Perry, Paul and foreign policy

Texas Gov. Rick Perry wrote in The Washington Post earlier this month to criticize the foreign policy prescriptions of fellow Republican, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)  Deriding Paul as an irresponsible “isolationist,” Perry sought to make the case for a truly “internationalist” foreign policy by invoking past Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.  But is Paul’s foreign policy really as wrongheaded—and un-Republican—as Perry would have it?

The recent turmoil in Iraq and Syria provided the proximate impetus for Perry’s piece, with the governor arguing against the notion that U.S. should “ignore” what is happening in Iraq and Syria.  The Islamic State, Perry insists, constitutes “a real threat” to U.S. security and should therefore be met head-on.  Succumbing to the appeals of isolations like Rand Paul would only make the U.S. and its citizens more vulnerable to violent attacks, Perry warns.

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Yet the internecine division to which Perry is responding has deep roots within the Republican Party, far predating America’s present challenges in the Middle East.  The competing desires to pursue U.S. security objectives overseas while also avoiding the costs of over-commitment goes back at least to World War II and is especially evident in the experience of President Eisenhower, one of the two presidents that Perry appears to hold in the highest regard.

Indeed, even the movement to “draft Eisenhower” as a presidential candidate was partly an attempt by Republican Party bosses to block the nomination of Robert Taft, an arch-isolationist popular with the party’s base.  Essentially, the GOP was split between Taft and his isolationists, who called for limited hemispheric defense and severe reductions in America’s commitments to its allies, and the incipient “cold warrior” wing of the party, which saw containing communism abroad as a core national interest.

As president, Eisenhower had to cater to both groupings.  In line with his own beliefs and in tune with those of the internationalists, Eisenhower retained and refined the outgoing Truman Administration’s doctrine of containment, broadly undertaking to prevent the spread of communism in Europe, East Asia and the decolonized world.  Perry is thus correct that Eisenhower recognized America’s security as dependent upon an active foreign policy.

Yet Eisenhower was mindful that neither his party nor the nation at large would sanction (or would benefit from) unlimited means being devoted towards these ends, a sentiment best crystalized in his Farewell Address.  As such, Eisenhower relied upon (comparatively) cheaper methods of containing Soviet aggression such as nuclear deterrence, alliance-building and covert actions over “boots on the ground” solutions.  Moreover, Eisenhower was highly selective regarding the Soviet machinations that he saw fit to respond to; when Soviet tanks were mobilized to crush the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, for example, Eisenhower did nothing despite an earlier pledge to “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe.

As president, then, Eisenhower was every bit as concerned with trimming the excesses of U.S. foreign policy as he was preoccupied with securing the nation against foreign threats.  He kept strict limits on U.S. foreign policy (including by reducing overall defense expenditure) in service of prudent statecraft but also as the best way to defend the essential character of the American republic.  The result was a mixed foreign policy of robust internationalism pursued within strict confines.

In today’s era of austerity, Eisenhower’s internationalist formula perhaps is an attractive recipe for contemporary U.S. foreign policy.  Even President Obama has sought to associate himself with the 34th president when selling his plans to curtail the U.S. overseas footprint.  In fact, Perry himself betrayed an affinity for Eisenhoweresque restraint last week when he enumerated his specific ideas for countering the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, calling for decidedly modest measures such as “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing and airstrikes” but certainly not an unlimited commitment of military resources.

On balance, Perry is probably right to criticize Paul’s quasi-isolationism as being outside of the Republican mainstream.  Yet it would be too much to cast Reaganite militarism as the default, natural or even a particularly prudent foreign policy footing.  As Eisenhower demonstrated, the U.S. can implement a far-reaching and effective foreign policy without being hitched to bottomless commitments of dubious strategic value.  Moreover, both history and contemporary experience seem to show that such a mixed approach to foreign policy can be just as rewarding from a domestic-political perspective as from a geostrategic vantage point—a lesson that both Governor Perry and Senator Paul might do well to heed as primary season approaches.

Harris is a lecturer in Politics at Earlham College and a regular blogger for The National Interest.

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