An expert's point of view on a current event.

End of the Establishment

Where have all the serious Republicans gone?


When Mitt Romney denounced the new START treaty in the Washington Post last week, he didn't simply demonstrate that he's determined not to allow Sarah Palin to outflank him on the right. He also affirmed something else -- the decline and fall of the Republican foreign-policy establishment.

When Mitt Romney denounced the new START treaty in the Washington Post last week, he didn’t simply demonstrate that he’s determined not to allow Sarah Palin to outflank him on the right. He also affirmed something else — the decline and fall of the Republican foreign-policy establishment.

Of all the potential contenders for the 2012 presidential nomination, Romney, who was a moderate governor of the state that once was the bastion of what the legendary Washington journalist and snob Joseph Alsop referred to as the "WASP ascendancy," might seem like the most logical candidate to restore the traditions of pragmatic Republican internationalism after the neoconservative domination of the past decade. Instead, he has offered a potent reminder that anyone serious about seeking the nomination of today’s Republican Party has to establish his or her right-wing bona fides on foreign policy by acting as though Russia — not to mention the State Department and the CIA — remains an enemy of the United States. No sooner did Romney attack new START than the National Review effusively praised him in an editorial: "For anyone who can truly calculate our interests, it’s a travesty. All honor to Mitt Romney for setting out the case against the treaty so cogently. We hope Senate Republicans are listening."

Perhaps Romney truly thinks that the new START is a sellout to Moscow, but he appears to be less an avatar of the right than its most prominent hostage. He might even be suffering from a kind of Stockholm syndrome. The treaty, after all, has won the enthusiastic endorsement of a host of Republican foreign-policy eminences, including Brent Scowcroft, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and James Baker. Much of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, in fact, adheres to the prescriptions laid out by that generation of Republican realists — relying on diplomacy in dealing with Russia and Iran, cultivating good relations with China, and recognizing the limits of U.S. power. But these moderate conservatives all have one big thing in common: They’re in their dotage. Nor is there a successor generation in sight to uphold their legacy. The result is that despite the bungled Iraq war, the right remains on the offensive. An insurrectionist movement, it not only opposes liberal elites, but also the quisling patricians in its own ranks.

Just as Republicans have united by reflexively saying no to Obama’s domestic program, so they are also attacking his approach to foreign affairs as tantamount to a new round of Carteresque appeasement of foreign adversaries. Any deviations from the catechism, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele’s comment that Afghanistan is "Obama’s war" and may not be winnable, are excoriated with the verbal equivalent of a death sentence by stoning in Iran. The liturgy is enforced by the likes of Liz Cheney or William Kristol and obediently recited by party leaders such as Republican House whip Eric Cantor, who informed the Heritage Foundation on May 4 that America’s defenses are "hemorrhaging" and that Obama’s "policies bespeak a naive moral relativism in which the United States bears much responsibility for the problems we face around the world."

Add the welter of other conservative and neoconservative organizations dedicated to propagating the message that only a return to the principles enunciated by Ronald Reagan can restore American security and, by extension, the GOP’s electoral dominance, and it becomes clear that the traditional Republican establishment isn’t on the defensive; it’s in danger of extinction. By moving solidly to the right, Romney underscores its decline and the rise of something else — what Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of state and a prime target of right-wing obloquy in the early 1950s, called "the primitives."

The battles between establishment Republicans and the right are not new. Even a cursory glance at the establishment’s past reveals that from the outset of America’s rise to global power at the turn of the last century, East Coast Republicans have always enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the GOP itself. Consider the political odyssey of one of the foreign-policy establishment’s founding fathers, Henry Stimson. Stimson, who attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard Law School and then served as President William Howard Taft’s secretary of war, was a progressive Republican. He tried and failed to win Republican support for the League of Nations, watching disconsolately as his party embraced a not-so-splendid isolationism. In his memoirs, Stimson tartly observed that he "shared the oblivion which overtook most of the younger Eastern Republicans during the early 1920s." That oblivion didn’t really end until Franklin D. Roosevelt took office and appointed Stimson secretary of war, and made the stalwart Republican, Frank Knox, secretary of the Navy. So it took a left-wing Democrat — FDR — to revive moderate Republicanism. At the 1940 Republican nominating convention, write Leonard and Mark Silk in their book The American Establishment, "the chairman of the Republican National Committee read both men out of the party."

The internationalists were taken back into the Republican fold with the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who, among other things, scorned the idea of radically increasing the military budget. Even Richard Nixon — considered a right-wing hard-liner at the time — was in favor of the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the United Nations as a congressman. The isolationist wing of the GOP, which had opposed entry into World War II as well as U.S. membership in NATO, was finished. But it morphed into a new Frankenstein: unilateralism married to nationalism. Put otherwise, suspicion of international institutions as dangerously infringing upon U.S. sovereignty remained, but it was now joined to militarism. The isolationists’ place was taken by a bellicose, unilateralist right, led by Sens. Joseph McCarthy and William Knowland, known as "the senator from Formosa" for his fierce pro-Taiwan advocacy. They alleged that traitors in the State Department had lost China and that the Truman administration lacked the gumption to take the fight to the Reds.

