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foreignMy post (American Imposed Regime Change), and those by John Willson (War for Libyan Oil) and Brad Birzer (The Unconstitutional President) have generated some interesting discussions. In the post below I summarize my criticism of the “War Party” position and expand on my view of a conservative American foreign policy approach. Every conservative concerned about American foreign policy should read Foreign Policy for Conservatives on this site. This brilliant description of a conservative foreign policy is excerpted from Russell Kirk’s book The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft. It deserves to be spread, far and wide, by the Imaginative Conservative community via emails to friends, Facebook, Twitter and all available methods of distribution.

Those who wish to use the American military to effect regime change in foreign lands are sensitive to terms like “war party.” They say this is an exaggeration of their position. Poppycock. Let’s go ahead and add “interventionist” and “lover of foreign adventure” for good measure. They do not like it because it accurately describes their approach to using the military might of the American Republic. They are open to spending American blood and treasure whenever they feel that people in a foreign country are “oppressed” or their leader is a “tyrant” or “dictator.”

They regard the $1,300,000,000,000 spent on Iraq and Afghanistan (spent so far, above and beyond normal military spending) as worth it relative to the amount of money the U.S. government spends annually. And they seem to feel that our dead (over 6,000) and wounded (over 33,000) soldiers from those wars are just an unfortunate price of spreading “democracy” across the globe. Well, I am an American. My primary concern, and responsibility, is for American interests, American soldiers and American citizens. I am not a citizen of the “world.” That term has no meaning in this context of relations between nations and war.

They throw around the term “isolationism.” None of us (Birzer, Willson, Elliott) writing on this topic on The Imaginative Conservative have advocated “isolationist” positions. The “interventionists” advocate using the U.S. war machine to bring about regime change when they deem it necessary to oust foreign leaders/dictators they deem oppressive. I am comfortable calling this a “war party” position. I will also call it what it is, lunacy.

Before they start calling me an “isolationist” again let me state my position clearly (as I have before on this site). I don’t believe in “isolationism.” However, I do believe that prudence demands we count the costs of our actions, especially so that we learn from the past and may make better decisions in the future. Certainly 6,000 U.S. dead, 33,000 wounded, and $1.3 trillion is a very high cost indeed. 
Is it not legitimate to ask was it worth it?

Should we have stayed in Afghanistan for almost 10 years after we destroyed the terrorist training camps we went there for? Are we so much more enamored with the new political structure in Iraq (voting followed by chaos and violence) over the old system (dictatorship followed by repression and violence)? 

Is it truly a conservative position to go beyond punishing the terrorists, and destroying their camps, with a 10 year attempt to remake Afghan political culture in our own image? This has all the signs of going from justified military action to hubris on a grand scale.

Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, and other notable conservatives, have expressed great concern that centralization and militarization have been the greatest threats to preservation of the principles of the American Republic. They were not isolationists. They were true patriots who wished to guard against taking actions to destroy the enemy that may simultaneously lead to undermining the ordered liberty we claim to fight to preserve.

I am for taking military action against those that clear evidence indicates threaten the safety of our Republic and its citizens. But, does this necessitate a permanent military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan? How about Germany, South Korea and Japan? Is there no end to this? If not, I fear that we must (as Brad Birzer has suggested on this site) admit that the Republic is lost and that we fight to defend a democratic empire. 

My policy is to act upon American security interests, not a policy that makes us feel good by replacing foreign dictators with a “whatever replaces them will probably be better” policy. And regarding situations where foreign enemies threaten the United States my policy is simple: I say kill the enemy and come home. Don’t move into his house and call it defense.

What about Afghanistan where terrorists were training to attack Americans? It was necessary to go in and take out the terrorists training camps and to make clear to the government of the country we would not tolerate them harboring terrorists. But, did this necessitate moving in for the next 10 years? I say no. Nation building in the Middle East is not a conservative approach. It is radical and expensive. Not to mention deadly.

Will the interventionists admit that the militarization of the Republic is a bad thing and that wars in two foreign nations simultaneously, for a decade, have massively increased the power of the national government? Must we wage war in, and establish permanent military bases in, every nation where dictators oppress their citizens? Is this the work of a republic or an empire? Every empire had humanitarian or security reasons, to go along with economic ones, to justify permanent military occupation.

