A Return to a True Conservative Foreign Policy?

Thomas B. Reed is a forgotten name today, even among Republicans and conservatives. But in his time, at the turn of the 20th century, he was a true giant of American politics. Giant, that is, in every possible sense of this word. With his 6’3 and 300 lbs he towered above his fellow Congressmen. His intelligence was intimidating; and acerbic wit made the Democrats cringe in their seats during his terms as a Speaker of the House. To him we owe epigrams that have become common place today, like “A statesman is a politician who is dead,” and “All the wisdom in the world consist in shouting with the majority.” He was a man of iron will, and he fought the strategic “Battle of the Reed Rules” in which he defeated the attempts by the Democrats to block the work of the House by a disappearing quorum. He was also a civil rights champion, and he took personal interest in the legal battle for the enforcement of the Fifteenth Amendment.

He was also a moral giant. He had moral principles which he never betrayed.

First, he believed in liberty at home. The Democrat Party at the time had begun to absorb the ideas of European socialism, and Reed stood firmly against it. He said once in a speech:

When walking through the streets of New York and contrasting the brownstone fronts of the rich merchants with the unrewarded virtue of the people on the sidewalk, my gorge rises, . . . I do not feel kindly to the people inside. But when I feel that way I know what the feeling is. It is good honest high-minded envy. When the gentlemen across the aisle have the same feeling they think it is political economy.

Second, he believed in peace abroad. The powerful Irish Catholic lobby of New England had commercial interests in a possible military and territorial expansion abroad. The beginning was laid with the illegal overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani of Hawaii in 1893. The Irish lobby found a gifted spokesman in Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, a man who was utterly incapable as a naval officer but made his career writing books which promoted naval power expansion for protection of American interests abroad. The majority of the American population at the time didn’t believe America had interests abroad, and if she had them, it was a betrayal of the ideas of the Founding Fathers. Thomas B. Reed thought the same, and he made every possible effort as a Speaker of the House to never allow laws favoring the expansion of naval and military power. In the words of Barbara Tuchman,

Reed was unalterably opposed to expansion and all it implied. He believed that American greatness laid at home and was to be achieved by improving living conditions and raising political intelligence among Americans rather than by extending American rule over half-civilized peoples difficult to assimilate. To him the Republican Party was the guardian of this principle and expansion was “a policy no Republican ought to excuse much less adopt.”

Liberty at home and peace abroad; those were the two principles that defined the conservative policy at the time. And conservatives knew that they were connected: socialism could only make its inroads in America through “jingoism,” i.e. through twisting American patriotism to mean American expansion and military conquest. What Hayek wrote much later in The Road to Serfdom, that wars are the tool governments use to increase their power at home, was common sense to Americans of late 19th century.

It is no wonder then that in the 20th century we have seen Democrat presidents involving America in all kinds of wars, and Republican presidents elected to get America out of war. Whether during the Korean War, or during the Vietnam War, or during the Wars in Yugoslavia, it was the liberals who were the jingoists, and the conservatives stood against unnecessary involvements. Ronald Reagan, the most conservative president we had so far, refused to engage the US military in conflicts, and expressed regret he ever sent our Marines to Lebanon to die there. And Reagan himself set out to defeat Communism not by deploying superior military might around the world but by returning America back to her liberty and justice for all, and thus give an example for the oppressed peoples in Eastern Europe to follow. (I know it firsthand.) George H.W. Bush, when forced by world’s opinion to order the attack against Saddam Hussein’s invasion in Kuwait, was reluctant to do so, and he hoped for a peaceful withdrawal of the Iraqi forces. It took him 5 months to finally make his decision. (In 1992 Bush Sr. was severely criticized by Al Gore himself for withdrawing from the war too early, and for neglecting the evidence for WMD piled in Iraq.) Even as late as 2000 George W. Bush criticized Clinton about his “nation-building” and “extending our military abroad” and promised to prevent that; and it was in the spirit of the traditional conservative values of liberty at home and peace abroad.

It was only in the last 10 years that the paradigm has shifted and American conservatives have adopted wholesale the idea of American interventionism and military expansion abroad. Conservatism has always believed in limited government, both at home and abroad.

Therefore it is not surprising that these days Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich have broken the silence and have endorsed Ron Paul’s stance on foreign policy. Even though both of them have been involved in the modern neo-conservative politics, Palin and Gingrich have been trained in the old, limited-government, non-interventionist conservatism. Their true conservative instincts lead them to finally acknowledge what every true conservative must acknowledge: That our foreign policy has become liberal and socialist while using conservative rhetoric. It took a Democrat president to remind us that Democrats have never really been for peace, and that the party of peace and non-intervention is the Republican Party. And it is noteworthy that neither Palin nor Gingrich have links to Wall Street or to the Federal Reserve, the two organizations that profit from foreign wars the most. Other Republican candidates with connections to Big Money, insist on a liberal foreign policy of nation-building, interventions, and projection of military might across the globe.

This may be the beginning of a revival of true conservatism in the Republican Party. While Palin decided not to run, and Gingrich has no visible chances of winning the nomination, their voices are still influential. Their influence may help return the Republican Party to its truly conservative roots of liberty at home and peace abroad. When America had true conservatives at the wheel, who believed in these two principles, it prospered, and it was a beacon to the world to follow. It’s not too late to restore that old glory of conservative America.