Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
The Virtue of Acting Slowly
By Bradford Littlejohn
September 8, 2014
In my last piece for Capital Commentary, I ended by suggesting that when it comes to foreign policy, we need to re-learn the lesson that sometimes the most responsible thing to do is to do nothing. No sooner did I write that (chiefly with the example of our debacle in Libya in mind), than the ISIS crisis escalated, drawing in US forces, as did the Ukrainian crisis, with Russian troops entering the country. Such events make the idea of “doing nothing” seem intolerable and the pressure to act irresistible. At a juncture like this, then, our leaders need to be reminded of the virtue of acting slowly, a good conservative virtue if there ever was one.
Of course, this is not something generally associated with the label “conservative.” With American neo-conservatism in mind, we tend to associate the right with hawkish and trigger-happy foreign policy. This correlation held with particular force during the Cold War as conservative opposition to collectivism entailed militant and uncompromising opposition to the Soviet Union. More recently, although many on the right have retreated to a more libertarian neo-isolationism supported by Ron and Rand Paul, the GOP has still lost no opportunity to excoriate President Obama’s dovish and slow-motion foreign policy. When he announced that “we don’t have a strategy yet” on how to systematically combat ISIS, some Republicans seized on the statement as more evidence of his incompetency and refusal to stand up to our enemies. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) charged that Obama’s foreign policy was in a “free fall,” in “this malaise of not being that concerned,” echoing an op-ed by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) earlier in August that declared that the world had learned the lesson that Obama “could not be counted on.”
While Obama’s foreign policy has often been flatfooted and inconsistent throughout his presidency, one can hardly blame him for failing to arrive quickly at a solution to the mother of all Middle Eastern extremism quagmires. Nor is it clear what effective strategy his critics might have. In 1979, Jimmy Carter was similarly lambasted for his inertia in the face of the Iranian revolution, but the best solution his successor was able to produce was to arm an upstart dictator at war with Iran by the name of Saddam Hussein.
Conservatives ought to be the first to hesitate in the face of the danger of such unforeseen consequences. Indeed, Michael Oakeshott, one of the greatest twentieth century exponents of classic conservatism, remarked, “innovation entails certain loss and possible gain, therefore, the onus of proof, to show that the proposed change may be expected to be on the whole beneficial, rests with the would-be innovator.” No doubt he had domestic policy matters primarily in mind, but the same principle ought to apply all the more so in the face of the uncertainties of international affairs. And Russell Kirk described conservatives by saying, “They prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice....”
These quotes show that, rightly understood, conservatism does not stand for uncritical support of the status quo or mere stubborn distaste for novelty. It need not stand for stasis, but rather for a prudent restraint that weighs all the effects of a course of action before committing to it. Too often conservatives, while urging patience, prudence, and non-intervention in domestic affairs, decry any hint of these attitudes as “weakness” and “cowardice” in foreign policy, despite the higher stakes of miscalculation there. It is a curious blindness, and one that impairs the coherence of our political discourse.
Hawks often speak of the need for “decisive action.” But if action is to be decisive, it must first be decided, which requires patient deliberation. In other words, good conservatism is mindful of Jesus’s warning, “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it . . . Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” (Lk. 14:31). Although it is easy to score political points by demanding quick and firm action against dictators or terrorists, conservatives must learn to be just as skeptical of hasty optimism abroad as they are at home.
- Bradford Littlejohn has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Theological Ethics. He researches and writes in the areas of Christian Ethics, Political Theology, and Reformation History and is president of The Davenant Trust. He is also managing editor of Political Theology Today and a regular columnist for several blogs.
 “On Being Conservative” , available online at: http://faculty.rcc.edu/sellick/On%20Being%20Conservative.pdf).
 The Essential Russell Kirk (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 7.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”