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Rethinking U.S. foreign policy

Tribune-Review
| Wednesday, November 12, 2014 9:00 p.m

WASHINGTON

Barack Obama’s coming request for Congress to “right-size and update” the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against terrorism will be constitutionally fastidious and will catalyze a debate that will illuminate Republican fissures.

Many events (U.S. military misadventures since 2001, the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS, Iran’s nuclear weapons program) and one senator (Rand Paul) have reopened a Republican debate that essentially closed when Dwight Eisenhower won the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. One reason he sought it was to block Ohio’s Sen. Robert Taft.

Taft’s skepticism about NATO and collective security was discordant with the postwar internationalism of the Republican establishment and the nation. Eisenhower’s victory sealed the Republicans’ near unanimity that had begun to form in January 1945 when Michigan’s Republican Sen. Arthur Vandenberg changed his mind.

He had been an isolationist. Then his Jan. 10, 1945, Senate speech repositioned him and his party: “I do not believe that any nation hereafter can immunize itself by its own exclusive action. … Our oceans have ceased to be moats.”

Now, Americans generally, but Republicans especially, are thinking afresh about the world. Henry Kissinger’s new book, “World Order,” deftly diagnoses America’s bipolar mental condition regarding foreign policy. “The conviction that American principles are universal,” Kissinger says, “has introduced a challenging element into the international system because it implies that governments not practicing them are less than fully legitimate.” This “suggests that a significant portion of the world lives under a kind of unsatisfactory, probationary arrangement, and will one day be redeemed; in the meantime, their relations with the world’s strongest power must have some latent adversarial element to them.”

The last 11 years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.”

The coming debate about another AUMF will come in a context conditioned by Obama’s aggressive use of his expansive understanding of executive powers. Molly O’Toole, writing for Defense One in August, noted:

“The 2001 AUMF that Congress passed in the fearful days following the Sept. 11 attacks has been called the most far-reaching, open-ended expansion of the executive’s powers in U.S. history. Though the AUMF’s mere 60 words made no mention of al-Qaeda or Afghanistan, they provided President George W. Bush the statutory authority for the war in Afghanistan and on ‘terror,’ and the legal underpinnings for almost any use of U.S. military force to counter terrorism anywhere across the globe for the past 13 years.”

The 2001 AUMF could not have anticipated today’s variables. The AUMF of 2002 (Iraq) followed the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which passed the House 360-38 and the Senate unanimously, and declared it U.S. policy to “remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.”

Obama is right that there is much to rethink.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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