For True Conservatives, Small Government and Endless Wars Are Incompatible

Conservatives tend to have a pretty clearly-defined set of beliefs. While there’s certainly some variation depending on the person, most people who would self-describe as a conservative subscribe to a few basic principles. These are the need for fiscal restraint, a strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution and limited government. These three principles undergird the conservative movement for which many of us have dedicated endless time and energy.

However, there’s one issue that cuts directly against each of these three principles that many self-described conservatives feel obligated to defend. That is America’s foreign adventurism; more specifically, the way it’s been conducted. Nothing about it can reasonably be described as conservative. It’s long past time for conservatives in and out of government to start vocally condemning the abuses that have come along with decades of foreign policy missteps.

The cost of these foreign wars cannot be understated. According to a Brown University study, the U.S. has collectively spent $6.4 trillion on its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan. That represents roughly a quarter of the national debt that conservatives and libertarians alike rightly bemoan as a threat to our nation’s economic well-being. If there’s one area that should be placed squarely under the microscope for spending cuts, it’s this one.

Dollars aren’t the only things being needlessly spent in these foreign wars. Estimates from another Brown study show that more than 801,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the fighting in these countries. Sadly, many more have likely lost their lives as an indirect result. This is a sobering reality that should make anyone, even the most hardened lawmaker, pause and consider the magnitude of loss and lost potential on the battlefield.

Given the immense fiscal and human cost sustained in these endeavors, it is not too much to ask that elected leaders fervently debate the issue of war and peace in full view of the American people. This is what the framers of the Constitution intended when they wrote Article I. According to Thomas Jefferson, in a written message to Congress concerning war powers of the executive, “Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war.”

Jefferson was hardly alone. James Madison — the father of our Constitution — said in a letter to Jefferson in 1798, “The power to declare war, including the power of judging the causes of war, is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature.” Furthermore, Alexander Hamilton, one of the biggest proponents of executive power understood as much as well. He said in 1801, “It is the peculiar and exclusive duty of Congress, when the nation is at peace, to change that state into a state of war.”

Yet, members of Congress, even those who call themselves conservative, have outsourced the question of war and peace to the executive branch to avoid making admittedly difficult decisions themselves. They have not issued a formal declaration of war since World War II, and largely defer to the executive’s discretion under broad resolutions. When Congress does get involved with an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), it is treated as a carte blanche for multiple years and for multiple unrelated conflicts. Congress needs to let all existing AUMFs expire and have frequent public debate on our activities abroad.

Lastly, this bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has plagued our nation for decades has served to accelerate the expansion of the federal government. There is always a new enemy that the U.S. is fighting that seems to justify the suspension of rights and liberties. Today, that manifests itself in the persistent lack of reform when it comes to surveillance of U.S. citizens.

The few defenders of the Fourth Amendment that exist in the halls of Congress are vilified as if they are inviting terrorist attacks on American soil. In reality, it is they who are trying to defend our rights from domestic threats.

When you compile all the receipts of the “war on terror” and the other adventures the bipartisan Washington foreign policy consensus has brought us, there’s very little to like. It has acted as a cinder block on the proverbial gas pedal of our out-of-control national debt. It has cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives both here and abroad. It has shredded the integral separation of powers enshrined in our founding documents, and it has only served to rapidly expand the federal government.

We need to do a serious re-evaluation of our existing path. This course correction needs to come sooner, rather than later. If we know anything, it’s that we cannot continue on the path we’re on fiscally for much longer. And, once rights get taken away, they rarely come back. Congressional leaders need to take charge to restore the vision of the Framers and instill some sanity into our foreign policy dialogue.

Adam Brandon is the president of FreedomWorks.