Over the last two nights, something fascinating has broken out on the Tucker Carlson show: A genuine, and exceedingly bitter, debate between conservatives on foreign policy. On Tuesday, Carlson told retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters he thought the U.S. should team up with Russia to defeat ISIS. Peters responded that, “You sound like Charles Lindbergh in 1938.” Carlson called that comment “grotesque” and “insane.”
Then, on Wednesday night, Carlson told the Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow, and former Mitt Romney adviser, Max Boot, that he opposed overthrowing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and didn’t see Russia as a serious threat. Boot responded by accusing him of being a “cheerleader” for Moscow and Tehran. Carlson called that comment “grotesque” too. And declared, “This is why nobody takes you seriously.”
In his vicious and ad hominem way, Carlson is doing something extraordinary: He’s challenging the Republican Party’s hawkish orthodoxy in ways anti-war progressives have been begging cable hosts to do for years. For more than a decade, liberals have rightly grumbled that hawks can go on television espousing new wars without being held to account for the last ones. Not on Carlson’s show. When Peters called him an apologist for Vladimir Putin, Carlson replied, “I would hate to go back and read your columns assuring America that taking out Saddam Hussein will make the region calmer, more peaceful, and America safer.” When Boot did the same, Carlson responded that Boot had been so “consistently wrong in the most flagrant and flamboyant way for over a decade” in his support for wars in the Middle East that “maybe you should choose another profession, selling insurance, house painting, something you’re good at.”
On Iran, Carlson made an argument that was considered too dovish for even mainstream Democrats to raise during the debate over the nuclear deal: He questioned whether Tehran actually endangers the United States. He told Peters that “[w]e actually don’t face any domestic threat from Iran.” And he asked Boot to “tell me how many Americans in the United States have been murdered by terrorists backed by Iran since 9/11?”
Most importantly, Carlson is saying something pundits, especially conservative ones, rarely say on television: that America must prioritize. Since the George W. Bush years, conservative politicians and pundits have demanded that the United States become more aggressive everywhere. They’ve insisted that America confront China, Russia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, the Taliban, ISIS, and al-Qaeda, all at the same time. Strategically, that’s absurd. Because America’s power is limited, its goals must be too. Foreign policy involves tradeoffs. Carlson acknowledges that. “How many wars can we fight at once?” he asked Peters. “How many people can we be in opposition to at once?” He told Boot that, “In a world full of threats, you create a hierarchy of them. You decide which is the worst and you go down the list.”
His nastiness notwithstanding, Carlson is offering a glimpse into what Fox News would look like as an intellectually interesting network. He’s moderating a debate between the two strands of thinking that have dominated conservative foreign policy for roughly a century. On foreign policy, what has long united conservatives is their emphasis on sovereignty—their contempt for Woodrow Wilson’s vision of international law and global community. But some conservatives oppose restraints on American sovereignty primarily because they want the U.S. to impose its will on other countries. (Think Dick Cheney.) Other conservatives oppose those restraints primarily because they want to prevent other countries from imposing their will on the United States. (Think Ron Paul.)
For over a century, conservative interventionists and conservative anti-interventionists have taken turns at the helm of the American right. In the 1920s, after Wilson failed to bring America into the League of Nations, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge—perhaps the two most conservative presidents of the 20th century—steadfastly avoided military entanglements in Europe. But after World War II, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, and others argued that anti-communism now required confronting the USSR around the world. While conservatives in the 1930s had generally attacked Franklin Roosevelt as too interventionist, conservatives from the 1950s through the 1980s generally attacked Democrats as not interventionist enough.
When the Cold War ended, the pendulum swung again. Pat Buchanan led a revival of conservative anti-interventionism. The biggest foreign policy complaint of Republican politicians during the 1990s was that Bill Clinton’s humanitarian interventions were threatening American sovereignty by too deeply entangling the United States with the UN.
Then came September 11, which like Pearl Harbor and the onset of the Cold War, led the right to embrace foreign wars. Now Donald Trump, exploiting grassroots conservative disillusionment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has revived the anti-interventionist tradition of Coolidge, Harding, and Buchanan. And Carlson is championing it on television.
There’s only one problem. In addition to being a critic of GOP hawkishness, Carlson is also an apologist for Donald Trump on the Russia scandal. On Tuesday, before his showdown with Ralph Peters, he called the furor over Donald Trump Jr.’s willingness to accept anti-Clinton information from the Russian government a “new level of hysteria.” Trump Jr., he insisted, had merely been “gossiping with foreigners.” If that “now qualifies as treason … you ought to think about that before you allow an exchange student to live in your house.”
Carlson’s attempts to dismiss the Trump-Russia scandal aren’t just absurd. (Helping a foreign government subvert an American election isn’t merely “gossiping with foreigners.”) They also undermine his perspective on foreign policy. In his interview with Peters, Carlson said it’s “hard to see why” Putin is “a threat to us.” He told Boot that “the idea that Russia is in the top five” threats to America “is absurd.” A couple of years ago, when America’s primary skirmishes with Moscow were over Ukraine, Syria, and missile defense in Eastern Europe, Carlson might have had a point. Back then, it was plausible to see Russia as a declining power, eager to restore a sliver of its former glory but too weak to seriously threaten America’s NATO allies in Eastern Europe, let alone Western Europe or the American homeland. Back then, China and jihadist terrorism looked like the greater threats.
But 2016 changed all that, because Putin actually did threaten the American homeland. He did it through political subversion, not military attack, but the consequences were almost as grave. By orchestrating a campaign to help Trump through fake news and email leaks, Putin undermined Americans’ right to choose their own leaders. He contributed to the election of a man who is morally and intellectually unfit to be president, and is seriously weakening America’s position in the world. And there’s no reason to believe that Russia will stop. In 2016, it appears, it tried to tamper with voter registration systems. Imagine if, in 2018 or 2020, Russia succeeds, and profoundly undermines the legitimacy of America’s electoral system? That constitutes a far greater threat to the United States than anything ISIS appears able to do.
When it comes to Russia, America’s overriding interest lies in ensuring that Putin doesn’t threaten our democracy. By comparison, Syria is an afterthought. Carlson’s argument about the need for priorities is important. But his defense of Trump wildly distorts his understanding of what those priorities should be. The number one goal in American foreign policy today should be to deter Russia from attacking America’s next election. It’s worth sacrificing cooperation on everything else to achieve that goal. If that undermines the fight against ISIS, so be it. If it undermines efforts to limit North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, so be it. Walter Lippmann famously called foreign policy “the shield of the republic.” And today, the greatest foreign threat to the American republic—to America’s system of government—is Russia’s election attacks. It’s not close.
Tucker Carlson can be a provocative, necessary voice on foreign policy. Or he can be an apologist for Donald Trump. He can’t be both.