The Elephants in the Room

Barack Obama's Republican challengers haven't thought very deeply about foreign policy. It shows.

Matt Dorfman
Matt Dorfman

In June, Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. Speaking before the council or writing an essay in its house organ, Foreign Affairs, had for decades offered candidates a means of proving their foreign-policy gravitas. And the former Minnesota governor was running his campaign by a traditional script. But in a GOP field where contempt for the foreign-policy establishment has become the norm, Pawlenty’s aspiration for its imprimatur seemed almost touching. Pawlenty presented himself as a champion of the Arab Spring and a voice for "moral clarity." "What is wrong," he bluntly warned, "is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world."

Pawlenty quickly became the darling of conservative foreign-policy experts. And then his candidacy sank like a stone. By August, after a dismal showing in the Ames straw poll in Iowa, he withdrew. "He probably spent too much time on foreign policy," one rueful conservative activist told me.

The world beyond America’s borders just doesn’t figure in the 2012 campaign. In the 2008 Republican debates, candidates regularly crossed swords on the war in Iraq, the nuclear showdown with Iran, and the proper conduct of the war on terror. At this year’s first real debate, held in Manchester, New Hampshire, the rest of the world wasn’t even mentioned until more than 90 minutes into the two-hour event. "Given the focus on economic issues, it’s difficult to get the candidates interested in foreign policy," laments Jamie Fly, head of the Foreign Policy Initiative, which acts as a transmission belt between conservative intellectuals and politicians. Audiences seem similarly apathetic. The heartiest applause often goes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul when he calls for as little foreign policy as possible, as he did recently in Iowa during a discussion of the Middle East. His prescription: "Stay out of their internal business. Don’t get involved in these wars. And just bring our troops home." This is precisely the disengagement of which Pawlenty was warning.

Sometimes, of course, foreign policy really is politically salient. Strange though it sounds today, for much of the 2008 campaign Barack Obama thought that his worldview would be the campaign’s defining issue. He was the candidate who would eliminate nuclear weapons, stop browbeating America’s allies, bring the troops back from Iraq, and end the "color-coded politics of fear." In the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton attacked him for his lack of foreign-policy experience (remember the 3 a.m. phone call ad?), and the two had a genuinely telling difference of opinion about whether a policy of "engagement" should extend to talking with tyrants without preconditions.

Then the economic crisis hit. Although Obama and Republican nominee John McCain dueled over Iraq, foreign policy quickly receded from center stage. As president, Obama has disappointed many of his liberal supporters, but also blunted Republican lines of attack on his foreign policy by pursuing the war on terror much as George W. Bush did and adding 30,000-plus troops to Afghanistan; by killing Osama bin Laden, he has strengthened his hand with voters across the political spectrum. But Obama is also terribly exposed on jobs and the faltering economy, issues on which the GOP candidates have good reason to believe that they can ride national dissatisfaction to the White House. So it’s no surprise that foreign affairs has gotten so little attention.

Even in less navel-gazing moments, foreign policy is a marginal topic for most presidential contenders. We talk about their "views," but many barely have views. Few candidates, and especially the former governors who have occupied the White House for 28 of the past 50 years, have had to think in very specific terms about America’s place in the world. So candidates ask themselves, in effect, "What kind of foreign policy would a person like me have?" This is not necessarily a useful guide to their later behavior. Bill Clinton thought he was a human rights-driven idealist until he found out how hard it is to do the right thing; Bush thought he was a hardheaded realist until the 9/11 attacks turned him into a true-believing democracy promoter. Who they are probably matters more than what they think, or what they think they think. As Elliott Abrams, the neoconservative ex-aide to Bush and Ronald Reagan, says, "What really matters in the end is character."

