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

How to Save the Republican Party

Why the GOP needs to stop navel-gazing and embrace internationalism all over again. 

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

There is a fine American tradition that holds that politics stops at the water's edge, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg once said. The dirty little secret, of course, is that it doesn't. And it shouldn't. Politics is how decisions are made in a democracy -- not by bureaucrats, or the military, or the clergy, but by the elected representatives of the American people. Decisions about national security and foreign policy are no different. And when it comes to the politics of those critical issues, my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do.

There is a fine American tradition that holds that politics stops at the water’s edge, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg once said. The dirty little secret, of course, is that it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t. Politics is how decisions are made in a democracy — not by bureaucrats, or the military, or the clergy, but by the elected representatives of the American people. Decisions about national security and foreign policy are no different. And when it comes to the politics of those critical issues, my beloved Republican Party has some soul-searching to do.

Our last election was not primarily, or even secondarily, about national security and foreign policy. But to the extent that a referendum was held on those issues, polls show that most Americans gave their vote to the Democrats. This was a sea change, and there are many reasons for it, but a major one is clearly the legacy of the Iraq war. As Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security has written, "The Republicans’ mismanagement of the war allowed Democrats to reclaim an issue lost to them since the Truman administration." He is right, of course. And the result is that Republicans are now engaged in a fight for the soul of our party on matters of national security and foreign policy.

This current debate is only the latest chapter in a long-running argument among Republicans about America’s role in the world. We can go all the way back to the debates that brought Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft together, and then drove them apart. Later, we Republicans argued over the isolationism of William Borah and Charles Lindbergh. We argued after World War II whether we should contain communism or roll it back. We argued over détente toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. And we argued in the 1990s about the conflicting visions for the party offered by Republicans such as Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan. Indeed, Republican unity on foreign policy is more the exception than the rule — the product of a charismatic leader, such as Ronald Reagan, or unique events, such as the September 11 attacks. And these arguments are often most contentious when the U.S. economy is weak.

Not only is this debate among Republicans not new, it is not at all bad. Indeed, it is a good thing. What Republicans need now is a vigorous contest of ideas on national security and foreign policy. This contest can and should be conducted respectfully and without name-calling, which is something that even an old whacko-bird like me must remember from time to time.

Of course, the stakes of this contest could not be more serious, as we were reminded last week by the terrorist attack in Boston. We are debating matters of life and death. And that is far more important than the future of any political party.

I cannot recall another time when our international challenges have been more complex or more uncertain. The project of European integration is facing existential pressures. The global economy continues its rapid shift toward the Pacific. The rise of China, India, and other great powers is shifting the balance of power in Asia and the world. North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear and missile capabilities that constitute a direct threat to the United States and our allies. The old geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa continues to collapse and an epic struggle is underway to define what takes its place. Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists are on the march across the region. And with each passing day, Syria is becoming a failed state with possibly tons of chemical weapons and thousands of al Qaeda-backed fighters.

For all of the threats we face, however, the opportunities that exist in our world are far, far greater. No one benefits more from America’s global leadership than Americans ourselves. That is why, for our own economic interests, we must seize the tremendous opportunities before us to expand free and open trade. For our own geopolitical interests, we must deepen the peace between the major powers of the world. And for our own national security interests, we must support friends and potential friends who want to embrace the cause of freedom and democracy.

I know some Americans want to pull back from the world right now. That’s a luxury we can’t afford. We are America. We can’t retreat into splendid isolation. We can’t withdraw from the world. We can’t escape its challenges. And we can’t afford to cut ourselves off from its opportunities. That is not what America does. America leads. And if we don’t lead, who will? How will that be better for us?

For all of these reasons, the Republican Party cannot afford to turn away from our proud traditions of internationalism. And let’s be clear what that means. Internationalism means active global leadership to shape events in the world to the benefit of our interests and values. It means maintaining a strong defense as the best way to prevent war. It means support for free trade. It means standing by our friends and allies and working to add to their ranks. And above all, it means recognizing that our interests are our values, and our values are our interests.

Now, this doesn’t mean there will never be short-term tensions between our interests and our values. There always have been and always will be. America is not an NGO. Nor does internationalism mean that America can or should serve as the world’s policeman. It doesn’t mean that our power is limitless. And it doesn’t mean the answer to every problem is military intervention. No one believes that.

I am a proud internationalist, but I recognize that an internationalist foreign policy is a tough sell in America today, especially among Republicans. And I understand why. Americans are intensely war-weary. And they are tired of bearing the burdens of world leadership when our domestic and economic problems seem far more urgent.

