Where are the Pragmatists? Cantor’s foreign policy and the Republican response

 /  March 17, 2014, 7:30 a.m.

Eric Cantor

In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute on February 17, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) criticized President Obama’s hesitant foreign policy and directly challenged members of his own party that favor reduction of American supremacy abroad. In criticizing policies of non-intervention on both sides of the political aisle, Cantor affirmed the importance of America’s role in world affairs. However, with its use of hawkish rhetoric, his speech reminded us of the practical disadvantages of polarization, both in the conduct of domestic politics and in the resolution of international problems.

Cantor’s call for American leadership in the world cited unresolved issues in Iran and worsening conditions in Syria to support his condemnation of America’s recent trend of weak (or absent) intervention. On Syria, he argued that President Obama committed the United States to a policy of regime change, but failure to act on promises after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons has both strengthened the Syrian regime and weakened the United States’ credibility. He argued, “We must coordinate an international effort to support the moderate opposition, to bolster them in the fight against the forces of Assad, Iran, and al-Qaeda. We must lead to change the balance of power on the ground.”

Implicit in Cantor’s argument here is a crucial concept: The balance of power in Syria is changing to the disadvantage of America and the world, and will likely continue to do so without foreign intervention. The most powerful opposition factions in Syria include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the al-Nusra Front. At this point in the conflict, there appears to be no easy or favorable policy choice that would strengthen the moderate opposition without either empowering or angering extremist factions. American intervention at present would likely come too late to yield a peaceful transition of power in Syria. However, we must note that Cantor makes a valid argument: Absent of foreign intervention, the situation in Syria will likely deteriorate further and harm our interests (i.e. strengthen al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in the region). America, then, might have a case for intervention in Syria. Cantor’s foreign policy in this regard is not hawkish, but pragmatic.

In regards to Iran, Cantor argued that the limited nature of the sanctions detailed in the interim agreement, effective while Iran and the P5+1 negotiate a more comprehensive treaty, “has undermined the perception of international pressure that is critical to getting Iranians to change course.” Furthermore, he contended that the interim agreement suffers from “shortcomings” in that it “allows Iran to continue enriching uranium and improving its centrifuge designs, despite the UN Security Council resolutions that call for Iran to suspend exactly these activities.”

In his analysis of Iranian nuclear talks, Cantor sounds like a pessimistic hawk. He appears to have forgotten that the interim agreement alone is projected to lengthen Iran’s breakout time – the time it would take to enrich the amount of uranium necessary to create one nuclear weapon – from 1-1.6 months to 1.9-2.2 months. It does so by mandating surveillance by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of nuclear facilities, including at Natanz and Fordow, two of Iran’s largest nuclear facilities. Furthermore, the interim agreement freezes higher-level enrichment that poses the greatest threat in regards to Iran’s breakout timeline. Compromises in the bill that provision for allowing Iran to continue low-level enrichment for legitimate purposes are both subject to observation and necessary to bring Iran to the negotiating table. The P5+1 is making strides vis-à-vis Iranian nuclearization through negotiations, and Cantor’s analysis of the interim agreement neglects both this reality and the fact that threats alone cannot force Iran to dismantle its nuclear program. Cantor is incorrect to condemn compromises as “shortcomings,” and situates himself as an intransigent war hawk by doing so.

Republican responses to Cantor’s speech appear to be fiercely divided according to stance on foreign policy, indicating a greater trend within the party. So-called “defense Republicans” appeal to their base by pointing out the Obama administration’s foreign policy weaknesses, particularly in regards to the Benghazi incident. The more these politicians address foreign policy, the better they perform at the polls. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee largely blame the White House and the State Department for the disaster in 2012, citing the fact that the executive branch ignored growing threats in Libya. Cantor pointed out the role of US failure in the tragedy, and aligned himself with the defense Republicans in the process. Similar rhetoric can likely be expected of establishment Republicans in the 2016 presidential race.

In contrast, Libertarian sects of the party vehemently denounced Cantor’s arguments. Jason Pye, writing for the Libertarian group United Liberty, argues that an interventionist policy like Cantor’s draws no line as to where it will not intervene. Pye states that establishment Republicans are “still stuck in a Bush-era mindset” and “haven’t realized that a majority of voters have rejected that foreign policy, despite the shellacking they took at the ballot box in 2006, when Americans took their frustrations over Iraq to the polls.” Libertarians like Pye and Daniel Larison for The American Conservative point out that Americans on the whole have become weary of hawkish stances. Indeed, part of the reason for Obama’s hesitance to intervene in Syria may have been war-weariness among the general public.

The responses to Cantor’s speech, whether supportive or critical, have one thing in common: they favor sweeping, universal doctrines over pragmatic intervention calculus. This is, in part, a fault in American political structure and rhetoric: presidents’ foreign policy positions have been described as “doctrines,” most famously beginning with James Monroe. Doctrinal rhetoric in both Cantor’s foreign policy and responses to it, though, has created polarization within the party. The further isolation of the defense wing of the party from non-interventionist Libertarians may affect nomination prospects in 2016, particularly for moderate Kentucky Libertarian Senator Rand Paul. Seth Mandel of Commentary Magazine points out that Paul is unlikely to have a big-government Democrat with which to contrast himself against in the presidential race. In addition, his popularity has partly resulted from his similarity on economic issues to many establishment Republicans. It is in his foreign policy that Paul distinguishes himself.

This means that foreign policy could become an important talking point in the 2016 Republican race. The drawback, though, is that moderate stances on foreign policy will be unlikely to succeed. Cantor’s speech showed us that hawkish rhetoric is met by principled neo-isolationism, with little middle ground.

JS Mill reasoned in, On Liberty, that two conflicting doctrines often “share the truth between them,” so that “even in revolutions of opinion, one part of the truth usually sets while another rises. Even progress, which ought to superadd… only substitutes one partial and incomplete truth for another.” Mill’s observation rings true in the recent polarization of American politics, and it does so again in Cantor’s speech and Republican responses to it. Cantor, Obama, and their Libertarian detractors all argue on the basis of some truth. A pragmatic middle ground in foreign policy, though, will never be reached if the Republican Party and American leaders continue to substitute one half-truth for another. Bipartisanship and synthesis ought to form the basis of an effective, pragmatic foreign policy, but, American politics as they stand oppose these forces of progress.

The image featured is from Gage Skidmore’s Flickr. No alterations have been made.

Dana Scott


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