Why foreign policy still unites conservatives

Why foreign policy still unites conservatives

Several of my Shadow Government colleagues have already responded to Jacob Heilbrunn’s obituary for the Republican foreign policy establishment. Most of the comments have focused on the diversity present on the Right on foreign policy and I agree with those assessments.

However, these responses perhaps take Heilbrunn too seriously because a close reading of his article reveals that his pining for "pragmatic Republican internationalism after the neoconservative domination of the past decade" is little more what has become his bread and butter in recent years: neocon bashing.

Heilbrunn fails to accurately characterize neoconservative views of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and he neglects to mention the real reason that traditional realism has failed to take hold on the Right.

The problem begins with choosing New START as the litmus test. A close reading of the Congressional testimony of the "eminences" listed by Heilbrunn leads one finding few outright calls for ratification of New START and instead a series of concerns that the Senate should address during the ratification process. Many of them, oddly enough, are the same concerns laid out by Gov. Romney in his op-ed in the Washington Post and most recently his piece on National Review Online.

Heilbrunn also lumps together criticism by William Kristol and Liz Cheney of Republican National Committee Chair Michael Steele’s recent comments on Afghanistan with the debate over New START to somehow argue that the neocons have a stranglehold on the party. But he neglects to point to any "neocon" position on New START — perhaps because there isn’t one. In fact, the bulk of the opposition has come from groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which anyone who has been around Washington for any length of time would know is no hotbed of neoconservative fervor.

 But the thrust of Heilbrunn’s argument, in a nutshell, is that conservatives have turned to criticism of Obama on all issues and forgone cooperation. He writes, "Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama’s domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries."

This is of course nonsense, given that Republicans on and off Capitol Hill have remained supportive of President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, even as casualties have mounted, and the president has lost much of his own base. Similarly, many conservatives praised the president’s decision, several months into his term, to extend his campaign timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

It is true that many conservatives have been critical of the president’s foreign policy on other issues, especially his continued emphasis on engagement with rogue regimes despite any evidence that engagement has worked, but also his reliance on Great Power politics and his seeming willingness to overlook the concerns of allies. Gov. Romney, oddly enough, laid out this very critique at an event my organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, hosted last year. After eight years of Democratic criticism of a supposedly unilateral Bush administration, this administration has taken unilateralism to new heights.

Regardless of how many grandees such as Kissinger, Scowcroft, Baker, and Powell may support aspects of President Obama’s foreign policy, even traditional realists have expressed concern about clumsiness with which Team Obama has implemented what some have called a realist strategy. As much as they may support the "reset" with Russia, this crowd most likely did not support how the president’s decision to abandon Bush-era missile defense sites was implemented, and would likely have some critiques about how the administration has engaged China. Obama’s deft diplomacy with Beijing, after all, has little more to show for it than a weak U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran and an embarrassingly weak Security Council president’s statement in response to North Korea’s recent act of war against South Korea.

Just as Heilbrunn recasts the Republican establishment, he creates a neocon straw man. The neocons, like all conservatives supporting the president on Afghanistan, are the real internationalists of today’s Republican Party. The fact is that those on the right and left questioning the current strategy in Afghanistan are the ones who would have us tread down the path toward isolationism. Just the psychological impact alone of a withdrawal from Afghanistan in defeat would haunt American foreign policy for decades. It would also damage a whole series of relationships with key current, as well as future, U.S. allies in the region.

What Heilbrunn fails to grasp is that his desired foreign policy (and President Obama’s) is at odds with the views of the American public. Americans don’t accept that the United States is in decline. They like the idea that there is something exceptional about their country. They have no problem with cutting deals with countries like China and Russia, but they want their President to make sure that we get the best deal possible and only cede as much as necessary. They want their president to speak out in support of those fighting for democracy and human rights. And they don’t like to see their government neglect democratic allies while negotiating with repressive regimes. 

Americans want a values-based foreign policy, not a cold, calculating one. This, not a neocon sponsored coup, is why there is a broad foreign policy consensus on the Right today.