Nuking the Messenger

Nuking the Messenger

I’m flattered that my essay on the decline of the Republican foreign-policy establishment has temporarily converted Foreign Policy‘s Shadow Government blog into a forum devoted to enumerating my deficiencies in examining the GOP. If anything, I thought that in examining this topic, I might well be accused of carrying coals to Newcastle. Instead, my critics contend that I couldn’t have got it more wrong: intellectual ferment is alive and well in the Grand Old Party.

The very unanimity of my reviewers’ attacks, however, underscores my original point. Their missives carry the distinct whiff of a mutual admiration society, as they generally begin by praising each other’s earlier critiques for having already demolished my argument. Yet none of the critics succeeds in demonstrating that true debate and dissent is taking place in the GOP on Afghanistan, Iraq, or a host of other issues. Rather than directly tackle the arguments in my essay, they impute motives to me — "neocon bashing," bad faith, "crocodile tears" — while going for the capillaries by raising a number of picayune objections.

One tack adopted by the Shadow Government critics is to point to moderate Republicans that I didn’t mention. Thus, Will Inboden asks what figures such as Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Natsios "have in common?" Andrew Natsios! OK, I admit that it had eluded me that the former director of USAID was a real heavyweight in George W. Bush’s inner councils leading up to the Iraq war. While Rice managed to eke out some influence in the last two years of the Bush administration, she was essentially a nullity for the first six, surrounded — like her sometime State Department ally Colin Powell — by an alliance of neoconservatives and nationalists who rendered her impotent. Had Rice displayed a smidgen of backbone in the run-up to march on Baghdad, she might have managed to stand up for the warnings that Brent Scowcroft prominently sounded in August 2002 in the Wall Street Journal about the perils of a preemptive war. Instead, Scowcroft became persona non grata as Rice refused even to meet with her erstwhile mentor in the White House. Now Scowcroft, a lifelong Republican, is an informal advisor to President Barack Obama. And when was the last time Rice weighed in on a major foreign-policy debate?

Another avenue of attack is to maintain that there really isn’t all that much distance between the realists and the rest of the party. Dov Zakheim notes that both George Shultz and James Baker were "Reagan Republicans" and that Reagan followed a muscular approach. Fair enough. But when they pushed moderate economic policies or favored reaching out to Moscow, Shultz and Baker were denounced by the right with the slogan, "Let Reagan be Reagan!"

A wide chasm separates Shultz, Reagan, and former arm-control negotiator Richard Burt from the current crop of Republicans, such as Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who is raising doubts about Obama’s nuclear treaty with Russia, which I used as Exhibit A of the GOP’s abandonment of internationalism. Kyl has made it plain in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month that his opposition is not so much to New START itself as to what he views as the Obama administration’s lukewarm desire to modernize the U.S. nuclear force to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Essentially, Kyl is holding the treaty hostage in exchange for ironclad promises to spend vast sums on a fresh generation of useless and dangerous nuclear weapons. What will it cost the administration to get further, more substantive arms treaties approved in the future? Meanwhile, conservatives are lodging a host of niggling, if not outright false, objections about the Obama administration’s putative abandonment of missile defense.

So something has gone wrong in the GOP. Russia hardly poses a threat to America. China does. But surely engaging in a nuclear arms race with China, which is basically subsidizing the American military budget, would be disastrous. And failing to ratify New START would likely have calamitous consequences for America’s relationship with Russia, which would conclude that Washington is a feckless and unreliable partner, to say nothing of the unsavory knock-on effects it would have elsewhere around the world.

Is opposition to New START simply rooted in ancient debates about nukes? Peter Feaver suggests that this is the case. Republicans, he writes, have always had disputes about the efficacy of arms control. But he fails to note one thing: The Cold War is over. Not just over, but dead, done, gone for several decades. Why, then, revive antediluvian debates about arms control? Could it be because it’s a Democrat rather than a Republican who is signing the treaty? Republican presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush all signed arms treaties with Moscow. Obama’s effort to reset relations with the Kremlin falls comfortably into that tradition.

Feaver is right that I contradictorily alluded to the condemnations of Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele in the context of pointing to reflexive Republican denunciations of Obama. But my main point stands: Debate about foreign policy is quashed before it can begin, which is why Steele was kneecapped by the usual suspects. At the risk of hammering home the obvious, I would point as well to the GOP presidential primary debate at the Reagan Library in January 2008, when all four candidates fell over themselves to invoke Reagan’s name and, apart from the isolationist Ron Paul, vied with each other to stake out the hardest line possible. The same phenomenon is going on today as Mitt Romney tries to outflank Sarah Palin. Which is why Jamie Fly has it exactly right when he observes, "[T]here is a broad foreign policy consensus on the Right today." Broad and shallow.

The truth is that the strongest line of criticism that could have been made against my essay, which Fly briefly raises, is that the generation of Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Baker hardly has a perfect record, though it looks better and better in retrospect. In fact, I’m surprised that more of my critics didn’t simply dispense with the fiction that the GOP is a hotbed of debate and celebrate the demise of the centrists. Contrary to Fly, and for what it’s worth, debunking neoconservatism is not my "bread and butter," which is why I didn’t really discuss the phenomenon.

Rather, I sought to suggest that the elderly generation of internationalist establishment Republicans represents something important, something that’s in danger of being lost, and something that will only truly be mourned once it has disappeared — a tradition of pragmatic internationalism that shuns demonizing adversaries and conserves U.S. economic and military power, one that reaches back to Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush.

Their accomplishments recall the inscription in St Paul’s Cathedral dedicated to Sir Christopher Wren: "Reader, if you seek his memorial — look around you." Who in today’s truculent Republican Party will leave behind similar achievements to admire?