Project Fortress: Extremes Pulling America Down a Dangerous Path

January 2024

Most of us who took Poli Sci 101 were taught that the political spectrum is a line dividing left, center and right. It makes sense and helps make sense of the complexities of politics, which explains why the language of left and right is used by the press and by the politicians. But the reality is that the political spectrum is not a line straight separating left and right, but rather a curving horseshoe where far-left extremism and far-right extremism ultimately find common ground. This sometimes-hidden truth is on full display in the current debate over American foreign policy—and specifically over military aid to Ukraine and Israel—as blocs on the far right and far left bend away from the center and pull America away from the responsibilities of international leadership.  

Erasing Doubt
Let’s start with the party of FDR, Truman and Kennedy—and how its growing isolationist bloc is turning against America’s long-held commitment to democratic Israel.

By early 1945, polls showed strong public support in America for a Jewish state, which President Harry Truman endorsed in 1946. A key ingredient of the American public’s support for Israel was the American GI’s firsthand testimony about the Holocaust. That started at the top.

After he saw the death camp near Gotha in April 1945, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower resolved that it was his “duty to be in a position from then on to testify firsthand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that ‘the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.’” He expected other Americans to share in that grim duty, so he issued this charge to a group of subordinates, lawmakers and journalists who toured the death camps: “Your responsibilities, I believe, extend into a great field, and informing the people at home of things like these atrocities is one of them…I want you to see for yourself and be spokesmen for the United States.”

With an exquisite sense of human nature, Eisenhower knew it would be easy for the American people to dismiss what some stranger or historian reported; it was quite another thing to hear a son, sweetheart, husband or dad—or in my case, a grandfather—describe the nightmare. Moved by those firsthand accounts, Americans led an international effort to forge a “national home” and safe refuge for the nearly-exterminated Jewish people. A UN commission was tasked with carving a pathway to that goal. Jews and Arabs alike had roots in this tiny swath of earth. Lacking the wisdom of Solomon, the UN in 1947 offered the best answer it could: a 50,000-word blueprint for a two-state solution. The plan outlined free elections, borders, trade connections between the new Arab and Jewish states, and UN administration of Jerusalem as an international trusteeship. With U.S. backing, the UN adopted the plan. Jewish leaders accepted it. Arab leaders rejected it.

The Democratic Party’s commitment to Israel—like America’s—would be steadfast through the decades and wars that followed.

But today, support for Israel among self-described Democrats has “dipped to new lows,” according to Gallup. “Their sympathies in the Middle East now lie more with the Palestinians than the Israelis, 49 percent versus 38 percent.” Sixty-nine percent of Democrats younger than 35 disapprove of President Joe Biden’s support for Israel as the IDF fends off the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah-Houthi axis. Some Democratic members of Congress engage in reflexive relativism and rationalization. Some parrot Hamas-Iranian misinformation. Others in the party of Truman refuse to condemn Hamas. Still others compare the liberal democracy of Israel to the murderous tyranny of Herod.

Truman recognized Israel 11 minutes after it declared independence. Yet a metastasizing bloc within his party now sides with those who want to erase Israel.
 
Supporting Freedom
Now, let’s look at the party of TR, Eisenhower and Reagan—and how its growing isolationist bloc is turning against America’s clear-eyed opposition to Kremlin dictators and shirking America’s long-held commitment to democracies under assault.

In his 1981 inaugural, President Ronald Reagan declared: “To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment…No weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.”

In the months that followed, he used the bully pulpit to educate the American people—reminding us that “support for freedom fighters is self-defense” and “is tied to our own security,” that “spending for defense is investing in things that are priceless: peace and freedom,” that “we cannot play innocents abroad in a world that’s not innocent.” And he challenged the American people to “stand by our democratic allies” and “not break faith with those who are risking their lives on every continent…to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.”

In various ways—technological assistance, covert aid, weapons shipments, aid for civil society, timely military deployments and shows of force—what came to be called the Reagan Doctrine would aid anti-Kremlin forces and democratic movements resisting aggression in Central America, the Caribbean, Poland, Africa and, of course, Afghanistan. Taking his cues from Reagan, CIA Director William Casey coldly ordered his deputies to “go out and kill me 10,000 Russians until they give up.” Working with indigenous and regional forces, the CIA did that and then some. The Red Army lost 15,000 dead and 35,000 wounded in Afghanistan.

In short, Reagan would today be leading the effort to arm democratic Ukraine in its war of self-defense against Kremlin aggression. His motivations would be twofold.

