- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
Danielle Pletka’s thought-provoking piece on the future of foreign policy in the Republican Party deserves more systematic and fulsome treatment than time and space currently allow. Some random reactions will have to suffice for now. That said, I very much look forward to the debate that Pletka invites. It’s indeed an important one. The intra-GOP divisions to which she alludes are in some cases deep and wide. Moreover, they frequently appear to touch on matters of first principle that not long ago seemed largely settled — an apparent shattering of the Reagan-era consensus, the long-term consequences of which I sense may trouble me somewhat more than they do her.
Pletka suggests that the GOP must be a party that believes there are things worth fighting for. Agreed. But what, exactly? Elsewhere, she makes the case for America’s "obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society." What’s the connection, if any, between those two important thoughts? And doesn’t that go to the heart of the larger problem that seems to be bothering a lot of Americans when it comes to the Republican Party? Not that they don’t think we’ll use force, but that we’ve been all too eager to pull the trigger? What’s the limiting principle? Where won’t we fight and why?
Pletka of course understands this well. She notes the importance of Republicans explaining to the American people "how much can be done consistent with America’s deepest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank." That seems to me an essential task going forward: to restore the public’s faith that the GOP is not only the party most willing to stand up and defend America’s vital interests in a dangerous world, but also the one that will do so employing the most creative, competent, and forward-looking strategies — a national security policy that makes the use of force not just the last resort, but almost always unnecessary because of what Pletka calls the exercise of "genuine American leadership that meets challenges before they become threats."
In this regard, perhaps more than Pletka, I tend to think that the GOP will need to engage in a more thorough-going reckoning with the Bush-Cheney years, particularly the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. Not, as she correctly warns, for the purposes of "killing" that legacy, but rather for an honest accounting of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the lessons learned. It’s necessary for its own sake of course. But it’s also important, I think, as part of the task of rebuilding the public’s overall confidence in the Republican foreign policy brand.
A few odds and ends. I don’t think Pletka mentions free trade and energy policy. The Republicans should own these issues, especially the impending American oil and gas boom. The impact on America’s economic strength at home and strategic flexibility abroad promise to be revolutionary if properly and comprehensively exploited.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the speed of the GOP comeback will at least in part be determined by what happens in the world between now and 2016. Pletka is harshly critical of President Obama’s foreign-policy record. I generally don’t disagree. But the fact is that Obama has not suffered some of the mega-disasters that so obviously plagued the administration of Jimmy Carter and made Reagan’s critique so innately compelling for the American people. No Iranian hostage crisis. No Desert One fiasco. No hollow military on display. No Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While it’s clear to Pletka and me that Obama’s policies are sowing the seeds of expanding international instability, chaos and violence, the fact is that the day of reckoning has not yet come — when the price for "leading from behind" will really come due in much higher sacrifices of American blood, treasure, and honor. Benghazi was but the canary in the coal mine, a foreshadowing of the super storm yet to hit.
But for now, it must be said that Obama has largely succeeded in avoiding the worst, in kicking the can down the road. Can it go on for another four years? I would guess not. But I could be wrong. If I am, if Obama’s luck continues to hold, if the world is such in 2016 that a plausible case can still be made that the Democrats have been responsible stewards of America’s national security, then whatever the Republicans do in opposition to get their foreign policy house in order (as necessary and essential a task as that no doubt is) may not be enough to make an electoral difference.
John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2005 to 2009.