The Jacksonian Foreign Policy Option

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Over the past several months, a certain intolerance has crept into the rhetoric of leading neoconservative publications and writers. This intolerance has become particularly noticeable since February’s neoconservative-supported overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and US President Barack Obama’s neoconservative-supported decision to commit US forces to battle against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in March.


The basic concept being propounded by leading neoconservative writers and publications is that anyone who disagrees with neoconservative policies is an isolationist. A notable recent example of this tendency was a blog post published on Wednesday by Commentary Magazine’s Executive Editor Jonathan Tobin regarding the emerging contours of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s foreign policy views. 


After listing various former Bush administration officials who are advising Perry on foreign affairs, Tobin concluded, “Perry might have more in common with the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party than the isolationists.”


While this is may be true, it is certainly true that the neoconservatives and the isolationists are not the only foreign policy wings in the Republican Party. Indeed, most Republicans are neither isolationists nor neoconservatives. 


Isolationism broadly speaking is the notion that the US is better off withdrawing to fortress America and leaving the rest of the world’s nations to fight it out among themselves. The isolationist impulse in the US is what caused the US to enter both world wars years after they began. It is what has propelled much of the anti-war sentiment on the far Left and the far Right alike since Sept.11. The far Left argues the US should withdraw from world leadership because the US is evil. And the far Right argues that the US should withdraw from world leadership because the world is evil. 


Neoconservatism broadly speaking involves the adoption of a muscular US foreign policy in order to advance the cause of democracy and freedom worldwide. Wilsonian in its view of the universal nature of the human impulse to freedom, neoconservatives in recent years have wholeheartedly embraced the notion that if given a chance to make their sentiments known, most people will choose liberal democracy over any other form of government. 


Former President George W. Bush is widely viewed as the first neoconservative president, due to his wholehearted embrace of this core concept of neoconservativism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Aside from their belief that if given the choice people will choose to be free, neoconservatives argue the more democratic governments there are, the safer the world will be and the safer the US will be. Therefore, broadly speaking, neoconservatives argue that the US should always side with populist forces against dictatorships.


While these ideas may be correct in theory, in practice the consequence of Bush’s adoption of the neoconservative worldview was the empowerment of populist and popular jihadists and Iranian allies throughout the Middle East at the expense of US allies. Hamas won the Palestinian Authority elections in 2006. Its electoral victory paved the way for its military takeover of Gaza in 2007.


Hezbollah’s participation in Lebanon’s 2005 elections enabled the Iranian proxy army to hijack the Lebanese government in 2006, and violently takeover the Lebanese government in 2009.


The Muslim Brotherhood’s successful parliamentary run in Egypt in 2005 strengthened the radical, anti-American, jihadist group and weakened Mubarak. 


And the election of Iranian-influenced Iraqi political leaders in Iraq in 2005 exacerbated the trend of Iranian predominance in post-Saddam Iraq. It also served to instigate a gradual estrangement of Saudi Arabia from the US.  


THE NEOCONSERVATIVE preference for populist forces over authoritarian ones propelled leading neoconservative thinkers and former Bush administration officials to enthusiastically support the anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo in January. And their criticism of Obama for not immediately joining the protesters and calling for Mubarak’s removal from power was instrumental in convincing Obama to abandon Mubarak. 


Between those who predicted a flowering liberal democracy in a post-Mubarak Egypt and those who predicted the empowerment of radical, Muslim Brotherhood aligned forces in a post-Mubarak Egypt, it is clear today that the latter were correct. Moreover, we see that the US’s abandonment of its closest ally in the Arab world has all but destroyed the US’s reputation as a credible, trustworthy ally throughout the region. In the wake of Mubarak’s ouster, the Saudis have effectively ended their strategic alliance with the US and are seeking to replace the US with China, Russia and India. 


In a similar fashion, the neoconservatives were quick to support Obama’s decision to use military force to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from power in March. The fact that unlike Syria’s Bashar Assad and Iran’s ayatollahs, Gaddafi gave up his nuclear proliferation program in 2004 was of no importance. The fact that from the outset there was evidence that al-Qaeda terrorists are members of the US-supported Libyan opposition, similarly made little impact on the neoconservatives who supported Obama’s decision to set conditions that would enable “democracy” to take root in Libya. The fact that the US has no clear national interest at stake in Libya was brushed aside. The fact that Obama lacked Congressional sanction for committing US troops to battle was also largely ignored. 