I will say this again. When the real interests of Americans are threatened then to use military force is permitted. Kill those who plan to kill us. Destroy their bases. When necessary, go back and do it again. That is prudent application of military force against the enemy. It is not pacifism or isolationism. 

Don’t occupy foreign nations for decades, longer than WWI and WWII combined. This is foolishness. And it is not conservative.

Lastly I say this to those who wish to send American soldiers and pilots into battle to implement regime change in foreign nations when the national interests of our nation are not directly threatened: my son is a combat arms officer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. I take the use of military force very seriously and I take it personally. I accept a policy that may end up getting my son wounded or killed (I pray this does not happen) in order to defend our nation. I despise the idea of him paying such a price for a plan for “democracy in the Middle East.” Perhaps if more of the interventionists had a personal stake in these wars, that they often treat like a game of “Let’s Oust the Dictator,” then they would give the costs of war serious attention. Our young warriors, and the future generations of Americans who will be handed the bill for today’s wars, deserve to be given great consideration in this debate.

All I ask for, beg for, is a prudent use of our military. Never one drop of blood for an American empire. Kill our enemies, destroy their bases and bring our boys home. I believe it is conservative to choose protecting American lives over a goal of changing the culture and politics of foreign nations.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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16 replies to this post
  1. Well said! As I argued on a different site, America can enjoy the Swiss-style foreign policy that G Washington advocated, but the order in which she disengages is as important as the steps in disarming a bomb.

  2. This is the most important debate of what remains of our lifetimes. The sad thing is that there is no significant difference between the two parties. Mitt, Newt and the gang never saw a war they didn't like, as was true of Dole, Bushes, and McCain. Much as I hate to say it, I think Obama deserves credit for winding down at least one unnecessary foreign adventure, but that posture must be evaluated in the context of Libya and the ongoing mess in Afghanistan, plus the "embassy" we have constructed in Baghdad. Masty is right, we must learn to disengage with prudence, just as the War Party has engaged with recklessness, but what is left of the republic cannot and will not survive without disengagement.

  3. Fortunately do have a GOP presidential candidate that has long supported Robert Taft's policy for non-intervention: Dr. Ron Paul. I respectfully ask that those who advocate for a non-war party approach give Ron serious consideration and support. A Minnesotan conservative.

  4. Thank you for pointing the discussion in the right direction. Now as Catholics we need to wake up and realize the only one advocating a just war policy is RON PAUL. All he needs is the Catholic vote and this country will turn on a dime. The greatest scandal of all time is that most Catholics don't vote with their heart, with their mind, with an informed conscience (in this case especially). We need this debate to go viral and for solid Catholics to speak out and help get Ron Paul elected. He is our only hope (politically speaking- Jesus is our TRUE hope of course)! If we don't fall for the silly media bias that keeps trying to ram down our throats that PAUL is not electable we would realize that we decide who is electable! Catholics make or break elections. When will we get it right? Oh and PAUL is more "Catholic" than any of the other Catholic candidates. All we need to do is go to the sources of what PAUL is advocating and intelligently analyze the issues in light of Church teaching and we will all see that he is the only one we can in good conscience support with our votes.

    Here is a thoughtful look at our forign policy and our need to support our troops:

  5. John Wilson sums this up succinctly and correctly "This is the most important debate of what remains of our lifetimes." It really does encapsulate the entire trad-con argument against the state and its subjugation of the individual for the collective "good." The shocking fact is that we stand to gain more allies from "the left" say Glenn Greenwald and Dennis Kucinich than we have the foggiest hope of converting from those temples of war scholarship in DC that so many have so canonized and supported as "conservative."

    The problem is that the Bolton's do not "debate" they instead stigmatize, ostracize and then condemn opponents as "kooks" and "outliers". Thus the challenge is at least PR related as it is principled.

  6. Are our young men still defending our nation or are they serving for pay like the soldiers of the late Roman Republic? Is it really patriotic to serve any of the last several American "regimes" in their imperialistic delusions? The days of the American citizen soldier appear long gone. Do we not have a paid professional force that is not fighting for any thing other than a paycheck and later college funding?

