Tucker Carlson vs. Ben Shapiro: The Great Debate on “America First” Foreign Policy

by | Apr 23, 2024 | News, Opinion

As someone who values liberty and limited government, I’ve always been skeptical of unchecked federal power – especially when it comes to matters of war and peace. The Founders warned us about the dangers of standing armies and entangling alliances, and history has shown time and again the perils of a trigger-happy foreign policy.

Yet for decades now, the American people have been fed a steady diet of interventionism from the Washington establishment. We’re told that the United States must be the world’s policeman – that we have a moral obligation to spread democracy at the point of a gun, and that any skepticism of military action is tantamount to “anti-Americanism.”

The results of this misguided consensus are plain to see: a string of costly and inconclusive wars, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, that have sapped American strength and undermined our security. Trillions of dollars wasted, thousands of lives lost, and our nation’s reputation tarnished on the world stage.

Enough is enough. It’s time for a serious rethink of American foreign policy – one that puts our national interests first and foremost.

That’s why the recent dust-up between Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson over the future of conservative foreign policy is so important. It represents a fundamental clash of visions over the proper role of American power in the world.

On one side, you have the old-guard interventionists like Shapiro, who seem to believe that the United States must be involved in every conflict and uprising around the globe, no matter how tangential to our national security. They’re the ones who cheered on the disastrous Iraq War and who never saw a problem they didn’t think could be solved by American bombs and bullets.

On the other side, you have voices like Carlson who are questioning the failed orthodoxies of the past and calling for a more restrained and realistic approach to foreign affairs. They understand that American power is not limitless, and that we must be judicious about when and where we commit our brave men and women to battle.

At the heart of this debate is a simple question: what does it mean to put “America First” when it comes to foreign policy?

For too long, that phrase has been synonymous with knee-jerk isolationism and a retreat from the world stage. But that’s a false choice. The real meaning of “America First” is a foreign policy that vigorously defends our vital national interests, but that avoids the temptation to remake the world in our image or to get bogged down in endless wars of choice.

It means focusing our energies and resources on the threats that truly matter to American security – not on nation-building projects or humanitarian interventions that have little to do with keeping America safe.

It means being clear-eyed about the limits of American power, and the unintended consequences that can flow from even well-intentioned uses of force. It’s about having the wisdom to know when our vital interests are at stake – and when they’re not.

Most of all, it means making sure that we never again send American troops into harm’s way without a clear strategy for victory and an ironclad commitment to give them the tools and support they need to win. No more endless wars, no more political meddling from Washington – just a laser focus on defending America with all the might and resources at our disposal.

Sadly, these basic principles of common sense and restraint have been missing from our foreign policy debates for far too long. The interventionist consensus has reigned supreme, with disastrous results for American interests.

Shapiro seems to take issue with Carlson questioning longstanding narratives around American foreign policy decisions like dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He accuses Carlson of abandoning “the moral equation” and promoting an anti-American stance by daring to scrutinize such actions.

But is it really so sinister to re-examine the conventional wisdom, especially on something as monumental as nuclear warfare against civilians? Shapiro himself admits the intelligence community was “militarized against Donald Trump” based on the Russiagate hoax. If our own security state can be weaponized for political purposes, why is it so far-fetched to think the same could happen when justifying military actions?

Healthy skepticism of official narratives is a virtue, not a vice. The ability to question what we’re told by those in power is a cornerstone of liberty. It’s what allows us to combat authoritarianism and prevent unchecked state power from running roughshod over individual rights. Blind faith in government accounts, especially around matters as grave as war, is a recipe for disaster.

We need only look at more recent history for examples of this danger. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was used to dramatically escalate American involvement in Vietnam based on dubious and exaggerated claims of a North Vietnamese attack on U.S. ships. The purported threat of WMDs was a central justification for the disastrous Iraq War, which we now know was based on faulty intelligence at best, and outright fabrications at worst.

Asking tough questions in these cases is not “anti-American” – it’s profoundly patriotic. It comes from a place of wanting to ensure our nation is living up to its highest ideals and not falling prey to misguided adventurism abroad. American lives and taxpayer dollars are on the line when we go to war. We owe it to our troops and our citizens to make damn sure it’s for the right reasons.

Vietnam was an unmitigated disaster that cost nearly 60,000 American lives for uncertain aims in a civil war that posed no direct threat to the U.S. homeland. We’re still reeling from the consequences of the failed nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Libya has been a chaotic failed state since our 2011 intervention to topple Gaddafi.

