledge that can be gained through reading, intellectual consistency, or just using better analogies and instead tries to dumb everything down into a nifty little slogan or responding to events based on what letter the current president has next to his name.
Too many conservatives have tried to put foreign policy on a bumper sticker, but effective foreign policy requires knowledge that goes beyond slogans. There’s a way forward for a conservative-populist foreign policy that seeks to bring an end to forever war, but it will requires its adherents to be more intellectually sophisticated and consistent than “that’s bad and I don’t like it” which is where too many of them currently are.