Neither John McCain nor Rand Paul get it right.
In the Syrian rubble of Barack Obama’s foreign policy lies a moment of opportunity for conservatives. It is a moment for building a muscular foreign policy based on a recognition of good and evil; on an unapologetic conviction that the United States stands firmly on the right side of that ledger because it stands for the liberty and equal dignity of every human being; and, therefore, on an unwavering commitment to have our interventions guided solely by American national interests.
It is a Ronald Reagan moment. Now, all we need is a Ronald Reagan. For now, we have only pretenders, split into two camps.
There is the progressive McCain wing, heirs to the Bush “Islamic democracy” quest. It lurches incoherently from crisis to crisis, such that the local al-Qaeda jihadist in Baghdad, who went there to wage a terror war against American troops, need only cross the Syrian border — and, voila, he is America’s ally. How’s that? Well, we’re told, we must hold our nose and support — indeed, arm — this “rebel” because he now fights the Assad regime, which is the cat’s-paw of Iran . . . the same Iran that — details, details — has been colluding with al-Qaeda for 20 years.
Even McCainiacs sense that this nonsense world is straight out of the Looking-Glass. So, while empowering al-Qaeda, they maintain that they actually seek only to strengthen al-Qaeda’s rivals, the “moderates” . . . hoping you won’t notice that these moderates prominently include the Muslim Brotherhood. You won’t hear a Republican mention the Brotherhood, of course. But the anti-Assad “rebels” themselves have no such compunction about the Brotherhood’s key role.
In fact, the Syrian National Council — the rebel leadership bureau the McCain wing initially demanded that we back — was a Brotherhood creation. When that proved embarrassing, the Syrian National Council changed the sign on the door to “Syrian National Coalition” and expanded its membership, ostensibly to dilute the Brotherhood’s influence. But even the non-Brotherhood rebels concede that the Brothers are still a highly influential force, and the faction they share power with represents . . . wait for it . . . the Saudis — the Wahhabist sharia kingdom. Feel better now? Probably not, but understand that when McCain and the Obama administration talk about supporting the “moderates,” this is who they mean. Understand, too, that the Brothers have always done business with Iran — a longtime backer of Hamas, the Brothers’ Palestinian terrorist branch — and that the Saudis’ governing ideology (to say nothing of their money) spawned al-Qaeda.
What could be more “moderate” than that?
The other pretender is Rand Paul and his nihilistic brand of libertarianism. On the twelfth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities, in which Islamic-supremacist jihadists murdered nearly 3,000 Americans, the senator refused to distance himself from the repulsive assessment of his father, Ron Paul, that the United States had brought the attack on herself. “America’s chickens, comin’ home to roost,” as Jeremiah Wright memorably put it.
The senator is trying to be the silk glove over dad’s ham-handed fist — to make Ron Paul’s noxious substitution of “Blame America First” for “Know Thine Enemy” respectable. Asked about his father’s assertion, Paul the Younger tried to change the subject, opining that why someone attacks the U.S. is irrelevant — that sometimes the cause could be “our presence overseas,” and sometimes not. What really matters, he said, is “that we defend ourselves from attack.”
It is thin camouflage. While McCain would insert the United States into every controversy, no matter how contrary to our interests, Paul sees our government as incapable of acting beneficially in the world. One can easily understand why Paul has a surface appeal for young Americans. In their lifetimes, an era of progressive dominance in foreign affairs, to act in America’s interests has become disreputable. The McCain approach — champion Qaddafi, oust Qaddafi; condemn the Muslim Brotherhood, support the Muslim Brotherhood; surge against al-Qaeda, arm al-Qaeda — has brought dizzying discredit to American action on the world stage. The Pauls exploit this to a fare-thee-well.
Nevertheless, the Pauls’ indictment is against government when the real culprit is wayward government policy in the execution of an essential government function. The Paul fantasy, like the Left’s, is that we can refrain from being judgmental about other countries: Just trade with everyone while pretending to be Switzerland, and then those nations disposed against us will like us better, and if they don’t we can always respond forcefully — after they’ve killed a few thousand of us.
Conservatives do not want Teddy Roosevelt’s pro-American progressivism. If, as is usually the case, you don’t have an extraordinary TR-type at the helm, what you’re left with is progressivism run amok and anything but pro-American.