Neoconservative writers have castigated opponents of US military involvement in Libya as isolationists. In so doing, they placed Republican politicians like presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin in the same pile as presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan. 


The very notion that robust internationalists like Bachmann and Palin could be thrown in with ardent isolationists like Paul and Buchanan is appalling. But it is of a piece with the prevailing, false notion being argued by dominant voices in neoconservative circles that, “You’re either with us or you’re with the Buchanaites.”


In truth, the dominant foreign policy in the Republican Party, and to a degree, in American society as a whole is neither neoconservativism nor isolationism. For lack of a better name, it is what historian Walter Russell Mead has referred to as Jacksonianism, after Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the US. As Mead noted in a 1999 article in the National Interest entitled, “The Jacksonian Tradition,” the most popular and enduring US model for foreign policy is far more flexible than either the isolationist or the neoconservative model.
According to Mead, the Jacksonian foreign policy model involves a few basic ideas. The US is different from the rest of the world and therefore the US should not try to remake the world in its own image by claiming that everyone is basically the same. The US must ensure its honor abroad by abiding by its commitments and standing with its allies. The US must take action to defend its interests. The US must fight to win or not fight at all. The US should only respect those foes that fight by the same rules as the US does. 


T that hewed closest to these basic guidelines in recent times was former president Ronald Reagan. Popular perception that Reagan was acting in accordance with Jacksonian foreign policy principles is what kept the public support for Reagan high even as the liberal media depicted his foreign policy as simplistic and dangerous. 


For instance, Reagan fought Soviet influence in Central America everywhere he could and with whomever he could find. Regan exploited every opportunity to weaken the Soviet Union in Europe. He worked with the Vatican in Poland. He deployed Pershing short-range nuclear warheads in Western Europe. He called the Soviet Union an evil empire. He began developing the Strategic Defense Initiative. And he walked away from an arms control agreement when he decided it was a bad deal for the US.


Throughout his presidency, Reagan never shied away from trumpeting American values. To the contrary, he did so regularly. However, unlike the neoconservatives, Reagan recognized that advancing those values themselves could not replace the entirety of US foreign policy. Indeed, he realized that the very notion that values trumped all represented a fundamental misunderstanding of US interests and the nature and limits of US power. 


If a Jacksonian president were in charge of US foreign policy, he or she would understand that supporting elections that are likely to bring a terror group like Hamas or Hezbollah into power is not an American interest. 


He or she would understand that toppling a pro-American dictator like Mubarak in favor of a mob is not sound policy if the move is likely to bring an anti-American authoritarian successor regime to power. 


A Jacksonian president would understand that using US power to overthrow a largely neutered US foe like Gaddafi in favor of a suspect opposition movement is not a judicious use of US power. Indeed, a Jacksonian president would recognize that it would be far better to expend the US’s power to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad — an open and active foe of the US and so influence the identity of a post-Assad government. 


For all the deficiencies of the neoconservative worldview, at least the neoconservatives act out of a deep-seated belief that the US as a force for good in the world and out of concern for maintaining America’s role as the leader of the free world. In stark contrast, Obama’s foreign policy is based on a fundamental anti-American view of the US and a desire to end the US’s role as the leading world power. And the impact of Obama’s foreign policy on US and global security has been devastating. 


From Europe to Asia to Russia to Latin America to the Middle East and Africa, Obama has weakened the US and turned on its allies. He has purposely strengthened US adversaries worldwide as part of an overall strategy of divesting an unworthy America from its role as world leader. He has empowered the anti-American UN to replace the US as the arbiter of US foreign policy. And so, absent the American sheriff, US adversaries from the Taliban to Vladimir Putin to Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are empowered to attack America and its allies. 


In the coming months, Republican primary voters will choose their party’s candidate to challenge Obama in next year’s presidential elections. With all the failings of the neoconservative foreign policy model, it is clear that Obama’s foreign policy has been far more devastating for US and global security. 


Still, it would be a real tragedy if at the end of the primary season, due to neoconservative intellectual bullying the Republican presidential nominee was forced to choose between neoconservativism and isolationism. A rich, successful and popular American foreign policy tradition of Jacksonianism awaits the right candidate.


Originally published in The Jerusalem Post. 



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