The Perry-Paul Debate is Healthy for the GOP – and for America

The foreign policy debate in the media between prospective GOP Presidential candidates Texas Governor Rick Perry and Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul during the past few days is the current leading topic of journalists covering the first stirrings of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination campaign. The media portrayed this rather heated verbal altercation as a policy dispute between Perry, a foreign policy “interventionist” and Paul, an “isolationist”. I believe that this is actually an oversimplification of the positions of both candidates.


In my view, despite the unfortunate ad hominem tone of this verbal altercation, I think that this debate will ultimately be healthy for both the Republican Party and for America. Since the demise of the former Soviet Union, both political parties have failed dismally to formulate overall foreign policy principles appropriate for the post- Cold War world. Hopefully, the Perry-Paul debate will stimulate deeper efforts among prospective Republican and Democratic 2016 presidential hopefuls to formulate comprehensive and tenable foreign policy objectives, rather than the reflexive groping for campaign-motivated policies that has been the wont of candidates since 1992.


Since my undergraduate days at Northwestern University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I have been an intense student of American foreign policy. I hardly claim to be an expert, but I think my experiences and the evolution in my thinking can lend some perspective to the subject at hand.


At Northwestern, I was most fortunate to study under the tutelage of Professor Richard Leopold, then considered by most authorities to be the leading academic on the evolution of American foreign policy beginning with the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was in Dr. Leopold’s foreign policy class that I first became familiar with the ideas and opinions of Hans Morgenthau and his defining work, A New Foreign Policy for the United States.


In this book, Morgenthau asserted that virtually the sole criterion for foreign policy making should be America’s national interest, and not idealistic visions like “saving the world for democracy” (e.g. Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush). Dr. Leopold did not fully embrace the Morgenthau philosophy, although he did believe that Morgenthau cogently argued for abandonment of those policies which served the Republic well in the half decade following World War 2 but were thereafter sorely in need of revision.


I did, however, become, and remain, an ardent disciple of the Morgenthau doctrine of paramountcy of national interest in foreign policy formulation and implementation. Applying this standard to American foreign policy history, it is clear that both 1) Franklin D. Roosevelt’s anti-Nazi Lend-Lease British assistance, however deviously it may have been applied; and 2) the George F. Kennan-inspired bipartisan post-World War 2 policy of containment of the former Soviet Union were very much in our national interest. Had Nazi Germany conquered Great Britain in 1941, Hitler would have had control of two of the world’s leading navies, and American national security would definitely have been endangered. Had Soviet expansionism, motivated by a Marxist ideology, been successful in subjugating Western Europe and Latin America during the Cold War, the American economy and freedom of the seas would have been imperiled by the Kremlin’s blackmail.


With the end of the Cold War, the need for American commitments to foreign interventions has decreased dramatically. Even before the end of the Cold War, wise American foreign policy makers had observed that our nation had become overcommitted. An excellent example of such an individual was Robert F. Kennedy. In his television debate with Eugene McCarthy prior to the 1968 California Democratic primary, Kennedy stated most eloquently, “America cannot be the policeman of the world.” That statement was true then, and it is even more true today. The assassination of Robert Kennedy the night of the California primary deprived our nation of a man who would have been a great President who would have conducted our foreign policy very much in line with the Morgenthau doctrine.


Today, an isolationist mood prevails in the American body politic, largely resulting from the frustrating results of our involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The surge in isolationism has boosted Rand Paul to the very top tier of GOP presidential candidates. Not since the 1930s has isolationism been such a powerful sentiment in the American electorate. Those were the days in Congress of Representative Hamilton Fish (R-NY), Senator Gerald Nye (R-North Dakota), and Senator Burton K. Wheeler (D-Montana). They capitalized politically on the deepening of the isolationist mood brought about by the Nye Committee investigation of the activities of the American munitions industry during World War I, resulting in the leaders of this industry being labeled by isolationists in the media and in the political community as “merchants of death.” This inspired Congressional passage of the three Neutrality Acts, which hamstrung FDR in his early efforts to assist European nations resisting the Axis powers of Germany and Italy.