This is leading to a broader political rebalancing. After the September 11 attacks, we embarked on an expansive foreign policy. Spending on defense and foreign assistance went up, and energy shifted to the president. Now things are changing. Americans want a foreign policy contraction. Our foreign assistance and defense budgets are on a steep decline. The desire to curb presidential power is growing, and the political momentum is shifting toward the Congress.

America has gone through this kind of political rebalancing before, and much of the time we have gotten it wrong. That is how we got isolationism and disarmament after World War I. That is how we got a hollow army after Vietnam. And that is how we weakened our national security after the Cold War in the hope of cashing in on a peace dividend. We can’t afford to repeat these mistakes. We can’t afford to think the world will give us a holiday from history just because we are tired. We can’t assume the tide of war will recede just because we wish it so.

Protecting our national security, as always, requires American leadership and an internationalist foreign policy. But the American people today want to do less, not more. So the key question, especially for Republicans like me, is: How do we make internationalism viable and sustainable amid today’s political realities?

Right now, the political momentum among Republicans is with those who want to do less — who want to slash foreign aid, cut defense spending, pull back from the world, and constrain the president. These positions haven’t triumphed, but support for them is building. And that support will continue to build among Republicans if the only options they have are a status quo they don’t like — and the politically popular position to cut more, do less, and disengage from the world. It is incumbent upon internationalists like me to offer my fellow Republicans and all Americans a better alternative — to fashion a new Republican internationalism.

This better alternative would begin with strengthening the domestic sources of our great power. Rebuilding America’s confidence and willingness to
lead in the world must begin at home. This requires reforming our tax code, fixing our fiscal situation, and getting our economy growing robustly. It requires an aggressive free trade agenda, which we have not had in years. It requires taking advantage of new technologies that could significantly boost America’s energy production. It requires the further economic integration of North America, which can enhance our global competitiveness. And of course, it requires comprehensive immigration reform, which a bipartisan group of my colleagues and I introduced yesterday.

A better alternative also requires a more sustainable approach to the fight against terrorism. The war against al Qaeda today is very different than it was 12 years ago. The center of gravity is shifting to al Qaeda-affiliated groups that are now on the march in the Middle East, North Africa, and across the Sahel.

And yet, Republicans are growing more divided on how to combat terrorism. Last month, most Republican senators joined a filibuster to protest the president’s policies on the use of armed drones.  Rather than debating the very real dilemmas associated with targeted killings, my colleagues chose to focus instead on the theoretical possibility that the president would use a drone to kill Americans on U.S. soil, even if they are not engaged in hostilities. As misguided as this exercise was, the political pressures on Republicans to join in were significant, and many ultimately did, including many who know better.

But what internationalists like me have to concede is that, while I believe my libertarian friends are wrong in how they wish to change our counterterrorism policy, they are responding to real flaws and uncertainties in that policy. This is why these critics, misguided though they are, now have the political initiative. And that’s why our current approach to counterterrorism is becoming unsustainable.

Republican internationalists have to take the lead in developing a better alternative. We need to put our counterterrorism policy on a new political and legal foundation in order to make it politically sustainable over the years to come. I believe this requires legislation. Since this conflict began, the Congress has at times enshrined in statute the principles and practices by which America will wage this war. We did this with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Acts of 2006 and 2009. Now the Congress must act again.

We need to update the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed on September 14, 2001, to account for the evolving threat we face. We need to enshrine in law the principles that must govern the conduct of this war, both by this president and his successors, especially on the use of armed drones. We need to preserve but clarify the commander in chief’s war powers, while insisting on greater transparency and broader congressional oversight of how these war powers are employed. In the coming weeks, I plan to work with a bipartisan group of my Senate colleagues to introduce legislation to achieve these and other goals.

We also need to create a better alternative on national defense. The effects of sequestration are every bit as catastrophic as our military leaders warned. Entire air wings are being grounded. Soldiers are training without bullets. The deployment of an aircraft carrier has been cancelled. And a new readiness crisis is emerging.

What’s worse, the effects of sequestration come on top of defense budgets that were already flattening and legacy costs that are rapidly escalating. So the Defense Department is not only receiving less money; it is getting less value out of the money it is receiving. The net effect of this fiscal pressure is that we are at risk of crippling our military and harming its ability to meet our strategic priorities.

These consequences are increasingly acute for the effort to rebalance our national security strategy toward the Asia-Pacific region. There is broad agreement that this must be a top priority. As the balance of power that has maintained peace in the region for seven decades now shifts in profound ways, the United States must maintain a military presence in the region that reassures our friends and allies and safeguards our own core economic and security interests. This will not be possible if our prioritization of Asia simply means that U.S. Pacific Command gets the largest piece of a drastically shrinking pie. That will lead to a hollow rebalance.

