After Iraq, Republicans Abandon Foreign Policy

Jeff Alworth

Look at a list of the leading Republican candidates for 2012 (call them candidates to be candidates): Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, and Newt Gingrich. Leaving aside unelectable Newt--a vanity candidate if ever there was one--what do they have in common? None has even a passing foreign-policy orientation. Gallup released results of a poll yesterday and amazingly, primary voters thought Sarah Palin had the most foreign policy juice. Punchline I-can-see-Russia-from-my-porch Sarah! My, how things have changed.

Just four years ago, Republicans depended on a candidate who was popularly regarded as being the biggest heavyweight in foreign policy as well as a war hero. George W. Bush was hardly a power player in foreign policy, but he came in with a team comprised of his father's old advisers, international hands of great stature. Before that they nominated war hero (Dole), another war hero and former CIA head (Bush), a bellicose novice (Reagan), and former vice president (Nixon). During that time, the GOP could reliably paint Democrats as weak and unable to protect the American people. It reached a comic level when war-dodging Bush was able to paint Kerry, a true warrior with heavy foreign policy experience, with the same brush.

But all that has changed. The lack of any candidate with a serious foreign policy orientation illustrates the almost immediate effects a catastrophic war can have on the fortunes of a party.

We've seen this movie before. In the 1960s, it was a Democratic war that had gone sour and continued to drag on year after year. It was the Democratic party that was divided and the Dems who quickly turned away from the politically toxic topic of war. For decades, Dems turned inward, toward domestic policy. To the extent there has been a foreign policy wing, it's been comprised mainly of pacifists and period antiwar protesters.

The Republican Party seems to be in the midst of an almost identical retreat. Most of the major players in GOP foreign policy circles were heavily implicated in the Iraq war and all its horrors: Gitmo, secret rendition, torture, illegal spying, and American unilateralism. The word "neoconservative" is now uttered largely as an epithet. Republicans further hurt their standing by entertaining an ugly strain of nativism that demonizes immigrants and Muslims and condescends to anyone not born in the US of A. Even our own Ted Ferroili got in hot water expressing these sentiments.

So where does the GOP go from here? For the moment, they appear to be doing what the Dems did: returning to "first principles"--in the GOP's case, that means limited government. This is itself a version of withdrawal. Bush can be accused of many things, but he welcomed Latinos and in his own naive way, tried to visit American democracy on other countries. The tea party movement is a rejection not just of Bush, but these heretical tendencies. The GOP has always embraced tax cuts and small government; their shrill insistence on them now seem more like a demand that we get off their damn lawn.

Democrats had to earn back America's trust very slowly. Carter's record, with the SALT talks and brokering peace between Egypt and Israel, was impressive--but ignored. Clinton's was even better. He almost did Carter one better by bringing permanent peace to Israel (and would have, had Rabin not been assassinated). He was more successful in bringing a permanent end to the conflict in Northern Ireland. And of course, his biggest success came in Yugoslavia. Yet none of this earned the Democrats credibility in national politics.

It took another catastrophic war and the fracturing of the dominant party before the Democrats regained their footing. In other words, it could be a very long time before Republicans play a prominent role again in foreign policy.

Comments

  • (Show?)

    While not disagreeing with your main point, you do not mention that the economy is the number one issue on the national agenda today. Jobs, jobs, jobs. While we may think they are crazy and ignorant, the cut spending crowd does believe as a matter of faith that government spending hurts business which hurts jobs. The wars are currently background noise in the political sphere so the issues are all domestic politics. If this was not the case you would see the candidates taking plenty of trips to Israel and Afghanistan.

    • (Show?)

      The question is, "How's that war economy working for you"?

      These wars have been sucking our resources into a black hole of death and destruction.

      $1.4 trillion and counting.

  • (Show?)

    John, of course, that's true, too. But in politics, issues aren't a zero-sum game, either. Everything affects the gestalt.

