Dear fellow conservatives, let’s get a few things straight. We’re supposed to be all about the constitutional separation of power, and prudent and responsible action on the international stage. Within our ranks there will be disagreements about how to act (or not act) on specific issues, but let’s try to remember our core principles and not let blind politics get in our way.
First, the U.S. Constitution gives primary responsibility for international affairs to the president and the executive branch. Whether you and I agree or disagree with President Barack Obama (D) and his administration on foreign policy matters, we have to accept that they are his responsibility. Congressional efforts to interfere with executive actions with regard to Cuba and Iran are unconstitutional and improper. Congress has the authority to declare war, and the U.S. Senate has the power to ratify (or not ratify) any formal treaties brought before them. The Congress can exercise those specific powers all it wants. Otherwise, foreign affairs are none of its business.
Second, let’s not lose track of what we want to accomplish. I tend toward the ‘neoconservative’ side of the spectrum and I’m fine with being very active on the world stage, with military force when needed . . . but we must be smart, and we must always be open to diplomacy until it has been proven completely ineffective.
We normalized our relationship with the People’s Republic of China under President Richard Nixon (R), and it has been good for us and it has been good for the people of China. We could have maintained our diplomatic and economic stonewall, or, worse, gone to war with them, but in that particular case those would have been very poor choices. The lack of diplomatic and economic relations was not leading to change in China, and war would have killed millions (or even billions) and also not affected any positive change. Our best option was to try and get China to open itself to the rest of civilization . . . and it worked. China still has serious problems with human rights and political liberty, but it is light years ahead of where it was, in large part because of its robust political and economic ties with the west.
Similarly, President Ronald Reagan (R) made serious efforts to engage with the Soviet Union, and thereby helped lay the groundwork that led to economic modernization and, eventually, the collapse of a terrible regime. The Soviet Union had to earn our trust, and it took time, but in the end diplomacy worked.
This isn’t always the right course of action; I would argue that deposing Saddam Hussein was the best possible option for Iraq, as diplomacy really had failed. Smart people can disagree about what the right approaches are in specific cases. But we can’t assume that diplomatic and economic stonewalls, or war, are automatically the best way to handle isolated and despotic regimes. We must be open to using diplomacy and economic relations to advance the march of freedom, even if we have to ‘hold our noses’ and deal with some really bad regimes in the process.
I would argue that the normalization of relations with Cuba, recently initiated by President Obama, is likely to affect Cuba much like it affected China. It is the best among the available options. Iran is a more difficult case, given its efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability, its fervent antisemitism, and its unapologetic support of Islamic terrorism, but we can’t assume that continued sanctions and diplomatic silence are the best way to move forward. We must be willing to talk, and to give them the chance to make incremental improvements and build trust. That’s what we did with China, and what we did with the Soviet Union.
It doesn’t always work. President Bill Clinton (D) made similar deals with North Korea, and they promptly subverted and violated those agreements and eviscerated the small amount of trust they had earned. There are no guarantees here. But let’s be open to giving Cuba and Iran a chance to surprise us, and let’s not blindly condemn President Obama for being willing to negotiate with the devil . . . just like Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton before him.