- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2011

It’s time for conservatives to have an open and honest debate about foreign policy. What, exactly, does a conservative foreign policy look like?

Arguably, it has been 30 years since we last had such a debate, when Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent Jimmy Carter, who was as bad on foreign policy as he was on domestic. Those were dangerous times and Reagan campaigned for changing direction, challenging Soviet expansionism and restoring the strength of, and respect for, the U.S. and its military.

George Bush 41 promised to “stay the course” when he ran for president, and Bob Dole offered no foreign policy vision in his 1996 presidential campaign.

In the 2000 election, Bush 43 promised not to engage in nation building, and then, after 9/11 and invading Iraq, became the biggest nation builder since the Marshall Plan. And as a presidential candidate, John McCain wanted to double-down on Mr. Bush’s policies.

With some exceptions - e.g., Pat Buchanan and current Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul - most conservatives were unwilling to criticize George W. Bush’s foreign policy, even if they had concerns.

For one thing, they wanted to show solidarity with our soldiers in uniform. Perhaps more important, Bush supporters and a number in the neoconservative camps decried any criticism of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy or democracy-building efforts as disloyalty or being soft on terrorism. And so conservatives have largely avoided a real foreign policy debate for decades - and it shows.

Conservatives generally agree on the basics of a pro-growth economic policy - i.e., lower taxes, cut government spending, reduce regulations, etc. - but I cannot identify one agreed-upon principle behind a conservative foreign policy. The GOP presidential candidates mostly criticize President Obama’s policies.

But that approach carries its own problems. After spending two years attacking Mr. Bush’s foreign policies as a senator and presidential candidate, Mr. Obama has largely embraced them - much to the chagrin of the left. If the Republican strategy is to attack Mr. Obama’s policies, the presidential candidates are in essence attacking Bush 43’s policies. Can you say awkward?

Frankly, the obstacles to a conservative discussion about foreign policy haven’t changed much, even though Mr. Bush has been out of office for more than two years.

Witness the recent criticisms of Mr. Paul. Former Reagan White House political director Jeffrey Lord has written a scathing piece in the American Spectator accusing Mr. Paul of being a neoliberal because of his reluctance to get involved in other countries, and asserts that his “non-interventionism” is a result of anti-Semitism.

If conservatives are to have an open and honest debate about their guiding principles on foreign policy, this is not the way to begin. One need not be a defender of Mr. Paul’s foreign policy - and I’m not - to believe his positions should be challenged with reasoned arguments and an alternative vision.

While Mr. Lord correctly defines the neoconservative foreign policy as, “The … use of American economic and military strength to topple a foreign enemy in favor of a liberal democracy,” he nowhere explains what the conservative - as opposed to neoconservative - vision is or should be. How strange is that?

It’s time conservatives had a long-overdue foreign policy debate. I lean toward the view that the U.S. should avoid what Thomas Jefferson called “entangling alliances” unless there is a compelling reason not to. If conservatives believe that government should have a limited and clearly defined role in the lives of its citizens, why shouldn’t that principle generally apply to other nations?

Some conservatives, however, seem to believe our government should be involved in other nations’ business unless there is a compelling reason not to. Which is the conservative approach, and why?

But that debate won’t happen if conservatives, rather than laying out a clear position and reasons for it, revert to character assassination and name-calling. That, Mr. Lord, is what the liberals do.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas.

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