Out of the Shadows: Some ideas for the GOP in 2012

This afternoon, we at Foreign Policy had the opportunity to meet many of the contributors to the Shadow Government blog for the very first time, when they convened for a panel discussion on the role foreign policy will play in the 2012 GOP primaries and presidential election. The panelists included Steve Biegun, former senior national ...

This afternoon, we at Foreign Policy had the opportunity to meet many of the contributors to the Shadow Government blog for the very first time, when they convened for a panel discussion on the role foreign policy will play in the 2012 GOP primaries and presidential election. The panelists included Steve Biegun, former senior national security advisor to the McCain-Palin campaign; Peter Feaver,  professor of political science at Duke University and former National Security Council staffer; Michael J. Green, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former foreign policy advisor to the McCain campaign; Kori Schake, fellow at the Hoover institution and former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff; and Michael Singh, associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former White House staffer on Middle East Issues. The talk was moderated by Politico‘s John Harris.

Green argued while foreign policy issues ultimately didn’t play a significant role in the 2008 campaign, they’ve come to define Obama’s presidency to an unexpected degree, fitting a historical pattern: 

Over the last 100 years, we think of Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman and others as great foreign policy presidents, but very few came in looking to be foreign policy presidents. Woodrow Wilson was fundamentally about changing domestic policy, ditto for FDR — he was quite protectionist and restrained in foreign policy.

President Obama may be that type in terms of Democratic presidents, in which they come in with primarily a domestic agenda and events force them to become a foreign policy president. 

What line of attack the candidates should take in going after Obama’s record boiled down to two essential critiques, lack of confidence and worldview. Singh summed up the confidence argument with reference to Obama’s recent Middle East speech:

He eroded the trust between himself and both sides even further than it was eroded before. He eroded trust between himself and the Israelis by unveiling these positions one day before Prime Minister Netanyahu arrived. In diplomacy, this is not considered a friendly thing to do. With the Palestinians, he once again suggested that he couldn’t deliver the Israelis or work with the Israelis to produce a plan that would allow the Palestinians to sell it to their public. This is what Abbas is more upset about. Not only did he not advance the ball, he kicked it into the bushes.…

The irony in all this is that this was supposed to be … President Obama’s speech toward the Arab world. Of all the journalistic calls I’ve been getting, not one has wanted to talk about the Arab spring or economic aid to the Middle East. They all want to talk about one sentence: the 1967 borders. This is just bad tactics and bad diplomacy. I’m sure it wasn’t the president’s intention.

One of the attack points will certainly be confidence — that the president has simply been inconsistent and slow. But I don’t think that can replace being able to articulate a strategy and say what America should be doing.

The other attack point is the perception that the president has accepted the reality of American decline. Feaver put it this way:

[Obama’s values] come almost surely from the faculty dining room at the University of Chicago, where it would be in very bad taste to say something good about America without also saying something bad. Likewise, it would be in very poor taste to say something bad about another country without first saying something bad about America.

Schake followed up, saying there’s merit to the charge that the president does not believe in American exceptionalism: 

For instance, on trade policy. Our economy benefits hugely from free trade. Where’s the Doha round in the president’s priorities, even though he says that increasing U.S. exports is a central part of his economic strategy?… The president was hesitant about the use of military force. Up until the Osama bin Laden killing, Republicans could have had a strong line of argument on “hesitant to lead” or “hesitant to take action.” And there’s still a strong line of argument that President Obama inherited a set of tools that were extraordinarily strong and vibrant in the intelligence community and military and he is treating — either through defunding or prosecutions of the CIA — [these tools] in a way that will leave a weaker hand for the next American president.

But she also had doubts about how well this approach would work as a strategy: 

My worry though, is that I don’t think we’re at a time where a very sharp-edged conversation like that is really going to help the Republican candidate.… People don’t want a Republican candidate who will frighten horses in the street. They want calm confidence.

Biegun agreed:

Republicans need to be very careful not to overplay these issues [like] “not authentic American” — a strain of the birther argument — “apology tours,” “stand-offish,” “spends more time with our enemies than our friends.” These are all elements of a harder-edged debate that is likely to come out in some way, shape, or form, but the risk for Republicans is to overreach on these arguments. There’s a debate to be had, but debating patriotism or place of birth are ones that I think Republicans have to be very careful not to go down.

Without getting into the specifics of each Republican campaign, Biegun said that voters and the media should broaden their understanding of what constitutes foreign-policy experience: 

You have to embrace whatever is conventional or unconventional about a candidate. Experience comes in a lot different ways and it’s not just the ability to name the capital of every country on a map. I think that’s unfortunately a temptation.… International economic involvement is as consequential as knowing the capitals of the countries. Governing and experience is a substitute for a foreign-policy background. A personal narrative, having some experience that connects to the world. Good speeches, mastery of the issues. All those can form a composite.

Which candidate could best embody that composite is still open to question. Jon Huntsman’s experience as ambassador to China could be both an advantage and a liability. And as Feaver argued, the influence of the Tea Party should still not be ignored: 

The two most popular Republican figures in the Tea Party would be Ron Paul and Sarah Palin: That’s a wide spectrum of foreign policy views.… I detect in some of Huntsman’s comments — and how he tries to position himself against Pawlenty and Romney — that he’s gesturing in that direction, maybe not all the way to the Tea Party but to a Lugar/Hagel kind of approach on scaling back.

All in all, it was a privelege to assemble some of the GOP’s smartest foreign-policy voices under one roof. If the kind of measured, sober critiques of the president on today’s panel are actually a forcast of the type of debate we’ll see on the campaign trail, Americans should consider themselves pretty lucky. 

 Twitter: @joshuakeating

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