  7. Anonymous, I disagree but Winston will know better. Here in Afghanistan's capitol I meet a few American officers and enlisted men (but maybe the brighter ones, I cannot say). They are painfully polite, hard-working, scrupulous people. Had you ridden with me recently, driven by a Chinese-American boy, you'd have been as choked up as I when he described his dad who gave up a lucrative job as an engineer in Hong Kong to come to America and then lose his job in the economic slump. His son was so proud to be an American and an American soldier, sending his paychecks home to dad and mom. He has ambitions beyond the military, and sees the superiority of his Asian work-ethic and family values, but his patriotism is unassailable and anyone would be proud to have such a son. From my limited exposure he is close to the norm.

    But the conscript citizen-soldiers of the Marshall Plan – the school-teachers and lawyers, the farmers and such who had the breadth of knowledge to help the Germans grow so peaceful and prosperous – are no more. And the career military builds a corporate psychology deprived of healthy skepticism. That is a loss, but less of one than the dumb-ass militarism of ordinary citizens nowadays (apart, it seems, from supporters of Dr Paul).

  8. Mr. Elliott, you wrote; "It was necessary to go in and take out the terrorists training camps and to make clear to the government of the country we would not tolerate them harboring terrorists. But, did this necessitate moving in for the next 10 years? I say no."

    So after we ran the Taliban out of Afghanistan in '01, would you have been supportive of striking the Taliban camps in Pakistan (from where Taliban attacks on Afghanistan have been staged all-along) and possibly touching off an even more deadly and costly (if $ is your biggest concern) war with Pakistan rather than helping Afghanistan build up their country for ten years to a point where they can resist those attacks themselves? After all, look at the last time we helped Afghanistan oust their oppressors (the Soviets) and then abandoned them; the Taliban took over. <–Bad move, America. But at least nobody could call us 'warmongers', the 'war party' or 'nation builders', right?

    I thought Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet taught us let the lamp of experience be our guide, to beware the ideologues and 'terrible simplifiers' who wield isolationist slogans like a battle ax and who refuse to prudently adjust their foreign policy to the realities of the immense complexities and dangers world. I agree with you that we have made many terrible mistakes militarily and I have tremendous respect for those who say we need to reassess and readjust our military positioning in the world, but those who are ready to abandon the world altogether so that they can fall in line behind Ron Paul's rigid ostrich policy seem dangerously imprudent to me.

    I infer from your remarks that only the opinions of people with a 'stake' in the conflicts are given creditability –and aside from Mr. Masty's esteemed remarks, apparently also we should reject any opinions from the experienced people actually in-theatre. I am willing to consider a wider spectrum of opinion than that, but lest my opinion be dismissed immediately, perhaps I should mention that my family has lost a Marine in Afghanistan and I lost the closest thing to a son I ever had in the surge in Iraq.

    Darrin Moore

  9. Mr. Moore,

    Yes, my family has lost folks, too. In fact, twelve generations have fought for whatever was their country at the time, so we can start out even on that score. I also appreciate your concern to respect Winston's carefully reasoned and passionate essay. You also have indeed captured an important part of Kirk and Nisbet, although leaving the impression that they thought ONLY about the "lamp of experience." And your flippant remark about Dr. Paul's "ostrich policy" serves little purpose.

    To answer your first question to Winston: YES. When somebody attacks you, fight back. The purpose of having a military is to kill people who are trying to kill you. It is not to effect "regime change" or to do social work. The "in-theatre" people have a job that is assigned to their pay-grade, not to determine the moral nuances of the greater good.

    We must act as a republic, or abandon the notion that we are one. We have a "stake" only in that we defend our liberty.

  10. All of this has died down sufficiently enough, and I doubt many readers will return, so that I shall offer my take on these “things.” John and Brad know me well enough to smile at what I offer, as I am admittedly the most liberal of these imaginative conservatives. I mean no offense by what I write, and I readily admit to my pacifistic leanings; seeing that I am an inheritor of neither a Thomistic nor an Augustinian tradition, I feel little fidelity to a Just War theory. In all honesty, I may be posting here simply to avoid grading student essays (let’s just say that student essays may not be the best place to look for the Good, the True, or Beautiful–though I’m sure that the students unfortunate enough to have read any of my work or to have listened to my lectures believe the feeling to be mutual).