As an idealist, Reagan believed deeply in freedom, in America’s role in advancing freedom, in America’s responsibility to stand with those willing to stand up to aggression. Thus, Reagan would support Ukraine because Ukraine is fighting for freedom.

Reagan also was a skillful practitioner of hard-nosed realpolitik. Consider his unswerving commitment to “peace through strength,” ruthless proxy war against Moscow in Afghanistan, military buildup that amounted to economic warfare, missile deployments in Europe, naval engagements in the Med and Persian Gulf. Thus, Reagan would support Ukraine with military aid because doing so leverages and exploits a Kremlin miscalculation, weakens Russia’s tyranny, grinds down Moscow’s military capabilities, and advances America’s interests—all at minimal cost in American treasure and no cost in American blood.

The Republican Party’s commitment to the Reagan Doctrine and support for freedom movements defined it for the better part of four decades.

But today, just 35 percent of self-identified Republicans support military aid for democratic Ukraine in its war of self-defense, with 75 percent of Republicans who support former President Donald Trump opposing Ukraine aid. Some high-profile Republicans are using their platform to slur Ukraine’s president and claim Ukraine is not democratic. Some have stooped to parroting Kremlin misinformation. Others use Russian propaganda to rationalize a kind of isolationism that ignores the most basic lessons of history.

Reagan dismantled the Kremlin’s empire and set in motion a train of events that reversed centuries of Russian aggression. Yet a throbbing bloc within his party now opposes the core tenets of the Reagan Doctrine and shrugs at naked Russian aggression.

Costs
Isolationists of both the far left and far right often talk about the costs of international leadership and global engagement—and they are indeed high—but never about the costs of isolation or disengagement. They are higher: Pearl Harbor in 1941; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which birthed the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq in 2011, which spawned ISIS and chemical warfare; Afghanistan in 2021, which is even now birthing another generation of nightmares. “In each cycle of retreat,” former National Security Council official Henry Nau observes, America “leaves the world at its own peril.”

Moreover, there are benefits to global engagement—benefits the isolationists fail to consider: It was U.S. leadership and engagement that rolled back a dark age of fascist totalitarianism. It was U.S. leadership and engagement during the Cold War that protected free government, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, midwifed Israel’s democracy into existence, and rescued South Korea and West Germany from the prison yard of communism. It was U.S. leadership and engagement after the Cold War that transformed Europe from armed camps into a continent “whole and free.” It was U.S. leadership and engagement on the global stage that prevented a second 9/11, forced the enemy to expend finite resources on survival, and pushed the battlefront away from our shores.

 

Indeed, it is U.S. leadership and engagement that has prevented great-power war—and all its unthinkable consequences—for almost 80 years. As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reminds us, “Sometimes our greatest achievements are the bad things we stop from happening.”

Path
A friend and keen student of American foreign policy recently remarked that “These wars in Israel and Ukraine should find realists and idealists on the same side.” He’s right. Realists understand that it is in America’s interests for democratic Israel to dismantle Hamas—and thus weaken the terrorist-revolutionary regime in Iran—and for democratic Ukraine to liberate its territory from Russia—and thus weaken the tyrant-revisionist regime in Russia. Likewise, idealists understand that it is a reflection of America’s ideals to support these free nations in their struggle to be free—and simply to be.

But it dawns on me that far-left, anti-Israel isolationists and far-right, anti-Ukraine isolationists are neither realists nor idealists. After all, a person who can rationalize or shrug at the unspeakable horrors intentionally visited upon Kfar Aza and Sderot, Mariupol and Bucha is emptied of any trace of idealism. And a person who’s unwilling or unable to see that a Kremlin victory is an American defeat, that Hamas’s means and ends are vile, that the mutilation or elimination of a fellow member of the Free World weakens the nation leading the Free World, has no sense of realism and perhaps no sense of reality. 

This critique of far-left and far-right isolationism is not an argument for war or against peace. Scripture teaches us that “Blessed are the peacemakers” and urges us to be as gentle doves. Of course, scripture also calls on us to be as shrewd as vipers and reminds us there’s “a time for war”—a time when bad people force people of goodwill to defend what’s right. To be sure, some far-left isolationists and some far-right isolationists sincerely want peace. But many who occupy those extremes do not—just listen to what they say and how they say it—and all of them seem to have forgotten where the path of isolationism ultimately leads America.

A version of this essay appeared in Providence.

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