Republicans must not abandon democracy promotion

Republicans must not abandon democracy promotion

Originally published as part of a roundtable discussion on an article by Danielle Pletka about the future of the Republican party.

Danielle Pletka writes that Republicans and Democrats are divided on foreign policy most fundamentally by values. Republicans believe in "a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world" which leads them to support the growth of democracy worldwide, implying that Democrats do not. Nonsense. Democratic presidents have been so idealistic and fervent in their pursuit of a moral foreign policy that they gave us a name for it (Wilsonianism), a doctrine (Truman), and a hapless precedent for how not to do it (Carter).

Republicans do a disservice when they try to make promoting democracy a partisan issue. It is much safer to recognize the broad bipartisan consensus that has existed at least since the McKinley administration that American power should tilt the playing field of history towards freedom.

True, some Democrats began to betray their century-old heritage by overreacting to Iraq. Barack Obama sounded some vaguely realpolitik-y notes in his campaign and his first year in office. But Democratic realism died a silent and unmourned death in the sands of Libya. Obama and his advisors couldn’t resist the opportunity to cleanse America’s image by undertaking a pure humanitarian mission unsullied by the least connection with strategic interests. We are now safely united again in a grand strategy of spreading the democratic peace.

The real split between the parties is in deciding how, when, where, and why to foster democracy abroad, in answer to which the Obama administration has been incoherent and inconsistent. The Republican response — Pletka’s included — so far, is to call for leadership and money, neither of which constitutes a strategy. Calling for more defense spending doesn’t fit the bill unless we explain what that spending is for and what interests will go unsecured if we fail to allocate the money. And calling for more "leadership" is equally void of meaning unless we explain where we are going and why we think America — and the world — should follow.

We don’t have to have grand philosophical debates. We can pick specific issues that illustrate the parties’ differences and hammer on them relentlessly. I know I sound like a broken record, but we could start by tackling head-on the biggest crisis the United States is currently engaged in that top American officials are resolutely ignoring: not Syria, but Afghanistan.

Just because the average voter stopped paying attention years ago, and elected officials followed suit soon after, does not mean the United States no longer has interests there. Democrats performed an astonishing and shameful about-face between 2008, when it unanimously affirmed it as the good war to which we absolutely must devote more resources right now, and 2010, when their president led the way by no longer believing the war was winnable despite clear evidence to the contrary, and announced an intention to withdraw our forces without specifying how we will mitigate the obvious damage to American interests that will result from allowing terrorists to regain safe-haven in a large swathe of South Asia.

Mitt Romney missed a large and obvious opportunity to differentiate himself from the president by going on the attack on Afghanistan. Republicans can and should be out front explaining what our interests are and how we can win. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates was absolutely right when he insisted that the Pentagon focus on the wars we were fighting rather than the hypothetical wars of the future. That is still true. If Republicans want to win back their foreign-policy credentials, they should stop their scripted apoplexy over Syria, Iran, and China and say something intelligent and relevant about the war in which American troops are still dying. That’s the least we owe our soldiers.

Paul D. Miller is an assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.  He previously served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009.  The views expressed here are his own.