Daniel W. Drezner

I don’t think the GOP is going to go in this direction on foreign policy

I don’t think the GOP is going to go in this direction on foreign policy

Conor Friedersdorf has an provocative essay over at The Atlantic in which he states a few hard truths about the state of the GOP on foreign policy… and then goes to a very strange place.  The hard truths first:

President Obama’s foreign policy is vulnerable to all sorts of accurate attacks. But Mitt Romney, the Republican Party, and the conservative movement are totally unable to exploit them. This is partly because the last four years have been spent advancing critiques so self-evidently implausible to anyone outside the movement that calling attention to them seems impolite. There is no factual basis for the assertion that Obama rejects American exceptionalism or that he embarked on an apology tour or that he is allied with our Islamist enemy in a "grand jihad" against America; or that his every action is motivated by Kenyan anti-colonialism. And while those critiques are especially inane, they aren’t cherry-picked to discredit conservatives; they’re actually all critiques advanced by prominent people, publications, and/or Republican politicians.

The fact that the vast majority of conservatives give no indication of having learned anything from the Iraq War is an even more significant reason that the GOP has lost its traditional edge on national security issues, with a majority of Americans telling pollsters they trust Democrats more.

OK, I’m with him so far.  But then we get to how Friedersdorf thinks the GOP should ground its criticism: 

So what could an opposition party less dysfunctional than Republicans say about Obama’s foreign policy?

1) The Afghan surge turned out to be a failure that cost a lot of American lives and money with little if any lasting benefit.

2) In the course of the successful Bin Laden raid, the Obama Administration ran a fake vaccination campaign that failed in its mission to get the fugitive’s DNA, failed to stay secret, and undermined public health efforts in Pakistan and elsewhere for a generation — a catastrophic bungle that could conceivably make the world more vulnerable to a pandemic in the future.

3) Obama’s main counterterrorism strategy, secretive CIA drone strikes in multiple Muslim countries, scatters terrorists to more countries than they’d otherwise be in, arguably creates more terrorists than it kills over time, and has definitely killed hundreds of innocent people at minimum.

4) Agree or disagree with the idea of intervening in Libya, the way President Obama went about it violated the U.S. Constitution, the War Powers Resolution, and an Obama campaign promise.

There are a lot more critiques of Obama’s foreign policy. It’s instructive to focus on these because they’re just the sorts of things you can’t attack if your party defines itself as most hawkish; totally discounts the importance of things like public health compared to military operations; doesn’t pay any attention at all to dead innocents killed by America; and has totally abandoned Madisonian notions of checks and balances when it comes to national security policy (emphasis added). 

I don’t necessarily disagree that these lines of attacks exist — but I also don’t think that Friedersdorf comprehends the history of the GOP on foreign policy — and I’m not just talking about the post-Cold War era.  As Colin Dueck noted in his book Hard Right, the Republicans have been branding themselves as the more hawkish party since Thomas Dewey faded from the scene.  Sure, the Ron Paul wing would love these lines of attack — but I don’t think either the rest of the GOP or the rest of the country for that matter is gonna dislike the drone strategy. 

I agree that the GOP has made its mistakes in its foreign policy critiques, but the kind of conceptual pivot that Friedersdorf expects Republicans to make strikes me as pretty absurd. 

So what should the GOP do?  I’m not entirely sure, but I do know two things: 

1)  The Republican Party can’t summarily reject the hawk brand it’s built for more than a half-century;

2)  Unless and until the GOP acknowledges that Iraq was a tragedy and a mistake, it will be as enfeebled on foreign policy as the Democratic Party was on this issue for a generation after the Vietnam War went south.