    One thing I did mean to mention was how silent the GOP have been on the uprisings in the Middle East. Aside from some early, pro forma criticism of Obama, they've mainly been silent. This is further evidence that, on this dimension, the GOP are AWOL.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff, I think you overstate the differences between a Palin or Huckabee and George W Bush. The latter had no meaningful foreign policy record as a candidate, and the former can be expected to select a "responsible" VP as Bush did.

    Look back at Republican contributions to the issues of the 90's: Bosnia, Kosovo, NATO Enlargement, Nafta, etc. Republicans offered nothing beyond anti-Clintonism. They had no coherent ideology besides the neoconservatives, who were not prominent at that point.

    I think the GOP's turn inwards has to be dated to the end of the cold war.

    • (Show?)

      Actually, I think you downplay the role of the Neocons in the 90s. They were among the major players in the foreign policy arena. They were starting think tanks and magazines and putting heavy pressure on GOP politicians. They dictated the contours of conservative foreign policy.

      I grant that Bush was not much on the foreign policy front. In a debate with Gore, when asked what he would have done in Bosnia, he said (paraphrasing), "bring in the Russians to help handle it." Since even the casually interested citizen like me knew that Russia had sharply differing interests, I assumed he'd lost the election right there. No one mentioned it.

      I think the big difference is that Bush knew he needed to have the appearance of serious foreign policy cred, and surrounded himself with old warhorses. This current crop seems to actively eschew anything to do with foreign policy--the first time since, what, Goldwater?, that that's been the case.

  • (Show?)

    I actually worry that one of the extreme-right-wing GOP who are currently seeking the nomination might be too much activist in foreign policy in that they might take the cue from Israel and go out and bomb Iran.

    And I'd recommend that both parties ought to pull inward in that, as we are now seeing, an historic wave of democracy is taking over, and doing so entirely on its own volition, in the Arab world and other countries that have be under authoritarianism. This is nothing but really great and shows that the world will find its own way without the nanny-USA overlording it!

  • (Show?)

    Stephen, here's my prediction: the '12 candidates will answer in a pro-forma fashion to questions about Israel (standard AIPAC stuff), but absolutely won't touch the question of bombing Iran. It's politically toxic, and the only people still promoting it are dead-enders in the GOP who have no elective future.

    As for pulling inward in the face of a wave of democracy, I couldn't disagree more. This is the moment to welcome incipient governments into the world of responsible democracies--as I expect Obama will do. It's quite possible to engage without dictating outcomes. It's what most of the rest of the world does.

    • (Show?)

      "It's politically toxic, and the only people still promoting it are dead-enders in the GOP who have no elective future."

      I'd have said that about Iraq in 1999.

  • (Show?)

    Jeff- I believe the Obama Admin. just requested $5 mil. in the 2012 budget for funding of Venezuelan opposition.

    So, of course, the Obama Admin. proves it's just like any other US Admin. in that it feels it has the right to try and influence outcomes, whereas no such foreign interference in US elections would be tolerated at all.

    So, judging by its history and its continuing trends, I don't trust the U.S. to not try to influence outcomes.

    The great president Lula of Brazil stated that Venezuela is a democracy. I give that a lot more credence than I do U.S. pronouncements about Venezuela.

  • (Show?)

    Jon Huntsman as Ambassador to China has some foreign policy credentials and is in the Republican race. (note his latest appearance in Beijing here).

    The big issues for Republicans, going forward IMHO, will be the tension between cutting the budget and maintaining, or increasing, the defense budget, including the funding of two current wars. They can't do both, arithmetic does not works that way.

    In Oregon (don't we at least try to keep an Oregon focus on Blue Oregon), the big foreign policy issue, again IMHO, is how we should be reorienting our educational system to a changing global economy and international security environment, trying to give out next generations the skills for success and peace. That's the foreign policy and peace issue we can do something about right here in Oregon. Top priorities are more Mandarin and study abroad programs. And we are doing next to nothing with Democrats in charge. There has been/ is no leadership from our Democratic governors. Our educational leaders never even mention the issues. And our teachers unions in their lack of support for a high school study abroad program (thus preventing many more our our high school students from studying in China now) are increasing the possibility of a serious (aka nuclear) war with China.