Neither, however, are conservatives anti-government. In a 1997 essay diagnosing “What Ails the Right,” Bill Kristol and David Brooks famously called for government that is “limited but energetic.” I respectfully disagree: “Energetic” proves too promiscuous a license, eviscerating the Constitution’s limits. As TR is said to have remarked — perhaps apocryphally, historian Paul Johnson cautions — “What’s the Constitution between friends?” What conservatives want is a central government that does very few things — only the ones it is expressly assigned, the ones only a national government can do — but does them exceedingly well.
Limited does not mean small, for these are not small tasks. The most significant function of government, national security, is what our foreign policy must serve. This is where Reagan got it right and today’s Republican leaders get it tragically wrong.
At a time when fellow travelers on the left and “realists” on the right wanted to come to some understanding with the Soviet Union, Reagan rightly saw Communism as an evil that could not be moderated or accommodated. It was an implacable enemy that had to be resisted and defeated. That did not mean military invasions on every front. It meant organizing American foreign policy around the conviction that Communism was the enemy of liberty, that it was aggressively revolutionary, and that it had to be opposed by whatever instruments of government made the most sense. There might be ambiguity about how the United States would respond in a given set of circumstances, but there was no ambiguity about who the enemy was or that our overarching goal was to defeat him.
Today, the enemy is Islamic supremacism, which inevitably reigns whenever Islam is imposed as a governing system. We must abandon the notion that this Islam is a religion.
In last weekend’s column, I noted that the Obama administration and the GOP’s McCain wing call al-Qaeda operatives “extremists” in order to “avoid the inconvenience that what they are ‘extreme’ about is Islam.” Well, it works the other way around, too. There are millions of “moderate” Muslims, but what makes them “moderate” is that they ignore (or reimagine) the political and supremacist tenets of Islam.
That’s fine. We want to ally with Muslims who, in the spirit of the Western Enlightenment, allow for a separation of religion from politics in their doctrine. But that separation is necessary precisely because whenever a political system proclaims itself as “Islamic” — whenever it establishes Islam as the state religion and makes sharia the foundation of its law — it is inevitably hostile to liberty and equality.
In Spring Fever, I recount the rueful observation of an authentic Muslim democrat who bristled at the West’s delusional celebration of Erdogan’s “Turkish Model” of “Islamic democracy”: “We are a democracy,” he asserted. “Islam has nothing to do with it.” When Islam defines the democracy, it’s not one.
The Islamic societal system is today’s totalitarianism — so much so that it finds a reliable ally in the hard Left. Much like Soviet-era Communists, moreover, Islamic supremacists unabashedly regard us as an “enemy” to be “conquered” while we romp about their camp desperately seeking “moderates.” The Islamic system is not nearly as fearsome as the Soviet superpower, but our blindness to its evil, and thus our abetting of it, compensate for this deficit.
Like Communism, Islamic supremacism threatens America and the West comprehensively — it attacks both forcibly and culturally; it pressures without and infiltrates within. A conservative national-security policy would respond in kind. Instead of promoting the charade of Islamic democracy, it would let nature take its course overseas: Allow the Islamic system’s hopeless backwardness to collapse of its own weight while promoting champions of real Western democracy — not just popular elections but individual liberty and minority rights. You can’t empower democrats, including truly moderate Muslims, without making it attractive to be one, and unattractive to be the other guys.
Domestic policy should align with this approach. We must be done once and for all with the folly of “outreach” to “moderate Islamists” — to say nothing of the insanity of consulting with “moderate Islamists” in the formulation of national-security policy. What makes a Muslim an Islamist is his Islamic supremacism — his preference for the Islamic system. That is the antithesis of moderation, particularly in a country built on individual liberty. That an Islamist eschews violence, or at least says he does, is welcome; it does not, however, make him moderate — ACORN is not moderate even if it resists the methods of the like-minded Weather Underground. Besides, “moderate Islamist” is the euphemism du jour for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslims who love America will never rise until our political class ends its infatuation with the Muslims who envision conquering America.
A conservative foreign policy would set itself firmly against Iran and Assad, as well as against al-Qaeda, the Brotherhood, and their state sponsors. It would not choose sides between them in their Syrian free-for-all. It would make the defeat of all of them — of Islamic supremacism — its strategic objective. It would tactically use the opportunities afforded by our diplomatic, economic, intelligence, military, and leadership capabilities to make it happen.
And it would work.