Progressives are notorious for their internal foreign policy disagreements—particularly over the use of force and the proper role of America in the world. But the debate over President Barack Obama’s decisions to intervene militarily in Libya and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan reveals that there is serious and profound disagreement among conservatives over which direction their coalition’s foreign policy should take heading into the 2012 presidential election.
Charges and countercharges are flying between conservatives. Supporters of the wars in Libya and Afghanistan are on the offensive against perceived isolationism creeping into the ranks of conservative presidential candidates and elected officials. Other pundits, like former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, have defended the “new sobriety” of conservatives skeptical of the wars. Judging by the flurry of recent rhetoric, an out-and-out war over the contours of conservative foreign policy is brewing within the ranks of the conservative elite.
The main dividing line among conservatives today is between neoconservatives and conservative nationalists. These two groups share many of the same underlying assumptions—for example that the United States is inherently insecure in an anarchic international system in which survival depends fundamentally on military power. But they do not necessarily share the same ideas of what must be done about this problem.
Neoconservatives look at anarchy and see that it results from the lack of an overarching authority that can impose order on the international system. Since anarchy results in chronic insecurity for the United States, national security can only be assured by eliminating or tamping down international anarchy. Therefore the United States must take on the role of the overarching international authority and impose order on the international system in order to ensure America’s security. Neoconservatives often invoke values to justify military interventions since they believe that the spread of democracy equals the spread of American power and hence enhances American security.
By contrast, conservative nationalists do not have the same visions about international order that drive neoconservatives. To conservative nationalists, international anarchy and the profound insecurity it generates means that the United States must look out for itself first and foremost.
While conservative nationalists range from noninterventionist isolationists like Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, to expansive hegemony pursuers like Dick Cheney, the average conservative nationalist believes in the need for robust military power to protect the country and its interests with as few international restrictions as possible. They have no interest in nation building, and they view military force as a means of ensuring security in an inherently hostile world.
The differences between neoconservatives and conservative nationalists were obscured during the Bush administration. Many of the conservative nationalists who served under President George W. Bush—particularly Vice President Dick Cheney—had an expansive view of American security that was hard to distinguish from the neoconservative pursuit of benevolent American hegemony. And 9/11 only served to amplify the existing sense of national insecurity felt by conservative nationalists. It made them more receptive to the wide-ranging nature of security held by Cheney and others in the administration.
More than anything else, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent nation-building project there served to unify these two strains of conservative foreign policy thinking. For neoconservatives, invading Iraq would be a vindication of their theories of hegemony, and a democracy aligned with the United States and Israel against Iran would enhance U.S. power and interests. Conservative nationalists, on the other hand, saw a potentially nuclear-armed Iraq that could give those weapons to terrorists as an intolerable threat—particularly after 9/11.
While they normally find nation-building projects anathema, conservative nationalists supported the post-invasion war out of the fear that terrorists would somehow follow the United States home if it left Iraq. As President Bush put it, “The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.”
President Bush was able to unify these not altogether dissimilar two positions by virtue of being president and therefore being able to definitively set the conservative foreign policy agenda. As conservative foreign policy scholar Colin Dueck writes, “To a remarkable extent, when one party controls the White House, that party’s foreign policy is what the president says it is.”
While there is no indication President Bush ever really embraced the grand neoconservative theory of benign American hegemony, he did fuse neoconservative rhetoric on freedom and democracy with a broadly conservative nationalist foreign policy.
It should not come as a surprise, then, that conservative foreign policy thinking began to crack up without presidential leadership. Conservative nationalists became more wary of the broad implications of the neoconservative project, while neoconservatives and their conservative nationalist fellow travelers warned of the dangers of retreating from a maximalist conservative nationalist or neoconservative concept of America’s world role.
This conservative crack up has come to a head as President Obama made the twin decisions to intervene in Libya and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. The decision of 87 House Republicans—including presidential candidate Michele Bachmann (R-MN)—to oppose the war in Libya has caused paroxysms among neoconservatives and maximalist conservative nationalists. The Wall Street Journal editorial board labeled those who voted for a resolution cutting off funds for military operations in Libya “Kucinich Republicans,” while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) blasted conservative opponents of the Libya war as “isolationist.”
Similarly, expressing doubts over the military mission in Afghanistan has earned the ire of the conservative foreign policy elite. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s highly qualified statement in a recent Republican presidential debate supporting an eventual turnover of security responsibility to Afghan forces led former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen to pen a column decrying “the GOP flirtation with retreat in Afghanistan.”
But the intraconservative charge of isolationism stings. Washington Times columnist Tony Blankely defended Romney and other pessimists on Afghanistan against charges of isolationism. Washington Post columnist George Will went on the offensive, charging McCain—and by implication the broader neoconservative and maximalist conservative nationalist foreign policy elite—with advocating endless war.
The internal divisions between conservatives on foreign policy have come into full bloom over the past few months. Conservative foreign policy elites are aggressively policing wayward behavior and statements from conservative elected officials and candidates that do not comport with either the neoconservative or maximalist conservative nationalist line. Given the aggressiveness of the conservative foreign policy establishment in this policing it is likely that conservatives are heading into an even bigger fight over the nature and scope of their ideological coalition’s foreign policy as the campaign season heats up.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress.
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Former Senior Policy Analyst