The Band Perry-Rand's Featherweight Foreign Policy Debate

John McCain has pronounced on the Paul-Perry-Paul war of foreign-policy op-eds that are available here, here, and here, so let us review the bidding. To believe there are things that exceed U.S. control is to accede to an “absence of American leadership” to which all global ills are traceable. To believe other things, controllable or not, fall outside of U.S. interests is to advocate “a withdrawal to a fortress America” such as preceded World War I. Say what one will about Senator McCain, he knows how to spice up a Sunday show with stark simplicities.

Senator Paul and Governor Perry, meanwhile, are doing dueling riffs on Ronald Reagan, who was first elected President 34 years ago, which would be like Reagan campaigning for the White House by debating the merits of the circa-1946 foreign policy of Harry Truman—an appeal to a towering historical figure, to be sure, but not one likely to resonate with the 18- to 29-year-old voters who make up a fifth of the electorate, the oldest of whom was four years old when Reagan left office, and who as a cohort opted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney.

The invocation of Reagan marks a nostalgia for the moral clarity—and comparatively straightforward bipolarity—of the Cold War world, as does what my colleague Daniel J. Mahoney has called (link no longer available) a reflexive Russophobia that wrongly treats Russia as though it were pursuing a foreign policy based on ideology rather than strategic calculation.

So does the permanent replay of the Munich 1938 metaphor and its concomitant slur “appeasement,” neither of which is usually suited to the contemporary situations to which they are applied. The same goes for the dread epithet “isolationist.” CNN host Candy Crowley tried to get McCain to call Paul that on her show on Sunday: “I have got to ask yes or no. Do you think Senator Paul is an isolationist?” McCain, unwilling to insult a colleague, cagily dodged the question. One would have thought Crowley was saying “pederast.”

Thus McCain’s genealogy of isolationism to the pre-World War I days when, gasp, America was not a preeminent world power: These wacko birds wanted to keep us out of World War I, then they retrenched and got us into World War II, and the people who were right about World War II were right about the Cold War, and, and—and this is bad history and worse metaphor.

It is, for starters, not at all clear that those who wanted to keep us out of World War I were either isolationist or wrong. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for example—an internationalist and Cold War hard-liner—questioned the prudence of Woodrow Wilson’s war, the waging of which, incidentally, was vital to the centralization of constitutional authority in Washington. More important, the ample differences between post-World War II and post-Cold War American leadership distill substantially to our ability to control events. “Existential” has become an overused word, a languid synonym for “big.” (McCain, Exhibit A: Chaos in Syria and Iraq poses an “existential threat to the security of the United States of America.”) Leninism was an actually existential threat to the United States. We were able to defend our existence, and to exert control over events, by making rational threats to basically rational people who were attached to discrete geographical states.

Our ability to control distant events was probably less than we thought then and is certainly less now—an irony, perhaps, of a unipolar world, but a fact. Perry, Exhibit B: “There are no good options in Iraq or Syria,” which he blames on President Obama. So his plan from here is . . . what, exactly? “More” of things, like “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sharing,” that Paul correctly notes we are already doing.

Similarly, McCain, Exhibit C: “America has an essential role in maintaining peace and stability throughout the world, and that does not mean sending combat troops everywhere.” But what then does it mean for him, especially if he is the first to neuter our ultimate threats, which he is wont to make, by acknowledging their hollowness? Sanctions? We already do that where nation-states are involved. Diplomatic maneuverings? Ardent hawks routinely argue diplomacy fails because it is not backed by a credible threat of force, which threat McCain’s disclaimers help to render incredible.

To be sure, that every problem is not amenable to a military solution would be a welcome insight from McCain, whose hawkishness has at varying times extended from Russia to Syria. But as befits the Manichean, he tends to sing in only two keys. One is boots on the ground, which is rarely practicable, even for him; witness his rush to renounce it. The other is American leadership, which in McCain’s telling is ethereal, a formless apparition whose absence can be blamed for all manner of evils but whose presence is rarely clearly defined. There were, for example, no consequences the U.S. could threaten that could be as grievous to Russian perception as a hostile Ukrainian regime between it and Europe and with access to the Black Sea at stake to boot.

These stark choices, defined at their edges by the Perry-Paul debate, leave little room for what is actually needed: what Mahoney calls a foreign policy of “conservative prudence.” Under such a policy, two factors justify the projection of force: American interests, which include genuine civilizational threats and can certainly be construed to include moral duties, and American capacity. That is, we must need something to be done and we must be able to do it. Both factors are routinely inflated by the reflexive advocates of military intervention and likely understated by their critics.

An adverse event does not constitute prima facie evidence of either. Nor does the bare desire to do good—in which, abroad as at home, nobility is often separated from narcissism by the faintest of lines.

In either case, prudence is the preferable alternative to the faux choice of isolationism on the one hand and militarism on the other. It may, indeed, be more than the preferable alternative. It may also be the only actual one.