Like the questions of the international order itself, this issue came to a head in the debate over the war in Iraq. It was argued that if we don’t fight them over there, we have to fight them over here. Perhaps this is true, but I think it cannot be given primary importance in formulating our national security policies.
The United States has been blessed by the course of history, in that we have two oceans protecting our East & West Coasts, a strategic advantage unrivaled by any serious power in global history. While the nuclear age and advanced weaponry have mitigated it, it is still an edge that should inform our security policy. The only way the United States can be attacked from East or West is to be hit with a nuclear weapon or by naval attack. The latter was a reason why the U.S. became a maritime power first and announced its arrival on the world stage in the early 20th century be sending The Great White Fleet around the world at the behest of Teddy Roosevelt. In the case of the former, it’s important to understand that simply because a country has nuclear weapons does not automatically presume it has the power to strike the United States. Short-range tactical weapons, the kind most likely to be acquired by a rogue dictator or terrorist group, can’t reach across the ocean. Not since the Soviet Union dissolved, has there been a hostile power capable of striking the United States from anywhere on the globe.
There is a way that short-term weapons can hurt us though, and that’s if they are brought in over the border and exploded right here on the homeland. This is why border security—not fighting wars abroad, should be our first and primary purpose. The United States should always be welcoming of new immigrants, but that does not extend to allowing millions upon millions of illegal entrants. Even if 90 percent of these are perfectly upstanding people trying to escape poverty, how many bad apples does it take? Not many. As Ronald Reagan said, a country that can’t control its borders isn’t really a country anymore. And the United States must continue to remain a country.
That’s the short-term solution. In the long haul, the U.S. must continue to win the race for space. The inability of hostile nations to reach the United States from long distance can’t be presumed to hold forever. Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacy was his promulgation of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a visionary idea that offered real defense against nuclear weapons—not just deterrence, the insane idea that only the ability to destroy our adversary was necessary. As we saw all too vividly on 9/11, there are enemies willing to die just to inflict a catastrophe on the United States. Modern-day liberals mock this idea and debunk U.S. efforts to continue research into space. Many of these same liberals cite John F. Kennedy as a hero, with an absolutely no sense of the irony of invoking the president who vowed to put a man on the moon and posthumously saw his vision fulfilled.
If the United States devotes its resources to securing our border from ground attack, continuing to maintain the strongest Navy in the world and developing secure space-based defense against a nuclear strike, we have a complete and comprehensive defense. And with ourselves secure, we can then move the discussion forward on how to advance democratic values. This should be done with the greatest of prudence—the Iraq mission should have our eyes open to how difficult it is to displace a dictator and replace with a democracy. Does the American political system have the will to sustain such a long fight? The rapid and predictable decline of public support for the Iraq operation suggests not. Yet this same mission and all its difficulties also shows the promise and possibility. Even the most hardened war opponent must concede that the Iraqi people have jumped at the chance to vote, regularly defying terrorist threats to go to the ballot box at rates that are embarrassing to the spoiled and indulgent democracies of the West.
Perhaps re-enacting the Reagan Doctrine of the Cold War would be the answer. President Reagan steered clear of direct attacks on Communist regimes, but funneled economic aid and military support to freedom fighters ready to battle for their country. It kept the United States engaged and occupied on the global stage, without bogging us down. It put the first responsibility for changing a country on its own people, but accepted the American responsibility to use its great wealth to aid others. It would be a welcome middle ground between complete disengagement and the overreach of former President Bush and the neoconservative political movement, who underestimated the difficulties involved with direct attack.
As is often the case, the wisdom of Reagan, applied to post-Cold War circumstances can lead us to the answers. That wisdom isn’t always exactly what the modern conservative movement, built as it is on selective application, says it is. And moderate and conservative Democrats can remember that Reagan was one of them before his natural party veered left and off the rocks. And that the vision outlined here is consistent with what JFK was elected on in 1960.