The departure of Gov. Tim Pawlenty from the race for the Republican nomination for president deprives national security conservatives of one of the field's leading champions of a robust internationalism. Despite the ludicrous rants of Rep. Ron Paul and efforts by some Tea Party organizations to back significant defense cuts, most of the remaining Republican contenders appear to be relatively hawkish. However, Pawlenty's willingness to speak out on foreign policy and to push back against undercurrents of isolationism in the party will be sorely missed.
Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Gov. Mitt Romney all have the potential to fill this role if they decide to do so. This is important because there is a void for the eventual Republican nominee to fill, especially since President Obama has, perhaps intentionally, tried to appeal to both those on the left and the right who wish to reassess America's role in the world.
During his announcement of the Afghanistan drawdown on June 22, President Barack Obama tried to frame his decision in the context of gains achieved over the last eighteen months. He also, however, argued that it was "time to focus on nation building here at home," and to "responsibly end these wars."
This sort of rhetoric from Democrats is nothing new. At the height of the violence in Iraq during the last decade, most of the party rushed to wave the white flag. Democrats spoke of the need to build bridges and schools at home, not in Iraq. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry criticized the Bush administration for spending $200 billion in Iraq that "we're not investing in education and health care, job creation here at home." Sen. Harry Reid famously declared on April 19, 2007 that "this war is lost."
On Afghanistan, the locus of the 9/11 terror plot, these anti-war views took longer to emerge. Obama after all referred to Afghanistan as the "good war" during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. However, by the time he decided to surge forces to Afghanistan in 2009, his fellow Democrats had already given up on the moral/humanitarian case for the war and were encouraging him to cut and run, willing to leave the Afghan people to the whims of the Taliban.
In July 2010, when Time magazine ran on its cover a photo of a young Afghan woman whose nose and ears had been cut off by the Taliban, many in the media rightfully tried to provoke a discussion about whether the United States was ready to abandon the women and girls of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Democrats put on the spot at the time squirmed, unwilling to admit that it was in U.S. moral interest to ensure that the humanitarian gains of recent years were not reversed. Then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told Christiane Amanpour on This Week that "it's in our strategic national interests to be there for our own national security to stop terrorism and increase global security" and that gains in women's education and health "can't happen without security."
In short - it's a shame, but it's too difficult, so too bad for the Afghans.
The 2010 mid-terms brought to Washington a new class of freshmen members of Congress elected primarily on economic platforms. As a result, a general skepticism about foreign intervention has swept into Washington. The Democrats who turned against Afghanistan years ago have been joined by an increasing number of Republicans who question the continued cost of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, are skeptical about what is essentially a humanitarian intervention in Libya, and are intrigued by the prospect that new technologies such as drones and our very capable Special Forces might allow the United States to forgo the manpower intensive counterinsurgency approaches of recent conflicts.
Beyond just raising questions about current military commitments, members of Congress of both parties have increasingly sought to address fiscal problems at home by raiding the defense and international affairs budgets. After the recent debt limit deal agreed to by congressional Republicans and the White House included a provision for more than $600 billion in defense cuts if Congress does not agree to additional cuts by Christmas, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned that such cuts would "do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation."
Before getting out of the race for president, Gov. Tim Pawlenty as well as other prominent Republicans including Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham warned about some of this rising "isolationist" sentiment on the right that has led some in the party of Ronald Reagan down the path of accepting defense cuts, wavering on Afghanistan, and opposing a limited intervention in Libya.
While there are an increasing number of libertarians in today's Republican Party who probably are indeed isolationist, what is on display in the country is probably not a complete embrace of isolationism.
This is borne out in an interesting poll released in July by the Time/Aspen Ideas Festival. The poll reveals that Americans remain very aware of the dangerous world in which we live -- 78 percent said that it is likely that a major terrorist attack would take place in the next decade. This continued concern about security is coupled with an extraordinary pessimism about America's own fiscal situation and what that means for the future. Only 12 percent of respondents said that it was more important to focus on international affairs than domestic issues in the coming decade.
