As many Republicans and Democrats in Congress succumb to the temptation to scale back America’s role in the world amidst the economic turmoil, freshman Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk is standing athwart Congress, yelling: Stop!
“We saw with the lessons of the 1930s what aggressive isolationism can do to the United States, and it led to Pearl Harbor,” Kirk, 51, warned last week in an extensive interview with The Daily Caller in his Washington office. “I’m worried now that we have a new isolationism.”
Kirk, who holds the seat once occupied by President Barack Obama, isn’t the only member of Congress fighting back against the current “come home America” moment. But he is among the most vocal and intellectually capable. Before being elected to the House in 2000, Kirk was general counsel for what was then the House Committee on International Relations. Since 1989, he has served as an intelligence officer in the U.S Naval Reserves, even deploying twice to Afghanistan while a member of Congress.
Kirk’s Senate office is cluttered with mementos, including portraits of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt — all of whom he considers heroes. When I ask Kirk to explain the significance of a picture on his wall depicting the Japanese navy defeating the Chinese navy in 1894, the Cornell history major who went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown comes to the fore.
“It showed what happens when you become technologically outmatched, that a shift in power can happen overnight against you,” he explains, conveying that he takes the history lesson very seriously for the United States. “And that battle — long forgotten conflict between China and Japan — was the defeat of the Chinese after, probably, 2,000 years of dominance by a new upstart Japanese navy that clearly outmatched anything the Chinese could put together. [It’s] a lesson for everyone that you want to stay on the cutting edge, or lose your freedom and ability to advance your interests overseas.”
While many Democrats and GOP members argue America can no longer afford to finance its role in the world, Kirk says that “in some ways we can no longer afford not to have a role in the world.” That is not to say that Kirk, who sees himself as a fiscal conservative but a social moderate, believes America’s budgetary problems are insignificant. Despite being a hawk’s hawk, he sees room to cut the Defense budget as part of a solution to our long-term fiscal problems.
“For example, I’m the lead Republican on the bill that provides military construction funds for the U.S.’s various services,” he explained. “We made some tough calls there. We reduced 24 separate military construction projects.”
WATCH: Kirk discusses America’s role in world, importance of office mementos
Sen. Kirk also believes America’s allies in Europe need to start pulling more weight. “I participated as part of the Navy Reserve in the Kosovo campaign and I think that Europe dramatically underperforms its potential and economic size,” he said, while noting that he sees it as a positive development that the French and British are taking more of a leading role in the Libya operation.
When pressed on whether there was any American vital interest at stake in Libya, Kirk said that while “vital interests of the United States are not in play … there are significant interests.”
Among them, he explained, was removing Muammar Gaddafi from power, a dictator who is responsible for killing Americans in the 1980s and who recently “talked about bombing European cities.” This, Kirk says, indicates that the self-appointed King of Kings of Africa was “going back to a hostile view, and we should remember that this man hasn’t changed much.”
But haven’t Gaddafi’s recent threats to attack Western interests materialized in the aftermath of the West’s campaign to remove him from power?
“I would say that his instincts were always wrong for the United States,” Kirk responded.
Given America’s differing responses to Arab revolutions in various countries, I asked Kirk whether consistency is something America should strive for in its foreign policy — or is there something to be said for inconsistency?
“The number one rule is back our values and state things clearly, which means we should always be on the side of the values that are underlined in our Constitution,” Kirk said. “But secondly, when employing U.S. influence, it should be employed with judgment … We can speak with a clear voice, but should not commit other resources of the United States when they need to be focused on what is critical to our economic or national security interests.”
WATCH: Kirk discusses danger of Iran, views on Libya__
While Kirk says he sees Egypt’s revolution as a “net positive,” he says he worries that the country is currently in the midst of a second revolution, and he fears the consequences of a third.
“What I have talked about to my colleagues in the Senate is revolutions generally have three acts, not two,” he explained. “Act one: The deposition of the dictator. Act two: A weak transitional government. Act three: The rise of the dictatorship … My worry is we’re right in the middle of a very weak act two, the Tantawi dictatorship under the field marshal there. But, by lots of estimates, the Muslim Brotherhood would do very well in the Egyptian elections, if not winning them. And that would be a strategic reversal of tremendous impact on the United States and Israel.”
When asked about China’s future, Kirk says he is more optimistic about that other country boasting 1 billion people.
“Because India is a democracy, I would say it probably has even greater potential than China,” he said.
In many ways Kirk, along with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, is the future leader of Republican internationalism, a natural ally of South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and perhaps the ultimate heir to Arizona Sen. John McCain. Kirk himself says he has two “heroes or mentors in the Senate, and that’s Sen. McCain and Sen. [Joe] Lieberman.”
In his view, an internationally engaged America is one that can shape its own history.
“I remember when the president said ‘like it or not, the U.S. is powerful,’” Kirk said. “I don’t ‘like it or not.’ I very much love the fact that the U.S. is powerful because that means Americans are in control of their own destiny.”