    All this said, and in the most irenic and charitable way the interwebs as a medium will provide, I’d like to pick a few nits–really just for the sake of discussion. Though Mr. Elliott lays out somewhat of a concrete direction for his vision of military intervention (and I believe all of it superior to what the past 50+ years this country has demonstrated), I still find most of his thoughts vague at best and an invitation for-more-of-the-same at worst. It’s in this spirit–seeking clarity–that I’d like to proceed.

    “Well, I am an American. My primary concern, and responsibility, is for American interests, American soldiers and American citizens. I am not a citizen of the “world.” That term has no meaning in this context of relations between nations and war.”
    ***I believe this to be a disastrous approach. Let’s face it: at the end of the day, you aren’t really only an American, or even primarily. If everything is read through the eschaton, and I would assume every Christian can only read the world in such a manner, then you really aren’t an American primarily (I don’t mean to pull the Jesus card here politically but simply anthropologically and logically). My concern is for the Iraqi, Afghani, Libyan, Rowandan, etc., children, mothers, brothers, fathers, Catholics, Protestants, etc (Mr. Masty’s posts should remind us all of this continually). I’m afraid that this staunch national/political stance is what’s gotten us into this mess–in two directions. In one way, we could be asked to save these innocents from brutal tyrants. Your position, while economical logically, wreaks havoc ethically. To turn our back on innocents when with just a little force we could save thousands? Really? This is your position? I’m not arguing going in for the long haul, mind you. I’m simply asking if it’s possible we could treat threats to other innocents the way in which we treat them as if they were threats against Americans. What if one doesn’t wish to spread democracy but wishes to halt the slaughter of innocents? But this position, obviously, also opens the door for unending wars and the spreading of democracy. Dear Lord, imagine the places the US could go with the policy I’ve lain out here. And yet the “cold shoulder” of “America primarily” would also put blood on our hands: how can we watch the killing of innocents when we *could* do something. Here I want it to be clear that I’m not a proponent in either direction. Either one is fraught with ethical problems. I’m also assuming that one gets involved for ethical reasons and not geo-political or economic ones. I offer these insights not to disprove what you’ve written but to muddy the ethical waters a bit.

    “I am for taking military action against those that clear evidence indicates threaten the safety of our Republic and its citizens.”
Clear evidence? Go on.

    END of Part 1

  11. Part 2:

    “What about Afghanistan where terrorists were training to attack Americans? It was necessary to go in and take out the terrorists training camps and to make clear to the government of the country we would not tolerate them harboring terrorists.”
***Why was this necessary? There is plenty of evidence that those attacks were avoidable and that many others have been avoided since then. My goodness, we all know how many attacks the Israelies thwart without undergoing such operations.
    Or I can go in the other direction: I agree with everything above, which means we need to do something about Pakistan, Iran . . . .

    “When the real interests of Americans are threatened then to use military force is permitted. Kill those who plan to kill us. Destroy their bases. When necessary, go back and do it again. That is prudent application of military force against the enemy.”
    Oh, boy. This is the very premise of so-called neo-conservatism. Threatened how? Plan to kill us? What’s the threshold here? Preemptive war? Dear God, preventative war? When necessary? How does one judge? “Real interests?” Is this simply physical harm? What about economic concerns? I mean, all that oil . . . What about the well-being of allies? The slaughter of innocents (I think here of the Jewish and Armenian holocausts and of Rwanda)? Please give us some sense of “real interests.”
    A lot of this is too squishy for me. Do we go by our gut? Do we count numbers? I find myself nodding in agreement, but to what I do not know.

    “Kill our enemies, destroy their bases and bring our boys home.”
    ***Again, this is a nice statement, but what are the political realties? Enemies defined how?