What is striking is that Americans seem to realize that because of the continued threat to the U.S. homeland, we can't turn our back on the world. But despite this realization that what happens in the world has direct relevance on their lives and wellbeing, Americans still seem willing to cut back while we focus on problems at home.
This should be concerning to both internationalist Democrats and national security conservatives because one of the bipartisan tenets of American foreign policy since the end of World War II has been the notion that a strong and assertive American foreign policy brought benefits at home. That consensus seems to be fraying.
While the United States has never practiced an entirely selfless foreign policy, we seem to be shifting to what might be called a selfish foreign policy. We'll engage in limited interventions abroad as long as we can neatly kill the terrorists that threaten us by using high tech tools such as drones and spy satellites, as part of classified covert actions that can be disavowed if anything goes wrong or touted in the press for political gain.
Although in the near term, these tactics may prevent most attacks against the U.S. homeland, one major problem with such an approach is that it undermines the moral underpinning of our actions abroad. This sense of a greater purpose for the democratic experiment that is the United States, epitomized by President Lincoln's reflection that the Founding Fathers meant to encourage the "spreading and deepening the influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere." Similarly, President Reagan's frequent reference to John Winthrop's "shining city upon a Hill" and John F. Kennedy's commitment in his 1961 Inaugural Address to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty" encapsulated the values that sustained our mettle during the decades of the Cold War and gave us a sense of purpose in the dark days that followed September 11, 2011.
Our current obsession with purely counterterrorism solutions to our problems runs the risk of, abandoning in the words of Reagan, our role in the "age-old battle for individual freedom and human dignity."
Despite the advancement of technology and tactics in the nearly two decades since the Clinton administration haphazardly fired off cruise missiles in response to terrorist plots, our current strategy, just like that of the 1990s, also runs the risk of failure. Just as the Clinton administration's response to al-Qaeda's terrorist attacks of that era failed to address the core problems at hand, our short-sighted strategy runs the risk of leaving behind the same fractious undeveloped societies to serve as safe havens for enemies of the United States again well into the future.
Even more troubling is the fact that these short-sighted solutions will be of little use in the coming challenge that will likely define American foreign policy in the twenty-first century. A rising China will not be dissuaded from an aggressive nationalist path by drones and satellites. Instead, America will need to show a level of long-term diplomatic, economic, and perhaps most importantly, military commitment to the Pacific that will require significant resources. Even as China modernizes and continues to open up its economy, it will also be imperative that America appeal to its partners in the region on moral as well as strategic grounds. Although China is not the Soviet Union, we need to prepare for a sustained ideological battle that makes clear to those in China's growing area of influence that the way a state treats its people is a reflection on how it will treat its neighbors.
In Afghanistan, if American leaders are lured into an early transition to a purely counterterrorism strategy, the country will likely fracture and humanitarian gains made in recent years will be put at risk.
Talking about building bridges in Kansas City rather than Kabul or "nation building here at home" makes for good political theater but is removed from the strategic reality. Even as America struggles to avoid a double dip recession, we are too great a nation to downgrade our global role.
Perhaps one of the most eloquent expositions of the case for American leadership was made by a non-American -- former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his July 2003 address to a Joint Session of Congress:
"And I know it's hard on America. And in some small corner of this vast country, out in Nevada or Idaho or these places I've never been to but always wanted to go. I know out there, there's a guy getting on with his life, perfectly happily, minding his own business, saying to you, the political leaders of this country, "Why me, and why us, and why America?" And the only answer is because destiny put you in this place in history in this moment in time, and the task is yours to do."
Such soaring rhetoric may be small comfort for Americans out of work and preoccupied by problems at home. But most Americans don't want to cede America's role and see extremists triumph and other countries such as China attempt to fill the void left as a defeated America retreats from the world stage. It is the duty of our current and potential political leaders of both parties to remind Americans that this remains the American moment and the task is ours to do.
The remaining Republican candidates for the White House have their task cut out for them.
Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative