April 2, 2006 | Commentary on
Where in the World Is America Going?
"Where in the World Is America Going?"
Lee Edwards, Ph.D.
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought
The Heritage Foundation
For the 42nd annual meeting of
The Philadelphia Society
April 2, 2006
Since the essence of conservatism is to apply the wisdom,
experience and revealed truths of the past to the problems of
today, I thought it would be helpful for our discussion to consider
the wisdom and experience of four prominent conservatives in the
field of U.S. foreign policy. The members of the illustrious
quartet are Walter Judd, Robert A. Taft, Barry Goldwater, and
Dr. Judd was one of the most influential members of the U.S. House
of Representatives for 20 years, particularly in the conduct of our
foreign policy. It was said that as many as 100 Congressmen would
follow his lead on a particular vote or resolution dealing with the
nation's security. At the beginning of the Cold War, Dr. Judd took
the House floor to argue that America had four choices in global
affairs as she considered the next half-century.
First, he said, "we can try to go back to so-called isolationism."
He conceded that it once was possible to ignore other nations, but
"that day has gone" because of America's own inventions like the
steamboat and the airplane and the "refusal of other nations to
Second, we could develop "an American imperialism (although of
course call it by a milder name)." This course would require
gaining control of key islands, critical air bases, main routes of
trade, and then building "such a giant air force and navy and army
that it will be certain no nation can ever attack us." But, Dr.
Judd said, "not even America has the necessary resources to go it
alone, and if we tried to "police the world single-handed" the rest
of the world would "gang up against us." "Imperialism," he said,
"was always immoral. For America to try it now would be
Third, we could adopt a philosophy of "world WPAism" where America
would try to "buy the world's good-will." But giving people things
instead of helping them get on their feet "so they can develop
their own freedom from want" is always self-defeating in the long
run. Such an approach, the former medical missionary said,
"destroys independence and will and initiative and
Fourth, America could participate in a genuinely cooperative effort
with our allies to achieve "an organized security." Referring to
World War II, he said that "the world could not stand these
periodic returns to the jungle." Surely, he said, if we could work
with our allies to win the war, we are sufficiently intelligent and
wise to work out with our allies ways by which "we can jointly win
Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, invariably described as Mr.
Republican, was a legislative giant of the Republican Party from
the late 1930s until 1953 when he died, at too early an age, of
cancer. Best known for his principled approach to taxes, budgets,
and other domestic issues, Taft was drawn into foreign policy, our
old friend Russell Kirk pointed out, because of the Cold War and
his 1952 pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.
Taft is often lauded by the Old Right as one of their own. But he
was not an isolationist--he called himself a non-interventionist.
He opposed America's entry into World War II because he perceived
war as the enemy of limited government. He insisted that every
avenue must be explored before resorting to military action. But he
favored alliances, supporting the League of Nations and the UN
Charter. Because of communism's clear and present threat, he voted
for the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. He opposed NATO
because it committed the U.S. to a military alliance when we were
not formally at war. But he later was willing to arm the
governments of western Europe if they should desire armaments, and
he argued that the U.S. should pay more attention to the mounting
strategic challenges in Asia.
The object of American foreign policy, Taft argued, is to protect
and advance American national interests. Neutrality or
intervention, alliances and restrictions upon armaments,
international commercial agreements and assistance to other
governments, peace or war, all must be determined by their impact
upon the security and welfare of America. Without this principle,
he said, any government will be at sea in the conduct of its
"My view," he said in 1951, "is that American foreign policy should
be directed primarily to the protection of the liberty of the
people of the United States, and that war should only be undertaken
when necessary to protect that liberty." Because of the power of
Soviet Russia and the Communist philosophy, he went on, "we must
today do everything possible to prevent the extension of that power
as a threat to our security." He added a note of caution: "there is
one policy and only one policy which can destroy this nation--the
commitment to projects beyond our capacity to fulfill."
However, he declared, mere containment of communism would not
suffice: there must be an "affirmative power" of liberty. In his
only book, A Foreign Policy for Americans, Taft outlined a basic
strategy for victory including:
- The creation of powerful American armed forces.
- Economic aid to countries where such aid will enable
anti-Communist countries to resist the growth of Communism from
- The sending of American troops to a European country threatened
by attack from Russia or its satellites or where the attack has
already occurred, as in Korea.
- An ideological war against Communism in the minds of men.
- An underground war of infiltration in Iron Curtain
A ll this is a far remove from the isolationism with which Taft has
been associated by both the Left and the Right. Taft's primary
foreign policy goals were the principle of national interest, the
prudent endeavor to maintain peace, and the shunning of imperial
The delicate balance that ideally exists between freedom and order,
Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative published
in 1960 at the height of the Cold War, has long since tipped
against freedom "practically everywhere on earth." For the American
conservative, therefore, there is no difficulty in "identifying the
day's overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend
freedom" not only in America but around the world.
Senator Goldwater devoted one-third of his best-selling political
manifesto to the Soviet "menace" which he said had to be
confronted. We have sought settlements, he said, while the
communists have sought victories. Our objective must be "not to
wage a struggle against communism, but to win it."
He proposed a multi-point program to achieve victory
- The maintenance of defense alliances like NATO.
- The elimination of economic foreign aid.
- A drastic reduction in U.S. support of the United Nations.
- Superiority in all weapons, military, political, and economic,
necessary to produce victory over communism.
R isks were inevitable in a victory policy, Goldwater conceded, but
the future as he saw it would unfold along one of two paths: either
the communists would retain the offensive, ultimately forcing us to
surrender or to accept war "under the most disadvantageous
circumstances." Or Americans would "summon the will and the means
for taking the initiative and wage a war of attrition against
them," seeking to bring about "the internal disintegration of the
The former course ran the risk of war and would lead to probable
defeat while the latter ran the risk of war but held forth promise
of victory. For Americans who cherish their lives but their freedom
more, Goldwater wrote, "the choice cannot be difficult"--we must
seize the initiative.
Building on Goldwater's "why not victory?" philosophy, President
Ronald Reagan pursued a multi-track national security strategy. He
confidently proclaimed in 1982 that the "the march of freedom and
democracy ... will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of
history," and privately instructed his national security team to
develop a plan to end the Cold War by winning it.
The result was a series of national security decision directives
that shifted the focus of the superpower struggle to the Soviet
bloc and the Soviet Union itself. NSDD-32, approved in March 1982,
declared that the U.S. would seek to "neutralize" Soviet control
over Eastern Europe and authorized the use of covert action and
other means to support anti-Soviet groups in the region. NSDD-66
stated it would be U.S. policy to disrupt the Soviet economy by
attacking a "strategic triad" of critical resources--financial
credits, high technology, and natural gas--deemed essential to
Soviet economic survival. NDSS-75 called for the U.S. no longer to
coexist with the Soviet system but rather to seek to change it
Taking its lead from these directives, the Reagan administration
implemented a foreign policy offensive that included such measures
as covert support for Solidarity in Poland, an increase in
pro-freedom public diplomacy, and a drive to hurt the Soviet
economy by driving down the price of oil and limiting natural gas
exports to the West.
The administration also helped anti-communist forces in
Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia--the so-called Reagan
Doctrine. The doctrine was the most cost-effective of all the Cold
War doctrines, costing the U.S. only an estimated half a billion
dollars a year and yet forcing the cash-strapped Soviets to spend
some $8 billion annually to deflect its impact. It was one of the
most politically successful doctrines in Cold War history,
resulting, for example, in a Soviet pullout from Afghanistan and
the election of a democratic government in Nicaragua by the end of
The Reagan administration's most important initiative was the
Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which literally stunned Moscow.
