Republicans, in Search of a Foreign Policy

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Republicans, in Search of a Foreign Policy
Published 3-09-2012, 05:35
MITT ROMNEY stuck fast to his foreign-policy playbook in his acceptance speech Thursday night — sloganeering about American exceptionalism, sneering at President Obama’s record on Iran and Israel, and obscuring his own lack of new ideas. He said he would "honor America’s democratic ideals because a free world is a more peaceful world” and he praised the "bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan,” but said nothing specific about how he would follow in their footsteps.


The vagueness seems like a strategy in itself, and there’s a good explanation: the disarray in his own party over national security. Today’s Republicans are as divided on foreign policy as they’ve ever been, and Mr. Romney is finding it hard to bridge the divisions. No wonder he zoomed past foreign policy in some 3 minutes of a 39-minute speech.

Centrists and neoconservatives are divided not only over security strategy, but the conservative base is also fractured over government spending — including the defense budget. Neoconservatives who opposed even the modest defense cuts suggested by former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have come up against neo-isolationist Tea Party-backed tax-cutters and their guru, Grover G. Norquist. At the same time, some Republicans who have long said that government spending doesn’t generally create jobs have promised — hypocritically — to oppose defense cuts that might cause job losses back at home.

Is there a single foreign policy area on which Republicans largely agree?

Not the Arab Spring. Calls from Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham to arm Syria’s rebels and impose a no-fly zone have largely fallen on deaf ears, including Mr. Romney’s. Conservatives like Newt Gingrich and Representative Michele Bachmann have stoked fears about Islam in general, leaving it hard to tell just how much democracy they would seek to promote in countries like Egypt — where Islamists of various stripes have been winning elections, most recently for the presidency.

Not Afghanistan. Republicans have struggled to articulate a coherent position distinct from Mr. Obama’s, which may explain why Mr. Romney’s acceptance speech didn’t even mention the decade-long war, in which slightly fewer than 80,000 American troops are still fighting.

Not cybersecurity. Squabbling among Republicans in Congress helped prevent the adoption of legislation this summer to enhance our technological defenses and protect infrastructure from digital attack.

Not diplomacy. The Congressional debate over the Law of the Sea Treaty this year, like the 2010 debate over the New Start treaty, which would reduce Russian and American nuclear missile arsenals, reflected deep philosophical divisions within the Republican ranks over whether treaties and other tools of statecraft advanced or hindered America’s interests.

In the past, Republican divisions over foreign policy were typically between a realist wing and a more fervent nationalist wing; realism usually won. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, an internationalist, prevailed over Senator Robert A. Taft and his isolationist followers. Later, President Richard M. Nixon’s engagement with China and President Ronald Reagan’s diplomatic outreach to the Soviet Union won out over the skepticism of cold-war conservatives.

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ushered in a new level of infighting, from which his party has not recovered. Initially, neoconservatives like Paul D. Wolfowitz pressed a doctrine of preventive war and put it into effect in Iraq. Eventually, more pragmatic conservatives like Condoleezza Rice pulled the president back toward diplomacy.

Over the last four years, Republicans tried to paper over their divisions. In the 2008 and 2010 elections, foreign policy hardly figured at all. But the Republican primary contest this year bared the deep conservative disarray. And this time, a new battle, between neoconservatives and neo-isolationists, all but crowded out the party’s pragmatic internationalists, like James A. Baker III and Colin L. Powell.

Mr. Romney has dealt with these divisions in two ways. He has derided Mr. Obama’s handling of foreign policy (notably on Iran and Israel) with overheated rhetoric but only vague hints at alternatives. Ms. Rice (whose rhetorical jab at Mr. Obama’s "leading from behind” was a big applause line) and Mr. McCain (whose calls for aiding the Syrian opposition drew muted applause) echoed that theme at the convention. 

On the few matters in which Mr. Romney has offered a clearer difference, he has echoed the confrontational approach taken by Dick Cheney, John R. Bolton and other hard-line conservatives from the Bush years. For example, he called Russia the "No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the United States and said he would designate China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. His call for Republicans to block ratification of the New Start treaty put him at odds with all five living Republican former secretaries of state, including Ms. Rice.

But a mixture of cheerleading and fire-breathing does not make for a coherent and credible worldview. Now that he’s the Republican nominee, Mr. Romney has an obligation to clarify his and his party’s positions. It is imperative that he justify his plan to add more than $2 trillion in defense spending over the next 10 years and explain how the plan meshes with his proposals to simultaneously cut taxes, reduce the debt and strengthen America’s economy.

Mr. Romney should also explain what — if anything — he would do differently from President Obama in Egypt, which is perhaps the most important test today of America’s support for democratic transitions around the world. He should go beyond clichés to specify how, exactly, he would strengthen military cooperation with Israel — which Israel’s own defense minister, Ehud Barak, praised a month ago as "more than anything I can remember in the past.”

And he needs to get specific about his tactical approach to Syria, where the United States is already trying to help the Syrian opposition, control which elements of it get foreign military aid, and isolate the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Mitt Romney hopes to persuade Americans not only that he can fix the economy but also that he can lead at a time of great uncertainty abroad. To do so, he needs to first unite his party by offering clear alternatives to the president’s policies. Vague criticisms of Mr. Obama won’t cut it.


"The New York Times"

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, studies United States foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia. 


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