Shadow Government

Paul Ryan and principled foreign policy

President Obama’s national security team has been aggressively marketing itself as the "new realists," by which they mean to contrast themselves with the ideologues of the previous administration who, as Team Obama never tires of telling us, recklessly started a war on false pretenses — the wrong war — and committed to a strategy that ...

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

President Obama’s national security team has been aggressively marketing itself as the "new realists," by which they mean to contrast themselves with the ideologues of the previous administration who, as Team Obama never tires of telling us, recklessly started a war on false pretenses — the wrong war — and committed to a strategy that couldn’t work, while ignoring the right war in Afghanistan that would be wound down in 18 months with the application of two-thirds the resources the military asked for due to the systematic application of "smart power."   

Vice President Biden has been central to making that case. Biden advocated breaking up Iraq into three sectarian cantons (this was called ethnic cleansing when it was allowed to occur in the Balkans). He was the administration’s point man on negotiations with the Iraqis, which appeared to have little effect on the 18-month political stalemate between elections and forming a government that has trended authoritarian. Recall that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki issued the arrest order for his vice president immediately on return from Washington, which signaled to Iraqis the move had White House endorsement. Biden was the rain maker for negotiations over a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq which resulted in… no continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq.  

Biden also advocated a "counter terror" strategy for the war in Afghanistan, leaving Afghans to the Taliban and killing bad guys with drones and special forces, whether in Afghanistan or beyond. To President Obama’s credit, he did not choose this approach; but at issue is whether Representative Paul Ryan’s views on foreign policy are, as has been argued by the administration’s supporters, dangerously neo-conservative, penurious to diplomacy and foreign assistance, and profligate in military spending. And whether they should be more disqualifying than Vice President Biden’s manifestly bad choices.

Paul Ryan’s most forceful statement of his views emphasizes the limits on our foreign policy that our national indebtedness will occasion. This is a principled position the Obama administration wholly lacks, running deficits of a trillion dollars a year.  Paul Ryan’s budget reduces defense spending, but unlike President Obama, he does not reduce only defense spending. The Obama administration has cut defense in order to fund other spending priorities; Paul Ryan argues for cuts to defense as a contribution to putting our country back on sound financial footing. There is a difference, and it is a difference of principle.

Representative Ryan does seem to have a predilection for basing his policy choices on "foundational principles." Just as his arguments for putting our entitlement programs on sound footing are tied to the bigger ideas of what kind of future we want our country to have, his arguments for our foreign policy are tied to what kind of world we want to live in — the bigger ideas of advancing freedom and helping build institutions that preserve it. Colleagues on the left find this dangerous because they believe those ideas got the country in trouble the last time a President cared about advancing freedom. But the idea of advancing freedom has long been fundamental to American foreign policy, building support domestically for engagement with the world and reducing resistance internationally to what the U.S. seeks to achieve.

Idealism matters to Americans because, in truth, nearly all our wars are voluntary and our citizens are difficult to motivate to war. We are much more comfortable making the world safe for democracy, ending fascism, and advancing our values than we are risking our sons and daughters for causes that are difficult to square with the kind of society we want to live in ourselves. Americans understand we have interests that do not always coincide with our values, but it’s distasteful to us when they contradict each other, makes for unsustainable policies (ask Hosni Mubarak, or the Saudi sheiks who rightly fear our commitment to them is also limited).  

Predictability matters in foreign policy. It reduces the miscalculations that often cause wars, it allows other states and organizations to anticipate our choices as they make their own. Neo-realism, as practiced by the Obama administration, seeks to keep all their options open — to intervene in Libya if it looks easy, to avoid Syria where what needs doing looks hard. But it raises the cost of achieving our interests when they are not imbued with our values: it is more difficult to get and keep the support of our American public, it reduces the willingness of others to assist our efforts, and it creates more uncertainty in our international dealings when countries cannot anticipate our positions.

The Obama administration’s "new realism" results in policies without principles that guide difficult choices. They made a stirring case for intervention in Libya because of impending humanitarian catastrophe, yet do nothing while humanitarian catastrophe consumes Syria. They argued the surge not only was not working in Iraq but cannot work, then adopted the same approach (plus a wholly unrealistic timeline) for Afghanistan. They castigate the previous administration for extra-judicial activity (renditions) then adopt drone guidelines in which only a profile (not identification) is required to commit extra-judicial killings. They argue imports steal American jobs and slow-roll free trade negotiations, then rely on exports to pull our country out of its economic recession. 

Without foundational principles, American foreign policy looks no better than any other country’s self-interested machinations. While our country often falls short of its values, that we even attempt to apply our domestic principles to our foreign policy ennobles it.  We hold these truths to be self-evident. Not evident just for us.  Not evident just for Christians, or the peoples of the book, or monotheistic religions, or atheists. That’s what makes America exceptional.

Representative Ryan isn’t a dangerous ideologue, he’s a mainstream voice arguing we ought to give our values significant weight as we decide how to behave in the world. It is a principled and cost-effective choice, nicely consistent with what one would expect from a responsible chair of the budget committee.  

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