General Makhmut Gareev, who headed the department of strategic
analysis in the Soviet Ministry of Defense, later revealed what he
had told the Soviet general staff and the Politboro: "Not only
could we not defeat SDI, SDI defeated all our possible
counter-measures." Reagan's unwavering commitment to SDI convinced
the Kremlin it could not afford let alone win a continuing arms
All the while, Reagan rebuilt America's military arsenal, worked
closely with Western allies on consequential security issues like
the deployment of Euromissiles, and successfully challenged the
Brezhnev Doctrine in Grenada. He even took his freedom offensive
into the heart of the disintegrating Soviet empire. Standing before
Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, Reagan directly challenged the Soviet
leadership: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Two years later
the Wall was gone and two years after that the Soviet Union was no
Democracy triumphed in the Cold War, Reagan later wrote, because it
was a battle of ideas--"between one system that gave preeminence to
the state and another that gave preeminence to the individual and
freedom." Lech Walesa, founder of the Polish trade union Solidarity
and Nobel Prize winner, was more personal in his appraisal: "We in
Poland," he said, "owe [President Reagan] our liberty."
So what we can conclude from this brief review of the foreign
policy decisions and proposals of four prominent American
The national interest is paramount and must be protected. Kim
Holmes, The Heritage Foundation's vice president for foreign policy
and national security, has written that the U.S. should intervene
around the world only when its vital interests are at stake. He
defined those interests as protecting American territory, sea
lanes, and airspace; preventing a major power from controlling
Europe, East Asia, or the Persian Gulf; ensuring U.S. access to
world resources; expanding free trade throughout the world; and
protecting Americans against threats to their lives and well-being.
Promoting American national interests, Heritage President Ed
Feulner has remarked, is not amoral or selfish but "a moral act
required by the Constitution."
A conservative foreign policy, Russell Kirk wrote, should be
neither interventionist nor isolationist but prudent. Its objective
should not be the triumph everywhere of "America's name and
manners" but the preservation of "the true national interest and
acceptance of the diversity of economic and political institutions
throughout the world."
Looking at the past fifty years, we can see that U.S. foreign
policy has been most successful--as in the reconstruction of
post-war Western Europe and Japan and the Persian Gulf War of
1991--when it walked on the two legs of idealism and pragmatism.
The American people respond to the former while the prudent
policymaker honors the latter.
When the two are in balance our foreign policy proceeds smoothly
and successfully. But if we lean too much in the direction of
idealism or pragmatism, our foreign policy begins to tilt, to
falter and will, if not corrected, collapse.
President George W. Bush has stated his belief in and commitment to
just such a balance. In "The National Security Strategy of the
United States of America," published in March 2006, President Bush
declared that "America is at war" and that the strategy set forth
in the 49-page document reflected his administration's "most solemn
obligation: to protect the security of the American people."
"The path we have chosen," he said, "is consistent with the great
tradition of American foreign policy. Like the policies of Harry
Truman and Ronald Reagan," he said, "our approach is idealistic
about our national goals and realistic about the means to achieve
You will note that he does not refer to Woodrow Wilson although
some Bush critics have described his foreign policy as Wilsonian or
neo-Wilsonian. In my opinion, this is unfair. Wilson famously said,
when he asked Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917, "the
world must be made safe for democracy." Bush's aim is to make the
world safe through democracy, a critical distinction. In his
National Security Strategy paper, Bush said, "Because free nations
tend toward peace, the advance of liberty will make America more
Let us consider then President Bush's most controversial foreign
policy action--the war in Iraq--and ask two questions:
- Is the war in Iraq consistent with the American tradition and
the policies of Presidents Truman and Reagan?
- Is the war in Iraq an example of a foreign policy that is
idealistic as to goals and realistic as to means?
T he president has equated the war against terrorism with the Cold
War, saying that "the United States is in the early years of a long
struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of
the Cold War." Freedom triumphed over the twin isms of fascism and
communism in the 20th century but only after a struggle that lasted
more than four decades and was conducted at many different levels,
strategic, economic, military and political.
In his National Strategy document, President Bush said, "a new
totalitarian ideology now threatens" us and requires a long-range
commitment and strategy similar to those that ended the Cold
Just as Presidents Truman and Reagan made freedom the cornerstone
of their foreign policy so too has President Bush because "freedom
... reflects our values and advances our interests." To protect the
nation and honor our values, he said, the U.S. "seeks to extend
freedom across the globe by leading an international effort to end
tyranny and to promote effective democracy."
