It’s Evening in America

At the first GOP presidential debate, the Bush-era neoconservative movement seemed as good as dead.


When most of us hear "George W. Bush" and "foreign policy" in the same sentence today, the word that most quickly comes to mind is "neoconservative" (well, perhaps after "ill-fated"). Yet, when Bush first ran for president in 2000, his foreign-policy agenda was something else altogether. He bemoaned Clinton-era nation-building and pledged to focus as president on promoting a more "modest" foreign policy. His chief foreign-policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, even wrote a lengthy realpolitik tract for Foreign Affairs magazine titled "Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest."

Of course, as we now know, that talk barely survived the campaign trail. As president, Bush’s embrace of neoconservatism came to define not only his foreign-policy vision, but also the foreign-policy vision of the Republican Party. So it’s perhaps a bit of a surprise that on Monday, June 13, at the first Republican primary debate, the protagonists seemed to channel not President Bush, but instead candidate Bush.

Republican realism made an unexpected comeback at the debate as the GOP field sought to offer an alternative to President Barack Obama’s military escalations amid growing public concerns about the costs of U.S. global leadership. If anyone three years ago had predicted that this would be the emerging division on foreign policy for Obama’s reelection campaign they would have been laughed out of the room.

Are we seeing a newly realist Republican Party? Or is this a momentary search for political opportunity? Only time will tell, but if Monday’s debate is any indication, the fault lines for Campaign 2012 might not be as predictable as once imagined.

Perhaps the most surprising foreign-policy moment of the night came when Mitt Romney, channeling his inner Dennis Kucinich circa 2003, said on Afghanistan, "It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can," adding, "We’ve learned that our troops shouldn’t go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan’s independence from the Taliban." (Less surprisingly, Ron Paul was also in favor of U.S. troop withdrawals, though he suggested a far more immediate timetable.) It’s worth noting that just this past January, Romney was speaking of the need for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan and his desire "not to leave" the fight there.

Libya gave the Republican wannabes a chance to go even further in a realist direction. When asked whether the war there was in the "vital national interest of the United States," Michele Bachmann said, "No, I don’t believe so." She was seconded by Herman Cain and to a lesser extent by Newt Gingrich, though in fairness he seemingly has had more positions on Libya than he now has campaign staff. Had former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman been at the debate he likely would have been speaking in similar terms, as he has been the one GOP candidate to offer the greatest skepticism of Obama’s military campaigns in Libya and Afghanistan, citing spiraling costs and the lack of national interest.

It was former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty who took the opportunity to sound the most aggressive note, pledging that he would continue drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda targets. This is at pace with Pawlenty’s generally hawkish statements to date. "[If] you’re dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength," Pawlenty said in March, describing a foreign-policy vision that he claimed to have learned on the playground. "They don’t respect weakness." He was joined, in part, by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who seems to think that the United States needs a greater global presence to combat the threat of radical Islamic jihadism (a threat that Obama doesn’t fully appreciate, says Santorum).

Pawlenty and Santorum are certainly not the only ones making implicit or explicit charges that Obama lacks the toughness to be commander in chief (a perception among Republicans that even the killing of Osama bin Laden has apparently done little to change). But to be fair, it can be perilous to read too much into just a handful of questions over a two-hour debate — especially when most responses seemed more directed at snubbing the president than at defining a cogent set of policy principles.

But the debate’s emphasis on vital national interests rather than an assertive defense of U.S. values suggests that Republican presidential candidates may be testing the winds on foreign policy and feeling the onrush of a realist moment.

It might make for smart politics. For all the reverence for American power that one hears on the campaign trail, realism is very much in tune with growing skepticism among voters about Washington’s seemingly limitless conception of U.S. power and interests.

This skepticism goes beyond opposition to the current engagements in Libya and Afghanistan. According to recent public opinion polling, two-thirds of Americans believe that it "should not" be the role of the United States to "promote the establishment of democratic governments in other countries." A February Gallup poll suggested that only 16 percent of Americans think the United States should adopt a "leading" role in world affairs, down from 23 percent in 2009. This is consistent with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ yearly survey of public attitudes on foreign policy, which shows that while Americans want to see the United States engaged internationally and exercising strong leadership, they would prefer more selective engagement, a lighter U.S. military footprint, and more support for multilateral institutions to share the burden of managing global affairs.

GOP rank-and-file voters are historically more solicitous of military might. But the party’s Tea Party wing has issued calls to put the Pentagon’s bloated budget on the cutting block. It’s a position that no potential candidate other than Paul has yet openly embraced, suggesting that old habits die hard for GOP politicians.

That’s why it’s probably far too early to tell whether Monday’s debate was an aberration, a sign that deficit fears have spread to national defense or an indication that à la Bush in 2000, Republicans are prepared to start talking about a foreign policy of modesty and restraint. But a GOP foreign-policy debate that was shaping up to look like who could be the more vocal hawk suddenly got a lot more interesting — and more reflective of precisely the sort of conversation that the country should be having on the issue of America’s global role.

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