So far, at least, it could have been worse.
President Trump chose the least aggressive of three military options presented to him when the U.S., U.K., and France bombed suspected chemical plants in Syria last week, according to news accounts. And the Wall Street Journal says the U.S. is seeking an Arab force made up of local nations to occupy that segment of Syria where ISIS has been defeated.
In other words, no nation-building, no long-term commitment for the U.S. military in yet another unending conflict in the Middle East.
Those words do not come easy to a recovering interventionist like me. But history has been a hard teacher. And I worry that President Trump, in his recent bellicosity toward Russia and Syria, may be putting us back on the road to more foreign policy errors of the kind from which we thought his election had spared us.
Granted, President Trump is first and foremost a pragmatist. But to the extent that his nomination and election was a victory for any one school of thought, it was a victory for Buchananism, which has been a sort of dissident minority report within the conservative movement these last 25 years.
Since the early 1990s it has been conservative writer Pat Buchanan’s contention that the U.S.A.’s post-Cold War role as the global underwriter of liberal democracy—whether in terms of military interventions abroad, open borders at home or free trade everywhere—has been to the detriment of our country. That was essentially the program that Donald Trump was elected on. It was what I thought I was getting when I voted for him.
And that was quite a turnaround for me. A graduate of American University’s School of International Service in Washington, I was educated to be a globalist. I spent a semester in Brussels as an undergrad in 1992, enthusiastically studying what was then called “the European Community” and weeping along with my professors over the Danish rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, which called for a greater integration of the continent.
Yet today, I applaud the election of President Trump and the passage of Brexit. Like other Catholics who supported the Iraq War in 2003, I voted for Trump in 2016 in part because he promised the very opposite of the foreign policy I had once favored.
What turned me around? Three things: 1) An interventionist foreign policy does not work; 2) we are increasingly not the country we once were; 3) we should have other priorities, both abroad and at home.
Intervention Does Not Work
I mean that in the direct sense. We intervened in Iraq in order to rid it of weapons of mass destruction and to create a democracy in the heart of the Middle East that would somehow transform the region into a place that was no longer an incubator for anti-American terrorism. The weapons were never found. The war turned out to be longer and far more costly than expected. And the Middle East is less stable and more a source of terrorism today than it was 15 years ago.
But I also mean it in an indirect sense, and for Catholic Americans, it is in that sense that the failure of foreign policy interventionism should most concern us. Especially if President Trump puts us back on that road.
Because however much I had come to agree with President Trump’s foreign policy by election day 2016, foreign policy is not primarily why I voted for him. I voted for him because he promised to protect religious liberty and to nominate Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. But as the twenty-first century should have taught us social conservatives by now, if a friendly president’s foreign policy is a failure, we are the ones who will bear the brunt of that failure.
That is, after all, what happened with George W. Bush.
It is hard, from the perspective of 2018, to recall the incredible hopefulness with which Catholics greeted the dawn the new century. Especially for young Catholics who may not be old enough to remember the Jubilee Year 2000 and whose preoccupations—the strategic retreat of “the Benedict Option,” the thesis that the United States itself is an “ill-founded Republic,” the turn toward Latin Mass traditionalism—are the result, in part, of the failures of those very same hopes.
The turn of the Millennium was a time when many Catholics thought that we were going to take it all back. All the cultural ground that had been lost to us since the 1960s was going to be restored.
Polls were finally moving in a pro-life direction and Roe v. Wade was going to be overturned. A consensus that “Dan Quayle was right” about the societal dangers of out-of-wedlock births had formed and scholars of both the left and the right talked about joining forces to restore a culture of marriage. Our rock star pope had vanquished communism in the East and promised “a New Springtime of Faith” even for the decadent West.
But by the end of the Obama era, we had a Roe v Wade for same-sex “marriage,” transgenderism imposed on public schools, nuns ordered to provide abortifacients, and an explosion of “nones” in the disaffiliation from organized religion.
How did it go so bad so fast? There are a lot of reasons. But a big one is the Iraq War.
In the George W. Bush years there was a “New Fusionism” that tied the Iraq War and social conservatism together. When the former went downhill the latter went down with it.
The other two legs of conservatism’s three-legged stool—fiscal responsibility and strong national defense—were relatively unharmed by the unpopularity of the Iraq War, though neoconservative interventionists lost favor in some Republican circles. But the political consequences of interventionism were devastating for social conservatives because it weakened the domestic agenda of the Bush administration and paved the way for eight years of Democratic control of the White House.
We started the new century with the greatest hopes of any wing of conservatism and in a mere 15 years suffered the greatest losses. We thought there would be a New Springtime of Faith. Now we have to fight even for the right to practice our faith. Who in the year 2000 thought it would come to that in the United States of America in a mere 15 years?
If President Trump goes the George W. Bush interventionist route—or even worse, the Hillary route, since she seemed itching for direct military confrontation with Russia as she was in Libya—our dreams could again turn to ash. And perhaps ourselves this time. Let it not be so.