Such an objective is certainly idealistic as to goals but is it
realistic as to means? In his strategy document, Bush discussed the
needs to use not just military force but the full array of
political, economic, diplomatic, and other tools at America's
What then of the war in Iraq? Well, we certainly defeated Saddam
Hussein in short order, but three years later there are still well
over 100,000 American servicemen in Iraq. More than 2,300 Americans
have died there. The insurgency continues despite or perhaps
because of a new constitution and a new government approved by
millions of Iraqis in free and open elections. Clearly, the Bush
administration badly underestimated the difficulties of building a
democracy in post-Saddam Iraq.
Let us now consider our second basic question: What would Truman
and Reagan have done if confronted by a stubborn Saddam Hussein and
a militant Iraq?
Bush has often said that the attacks on September 11, 2001,
underscored the danger of allowing threats to linger unresolved.
Saddam Hussein's defiance of sixteen UN Security Council
resolutions, his invasion of neighboring countries, his support of
terrorists, his terrorizing of his own people, his use of chemical
weapons, all presented, the president said in his strategy paper,
"a threat we could no longer ignore." He did not include the
question of oil although elsewhere in the document Bush said, "Many
countries are too dependent upon foreign oil, which is often
imported from unstable parts of the world."
The above litany shows that the Bush administration's rationale for
going to war was based on far more than the single threat of
weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Those Bush critics who
confidently assert that Saddam was only a danger to the people of
Iraq and posed no threat to America should be careful. In a recent
Wall Street Journal article, Laurie Mylroie analyzed captured Iraqi
documents that suggest Saddam played a significant role in
international terrorism from the early 1990s and that there was an
Iraqi-al Qaeda connection.
Given the evidence available prior to the invasion of Iraq and
based upon Truman's preemptive decision in 1945 to use the atomic
bomb against Japan to save American lives, it is reasonable to
assume that Truman would have acted as Bush did in Iraq.
What President Reagan would have done is more problematic. Reagan's
actions in Grenada, Libya, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and elsewhere
show a president careful about his commitment of American force and
Reagan practiced what I would call prudential internationalism--act
multilaterally when possible and unilaterally when necessary. I
believe that he would not have allowed Saddam to "go on playing"
with the U.S. on the issues of WMD and support of terrorism and
would have approved the war in Iraq. However, I believe that he
would not have been as optimistic about the aftermath of the war as
President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair were, as suggested
in minutes of a January 2003 meeting in Washington that have come
I concede that President Bush's actions in Iraq and elsewhere make
only limited sense and warrant the sharp criticism that has been
expressed by conservatives at this meeting and elsewhere--unless
you accept the basic premise set forth in the first words of the
president's National Security Strategy--"America is at war."
If you do not agree that America is at war then it is
understandable why you would add your voice to the chorus of
criticism about Iraq and U.S. policy in the Middle East. But if you
agree that America is at war, indeed that it is engaged in a
protracted conflict against an enemy as determined, disciplined and
fanatical as the communists were, then I believe you should support
in the main President Bush and his strategy of encouraging freedom
and democracy throughout the world and especially in Iraq and the
I conclude with a few thoughts offered by Thomas Sowell, who says
that while we still live in a free society the faith that built
that society is fading, replaced by the cult of the individual. But
no society, Sowell warns, can survive solely "on the narrow
self-interest of each individual." Somebody must sacrifice some of
his own interests for the greater good of the society. And in a
crisis, "some have to put their lives on the line," as firemen,
policemen, and people in the military still do. But to do so you
have to believe the society is worth your sacrifice.
In the midst of war today, Sowell writes, we see former presidents
and defeated presidential candidates telling the world how wrong we
are--sometimes collecting astronomical fees in foreign countries
for doing so--and members of Congress playing demagogic party
politics with national security.
"We still have the cathedral of freedom," Sowell concludes, "but
how long will it last without the faith?"
How long indeed?Lee Edwards,
Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage
Foundation (heritage.org), is the author of many books, including
the just-published "
To Preserve and Protect: The Life of Edwin Meese III."
Remarks at "Where in the World Is America Going?"