WITH METRONOMIC regularity, there is a choreographed minuet of carnage. Israel is attacked. Israel defends itself. Perfunctory affirmations of Israel’s right of self-defense are quickly followed by accusations that Israel’s military measures are disproportionate. Then come demands for a cease-fire, and the attackers replenish their arsenals.
The accusations and demands are ascribed to something fictitious, the “international community.” The word “community” connotes a certain cement of shared values and aspirations. So, what community includes Denmark and Yemen, Canada and Iran, New Zealand and Congo, Italy and North Korea? “International community” is empty cant that bewitches the minds of earnest diplomats such as John Kerry but does not interest Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He surely has told Kerry what he has told others: The point of Israel is that Jews shall never again, like Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” depend on the kindness of strangers. Such dependency did not work out well for Jews, so Israel exists for Jewish self-defense.
Israel’s hardheaded exercise of hard power in Gaza has instructively coincided with a dismal reverberation from the Obama administration’s most empty-headed adventure. Among the multiplying foreign policy debacles that are completing the destruction of Barack Obama’s crumbling presidency, many are more portentous but none more emblematic, than the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli last weekend. The U.S. military evacuated the embassy staff while the State Department advised U.S. citizens to leave Libya “immediately.”
U.S. involvement in the 2011 decapitation of Libya’s government has predictably (for those who have noticed developments in Iraq since 2003) produced a failed state convulsed by rival militias. The attack on Libya appealed to the Obama administration’s humanitarians precisely because it was untainted by considerations of national interest. The seven-month attempt to assassinate Moammar Gaddafi with fighter-bombers was a war of choice, waged for regime change. It was not an event thrust upon the United States, which had its hands more than full elsewhere. Because the war against Libya was thoroughly voluntary, it stands as the signature deed of the secretary of state at the time, and should by itself disqualify her from presidential aspirations.
Today there is a torrent of redundant evidence for the Macmillan axiom. When British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what caused him the most trouble, he supposedly replied, “Events, dear boy, events.” He certainly used the phrase “the opposition of events.” Events, from Ukraine to Syria to Gaza, are forcing something Americans prefer not to think about, foreign policy, into their political calculations.
Having recoiled from the scandal of the Iraq War, which was begun on the basis of bad intelligence and conducted unintelligently, Americans concluded that their nation no longer has much power, defined as the ability to achieve intended effects. The correct conclusion is that America should intend more achievable effects.
Obama has given Americans a foreign policy congruent with their post-recoil preferences: America as spectator. Now, however, their sense of national diminishment, and of an increasingly ominous world, may be making them receptive to a middle course between a foreign policy of flaccidity (Obama) or grandiosity (his predecessor).
If so, a Republican presidential aspirant should articulate what George Washington University’s Henry R. Nau calls, in a book with this title, “Conservative Internationalism.” This would, he says, include:
The liberal internationalist goal of spreading freedom, but doing so “primarily on the borders of existing freedom, not everywhere in the world at once.” The realists’ use of “armed diplomacy” against adversaries outside of negotiations. And the “conservative vision of limited global governance, a decentralized world of democratic civil societies” rather than “one of centralized international institutions as Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt advocated.” The blend is conservative internationalism because “states remain separate and armed; national culture, sovereignty, defense, and patriotism are respected; civic virtue and democracy are widespread; the global economy is mostly private; and global governance is limited.”
After the shattering of the Democratic Party over Vietnam in 1968, and the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, the party’s foreign policy credentials became suspect. This was disqualifying until the end of the Cold War, and of the Soviet Union in 1991, reduced the stakes of foreign policy. Democrats elected a President in 1992.
In 11 ruinous years, beginning with the invasion of Iraq, Republicans have forfeited their foreign policy advantage and Obama has revived suspicions that Democrats’ are uncomfortable with American power. There is running room for a conservative internationalist.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.