by Bruce Thornton
Rand Paul -- seems to think that jihadists attack us because we’re meddling in their business, and that the global order of intertwined economies can be sustained without our power to actively maintain it and deter or punish those who would violate it. Rather, it bespeaks a massive ignorance of political philosophy necessary for conducting foreign policy.
The surge, of course, was a rousing success, reducing violence and disorder in Iraq and creating the conditions for further political stability. Handed this victory on taking office, Obama then squandered it by failing to sign a status of forces agreement just so he could brag that he ended the war and brought all of our troops home. The sequel can be seen in northern Iraq, where ISIS rapes, plunders, murders, beheads, and enslaves across territory our splendid soldiers had bled and died to win.
And that’s just one of the long catalogue of failures wrought by a president devoid of the traditional wisdom and practical knowledge necessary to direct the foreign policy of the greatest power in history. The apology tour, the bowing to foreign potentates, the Russian “reset” and pledge of “flexibility,” the meaningless “pivot” to Asia, the Syrian “red line” written in disappearing ink, the Benghazi fiasco and cover-up, the Bowe Bergdahl embarrassment, the support given to the jihadist Muslim Brothers and subsequent alienation of Egyptian president al Sisi, the collapse of Libya and Yemen, the shameless bullying of our best regional ally Israel, and the culminating fiasco of his cringing negotiations with Iran, the world’s most virulent state sponsor of terrorism, all put Obama’s chutzpa in the same league as the guy who murders his parents then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.
But this is no brief for Rand Paul, who seems to think that jihadists attack us because we’re meddling in their business, and that the global order of intertwined economies can be sustained without our power to actively maintain it and deter or punish those who would violate it. Rather, it bespeaks a massive ignorance of political philosophy necessary for conducting foreign policy.
That knowledge is pretty basic. People and states pursue their interests as they define them, no matter how irrational or destructive they seem to us. They have their own vision of the good, which can include things we abhor, such as revenge, expansion of their power and territory at the expense of others, or obedience to their god, and they have no compunction in using violence to achieve those aims. Nor do they need our actions to provoke them; like us, Senator Paul, they act to achieve their aims as they identify them, not merely react to our alleged sins. And contrary to our belief in the sanctity of signed agreements and treaties, others see these as tactical necessities to be violated or discarded when it’s advantageous to do so. Where we profess the ideal of transparency and truth and good faith, they will cheat and lie in order to get what they want. In short, everybody is not like us, and those profound differences create conflict as states pursue and defend their zero-sum interests.
More important, passionately held beliefs, particularly those about ultimate reality and human destiny, whether they be communism, fascism, or Islam, are absolutist and not subject to negotiation or alteration just to coexist in peace with a rival belief system. Thus force or the credible threat of force cannot be excluded from relations with rivals or enemies who refuse to alter or abandon their vision of their people’s ultimate good when it conflicts with or challenges our own. There can be no “covenants without swords,” as Thomas Hobbes wrote. Since conflicting and often mutually exclusive goods, interests, and beliefs define humanity across space and time, violence will always be a factor in foreign relations. War, not peace, is the natural state of interstate relations, as much for us as it was for Plato when he wrote those words.
This reality means that prestige, what commentators from Thucydides to the Founders called “honor,” is critical for a successful foreign policy. Enemies and rivals must respect a state’s ability and willingness to use force to defend its interests and foundational beliefs. Being respected and feared is more important than being liked or admired. Moreover, confidence in the principles, beliefs, and virtues that define the state are also important for prestige. A state that shows in word and deed that it believes its foundational political beliefs and ideals are better than the alternative is more respected than one that thinks its way of life is no better than any other. For if it isn’t, then why should one fight, kill, and die for it? Without prestige––the perception that a state will unleash mind-concentrating violence to defend its own beliefs––any material superiority is useless. Nurturing and strengthening prestige, then, is one of the most important requirements for a successful foreign policy.
History is full of examples illustrating this basic wisdom. Nor do differences of technological development or material progress change the value of these examples, for human nature is constant in its capacity for behaving irrationally and cherishing bad ideas. Germany was one of the most civilized, educated, advanced, and prosperous countries in the world, but it sparked the First World War, and then descended into genocidal madness in the Second. Nazism was a powerful belief system that provided Germans with a flattering narrative of their greatness and destiny, one for which nearly 8 million ordinary Germans suffered and died. Only massive destruction convinced the survivors that such a belief was a dead-end.
Our enemies today, the jihadists who seek to return Islam to the purity of its greatest success in creating a global empire, are equally passionate in their vision of the ultimate good. And their belief system is not an aberration of modernism like Nazism, but one 14 centuries old, with a storied record of conquest and domination, and a doctrine of warfare in the service of Islam that bestows material rewards in this life and spiritual ones in the next. These Muslims know exactly what is worth killing and dying for––the revelation of Allah that offers the best political, social, and economic order that will create justice and equality in this world, while nourishing the spiritual needs of its adherents to insure happiness in the next. As bin Laden said, “Whoever has realized that the rewards of this world are few and the next world is better and more permanent” will wage jihad, “showing that this life, this world, is an illusory pleasure.”
Such enemies must be met with resolute action, not flattery, argument, or appeasement, and especially not negotiations in which they know they do not have to factor force into the equation. They will only despise us, and work to achieve by guile and deception what they cannot as yet get through force. But this scorn for our power goes beyond the Iranians or Syrians. We see it enabling Vladimir Putin’s adventurism and China’s probes in the Far East. After 6 years of Obama’s failures, we have no prestige in the eyes of our enemies and rivals. To them Obama is what Neville Chamberlain was to Adolf Hitler––“a little worm.”
Obama and the progressives know nothing of the lessons history teaches. Thinking that we have somehow evolved beyond the eternal truths of a flawed human nature, they dismiss such traditional wisdom as lacking “nuance” or being “simplistic,” an irrational relic of our benighted past that enlightened sophisticates such as themselves have progressed beyond. They fail to realize that the wealth and leisure that allows them to afford such therapeutic delusions, at least for a while, were won by people much different from themselves, people who knew that war is a constant, not an aberration, of human life, a necessity for protecting the goods that uniquely define us––freedom, human rights, the innate worth of the individual, and a political order marked by law, open deliberation, the transparency of power, and accountability at the ballot box.
As for Obama, res ipsa loquitur, as the lawyers say––his legacy of failure speaks for itself. But if Rand Paul wants to be a serious presidential candidate, he indeed should “bone up on foreign policy.” Just don’t use Obama’s textbooks.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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