Some of the 2012 candidates mimic McCain’s muscular idealism, but their hearts don’t seem to be in it. Pawlenty was a McCain acolyte who traveled abroad with him and absorbed much of his worldview; he warned the Council on Foreign Relations about the "isolationist sentiments" newly ascendant in the GOP. But the rise of the Tea Party in recent years has reshaped Republican politics entirely, not only on domestic policy but also on foreign policy. The Tea Party is the faction of Less — less spending, less government, and, generally, less engagement abroad. And all the Republicans aspiring to win the 2012 nomination have responded to this powerful new voice in one way or another. None of the candidates save Paul can genuinely be called isolationist — and perhaps not even he. But Rep. Michele Bachmann shares the Tea Party’s suspicion of foreign interventions and foreign countries more generally; former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has called for "nation-building at home" rather than "nation-building in Afghanistan" or elsewhere; and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has warned vaguely of "military adventurism." Rick Santorum, a fringe candidate like Paul, anchors the opposite end of the foreign-policy spectrum, the pole of bristling aggression and furious denunciation (both of Obama and of Paul). And Mitt Romney falls somewhere in the middle, which seems to be where he falls whenever he is dropped.

ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, as on domestic policy, Romney serves as a faithful gauge of party orthodoxy, as well as of shifts in that orthodoxy. In 2008, the former Massachusetts governor sought to distinguish himself from the other Bush epigones by proposing the use of soft power as well as hard power in the Middle East by the United States and its allies: "We as great nations," he said in a debate in January 2008, "need to help them have the rule of law, have good schools that are not Wahhabi schools, strengthen their economies."

Four years later, Romney no longer talks about reforming madrassas. He has made modest adjustments in his views to conform to the Republican Party’s current ideological line, which one former official in the Bush White House described to me as "free trade, strong defense, skepticism about China, a robust view of the war on terror." Romney has relatively little to say about Iraq or Afghanistan and does not share Pawlenty’s enthusiasm for spreading America’s values abroad. The core of his foreign-policy message is that America is threatened in ways that Obama cannot or will not recognize. His latest book, last year’s No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, sets forth a formulation of these threats that, one conservative policy figure told me, Romney developed on his own and of which he is quite proud. In the book and his speeches, Romney argues, "There are four competing nations or groups of nations … that are vying to lead the world before the end of this century": China, Russia, jihadists, and, of course, us, the democracies. Only if America wins this existential battle, Romney warns, "will freedom endure." Never mind that "jihadism" is not a geographical or even organizational entity, and that Russia is not a potential threat to U.S. security on a par with China; these are not the kinds of distinctions that make their way into presidential debate.

America, in short, faces the same threat it has faced since 9/11, and several new ones too. The country thus must rearm itself, even though the historic increases in defense spending during the Bush years mean that the Pentagon’s budget is now greater, in real terms, than at any time since World War II. Here Romney, to his credit, has been specific: Pentagon spending, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, must be "at least 4 percent of GDP." This would increase annual defense spending to $600 billion or more, and overall military spending to about $720 billion — though how he would do this while balancing the budget is anyone’s guess.

But it’s not always clear quite how ardently Romney himself embraces the party’s orthodoxy. He has, to put it gently, an acute sense of what the market will bear, which makes him almost as useful a barometer of the misgivings of GOP primary voters as he is of elite opinion. Asked about Afghanistan during the Manchester debate, he said, "It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" — the standard critique of Obama policy from the left — "consistent with the word that comes from our generals," an allusion to the critique from the right that Obama adopted a schedule of withdrawal quicker than the one proposed by David Petraeus, then his commanding general. It is hard to recognize the spirit of Reagan, or McCain for that matter, in this artful waffle; Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute called him "a little bit of a weather vane." Romney used the next debate to clarify his views — i.e., rectify his mistake — by repeating the second half of the formulation without the first.

