Five ways the GOP can outflank Obama on foreign policy.
- By John NorrisJohn Norris is the executive director of the sustainable security and peacebuilding initiative at the Center for American Progress and the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism.
The global war on terror was the gift that kept on giving for Republican foreign-policy experts for the better part of a decade. The open-ended and amorphous struggle against al Qaeda and its offshoots not only offered rhetorical cover for traditional party priorities, such as rapidly expanding the military and striking against rogues such as Saddam Hussein, it was the perfect vehicle to denigrate Democrats as too soft to get the job done. No wonder President George W. Bush and political strategist Karl Rove thought that terrorism would be the issue that would help cement the permanent Republican majority of which they long had dreamed.
But with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq concluding, the American public profoundly fatigued with foreign entanglements, and the Treasury deep in the red, all but the most recalcitrant recognize that the Republican approach to foreign policy needs some reinvention. Indeed, recent polls suggest that America’s chief complaint with the GOP these days is its unwillingness to compromise or change. Here are five foreign-policy priorities that the Republicans could push if they are serious about getting their mojo back (hint: Benghazi ain’t one of ‘em).
Normalize relations with Cuba: If Nixon could go to China, why can’t brave Republicans push for normalizing relations with Havana? The case is not a hard one to make. The embargo has been in place for more than 50 years, and while it has hobbled Cuba’s economy, it has had disastrously little impact in securing regime change. A flood of U.S. commercial activity, tourists, advertising, and person-to-person engagement would almost certainly bring change more rapidly than sanctions, given that Cuba has remained a communist dictatorship largely because Washington has insisted that it shouldn’t. The GOP could make the case on economic grounds, and although a portion of the Cuban-American community in Florida would surely despair, the move would likely be genuinely popular with the broader Latino community in the United States. Let President Obama try to defend why an embargo should stay in place. As an added bonus, the move would look decidedly pragmatic at a time when the party is battling the broad public perception that it is too often extremist and too often intractable.
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Rein in the drones: Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul hit on a winner with his filibuster against the seemingly unchecked power of the president to launch deadly drone attacks. Of course, one has to skip by the obvious irony — or hypocrisy — of the GOP suddenly embracing human rights and civil liberties in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy after pushing for virtually untrammeled executive power under Bush. But consistency has not been either party’s strong suit when it comes to foreign policy, and Republican leaders would be smart to leverage the drone discussion into a broader conversation that resonates beyond Paul’s libertarian fan base. The time is ripe for a reasoned national conversation about the rules of the road when it comes to modern technology, warfare, and the power of the presidency. With a Democrat in the White House and Republicans wary of executive overreach (but still eager to reclaim 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), the dynamic is probably about right to strike a reasonable compromise.
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Resuscitate free trade: Republican foreign-policy experts used to care about trade — and promoting freer, fairer trade was a core part of their agenda. No issue seemed to drop off the Republican radar more precipitously with the advent of the war on terror, and no issue is probably more deserving of resuscitation within GOP foreign-policy ranks. Without Republican leadership on trade, and partially as a result of the shift toward global economic austerity, trade discussions have largely ground to a halt. Protectionism is on the rise, but well-handled trade deals would help secure progress on both jobs and the deficit, key Republican priorities. Budget-conscious Republicans could also take on domestic agricultural subsidies as part of an effort to promote trade deals with Europe, India, and China, and help shrink wasteful U.S. spending in the process. If Republicans want to look serious on the economy, being a voice of reason on trade would make sense, and could also highlight tensions within the Democratic caucus on these same issues.
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Reverse mission creep in the U.S. military: This is an oldie-but-goodie. Hardly a day went by during the Clinton administration when Republicans in Congress didn’t complain that Democrats were intent on having the Pentagon do everything but run daycare centers instead of doing what the U.S. military was designed to do: fight and win wars. Given the Pentagon’s dramatic mission sprawl over the last decade, it seems like a good time to dust off this old playbook. AFRICOM is building schools in Africa. The new Navy motto, “A Global Force for Good,” sounds more appropriate for a semester at sea program than for the U.S. military. The Department of Defense is conducting breast cancer research and training officers in global economic theory. Is this the military that Republicans think we need in a modern world? As with drones, Republicans had a big hand in creating the problem, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from making hay with it.
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Capitalize on North Korea: When Chinese Communists ousted their rival nationalists in 1949, the hue and cry of “Who lost China?” went up from Republicans on Capitol Hill who suggested that State Department ineptitude was to blame for Mao’s rise to power. The question wasn’t really a fair one in that the Chinese nationalists made more than their share of mistakes, but that didn’t mean that the issue didn’t resonate politically. With the Korean peninsula ever-more restive, Republicans may be positioned to get some mileage out of the situation if the situation continues to erode and U.S. handling of the crisis looks poor. The challenge for Republicans will be take shots at the White House for its handling of North Korea in a way that doesn’t look crassly opportunistic or overtly bellicose. That might require more discipline in the Republican foreign-policy ranks than we have seen of late.
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