Progressives are notorious for their internal foreign policy disagreements-particularly over the use of force and the proper role of America in the world. But the debate over President Barack Obama's decisions to intervene militarily in Libya and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan reveals that there is serious and profound disagreement among conservatives over which direction their coalition's foreign policy should take heading into the 2012 presidential election.
Charges and countercharges are flying between conservatives. Supporters of the wars in Libya and Afghanistan are on the offensive against perceived isolationism creeping into the ranks of conservative presidential candidates and elected officials. Other pundits, like former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, have defended the "new sobriety" of conservatives skeptical of the wars. Judging by the flurry of recent rhetoric, an out-and-out war over the contours of conservative foreign policy is brewing within the ranks of the conservative elite.
The main dividing line among conservatives today is between neoconservatives and conservative nationalists. These two groups share many of the same underlying assumptions-for example that the United States is inherently insecure in an anarchic international system in which survival depends fundamentally on military power. But they do not necessarily share the same ideas of what must be done about this problem.
Neoconservatives look at anarchy and see that it results from the lack of an overarching authority that can impose order on the international system. Since anarchy results in chronic insecurity for the United States, national security can only be assured by eliminating or tamping down international anarchy. Therefore the United States must take on the role of the overarching international authority and impose order on the international system in order to ensure America's security. Neoconservatives often invoke values to justify military interventions since they believe that the spread of democracy equals the spread of American power and hence enhances American security.
By contrast, conservative nationalists do not have the same visions about international order that drive neoconservatives. To conservative nationalists, international anarchy and the profound insecurity it generates means that the United States must look out for itself first and foremost.
While conservative nationalists range from noninterventionist isolationists like Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan, to expansive hegemony pursuers like Dick Cheney, the average conservative nationalist believes in the need for robust military power to protect the country and its interests with as few international restrictions as possible. They have no interest in nation building, and they view military force as a means of ensuring security in an inherently hostile world.
The differences between neoconservatives and conservative nationalists were obscured during the Bush administration. Many of the conservative nationalists who served under President George W. Bush-particularly Vice President Dick Cheney-had an expansive view of American security that was hard to distinguish from the neoconservative pursuit of benevolent American hegemony. And 9/11 only served to amplify the existing sense of national insecurity felt by conservative nationalists. It made them more receptive to the wide-ranging nature of security held by Cheney and others in the administration.