But Romney’s sense of the weather may be quite accurate — and his ambivalent answer may well reflect his ambivalent party. One of the underlying realities of 2011 is that the GOP rank and file has less taste for gung-ho internationalism than party elites do. A January poll of self-described conservatives, for example, found that two-thirds thought that the United States should either reduce troop levels in Afghanistan or leave right away — presumably no matter what the generals say. Even Romney’s pet cause of defense spending, a classic Republican litmus-test issue, has become an embattled subject. Many small-government conservatives, like anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, have accepted the logic of defense cuts as part of an overall reduction in the size of the state. Others, like Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, a strong Tea Party advocate, have joined liberal Democrats in calling for a rapid drawdown of troops from Afghanistan — the sentiment to which Romney briefly catered before thinking better of it. Fly, of the Foreign Policy Initiative, says that he worries about the potency of the argument that "our real problems are at home, not abroad."

THIS RAISES THE INTRIGUING question of whether it is possible to hang onto one’s claims of presidential mettle while catering to the do-less-abroad wing of the Republican Party. Not long ago, this territory belonged exclusively to Paul, who in 2007 was a lonely voice on the Republican stage when he had the temerity to argue that the United States should withdraw from Iraq. Now Paul has company in the form, remarkably, of Huntsman, the only representative in the race of old-fashioned moderate Republicanism — a vestige, it would seem, of a vanished view. Huntsman has called for reducing America’s troop strength in Europe and Asia and for pulling all but 15,000 soldiers out of Afghanistan. C. Boyden Gray, one of Huntsman’s foreign-policy advisors, says that the former ambassador to China thinks that defense spending should "not be off-limits" in budget talks.

Daniel Senor, a former Bush official who advises Romney, retorts that Huntsman is simply beyond the pale: "He would take the country and the party in a really bad direction." The dispute speaks to a striking realignment within the Republican Party’s ranks. The Republican establishment has long been defined by non-ideological moderates and "realists" like Brent Scowcroft, Richard Armitage, and Richard Haass. These are the figures, associated more with the first than the second President Bush, whom Huntsman has been consulting and whose views he largely represents. And yet he, and they, are now considered beyond the pale. A new conservative elite has by now almost wholly supplanted the graybeards within the GOP’s ranks, and has gravitated to Romney and Perry. The graybeards support the New START nuclear arms deal with Russia negotiated by Obama and ratified this year; the GOP candidates and most of their advisors do not. The old elite supports engagement with China; the new ones regard China as a military threat. In short, today’s conservatives see the world as fundamentally more threatening than do the old-school pragmatists.

The split is hardly new, but it has become much more pronounced in the last few years. And this is in part because the realists themselves have moved. No less a pillar of the old establishment than Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently wrote a piece in Time titled "Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home" in which he argues that at this moment of economic desperation, the United States needs to adopt a policy he somewhat euphemistically calls "restoration," whose goal would be to "rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former." This means fewer "wars of choice," like Libya, and a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan. Haass’s predecessor at the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, has long made this argument; Huntsman has adopted it as his platform. In effect, then, the old center of the GOP has joined with the new radicals of the Tea Party in advocating a policy of Less.

Perhaps, then, Huntsman is not so misguided for fishing in some of the same waters that Paul does. Realists like Huntsman aren’t isolationists, but the rank and file may be. This is a matter of serious dispute. Robert Kagan, the neoconservative columnist and historian, argues that "all parties in opposition tend to be isolationist" and says that the Republican Party’s alleged "intervention fatigue" has more to do with opposition to Obama than with intervention itself. Kagan is surely right that a candidate can hardly be expected to champion intervention at a time when it’s the other party doing the intervening. But the tendency in today’s debates to reduce interventions to "military adventurism" is not solely a matter of politics. Years of slaughter in Iraq and the demoralizing stalemate in Afghanistan have increasingly convinced Americans of both parties that there is little good the United States can do in the world. Democracy promotion, the keystone in the arch of Bush-era foreign policy, has come to be seen as folly, nation-building as hubris, and intervention as an invitation to disaster.