    It's not just national Republican but Oregon Democrats that have abandoned foreign policy.

    • (Show?)

      David, that's why I said "leading." Huntsman's name recognition puts him well out of those with a legit shot at the nomination--or influencing the debate.

      I did expect/hope you'd make the China comment, because I didn't know how to work it in. China is a real wild card on the foreign policy front and no one on any side seems to have any idea how to handle it.

      • (Show?)

        On Huntsman, I wouldn't rule anyone out in the Republican race yet. I find him interesting because he is a moderate Republican from a conservative state. He speaks Mandarin and has held several foreign policy / trade positions. From Beijing, he has advocated getting many more US students to China. And Utah, where he was governor, is now "mainstreaming" foreign language immersion programs, now including Mandarin, French and Spanish.

        Yes, China is a "real wild card." The fate of the world probably depends upon what happens between the US and China over this century. Which is why Oregon's refusal to expand Mandarin and study abroad programs in China is so irresponsible.

        Do note that the "big war" crowd in the Pentagon have ideas how to handle China: hype the threat and increase the appropriations for the big systems of the Navy and Air Force. Easily more than half the Pentagon's budget goes toward systems to fight a near peer (China is candidate number one).

  • (Show?)

    I'd say that this is a shift that's affected both parties since the end of the Cold War.

    Back in the 1990s, one commentator said (and I'm failing to remember who, and I'm paraphrasing), that we used to worry about whether we could trust that the President was going to be rational with his finger on the nuclear button. But after the Cold War, Americans started to look at their presidents more like super-governors -- focused more on the transactional issues of taxes, benefits, and small-bore domestic policy.

    Clinton didn't really have much foreign policy cred in 1992 either (a point made loudly by the Bush '92 team -- and ignored by the voters.) Dubya certainly didn't either, though bringing on Cheney as the chaperone helped a bit. And Obama? That was a replay of 1992, where the McCain team screamed loudly about his lack of foreign policy cred and the voters shrugged.

    • (Show?)

      The cold war affected things, but I would say only marginally in terms of the political calculation. That Clinton was derided is my point: it was still in the time when the conventional wisdom held that Dems were draft-dodging peaceniks who couldn't be trusted to defend the country. Interestingly, this was still a theme in '96 and, even after Clinton's exit, the Dems were still regarded the same way.

      Bush and the GOP could never have demonized "Defeatocrats" had this not been the case. Look back at the rhetoric from '01 through the election and you see this unchallenged assumption everywhere (and the press were especially egregious in leaving it unchallenged).

      Obama was definitely a replay of '92, but my argument is that it will mark the last election where that's the case. Expect Democrats to push foreign policy and Obama's bona fides while the GOP duck the issue.

  • (Show?)

    Also, it's a complete and total irrelevancy, but I'm going to dispute your characterization of George H.W. Bush as a "war hero." He was a WW2 veteran, but no hero.

    At age 19, he was the youngest fighter pilot in American history - but his career was otherwise undistinguished. (Ironically, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross - but in WW2, that went to pilots who achieved nothing more than 25 sorties without getting killed.)

    Of course, Bush's flying career also led directly to this unintentionally hilarious quote from his '88 campaign:

    I was shot down, and I was floating around in a little yellow raft, setting a record for paddling. I thought of my family, my mom and dad, and the strength I got from them. I thought of my faith, the separation of church and state.

    Sorry for the diversion. WW2-era fighter aces are a minor hobby of mine, for personal reasons.

  • (Show?)

    I would say that "war hero" is a purely subjective term and that Bush did more than enough to make it a credible claim in 1980 and again in '88. The CIA thing gave him a lot more gravitas.

connect with blueoregon