The impulse to intervene in Syria under the Obama administration, which Tucker rightly criticized, could have landed us in the middle of another intractable sectarian conflict. One shudders to think how much worse things might be now if we had followed through with plans to arm the so-called “moderate rebels” fighting Assad, who turned out to be jihadists in some cases.

These are not the hallmarks of a foreign policy that puts “America First.” They are the results of a bipartisan interventionist consensus in Washington that has squandered too much blood and treasure in pursuits detached from clear U.S. interests. Carlson should be applauded for questioning this failed consensus, not smeared as some America-hating subversive.

Shapiro also takes issue with Carlson’s criticism of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden as “collective punishment” and potential war crimes. He seems to suggest that because the Axis powers were evil, any action by the Allies was therefore justified.

But this is an incredibly dangerous path of jingoistic interventionism. Just because an enemy is wicked does not give us carte blanche as a nation to disregard moral constraints and the rules of war. The intentional targeting of civilians is a war crime, plain and simple. We cannot use the cruelty of our adversaries to justify cruelty of our own.

The slippery slope of “the ends justify the means” is how we end up with atrocities like the bombing of Dresden, which killed upwards of 25,000 civilians and served little to no strategic purpose in the closing days of the war. Once we start rationalizing such actions, where do we draw the line? The use of atomic weapons on civilian population centers becomes fair game under this logic.

Make no mistake, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany were evil regimes who started the war and committed heinous atrocities. But we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in how we prosecute a war, even against an implacable foe. Abiding by just war principles around proportionality, military necessity, and protection of civilians is what separates us from the tactics of totalitarians.

Shapiro’s dismissal of these concerns as “childish” and “abandoning the moral equation” is a reckless approach. It’s the same mentality that has been used to justify all manner of U.S. misdeeds, from torture at Abu Ghraib and CIA black sites, to civilian casualties from drone strikes. The morality of our actions matter. We can’t become the evil we purport to fight.

Carlson is right to raise these issues. It doesn’t mean we can never use military force. But we must grapple with the profound moral questions and set the bar extremely high, especially for something as destructive as raining fire on cities full of civilians. Anything less is a betrayal of our values.

Perhaps most troubling is Shapiro’s seeming belief that any skepticism of American military intervention abroad is tantamount to anti-Americanism and a “blood guilt” view of our nation’s soul. This is not only an unfair smear, but actively dangerous rhetoric.

As a libertarian conservative, I believe in a robust national defense to protect our homeland and interests. However, I am deeply distrustful of open-ended military commitments and nation-building that drain our blood and treasure with no clear exit strategy or objective. One can be fiercely patriotic while still viewing much of our interventionism over the last century as strategically unwise and morally fraught.

The catastrophic failures of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan should serve as powerful reminders of the perils of interventionism without restraint. Thousands of American lives were lost and trillions of dollars were wasted in pursuit of lofty nation-building goals that proved utterly unattainable. Extremist groups like ISIS arose in the ensuing power vacuums we left behind.

These aren’t just abstract foreign policy concerns – they have profound consequences for American families who lose loved ones in such dubious conflicts, and for American taxpayers who foot the bill at the expense of pressing domestic needs. We can’t keep mortgaging our future to play futile games of world police.

To question such misguided policies is not anti-American – it’s a pro-American duty to ensure we aren’t repeating the mistakes of the past. Wanting to carefully examine the justification and strategic rationale for putting our troops in harm’s way is not an “abandonment of the moral equation,” but an embrace of it. Morality demands we have a damn good reason before we risk American lives.

Unfortunately, the default in Washington for far too long has been to intervene first and ask questions later, if at all. This is the real danger to American interests. It’s what has led us into one costly quagmire after another and eroded public trust in our foreign policy.

We need to reject the false dichotomy that we must either endorse every military action abroad or be smeared as anti-American. There is a wide space in between for a prudent, restrained foreign policy that vigorously defends America while avoiding needless entanglements that do not enhance our security.

That’s what an authentically conservative “America First” approach looks like. Not the caricature of reflexive isolationism Shapiro invokes, but a clear-eyed focus on core U.S. interests, and a willingness to use force judiciously and only as a last resort when those interests are directly threatened.

At its core, the “America First” philosophy simply argues that our nation’s interests and security must take precedence in matters of foreign affairs. It does not mean a total retreat from the world, but rather a restrained and judicious approach to using military force abroad. We can be engaged on the world stage without being entangled in every conflict.

