BERLIN AND WASHINGTON — The American people rightly, and overwhelmingly, punished the Republican Party in the midterm elections, chiefly because of the Iraq war and the neoconservative ideology that helped bring it about.
Iraq is a disaster today partly because of the neoconservative fantasy that democratic nationhood can be built from scratch, at the point of a gun. This is crazed nationalist utopianism – and it is wholly alien to core Republican traditions.
Worse still, neoconservatism has endangered the core values and traditions of America itself. As Thomas Jefferson pointed out, empires require emperors. Instead of adhering to core principles of balanced budgets, smaller but accountable government, fiscal responsibility, local political control as the preference for governance, and a belief in the sanctity of civil liberties, Republicans have embraced highly centralized, militarized big government. The Founding Fathers would be horrified by the shameful excesses of such neoconservative folly: warrantless wiretaps, Abu Ghraib, Gauntánamo Bay, renditions, and torture.
If it is to join with responsible Democrats in promoting an alternative to the neoconservative train wreck, the GOP must rediscover its roots. To do so, it must return to the tradition represented by President Dwight Eisenhower. No one, we assume, can seriously accuse him of weakness or lack of patriotism.
Yet Mr. Eisenhower was also characterized by virtues that have been completely forgotten by the Bush administration. He was tough when necessary, but also extremely prudent.
He successfully opposed calls for preventive war against the Soviet Union and China. As he told a press conference, he had personally experienced "the job of writing letters by the hundreds, by the thousands, to bereaved mothers and wives. This is a very sobering experience."
The decision to go to war, he said, should not be made in response to anger and resentment, but only after prayerful consideration and the conclusion that no other means existed to protect America's rights. He also opposed preventive war because, in his wise words, "The colossal job of occupying the territories of the defeated enemy would be far beyond the resources of the United States...."
Eisenhower fully realized that even victory would imperil America's own democratic system: "The only thing worse than losing a global war was winning one ... there would be no individual freedom after the next global war." Eisenhower was deeply worried about the US becoming what he called a "garrison state," which would suppress American liberties, squander American resources, and seek out unnecessary conflicts.
He famously warned against the threat to America from its own "military- industrial complex." The fact that a great general should have been so intelligently suspicious of security institutions, practices, and motives is a tribute to Eisenhower's greatness as a man, and also to the greatness of the American civic tradition that produced him.
Eisenhower fully understood that, "Our defense depends on our fiscal system." His national security adviser, Robert Cutler, declared that "the threat to our economy and liberty [from overspending and prolonged deficits] is coequal to the threat from external aggression." What would Eisenhower have thought about a Republican administration whose profligacy and irresponsibility have allowed the current account and budget deficits to make America a possible economic hostage to China?
Eisenhower referred repeatedly to the fact that the strength of a nation lies ultimately not in arms but in its ability to provide decently for its people. In a speech titled "The Chance for Peace," he listed all the schools and hospitals that the US could build for the cost of one bomber, and declared, "This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
The Eisenhower tradition is therefore not only a practical vision for American policy, it is a profoundly ethical one. The experience of a lost war brought on by overweening arrogance, ambition, and recklessness is precisely the time to rediscover that tradition's solid, prudent, and patriotic virtues.
• John Hulsman is scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Anatol Lieven is senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. Their book, on which this comment is based, is "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World."