In the 1970s, neoconservatives joined with the hard right to allege that Nixon and Kissinger were selling out human rights and U.S. national security to secure a bogus détente with Moscow. Gerald Ford came under similar attack. Ronald Reagan entered office by bringing on board a host of movement conservatives, but ended up relying on his cautious secretary of state, George Shultz, and winding down the Cold War, much to the consternation of the true believers. The right felt, once again, that it had been sold out by its own leadership.

The last gasp of the Republican foreign-policy establishment came with George H.W. Bush’s administration. To the consternation of many conservatives and neoconservatives, Bush tried to force Israel to back off on building further settlements in the West Bank, cultivated close relations with China even after the Tiananmen Square massacre, refused to continue on to Baghdad during the first Gulf War, and did not intervene in the collapse of Yugoslavia. For these departures from conservative gospel, the right deserted Bush during his failed 1992 reelection campaign against Bill Clinton, who promised swift action in the Balkans and decried the "butchers of Beijing."

The emergence of the western conservatism that disdained the effete East Coast elites reached new heights in George W. Bush’s administration. Had John McCain won the 2008 presidential election, he would likely have attacked Iran, as his recent essay in the New Republic about unleashing "America’s full moral power" suggested. Nothing nettles the neoconservatives surrounding McCain, as well as the liberal hawks who supported the Iraq war, more than the notion that Obama has abandoned humanitarian intervention abroad in favor of a new Munich.

It’s a dangerous pattern. Again and again, as Sam Tanenhaus perceptively observes in The Death of Conservatism, the right has conceived insurgencies from within the government "in a spirit of hatred for a liberal elite who were perceived to be usurpers and hence subsversives." In their fixation with the State Department’s putative readiness to appease foreign dictators, the movement conservatives bring to mind a passage from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time mocking the British Foreign Office: "All very well a century ago to have a fellow who could do the polite to the local potentate… Something a bit more realistic required these days."

For now, Romney, Palin and any other candidate for the Republican nomination are vying for the right’s mantle and depicting Obama as "doing the polite" to the world’s potentates. The only dissenters from the new conservative orthodoxy are columnist George F. Will, who is decrying America’s "misadventure" in Afghanistan, its foray into the dreaded nation-building, along with a handful of conservative congressmen such as Ron Paul and Jason Chaffetz, whose antipathy toward intervention marks them out as closer to old-line isolationists than internationalist Republicans.

In examining the predominance of the hawks, international relations professor and blogger Robert Farley recently asked why Kissinger, Baker, Scowcroft, and Colin Powell have failed to create their own institutional network. Farley concluded, "I suspect that at least part of the answer is personality-based; Baker and Scowcroft, for example, seem to have eschewed institution building in favor of cultivating an elite consensus." But it’s also the case that Kissinger and Scowcroft have not been full-time policy advocates. Rather, they’ve gone into consulting, while their conservative ideological adversaries have, by and large, hunkered down at think tanks and magazines, conducting a kind of guerrilla warfare against Obama.

The closest thing to a younger, prominent realist internationalist today is Newsweek International editor and CNN host Fareed Zakaria, though he essentially bailed out on the Republicans in a 2000 essay in the New Yorker ridiculing conservative antics during the Clinton era, and today exercises virtually no influence on the party. The moderate Republican Robert Gates might have been a standard-bearer for this tradition, but he, of course, has been brought into the Democratic fold. It would be no small irony if the tradition of moderate Republican foreign policy were completely usurped by the Democrats, something that was already speculated upon during the 2008 campaign.

For its part, it looks as though the mainstream Republican establishment is headed straight back into the oblivion that Stimson complained about almost a century ago. In some ways, this might be inevitable. By its very nature, realism is a gloomy policy prescription that lacks the elan of neoconservatism; its conservative adherents have done little to promote their cause among the public; and it might even be inimical to America’s sense of democracy to have an elite on the lines of the Republican establishment. In short, the age of the foreign-policy grandee may be coming to a close.

The only thing that might resurrect this tradition may be the much-speculated — though repeatedly denied — presidential ambitions of Gen. David Petraeus. Should Obama become a two-term president, Petraeus could play Eisenhower to Obama’s Truman, leading a chastened GOP back toward realism. Until then, the Republican establishment, like a shorn Samson, will remain in a state of total eclipse without all hope of day.

<p> Jacob Heilbrunn is senior editor at the National Interest. </p>

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.