This loss of faith has thickened the ranks of the party of Less. You can see this, above all, in the very tepid reception within the GOP to the NATO-assisted war in Libya. Bachmann, Huntsman, Paul, Santorum, Herman Cain, apparently Newt Gingrich, and Romney — sometimes — opposed Obama’s decision to join the bombing campaign there. Perry’s views are unclear, though he did say in a recent speech, "We should only risk shedding American blood and spending American treasure when our vital interests are threatened" — much the same language the others used to oppose the effort. It may be said of all of them that though they share the belief that America is under siege from hostile states and nonstate actors — unlike those who argue that America is more secure today than during the Cold War or right after 9/11 — they are much more skeptical than the neocons are of America’s ability to shape good outcomes abroad. Or maybe they just don’t care as much.

Beyond Libya, the Arab Spring has posed a vexing problem for many of the Republican candidates, exposing the tension inside the party’s core ideology between its idealistic vision of democracy promotion and dark fears of crusading Islam. Pawlenty endeared himself to Kagan and others of his ilk by wholeheartedly championing all the freedom movements in the Arab world. Of the others, only Bachmann has been equally categorical, though on the other side of the question. Bachmann views the Arab Spring as an outright threat to U.S. national security. "As happened in Iran in 1979," she has said, "as these tyrannies are toppled, the populist forces most prevalent today harbor radical, illiberal values and interests that are antithetical to America’s values and interests." Bachmann, who appears to have access to her very own set of facts, warned about giving "al Qaeda in North Africa" — presumably a reference to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — a chance to "take over Libya" and cited a "report out of Libya" that as many as 30,000 civilians had been killed by NATO bombing. And for all his bellicosity, Santorum opposed not only the American role in the bombing of Libya, but Obama’s ultimate repudiation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, viewing him as a steady if autocratic ally.

AS FOR PERRY, it has become increasingly difficult to say where he locates himself on the Pawlenty-Bachmann spectrum. The Texas governor is widely described as a "hawk internationalist," a term that foreign-policy conservatives use to connote righteous thinking. Several told me that Perry shares Romney’s views — but really means them. The evidence for this, however, is flimsy. As he was preparing to run, Perry invited a circle of foreign-policy figures, many of them former aides to Bush-era Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to come to Texas to brief him on national security issues. I spoke to several people who attended that meeting, at which Perry was largely asking questions rather than making assertions. One made a point of saying that Perry’s own views were well within the GOP mainstream and reminded me that in 2008 Perry had supported Rudolph Giuliani, a tough-minded but also secular-minded figure. Perry is a passionate advocate for Israel — you can’t be too pro-Israel in these circles — but unlike Bachmann does not cite his Christian faith as the source of his views. Instead, Perry talks about his experience serving in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1970s, when he got to know Israeli military officials, visited Israel, and came to admire its pioneering spirit. On Afghanistan, I was told, he "doesn’t understand the whole timetable thing" — that is, he believes that if the stakes are high, the United States should stay until it succeeds.

But is that so? Perry recently gave a baffling speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in his own backyard of San Antonio in which he vowed never to let America "fall subject to a foreign policy of military adventurism," a phrase that sounded like it could have been a Democratic critique of Bush. A spokesman further muddied the waters by explaining that Perry had not been making "a specific reference to previous or ongoing military operations." Presumably Perry was signaling distaste for adventurism of the Democratic variety, especially because he added, "We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies." Or perhaps Perry has not yet put his foreign-policy clichés in order. Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin commented that Perry’s string of conflicting banalities "suggests a ‘whatever’ attitude toward serious policy issues."

Or perhaps it’s more like "whatever works." At a September debate, Perry finally came out of the closet on Afghanistan, and not as a hawk internationalist. "I agree with Governor Huntsman," he said, "when we talk about it’s time to bring our young men and women home and as soon and obviously as safely as we can.… And I think the entire conversation about how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan — I don’t think so at this particular point in time." Perry may have spurs that go jingle, jangle, jingle, but for now his six-guns are staying in their holsters.

Maybe we should feel relieved that Perry, who considers Social Security a monstrous hoax and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke a traitor, holds such restrained views of the larger world. Or maybe he hasn’t yet started to pay attention. Heaven protect us if he does.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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