Why Foreign Policy Restraint Has to be Part of the GOP’s Realignment

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Doves and realigners have the same enemies.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) speaks during a House Republican Leadership news conference in the U.S. Capitol on February 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

There are essentially two directions the nascent realignment in Republican politics can go: a brain-trust for a Marco Rubio presidential campaign or something like that, in which case it’s likely to go the way of “compassionate conservatism,” or an animating force in Congress in two years, in much the same way as small-government orthodoxy animated the Tea Party congressional wave. I’d prefer the latter, and Congressman Jim Banks being selected to lead the Republican Study Committee is a promising sign. But up until now, foreign policy has taken a backseat to domestic, so here are a few words in favor of prioritizing the former a little more.

I’d even go so far as to say that a willingness to break with the foreign policy consensus is the most credible sign that a realigner is willing to learn from the past. In all our talk about building a new elite, whether it generates a new foreign policy consensus is the way we’ll be able to tell if it’s in fact a new elite, rather than just a new cohort joining the old one. President Trump’s stance against the wars was extremely popular, even if his delivery was underwhelming, and his Republican enemies in Congress are also the most implacable defenders of the national security state. Listen to Jeff Sessions’s interview on TAC Right Now for what a politician sounds like when he’s actually learned something.

Congressman Mike McCaul, however, ranking member of the foreign affairs committee, has learned nothing. Last week he went on CNN to demand Trump disperse the fake QAnon insurrection foretold by someone in the vast homeland security bureaucracy (probably the vaunted “intelligence community,” considering that the first mention of March 3 as a significant date in the press came from the deep state’s favorite press conduit, Politico’s Natasha Bertrand). The willingness of old natsec dinosaurs like McCaul to be played like this just has to stop. And we can assume that if Republicans are willing to be taken for a ride by the deep state, they cannot be relied upon to fight expansions of a woke surveillance state. 

As a policy matter, the military-industrial complex is beset by the same problems of consolidation and corporate solicitude present in other sectors, and the consequences are even greater because they have the potential to put our security at risk. It’s also an area in which the normal free-market logic inherently doesn’t apply, since the sector is created and sustained by government spending. Now that the Air Force has now admitted the F-35 is a failure, perhaps we might even consider imposing consequences on firms that have taken the American taxpayer for a ride. We want Republicans who will hold Boeing accountable, not join their board, like Nikki Haley. 

Yet the GOP’s turn in a more nationalist direction is being led by different people from the ones who have advocated a more restrained foreign policy in the past, often libertarians and allies of this magazine. By and large the doves, especially those in the libertarian sphere, at Reason, the Koch network, and elsewhere, are extremely skeptical of the nationalist turn. On the other side, the institutions associated with the realignment have either largely ignored foreign policy or have hawkish pasts: Claremont, for instance, or the Hudson Institute, which hosted for a time the podcast that coined the term The Realignment in the first place.

We should welcome the changing of minds at some of these places, I certainly do, but I wonder if some of them doth protest too much in their attacks on libertarians. In this area, sincere realigners should be willing to get over their contempt for libertarians because there simply isn’t any other dovish camp to turn to. It doesn’t exist. As for libertarians, they should consider how gains can be made on the foreign policy front they might actually like. Our board member Will Ruger’s willingness to work with the Trump administration paid more dividends than a thousand Cato policy papers, and had he been confirmed, he would have been less likely to slow-walk the delivery of Afghanistan withdrawal than anyone else likely to be considered for the position. And as new congressmen are casting around for staff to give a new nationalist vision for the GOP shape, it’s very important that doves get in there and help them, because if they don’t, Liz Cheney will be steering the party’s foreign policy agenda.

It is also important that restraint be emphasized in the future because of the looming fight over how to address China. There are differences of opinion even in these pages about how serious that threat is, but for my part it strikes me as more serious than the ones our forever wars in the Middle East have intended to address. Regardless, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the blob shifts its substantial institutional resources toward China instead. This is already happening; we may deplore the treatment of Uyghurs in China, but it’s the hand of American soft power that’s making sure we find out about it, and it’s important to keep that in mind. To the hammer of the blob, every problem looks like a nail, and we cannot expect the confrontation with China to be handled with any more skill than the Iraq war. My litmus test for a politician or policy mandarin is this: Before talking about any military response, they must have a plan to disentangle the United States from their economy in a way that benefits Americans.

That’s the key: China has to be addressed first and foremost because our economic relationships with that communist power have had a negative impact on working Americans, not because of some grand ideological struggle with communism. We’ve had enough of their crusades, and we don’t intend to allow the same people to wage another one.

With respect to Europe, there is some finessing to do. Italy’s Georgia Meloni did a bit of it in her interview for the magazine last week. European populists have a difficult line to walk when it comes to the United States, and there remains the question of whether the powers that be in the United States will tolerate any kind of resumption of European national sovereignty. I doubt it, which is all the more reason Americans need to criticize NATO.

The sort of voters who voted for Bernie and Trump in 2016 like restrained foreign policy. It’s popular, and it’s also popular to run against the blob. Putting a dovish face on the realignment will help make clear that the dark mutterings in the liberal press about the incipient fascism of Josh Hawley have more to do with protecting the interests of elites than any kind of good-faith criticism. The self-styled defenders of democracy are actually defending their own status as its managers, and running against the permanent warfare state exposes that. There is no issue for which there is a greater gap between what the people want and what the managers demand. The managers say they want democracy, so let’s give it to them.

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