Why Conservatives Should Consider Restraint

In an attempt to help its allies, and as a way to defeat terrorists, the US government decided to intervene in Syria and Iraq after the rise of ISIS. While the US military is praised as being the best in the world, it did not come as a shock when, in its effort to help protect liberal democracy, ISIS ended up with American weapons. This is merely one misstep in a series of American mistakes in Iraq made in an effort to build a stable Iraqi nation. Foreign Affairs notes that, in 2003, the US military successfully toppled the Iraqi regime only to install a government without a security apparatus that was quickly usurped, thrusting the country into civil war. Next, once Iraq fixed its political situation, in 2010 they held elections in which a Sunni supporter won, but in which the US and Iran both supported the opposing candidate who sought to quell the Sunnis—in the end, the US- and Iranian-backed candidate took power. As a result of US influence in this election, ISIS, who supports the Sunnis of Iraq, was able to establish a foothold in the country. In the civil war that followed between the governments of Syria and Iraq, the ISIS forces, the Kurds, and the Revolutionaries, the US government sent arms to both the Kurds and the Revolutionaries while Russia sent arms to the Syrian government.

The US government did not always intervene in international affairs. Many leading foreign policy minds found this type of balance-of-power politicking to be antithetical to the American way of war. George Washington and John Q. Adams were unconcerned with finding a strategic advantage at every point in the world. In fact, they would balk at the notion that the United States would provide arms in a civil war in which the Revolutionaries were not fighting a war of principles, but of defense.

It is time to reframe the debate on foreign policy. The question conservatives ought to ask is “what will help America lead others to liberty?” rather than asking questions of strategic advantage that ultimately end in balance-of-power struggles between great powers. When the founders came to America, they were not looking for a way to gain a strategic advantage over any other nation; instead, they were trying to find a way to maintain the liberties that had been denied to them by the British government. America’s strength comes not from its strategic position, for Russia and potentially even North Korea both have the potential to harm us from across the oceans. America’s strength comes from what John Q. Adams called the example of “the only legitimate foundation of civil government,” the principles of self-government found in the Declaration of Independence.

The modern approach to US foreign policy holds that the United States should help all liberal democracies militarily and help newly-formed democracies to build stable nations. In the case of Iraq, only one of many, this policy has failed. When the US government intervened, all it did was create more instability in an already unstable region. If you look at other cases—Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Cuba, and others—it is easy to see that American nation-building does not create lasting freedom, stability, or prosperity. John Q. Adams predicted as much:

[America] well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. The frontlet upon her brows would no longer beam with the ineffable splendor of freedom and independence; but in its stead would soon be substituted an imperial diadem, flashing in false and tarnished lustre the murky radiance of dominion and power. She might become the dictatress of the world: she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.

He has not been proven wrong. In nearly every case of American interventionism, the result has been power merely, not liberalism. We now have the most powerful military, but that military should not be involved in state-building. It especially should not intervene in the short-term, only tangentially-important conflicts of a region thousands of miles from its shores when its main concern should be keeping alight the beacon of liberty. When we try to build nations, we become “the dictatress of the world” and lose our spirit. There is no place for our military except to protect Americans, and unless there is another America fighting for its independence, it would be wrong to get involved in other countries’ wars.

If conservatism is the preservation of the founders’ principles, then it is time to re-evaluate the modern approach to foreign policy. There is a place for American interventionism, but its use should be limited. The place is certainly not any of the examples listed above, nor in any conflict fought to prevent Russia and China from gaining strategic advantage. These advantages are temporary. However, principles of freedom can last if they are safeguarded by our maintaining our image. Isolationism should not be the aim, but conservatives should not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” because it erodes conservative principles of self-governance and liberty. Unfortunately to-date, America has not maintained these principles in its foreign policy.