On Independence Day it seems fitting to offer some consideration of the ongoing debate over our foreign policy, military adventures around the globe and most prominently in the Middle East.
The flurry of activity over Obama’s Libya policy and his violation (or not) of the War Powers Resolution has led to some interesting discussion over conservatism, foreign policy, and “isolationism.” John McCain angered some when he warned against this in his interview with Christiane Amanpour, which today prompted a withering critique from George F. Will.
Indeed there is a long history of isolationism in the modern conservative movement, with its roots most directly traceable to Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio, whose voice seems to be speaking from the past through some of the leading GOP candidates. Taft, the conservative leader who led GOP opposition to the New Deal’s social programs, also clashed Dwight Eisenhower over foreign policy — and foreign aid, namely the Marshall Plan, which he only reluctantly supported. He also voiced strong skepticism over the war in Korea, which in some ways is analogous to the current non-war in Libya. Here is one quote from the Senator known then as “Mr. Conservative:” “In the case of Korea, where a war was already under way, we had no right to send troops to a nation, with whom we had no treaty, to defend it against attack by another nation, no matter how unprincipled that aggression might be, unless the whole matter was submitted to Congress and a declaration of war or some other direct authority obtained.”
Taft lived and legislated in a pre-War Powers Resolution era, and it would be an interesting thought experiment to consider how he might have regarded the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the entire imbroglio of funding the ensuing Vietnam War, and the eventual WPR “solution” that Congress attempted to put in place. (A comprehensive history of the WPR is available here, from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service.) The problem is the WPR is entirely ineffective, and has never been enforced by the courts despite cases brought by lawmakers against presidents for actions including Reagan in Grenada, George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War, Bill Clinton in Kosovo, and George W. Bush in the second Gulf War — a process I covered as a Washington reporter at the time.
In every single case the courts rejected or dismissed the suits, often citing technical issues about “standing” to bring suit in the first place, or, as the Supreme Court under Rehnquist often did, describing the matter as a “political question” that the judicial branch had no role in resolving. Some, including Presidents Nixon (who vetoed it) and Ford, considered the WPR unconstitutional in the first place. The courts have not explicitly agreed, but repeated failure to honor the WPR under all of the scenarios lawmakers have attempted to enforce it sure begins to look like a tacit admission of unconstitutionality. While it is still “on the books” as a law, many legal observers do not consider the WPR “good law” (a term of art) given its unanimously unsuccessful track record as a legal instrument. The rhetorical tussle over “upholding the Constitution” and “enforcing the law” is thus largely political stagecraft, and smart politicians like Speaker Boehner, who have been around long enough seen the WPR fail repeatedly in the courts, know it. The current president, under questioning from NBC’s Chuck Todd on the specific issue of the WPR’s constitutionality, dodged. In classic law professor fashion, he declared he “didn’t have to reach the question” because under his tortured definition of the non-war in Libya, the Resolution is not legally relevant.
Beyond the legal and rhetorical disputing remains the ideological question: When should a political party, in Congress or in the White House, and acting on behalf of what it believes to be the interests of the nation, support (and fund) the use of American military force? The true, Robert Taft, paleo-conservative line is that we should do so only when our national interests are at risk. George Will walks close up to this line, though in his typical, elusive and erudite manner he opts not to drive the point completely home. A clearer explanation of the old conservative line can be found here, in a column written by William A. Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review. Bill, who I was privileged to have known as a political sparring partner, was a keeper of the flame — unafraid in his older years to criticize the neoconservatives whose influence ballooned under George W. Bush. Rusher and some other authentic conservative like Peggy Noonan, called out the neoconservatives’ missionary-like zeal to “spread freedom” as having more in common with Woodrow Wilson (and that great and horrid first world war which did not either end all wars, or make the world safe for democracy). Here is a bit from Rusher, responding to Bush’s second inaugural address:
The president invokes the war on terrorism to sanction a major extension of Wilson’s argument: The world must not only be made safe for democracy; ultimately, democracy must prevail everywhere. In the words of a Bush critic, Pat Buchanan, that is “Wilson on amphetamines.”
But there has always been an argument over what the “American mission” (assuming it exists) obligates America to do in regard to other countries. John Quincy Adams made an important distinction early on: “We are the champion of freedom everywhere,” he declared, “but the vindicator only of our own.” On this basis, it has long been the rule that the lives of American fighting men would be put at risk only where a “vital American interest” was at stake.
Conservatives would be wise to consider this historical perspective, which a guru like Rusher, in typical fashion, takes not only back to Taft but to John Quincy Adams. (Unlike Will, Rusher is less afraid to quote Pat Buchanan.) George Will’s critique of McCain and his neocon desire to use force, sacrifice life, and spend money in defense of our “values” rather than our “interest” is a case that needs to be made loud and clear. It is rife with partisan and political implications, but as the history of the WPR shows, it is not a party-line matter. Both left and right have, and continue, to confront executive use of the war power. The main problem Boehner and the conservative opposition now face is, in fact, mostly a product of their own party’s adoption of the neoconservative agenda decried by people like Rusher, Noonan, Buchanan, and others willing to speak out against the adventure in Iraq.
To close, a quotation from the great conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, who was of Taft’s generation but lived long enough to see the neoconservative takeover coming. He asked a question of these advocates on the right which we might well now ask of our president on the left, a man many admire for his intellect, cool demeanor, and measured persistence as he surveys the landscape — in Libya and elsewhere, making a calculus. Kirk asked:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, neoconservatives?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
We have knowledge of what is happening in Libya, of what may have happened in Benghazi, of troop movements and bombs dropped. We have information. But is our course wise?