A Party in Disarray: The Future of GOP Foreign Policy

By David Byler ’14

The last decade in American politics has been turbulent – unusually so. In the 2000 and 2004 elections, Karl Rove famously tried to build a “permanent Republican majority” with strength comparable to FDR’s coalition in the 30’s and 40’s. While the coalition was strong, it wasn’t permanent. Only two years after President Bush’s reelection, Republicans suffered catastrophic losses to Democrats nationwide, resulting in loss of the House and a nearly evenly split Senate. In 2008, the Democrats increased their majority in the House and took a commanding lead in the Senate with 60 Senators in the Democratic caucus. The tables then turned remarkably quickly as Democrats started to face troubles in 2010. Indeed, not long after Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times Book Review wrote an article called “The Death of Conservatism” in 2009, the Tea Party rose to power and helped Republicans ride a wave of anti-Obama sentiment to a House majority and substantial gains in the Senate in 2010.

But not all of the political instability of the last two years has manifested itself in interparty squabbling. While Democrats have suffered some internal political instability on issues such as Health Care, the presence of a Democratic president has to some extent mitigated those conflicts. Republicans, on the other hand, have found surprising uniformity on certain economic issues while differing widely on foreign policy. Despite some infighting over issues such as the flat tax and raising the debt ceiling, Republicans generally hold positions favoring lower taxes to grow business, spending cuts to balance the budget, and entitlement reform. But on foreign policy, the Republican Party is largely divided, and to understand the extent of that disarray, we need only to look at the 2012 Presidential Field.

One of the most controversial and well-received foreign policy statements was made during the Republican Foreign Policy Debate when Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke about budgeting for foreign aid. He said, “You ought to start off at zero and say, explain to me why I should give you a penny.” Although Perry clarified that he would continue to support a number of U.S. allies, any suggestion that Congress zero out foreign aid is still a move in the isolationist direction. Perry is not alone in seeing the world in this light. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, who represents a substantial and growing libertarian minority within the Republican Party, feels that the United States should end its foreign wars, refrain from invading Iran even if they obtain a nuclear weapon, and shut down military bases abroad. This contrasts strongly with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, one of the favorites to win the nomination, who would commission new ships and aircrafts, increase the non-combat defense budget from 3.8 percent of GDP to 4 percent, increase the number of soldiers on active duty to 100,000, take an aggressive economic stance towards China, and refuse to “cut and run” in Afghanistan. While Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stands close to Governor Romney on many foreign policy issues as a self-styled “cheap hawk,” his direct, off-the-cuff rhetorical style has lead him to call the Palestinian people “invented” and make other controversial statements.

Other candidates also have sought to distance themselves further from the Neoconservative, Bush-era policies, with Herman Cain famously saying “I’m not familiar with the neoconservative movement” on “Meet the Press” this past October. Although Mr. Cain’s gaffe was amusing, it represented an anti-Bush sentiment within the presidential field that Former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has attempted to capitalize on. Governor Huntsman believes that “[r]ather than focusing on nation-building abroad, we need to refocus on our fundamental strengths here at home” and opposes Governor Romney’s positions on China and Afghanistan. Many more examples of divisions between these candidates could be provided, but they aren’t necessary to make the point that there is a distinct lack of consensus within the Presidential field on foreign policy.

In spite of all of these divides, there are a few things that Republicans do agree on. With the vocal exception of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, most of the candidates support the reinstatement of waterboarding as an acceptable means of interrogation for terrorists. Additionally, while the details of their plans differ, most of the candidates oppose Barack Obama’s exit from Afghanistan. The notable detractors are once again Governor Huntsman and Congressman Paul, but their presence might speak more to the unity of the party on these issues than the disunity. Congressman Paul seems nearly incapable of reaching beyond the libertarian base he supports, and it can be speculated that one reason why Governor Huntsman hasn’t gained much traction in the race because of his less hawkish positions on Afghanistan, China, and other foreign policy issues.

The general consensus on Afghanistan brings out the major philosophical underpinning of Republican thought on foreign policy in this election: opposition to Barack Obama. Because of Barack Obama’s unsurprisingly low approval ratings amongst the Republican base and his below average approval amongst the public in general, the Republican candidates are politically savvy to take a foreign policy position that strongly contrasts with that of President Barack Obama. Additionally, by making issues such as China and Afghanistan take center stage, the Republicans can attempt to take attention away from President Obama’s largest foreign policy achievement: killing Osama Bin Laden. Although Republican candidates seem to agree on some of the most general points of foreign policy, they disagree on the details and are often totally differ in philosophy. This divide in philosophy can be explained partially by the results of recent elections, and it will help to explain the general disarray of the candidates on foreign policy issues.

One telling moment in the Republican Presidential Debates was an exchange about what would happen if Iran were to gain nuclear weapons. Many of the candidates said that they would invade Iran as a last resort, but when pressed further on their justification of such a war and the methods that would be used before resorting to putting boots on the ground, Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich gave interesting replies. They both said that they would exhaust all possible methods, including espionage, economic force, and supporting rebels against the current regime, but their reasoning was all couched in terms of global balance of power. Neither Speaker Gingrich nor Governor Romney spoke for a moment about supporting revolutionaries because they desired political freedom and were on the right side of history.

While Speaker Gingrich and Governor Romney almost definitely support the protestors for these reasons, their soft-pedaling of the political rights of people around the world represents a large move away from President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. In his Second Inaugural Address, delivered in 2005, he said “America’s influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America’s influence is considerable and we will use it confidently in freedom’s cause.” This is a succinct statement of the “freedom agenda” that dominated the Bush Administration for much of its existence. This philosophy was successful for Republicans seeking office in 2000, 2002, and 2004, but in 2006, Republicans suffered huge losses due to it. Specifically, fatigue from the War in Iraq caused voters to give Democrats huge victories. Additionally, when Arizona Senator John McCain faced Barack Obama in the general election, Senator McCain’s strong neoconservative positions were a lightning rod for attack and, arguably, a contributing factor in his eventual defeat.

With this recent political history in mind, Governor Romney and Speaker Gingrich’s strategic omission of neoconservative rhetoric, despite their hawkish positions on Iran, makes sense. Additionally, the general Republican disunity on foreign policy makes more sense. In the vacuum left by Bush-era neoconservatism, the only common factors are opposition to President Obama and fear of being beaten like McCain or the 2006 Republicans. While such a position is politically advantageous, it doesn’t make for a coherent ideology.

So where do Republicans go from here? The lack of philosophical consensus may persist in the party until November 2012 when President Obama is either re-elected or unseated. If he is re-elected, it would be perfectly reasonable for Republicans to maintain an anti-Obama stance on all foreign policy issues, leaving conclusion of this internal debate for another time. If Speaker Gingrich or Governor Romney is nominated and elected President, we have a clearer idea of where the Republican platform will land. Based on their statements so far, both men would be hawkish but realistic in their policy, moving away from President George W. Bush’s approach and towards something resembling President George H. W. Bush’s policy. This is still a general assumption, though. The younger Bush’s ideology largely took shape after 9/11, and there’s always the possibility that a Republican President might face a crisis with similar global implications between 2013 and 2017. Essentially, the Republican Party will probably move in a more hawkish direction, but for now, there’s no way to know for certain.

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