What Exactly Do Libertarians Think About Foreign Policy?

Robert Gates

Most people who care about such things have heard by now that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has written an insider’s account of working with both administrations. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War will be released to the general public next Tuesday and, if the excerpts are any indication, it looks to be quite the compelling read.

While the comprehensive work will surely have much to offer, a small conceit included in what’s been released stands out, especially since the opinions — or lack thereof — regarding national security interests on the part of self-described libertarians are sure to be a major part of candidates’ platforms in the coming election. If conservatives seeking office are smart, that is. Here’s the gem:

With Obama, however, I joined a new, inexperienced president determined to change course—and equally determined from day one to win re-election. Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled. The White House staff—including Chiefs of Staff Rahm Emanuel and then Bill Daley as well as such core political advisers as Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs —would have a role in national security decision making that I had not previously experienced (but which, I’m sure, had precedents).
[…]
Domestic political considerations would therefore be a factor, though I believe never a decisive one, in virtually every major national security problem we tackled.

It’s no secret that libertarians shy away from making strong statements on national defense, and an argument could even be made that they view foreign policy effectiveness through the lens of how it affects domestic policy, similar to Gates’ description of the Obama administration’s approach. This, on its face, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when a piece like this one from Foreign Policy comes out using Pew Research to argue that the foreign policy elite — specifically the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) — is out of step with the public desire, it becomes a very obvious attempt to control the narrative.

In fact, the Foreign Policy piece makes almost exactly the same argument that Gates describes — with something that appears close to frustration — while working with the Obama administration. (Allowing, of course, for the fact that the complete book may be a little more generous than a single excerpt would indicate.) From FP:

But the public sees many foreign policy goals through a domestic lens. Roughly eight-in-ten Americans rate a decidedly domestic issue — protecting the jobs of U.S. workers — as a top long-range foreign policy priority. Only about three-in-ten CFR members agree. This disparity in perspective may help explain the tension foreigners often perceive between the willingness of State Department and Pentagon officials to use U.S. trade policy as a tool of American foreign policy, writ large, and the resistance this tradeoff has encountered on Capitol Hill.

The point is that, if libertarians don’t want to be inadvertently lumped in with an ideology that insists, pursuant to the public will, the US become softer and softer on foreign policy — even as the world gets scarier and scarier — they would do well to begin not only being decisive and unified about what they think as regards foreign policy, but vocal about it as well. Otherwise, they may find their opinions being decided for them.


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