GOP's anti-Obama stance hurts its shot at foreign policy comeback

A voice of principled realism that clearly outlined a philosophy for American intervention could return Republicans to foreign policy ascendancy. But before they get there, they have to acknowledge that the path forward brings them closer to President Obama, not further away.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Sen. John McCain (R) of Ariz. is surrounded by reporters on Capitol Hill, July 15. In March, Mr. McCain called fellow GOP Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul 'wacko birds.' Op-ed contributor Nicole Hemmer writes: 'Of the many clashes now splitting the Republican Party, it is the foreign policy battles that highlight the party’s core problem: It defines itself by what it’s against, rather than what it’s for.'

The latest skirmish in the Republican Party’s civil war devolved into name-calling late last month as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, referring to pork-barrel spending, christened New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie the “King of Bacon.” But the fight had less to do with government waste (and the governor’s waist) than with national security and foreign policy. A week earlier, Mr. Christie started the fight by labeling Mr. Paul’s restrained approach to foreign policy “esoteric” and “dangerous.”

Of the many clashes now splitting the Republican Party, it is the foreign policy battles that highlight the party’s core problem: It defines itself by what it’s against, rather than what it’s for. While the neocons’ badly drawn map of Iraq led the GOP into the foreign-policy wilderness, it's the party’s anti-Obama compass that is keeping it from finding its way back.

From the late 1960s until the latter days of the Iraq War, Republicans dominated American foreign policy. The party was flush with sharp minds and clear doctrine. Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft steered the realist policies of Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush; Jeane Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle infused the Reagan administration with neoconservatism. The Democrats, meanwhile, were seen as weak-willed and witless.

Only when public opinion turned against the Iraq intervention did the Democrats gain the upper hand. President Obama “made the call” that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. He brought American troops home from Iraq and began to wind down US military presence in Afghanistan.

Yet by 2012, it looked as though Republicans could sidestep their foreign-policy disadvantage. A lengthy economic recession and languid recovery meant domestic policy took center stage. Republican war hawks gave way to deficit hawks. A few committed tea party Republicans even offered to put the Pentagon budget on the chopping block.

But when it came to confronting foreign policy directly, the party was hamstrung by its central tenet: opposing Barack Obama – even when this wasn’t in the party’s, or the country’s, best interests. In domestic politics, this has earned the GOP a reputation as “the Party of No.” In foreign policy, it has triggered a retreat to neoconservatism. That retreat means Republicans are blowing their best chance to reclaim their foreign-policy dominance in the eyes of the American public.

Mr. Obama's second term has not been kind to his foreign policy reputation. In the last few weeks, his approval ratings on the subject have plunged, nearing his all-time low. The Syrian civil war daily demonstrates the limits of American influence. And in Egypt, where Obama launched his Islamic outreach efforts in 2009, the deputy prime minister Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi recently charged that the US has “turned [its] back on the Egyptians, and they won't forget that.”

Yet instead of using the administration’s blunders as a path out of the foreign-policy wilderness by offering a strong, viable alternative, leading Republicans have scouted out an even more unpopular position. Even as opinion polls show the American public has little appetite for military adventurism, the GOP has doubled down on neoconservative posturing. A phalanx of senators like John McCain and Marco Rubio has called for greater intervention in Libya, Syria, and even Iran, while deriding the president’s restrained approach as “disgraceful.”

The alternative for the Republican Party is Rand Paul. “Foreign policy is uniquely an arena where we should base decisions on the landscape of the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” Paul declared earlier this year. “I am a realist, not a neoconservative, nor an isolationist.”  

In many ways, Paul arrived at realism by default. He couldn’t embrace his father Ron Paul’s isolationism – that was never politically viable – but he recoiled at neoconservatism’s call for widespread intervention and regime-change. He understood America, stretched thin both economically and politically, lacked both the will and the way to roam abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Yet the closer Paul moves toward realism – and to popular opinion on America’s role in the world – the closer he moves to Obama’s foreign policy. And in today’s Republican Party, that’s a big no-no.

Fellow Republicans like Marco Rubio have dismissed Paul as an isolationist. In another shot across the bow, Chris Christie called his foreign-policy libertarianism “a very dangerous idea.” John McCain was even more dismissive, shrugging off Paul and like-minded tea partiers as “wacko-birds.”

At a time when neoconservatives should have been discredited by the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, their stark contrast to Obama’s foreign policy allows them to retain their hold on the GOP. Thus the party’s unwavering dedication to its anti-Obama compass keeps it firmly on the fringes of the foreign-policy debate.

There is room to challenge Obama and the Democrats. The president has failed to articulate a clear vision for America’s role in the world, so his actions often appear haphazard and aimless. For Republicans, the time is right to show they have a coherent set of prudent foreign policy principles. Such principles would be grounded not in ideology but in interests. The central question would be which actions best promote American security, legitimacy, and economic strength.

A realist Republican foreign policy would also acknowledge the limits of America’s ability to control outcomes. When the United States tries and fails to exercise power, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan, the limits of its influence are laid bare.

As such, Republicans should promote a vision of the US in the world that shapes rather than dictates outcomes. Guided by this vision, America would help build regional coalitions but not lead them. It would rely on economic and diplomatic strategies far more than military ones. This approach would slash the cost of American foreign policy, satisfying deficit-minded Republicans while recognizing the country’s thin financial resources.

A voice of principled realism that clearly outlined a philosophy for American intervention could return Republicans to foreign policy ascendancy. But before they get there, they have to acknowledge that the path forward brings them closer to Obama, not further away. If Republicans can’t do that, they’ll be in the wilderness for decades to come.

Nicole Hemmer, a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, teaches history at the University of Miami.

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