After decades of being bogged down in unwinnable nation-building quagmires, is it so wrong to focus more of our resources and attention inward on shoring up our economic and national security interests here at home? To make serious investments in domestic infrastructure, border security, cyber defense, and energy independence instead of borrowing trillions for dubious interventions abroad?

The American people are war-weary after decades of constant conflict. They want an “America First” president who will think very carefully before committing our troops to battle. Not to start new wars, but to be judicious about when and where we fight. We should only commit American forces when there is a clear and present threat to our vital national interests, not embark on open-ended missions of regime change and nation-building.

This is hardly a radical “anti-American” view, as Shapiro seems to imply. It’s a return to a realist school of foreign policy thought that was once well-represented by prudent statesmen in the American conservative tradition. From John Quincy Adams who warned against going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” to Dwight Eisenhower who cautioned against the “military-industrial complex,” there is a rich history of American leaders urging restraint.

Nor is this mindset synonymous with weakness and retreating from the world stage. We can maintain a powerful military deterrent and strong alliances to check the ambitions of hostile actors without having to use force as a first resort. Peace through strength and vigorous diplomacy should be the focus.

But we should be realistic about the limits of what military intervention can achieve, and the profound costs and unintended consequences that often result. Not every global problem has an American military solution. Hard-headed realism must be the watchword, not utopian crusades.

To be clear, grappling with these issues is not easy or simple. Reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of past actions like the use of atomic weapons in World War II, or the correct course in complex cases like Syria. Historians still debate much of this.

But asking tough questions and re-examining long-held assumptions is not only appropriate, but necessary. Especially now, after decades of strategic drift and recurring failures. We urgently need to course correct and steer our ship of state toward a more coherent and sustainable approach to foreign affairs.

That starts with some serious introspection about first principles – what is the proper role of American power in the world? What are the essential interests we must defend at all costs? Where can we prioritize diplomacy and deterrence over armed conflict? How do we harness our military might without succumbing to imperial temptations?

Working through these thorny questions is the furthest thing from “anti-American.” In fact, it’s the height of patriotism. It shows we care enough about our nation to honestly reckon with our missteps and do some soul-searching about how to chart a better path forward. One that truly puts America’s interests first.

So rather than impugning the motives of those who dare to question Washington’s reigning foreign policy dogmas, we should welcome and encourage such debate. It is only by vigorously contesting these issues that we can distill sounder policies.

Blind faith in elite narratives and shutting down dissent as beyond the pale is a recipe for repeated failures. The default support for interventionism has prevailed for far too long – and it’s brought us from one costly misadventure to another. From Vietnam to Iraq to Libya, the best and brightest foreign policy minds have too often been disastrously wrong.

What’s needed is more critical scrutiny and lively debate – not smug complacency that the D.C. establishment must simply know best. They’ve certainly given us little reason for such unearned confidence of late.

Ultimately, this is about far more than a Shapiro vs. Carlson dust-up. It’s about the profound obligation we have as citizens to ensure our nation’s foreign policy stays true to our deepest values and serves our people’s interests. It’s about rejecting a mentality of interventionism at any cost, and restoring prudence, restraint, and realism as the watchwords of American statecraft.

Tough questions must be asked. Assumptions must be challenged. And a new vision must emerge from the vigorous clash of ideas and debate.

The “America First” path won’t be easy, and it requires grappling with immense complexities. But it’s essential if we are to break out of the failed cycle of the past decades and secure a more stable, prosperous future for generations of Americans to come.

The winds of change are blowing. Millions of Americans are sick and tired of seeing their country’s blood and treasure squandered on dubious adventures abroad. They’re looking for leaders who will put America’s interests first, above all else.

That’s the real meaning of “America First” – and it’s an approach whose time has come. We’ve explored the key tenets of this prudent, hardheaded strategy for keeping America safe and strong in a dangerous world. We’ve questioned the outdated beliefs of the past and set a smarter, more grounded direction for the future.

Because in the end, this isn’t about abstractions or ideologies – it’s about the security and well-being of the American people. And there is no higher duty for those entrusted with the awesome power and responsibility of American leadership than to use that power judiciously and effectively in defense of our nation.

It’s time for an American foreign policy that truly puts America first. The stakes could not be higher – and the choice has never been clearer. We must seize this moment to reshape our approach to the world, before the next crisis arrives.

Our security and prosperity hang in the balance.

Brian Nichols is host of the Brian Nichols Show – powered by Amp America. You can follow Brian on X at @bnicholsliberty.

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