    Please know, Mr. Elliott, that I don’t mean to be disagreeable, or clever, or bull-headed. It seems that you’ve given us a watered down Just War theory, and the current Just War theory seems only to produce just war (at all times, in all places, only war) or just war (meh, it’s just another war–think Libya for a current example).

    In short, nothing presented here seems to be rhetorically different from what’s been offered to us in the past. The only difference seems to be that you mean, “Not like they meant it in the past.” But this is what they argued.

    O.K., back to papers.


  12. Winston,

    Although we maintain a military presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea, it is hard for me to equate that with American imperialism. Perhaps you can explain that a little more. And aren't we Americans much safer and better off because of the re-building work we did in Germany and Japan after World War II?

    Not that I don't agree with you about Iraq. We seem to have gone in there thinking regime change was going to be a piece of cake. Here, Iraq, we give you democracy!

  13. Andrew Seeley raises a good point. When is maintaining a long-term military presence in a country in America's best interest? I agree with much of what Winston has said, but we must address this crucial question.

    I don't believe that our presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea has been bad. In fact, I believe it have been great for the security and prosperity of the United States and the world as a whole. But, when we first initiated those policies, they presented significant risk and costs. But, democracy was brought to Germany, Japan and South Korea, and out of this democracy, America gained three of its most important allies.

    What is a traditional conservative, like myself, to make of this?

  14. Ha! Justin thought he could sneak one in! But you must remember the extent of MY sneakiness, as well!

    Once upon a time, when I was about seventeen, I called out my father on a nuanced point about psychiatry, of which he was not a fan. He looked to my mother and said, "we have nurtured a goddam intellectual." I have tried ever since to live that down.

    Justin, I think, puts fine points on things that would perhaps make any government incapable of defending itself. Winston, if I read him right, is simply restating what George Washington said, with some added emphasis. Jeff Milton, a Texas Ranger who later became a border cop in Arizona, claimed "I never shot a man who didn't need killin', and I never shot an animal except for meat."

    Preventive war, as Russell Kirk said so emphatically, is the death of a republic, as is a "thirst for empire," as John Dickinson warned in 1776. It's really not hard to tell when people are shooting at you. To be prudent in shooting harder at them is certainly not an easy thing, but it's much easier than drawing up a plan to do social work with bombs.

    "I'm also assuming that one gets involved for ethical reasons and not geo-political or economic ones." OOOO, that's dicey. I don't need an ethical reason to shoot somebody who is pointing a gun at me, but I would be hard pressed to think up why I would pull out my gun for an ethical reason. And yes, I know all the arguments about what is defense and what is offense.

    The mess that we are in, and have been since about the time of the War Between the States, is that we are so good at thinking up ethical reasons.

  15. John, I thought I could get by your radar.

    If you're calling me an intellectual, sir, well, those are hurtful words. As you know, I'm too stupid to be an intellectual. Oh, wait, I see your point now. Oh, the stories my father could tell.

    I'd be happy to simplify and stick conservatively to the Catholic Church's jus ad bellum (and then of course to jus in bello). This would make things really easy for us to avoid war, and in the justified cases in which it didn't, it would remind us to repent even when war was justified.

    But much of the language of the original article would seem not to apply to these very basic tenets, or it needs a lot of clarification. Note that I'm not making a Catholic argument here (which would be really funny since I'm neither Catholic nor a proponent of jus ad bellum) but a prudent one, a short-hand, if you will, for what would be good foreign policy with regards to war.

    I suppose, in short, what I'm happy to admit, and what my initial God-awful questions were getting at, is that, ultimately, we don't need good policy; we need good persons. But when we lack the latter, the former, when rigidly applied, can be a pretty good defense–and hence the reason for a clearly defined jus ad bellum (which, by the way, assumes only ethical reasons for war [i.e., right intention] and never geo-political or economic ones); how the doctrine has been enacted over the centuries, of course, is another matter completely.


  16. Gentlemen, stripping away the tricky definitions there seem to be more than 1,000 US military posts outside of America, and US military spending nearly equals the rest of the world combined. If you are afraid of your neighbours and 2,000 families live in your town, do you really need 2,000 guns to protect yourself? Wouldn't just a few do the job?

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