But here, too, we have to acknowledge an inconvenient fact: Sequestration has occurred, in part, because a growing public frustration with the culture of waste and inefficiency at the Defense Department went unaddressed for too long. During my time in the Senate, I have witnessed the emergence of a military-industrial-congressional complex that has corrupted and crippled the defense acquisition process. This system can now be said to be successful only in one respect: turning billions of taxpayer dollars into weapons systems that are consistently delivered late, flawed, and vastly over budget — if, that is, these systems are delivered at all.

For example, there was the Expeditionary Combat Support System, which the Air Force had to cancel last year after wasting roughly $1 billion and receiving no combat capability. The Littoral Combat Ship already costs nearly twice as much per ship as planned. A recent study found that, from 2004 to 2010, cancelled programs consumed an average of 35-45 percent of the Army’s annual budget for development, testing, and engineering. The Joint Strike Fighter, which will become the first trillion-dollar weapon system in history, is being purchased before being tested, which drives up costs enormously. And the system is still not fully proven. These chronic cost overruns even extend to our military basing: The estimated cost of realigning U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region had nearly tripled before the Senate Armed Services Committee intervened and effectively demanded a new plan.

If Republican internationalists want to save our military from the sequester, and future sequesters, we will have to demand a lot more from the Defense Department. This means insisting that they "buy smart" — focusing their limited resources on systems and services that promise a return on investment. It means ensuring that the Defense Department is as good at buying defense programs as industry is at selling them. It means encouraging real competition for contracts, setting realistic program goals, and managing them aggressively in ways that encourage innovation and productivity. It means making hard, unpopular choices to limit the spiraling growth of personnel and health care costs that are devouring the defense budget. And on overseas military force posture, it means moving away from expensive permanent basing arrangements in favor of less costly rotational deployments, possibly co-located in host nation facilities. Absent real changes like these, public pressure will only build to cut defense more and more.

We face a similar challenge with our foreign assistance. It now seems that every piece of legislation the Senate considers faces an inevitable amendment that would cut off all of our assistance to Egypt or some other critical country. And unfortunately, these kinds of provisions keep winning more and more votes.

Yes, we internationalists have to continue explaining how foreign assistance serves our national security interests. And yes, we have to continue reminding people that we spend far less on foreign aid than most assume — roughly 1 percent of our budget. But just as with defense spending, we also have to acknowledge a similar inconvenient fact here as well. Though the critics who want to slash our foreign aid are wrong, they are winning the political argument because they have a point: These programs have not always delivered a good return on investment to American taxpayers, and some of them are misaligned with present realities.

Take our assista
nce to Egypt, which is a popular target in Congress these days. A quarter of the Arab world lives in Egypt. Its future will have a significant influence on the future of the Middle East, including the security of Israel. It is for good reason that Egypt remains one of the top recipients of our foreign assistance. But in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, its security challenges have changed significantly. Egypt greatest threats are increasingly unconventional, such as al Qaeda affiliated terrorists, insecure borders, and instability in the Sinai. And yet, most of our $1.3 billion in annual security assistance to Egypt goes to conventional defense systems, such as F-16s and M-1 tanks. It is getting harder to make the case for assistance to Egypt in large part because our programs seem out of step with our priorities.

Here, too, Republican internationalists have to do more than just plead our case; we have to offer a better alternative. Some in Congress want to put political conditions on our security assistance to Egypt. I don’t believe that works. If it is in our national security interest to provide that assistance, we will. And if we have to waive our own conditions to do so, it only makes us look weak and unprincipled.

A better approach would be for Congress to put conditions on our own government — to clearly state our goals, interests, and values, and require strategies for achieving them. This approach could be applicable to any country. But in the case of Egypt, it would mean temporarily withholding our security assistance until we get a strategy for redirecting more of our money toward military cooperation that prioritizes unconventional threats. It would also mean temporarily withholding our economic assistance until we get a new strategy for how our government will use this money to further our interest in a democratic and prosperous Egypt. This is the approach I proposed during consideration of the Continuing Resolution. And I am working now with some of my colleagues to turn these ideas into legislation.

Ultimately, to build political support for foreign assistance, internationalists have to do a better job of ensuring a positive return on these investments. We must be able to show the American people that while foreign aid may not make its recipients love us, it does further our national interests and values. And one priority I would propose in this respect is security sector reform in the broader Middle East.

