As the world unravels on Barack Obama’s watch, conservatives might want to take some solace in saying—We told you so! But they shouldn’t. First of all, it’s not as if the Romney campaign or the GOP congressional leadership or most conservative organizations really spent much time bothering to warn of the consequences of Obama’s foreign policy. And in any case, there’s not much solace to be had, as the world coming apart threatens the well-being of America, not just the success of Barack Obama’s second term.
So what can conservatives do? They can explain that decline has been a choice, and that weakness has consequences. They can explain that Obama’s inaction in Syria now is of a piece with his inaction in Iran in 2009, that the abandonment of Iraq in 2011 prefigured the prospective abandonment of Afghanistan over the next couple of years, and that defense cuts at home go hand in hand with an oh-so-light footprint abroad. The Obama administration has chosen a course of American retrenchment and retreat. Conservatives can urge the president to reverse course. They can try to minimize the damage he can cause over the next four years. And, as important, they can prepare to be ready to repair the damage from the Obama years.
We’ve recovered before. In the late 1940s, a war-weary nation looked the other way as the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Europe and China went Communist. It was only after the North Korean invasion of the South that the United States, first under Harry Truman and then Dwight Eisenhower, faced up to its responsibilities—but at considerable cost in lives and treasure over the next decades as we fought wars that perhaps could have been avoided and endured a Cold War that needn’t have been as threatening as it was. In the late 1970s, a war-weary nation watched as Khomeini took over Iran and the Sandinistas Nicaragua. This time, the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served as the wake-up call, answered first (to a degree) by Jimmy Carter, then resoundingly by Ronald Reagan.
So perhaps every 30 years America has to go through a moment of retreat and renewal. But a happy outcome isn’t assured. Barack Obama is no Harry Truman. The Republican party has no obvious Reagan—or Ike, for that matter, waiting in the wings.
And the conservative movement—a bulwark of American strength for the last several decades—is in deep disarray. Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer’s remark, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of refounding of the movement as a cause is necessary. A reinvigoration of the Republican party also seems desirable, based on a new generation of leaders, perhaps coming—as did Ike and Reagan—from outside the normal channels.
The good news is that these new leaders do not have to create something de novo. They have an American tradition to appeal to. That tradition would suggest a “light footprint” isn’t the best America can do. It would suggest that it’s not really America’s destiny to tiptoe through the world, hoping not to do too much to disturb dictators and jihadists.
All this talk of footprints would have rung a bell with earlier generations of Americans. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow isn’t in much favor today, as his didactic seriousness isn’t in accord with modern taste. But earlier generations of Americans—perhaps even a young Dwight D. Eisenhower and a young Ronald Reagan—would have been familiar with his “Psalm of Life,” with its famous second stanza:
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou are, to dust thou returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
And the almost equally famous later stanzas:
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Contemporary liberalism is committed to leading from behind, with a light footprint. Isn’t it the historic task of American conservatism to shape an America that will lead again from the front, with a stride worthy of a great nation? Isn’t it the task of conservatism to restore American leadership so that friends of freedom around the world, Seeing, shall take heart again, in an America that seeks to leave behind us / Footprints on the sand of time?