We Are Not the Country We Once Were
Re-reading Joseph Bottum’s 2005 article on what was then the New Fusionism between pro-lifers and foreign policy interventionists, I’m struck by how often Bottum assumes the Iraq War to be a moral crusade, the foreign policy equivalent to our domestic fight against abortion. Bottum recognizes the need for a re-moralization of the U.S., which he thinks both fights would achieve. But that the U.S. is in need of a re-moralization in itself begs the question of our worthiness to launch moral crusades around the world.
Indeed, this was the question raised by the foreign policy expert Andrew Bacevich in an article he wrote for a Catholic audience eight years prior to Bottum’s New Fusionism. Even amid the hopeful Catholic zeitgeist of the late 1990s, Bacevich was already warning Catholics that “the moral content of American foreign policy is not all that moral.”
He meant Clinton-era attempts to export our libertine abortion laws and hedonistic pop culture to other countries. But given how both the culture war and the depravity of American pop culture have only metastasized in the 20 years since then, Bacevich’s article surely must be one of the most prophetic pieces to appear anywhere in the Catholic press of the 1990s.
Catholics, who customarily assume the goodness of our nation and naturally rally round the flag when there is military conflict, should always consider how intervention could advance (or undermine) the foreign and domestic policy agenda of the party in power. Under Bill Clinton, it was abortion. Under Barack Obama, it was abortion plus the LGBT agenda plus the attacks on religious liberty that are the natural consequence of those agendas. Foreign interventions empower the executive branch in ways that often have unforeseen and devastating consequences.
In times of war, Catholic Americans have historically given our sons to the defense of the liberty of our nation and even that of other nations. Defending, even exporting, the Bill of Rights is one thing. But defending or exporting the Sexual Revolution and its attacks on religious liberty is another thing entirely. Why should Catholics give their sons and daughters for that?
Happily, President Trump is not promoting these agendas. But unless and until the religious liberty protections he has promised us are given more permanent form in legislation—and not just executive actions—this is still the thrust of many who command the heights of culture in our country. And that, along with the disastrous political consequences that came of our being yoked to the Iraq War, is something Catholics ought to think about before cheering on the next military intervention.
Indeed, eight years after he wrote of how “the New Fusionism” would re-moralize the United States, Joseph Bottum was instead advising us that “American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans” and Justice Scalia was warning us that the Supreme Court had declared gay marriage opponents “enemies of the human race.”
Should Catholic Americans willingly give—and potentially sacrifice—our sons and daughters for a regime that says that our faith makes us unpatriotic and enemies of the human race? Or should we—at least until better days come—reassess how much loyalty we owe to a regime ruled by elites who view us thus?
We Should Have Other Priorities
Under President Bush the United States was committed to the promotion of democracy around the world. But democracy is something that took root in certain countries because the antecedents for it were present in their Judeo-Christian cultures. If a democracy suddenly drops down out of the sky—or at the barrel of an American gun—in a culture without those antecedents, it can result in human rights atrocities that are very far from what we think of when we think of a healthy democracy.
Just as it was American social conservatives who suffered the most political fallout from the unpopularity of the Iraq War here at home, it was Middle East Christians who literally suffered genocide because of the Iraq War abroad. We can debate whether the fault lies with President Bush for launching the war in 2003 or with President Obama for prematurely withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011. Either way, the Christians of Iraq and Syria suffered enormous consequences as a direct result of American actions in Iraq and they should matter more to us than esoteric theories about democracy promotion that seem only to end in the slaughter of our fellow believers in other countries.
In the mid twentieth century Catholic Americans were heavily focused on the persecution of our brethren behind the Iron Curtain. Courageous leaders like Cardinal Mindszenty were household names. But the modern-day persecution of our brethren in the Middle East, the direct result of policies which many of us supported, are virtually unknown to us. Re-orienting American foreign policy away from endless war and toward the protection of these vulnerable minorities should be our goal.
We ought to be realistic about the Middle East. Overthrowing secular strongmen does not lead to healthy democracies in the region. Instead, it empowers the same type of Islamists who attack us in the West and slaughter their Christian neighbors in the Middle East. That is what will likely happen if Bashar al-Assad is overthrown in Syria.
That is not to dispute that he is a murderous thug. It is, rather, to learn the hard lessons of the early twenty-first century and to avoid making the same mistakes we have already very recently made. It is to avoid making a bad situation worse, for our brethren overseas and, here at home, for ourselves and those we advocate for—the unborn killed in the womb, the children whose right to a mom and a dad is being sacrificed for adult agendas, and our own children who are trying to make sense of a country that views their faith as a crime against the state.
Even those of us who fight against those wretched developments have made errors in our foreign policy judgments that have made it worse for the causes we believe in. President Trump’s tenure is an opportunity to turn it around. Let’s stay the new course—and encourage President Trump to do likewise.