Across this region, we see new democracies that lack the capacity to secure their territory, respond to threats, and enforce the rule of law. Egypt needs a new police force. Tunisia needs help with border security. Libya is trying to build a new national security force from scratch. These governments, and others like them, don’t want al Qaeda affiliated groups exploiting their countries any more than we do. They have a lot of will to resist these groups. They just need help with the means.

If these countries want our assistance to reform or rebuild their security sectors, I believe it is in our interest to provide it — because if their governments cannot address the threats in their own countries, we will suffer. It will just be a matter of time. It is far better to be able to rely on partners that can address these threats themselves. But for them to be more effective, our partners need our help.

Of course, there will always be those rare cases when speaking up for friends or even offering them our assistance isn’t good enough — when our core interests and values summon us to act more directly ourselves. I believe that is the case today in Syria, a tragic conflict that has been made all the more dangerous by the Assad regime’s recent use of chemical weapons, which the U.S. intelligence community and some of our closest allies now assess has occurred.

I believe that the longer this conflict goes, the worse it gets from both a moral and strategic standpoint. I believe that with every passing day, we have less ability to shape outcomes on the ground that serve our interests. I understand the situation in Syria is hugely complicated, and that there are no easy or ideal options. But I also believe the choice we face is not complicated at all: Do the costs of inaction outweigh the costs of action? I believe they do. And as much as I hate war and wish to avoid it, I believe this conflict will grind on with all of its worsening effects until the balance of power shifts more decisively against Assad.

No one should think that we have to destroy every air defense system or put tens of thousands of boots on the ground to make a difference in Syria. We have more limited options. We could, for example, organize an overt and large-scale operation to train and equip Syrian opposition forces that have been properly vetted. We could use our precision strike capabilities to target Assad’s aircraft and Scud missile launchers on the ground without our pilots having to fly into the teeth of Syria’s air defenses. We could use similar weapons to selectively destroy artillery pieces and make their crews think twice about remaining at their posts. We could also use Patriot missile batteries outside of Syria to help protect safe zones inside of Syria.

Would any of this immediately end the conflict? Probably not. But would it save innocent lives in Syria? Would it help us regain the trust of the Syrian people? Would it give the moderate opposition a better chance to succeed, and to marginalize the radicals, and to be in a better position to provide security in Syria on the day after Assad falls? To me, the answer to all of these questions is yes.

I know that when times are tough here at home, as they are now, idealism in foreign policy is a tough sell. And I know the Iraq war still casts a long shadow over this debate. All of us, Republicans most of all, must learn the painful lessons that Iraq teaches us about prudence, and humility, and the limitations of our power. We must also acknowledge that we won the war and are losing the peace. However, we cannot allow ourselves to be so haunted by the ghosts of Iraq that we are rendered incapable of taking action where our interests and our values most demand it. Nor can we allow the disappointment, thus far, of our highest hopes for Iraq to make us numb and cynical about the moral purposes of American power.

America will not be able to play a role in every struggle on behalf of human rights and democracy in the world. But that cannot be an argument for playing little to no role at all. That is not what I believe the brave souls across this world who still long for freedom and dignity want from America. I’ve spoken with many of them in refugee camps, prisons, universities, polling stations, and other places. They are still confident in us. They are still counting on us. They still have faith in America. What they want to know is whether America still has faith in itself.

From Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan, Republican internationalists have affirmed that the expansion of freedom, and democracy, and prosperity not only makes our world more just, but also more secure. We have affirmed that America must stand up for people who share our values because it is right — but also because we have an interest in seizing opportunities to make more friends and fewer enemies, and to shape conditions in the world that allow our citizens to live in peace and freedom at home. That is what Republicans must reaffirm now — for when our values are in retreat in the world, our interests are usually not safe either.

I am a loyal Republican, and I care deeply about the future of my party. But the future of my country will always be more important. Right now, the far left and the far right in America are coming together in favor of pulling us back from the world. The president and I have had our differences. Many of those differences will persist. But there are times these days when I feel that I have more in common on foreign policy with President Obama than I do with some in my own par

It is incumbent upon the internationalists in this country, both Republicans and Democrats, to join together to sustain America’s global leadership amid our current political realities. Republican internationalists must do our part. But we will never succeed without presidential leadership. We internationalists need the president to speak to the American people, to shape their thinking about the world, to explain why the benefits of our global leadership are worth the costs, and to help us sustain a bipartisan consensus in favor of a new American internationalism.

This should be a Republican goal. It should be a Democratic goal. And so long as I have the privilege and honor to serve my country, it will remain my goal.

John McCain is the senior senator from Arizona.

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