Daniel W. Drezner

Buck up, Peter Feaver!!

Buck up, Peter Feaver!!

Your humble blogger has  just completed writing a long essay on the 2012 candidates and their foreign policy views that will be coming out soon.  Readers will be shocked, shocked to learn that it’s pretty scathing. 

I’m hardly the only person to make this point.  When Senator Lindsay Graham is castigating his fellow Republicans, you know there’s a problem.  FP’s own David Rothkopf thinks this is a harbinger of Obama winning re-election.  And now the New York Times’ Michael Shear reports that the GOP presidential candidates’ myriad foreign policy gaffes are starting to embarrass the Republicans’ foreign policy wonks: 

[T]he embarrassing moments are piling up, and some veteran Republicans are beginning to wonder whether the cumulative effect weakens the party brand, especially in foreign policy and national security, where Republicans have typically dominated Democrats.

“It is an ‘Animal House.’ It’s a food fight,” said Kenneth Duberstein, a chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan. “Honestly, the Republican debates have become a reality show. People have to be perceived as being capable of governing this country, of being the leader of the free world.” ….

[S]ome veterans of past Republican administrations said the candidates’ national security stumbles could have a more lasting impact on how voters perceive the party in the future.

“This is the core of the Republican brand. You mess with it at your peril,” said Peter Feaver, a national security official under President George W. Bush. He compared the foreign policy flubs to reports about safety problems in Toyota vehicles.

“The whole reason you bought a Toyota was so that you didn’t have those problems,” he said. “It cuts directly to the essence of the brand. Republicans should be concerned about this.”

George W. Bush confronted some of the same concerns in his party during his 2000 campaign, especially after he was unable to name the leader of Chechnya, Taiwan, India or Pakistan. But Mr. Bush surrounded himself with veteran Republican foreign policy advisers who helped reassure the doubters.

Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for Mr. Bush, said that “in the short run, you can do some damage to the so-called brand,” but he said long-term damage would happen only if the party’s presidential nominee made such mistakes.

“The key thing is the nominee,” Mr. Wehner said. “One worries, if you are a Republican, if you get too many statements like this.”

Mr. Wehner said many of the Republican candidates had demonstrated a “pride in ignorance and a lack of knowledge.” But he predicted that voters would not reward those kinds of appeals during the primaries and caucuses.

Peter is a good friend, and I don’t like to see him this anguished in print, so let me say that for once I agree with Peter Wehner.  Six months from now, when we know who the GOP nominee will be, I suspect a lot of the ignorance on display right now will be forgotten. 

I say this because, oddly enough, even before a vote has been cast, the political ecosystem actually seems to be working.  Sure, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain have had their moments in the sun — and then the media reported on them, and people actually listened to what they were saying.  At which point, they crashed and burned.  They didn’t only crash and burn because of their foreign policy gaffes — but I don’t think they helped. 

I can understand if international observers look at what’s been said and gasp in horror at the American process of selecting a major party nominee.  In the end, however, the difference between the system now and the system fifty years ago is that nowadays someone like Cain can enter the race.  Before, the barriers to entry would have been higher.  Now, the barriers to entry are low, but the crucible of the campaign is far more fierce.  So people like Cain or Bachmann can enter and then be destroyed. 

At this juncture, it looks like Mitt Romney is the most likely nominee, and he’s also the candidate who’s done the most heavy lifting in thinking about foreign policy.  There’s a lot of stuff to criticize in his foreign policy views, to be sure — but that’s true of Barack Obama as well.  Romney does pass the test of someone whohas some background knowledge about the world, and someone who has actually bothered to think about the subject.  Post-primary, that will be the foreign policy brand of the GOP. 

[And if it’s not Romney?–ed.  Then it’s Newt Gingrich, who, again, has demonstrated a little knowledge about foreign affairs.  Throw in Rick Santorum and Jon Hunstman as wild card candidates yet to have their bubble.  Huntsman clearly knows foreign affairs, and that’s also been Santorum’s strength in the debates.] 

Don’t worry, Peter — the wheel is turning.