Isolationism resulted in damage to our national interest in the 1930s, and an across-the-board policy of isolationism will damage our national interest today. Senator Paul is absolutely right when he contends that America must substantially reduce the extent and nature of its foreign commitments and interventions. Yet he has not made it clear exactly what foreign policy military commitments and activities he would maintain and what overseas developments may, in his view, warrant either direct American military intervention or assistance to foreign nations resisting threats to our national security.


Governor Perry is not likely to enter at any point into the top tier of GOP presidential hopefuls. Yet his joining the debate with Paul will certainly result in both Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls feeling obliged to express their particular foreign policy positions at the outset of their respective campaigns, particularly on the terrorism issue. As Governor Perry has noted, the need to deter and eliminate terrorism may be one significant circumstance necessitating American foreign intervention.


In giving my overall perspective of a wise foreign policy in our era, I now apply the Morgenthau doctrine of the paramountcy of national interest to the various areas of the globe.


In Asia, I agree with Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan, as outlined in his recent book, Asia’s Cauldron, as to the necessity for a continuing substantial American naval presence in the South China Sea. This area contains sea lanes absolutely vital to the increasing American trade with what Kaplan labels “Indo-Pacific.”


In Europe, with the end of the Cold War, there is absolutely no American national interest justifying American intervention in the various conflicts that have ensued between Russia and its former fellow member nations in the now defunct Soviet Union, including Georgia and Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is a Russian autocrat who often engages in thuggish behavior. He is not Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, however, and he is does not threaten the peace and security of our traditional Western European allies.


In the Middle East, application of the Morgenthau doctrine warrants our protection of two strategic assets: Israel and oil. Israel was a vital port of call for the Sixth Fleet of the United States Navy during the Cold War, and it remains available as aa port of call should American naval involvement become necessary in the region due to terrorism and/or oil supply crises.


Our interest in Middle Eastern oil not only involves the supplies per se, but also the prevention of the capture of control of oil resources by parties who may seek to manipulate world oil prices to the economic disadvantage of the Western world. After his conquest of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein controlled sixty percent of the world’s oil supply and had the power to play havoc with world oil markets and prices.  On that basis, America’s first war against Iraq was totally in our national interest and a valid exercise of military power under the Morgenthau doctrine. By contrast, the second Iraq war, which proceeded under a simple desire to replace Saddam Hussein as a matter of “regime change” did not serve any national interest and was not so justified.


Another area of foreign endeavor which America must avoid in the Middle East is our involvement in civil wars or Muslim inter-ethnic wars, whether in Syria or Iraq. These are quagmires involving equally negative alternatives, both for the region and American national interest. Recently, it was reported that President Obama was considering supporting the Iranian Shiite government against the Sunni forces of ISIS (Islamic State in Iran and Syria). This would be an absolutely foolhardy decision, not justified even remotely by any national interest under the Morgenthau doctrine.

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In this column, I have endeavored to illustrate the foreign policy dilemma that looms over Presidential Campaign 2016: At a time of a rising tide of isolationism, will America elect a leader with the skills necessary to successfully make and implement foreign policy decisions in our national interest that go against the isolationist current?


Such a leader will need to have enormous talents: Persuasive skills, keen and insightful judgment, a strong sense of history, and an ability to absorb and comprehend the information that goes into the making of any foreign policy decision.


In short, the Republicans need to find another Ronald Reagan, and the Democrats need to find another Robert Kennedy. We do not know at this point whether either party has such a person. I do believe, however, that the Perry-Paul debate will compel the other presidential candidates of both political parties to publish their foreign policy platforms early, in order that the electorates of each party will be able to make an informed selection of the best possible candidate to lead our nation at this uncertain and perilous time for our world.


Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.

"I’m an undertaker by trade, so when I bury somebody, they don’t come back."
—Bergen County Democratic Chairman Lou Stellato