Republican Reckoning

Jacob Heilbrunn
Content Type
Journal Article
The National Interest
Issue Number
Publication Date
Center for the National Interest
THE REPUBLICAN Party is not in trouble. It is in peril. In 2006 it lost control of Congress. In 2008 it lost the presidency. And in 2010 it may lose again unless the party changes course, particularly in foreign policy, where it has, by and large, enjoyed a commanding lead over Democrats for decades.
Security, Foreign Policy
Political Geography
United States, America
THE REPUBLICAN Party is not in trouble. It is in peril. In 2006 it lost control of Congress. In 2008 it lost the presidency. And in 2010 it may lose again unless the party changes course, particularly in foreign policy, where it has, by and large, enjoyed a commanding lead over Democrats for decades. The GOP long championed pragmatism in foreign policy, marrying diplomacy with force, prudence with vigilance. America is served best by a coldly austere assessment of its ambitions and the resources required to fulfill them. It is a strategic approach that emphasizes the assertion of national interests, but also shuns wantonly antagonizing foreign powers-and this was once emblematic of the GOP. Then came September 11 and the invasion of Iraq. Writing in this journal shortly after George W. Bush's reelection in 2004, Robert F. Ellsworth and Dimitri K. Simes warned, "Continuing to follow the prescriptions of the neoconservative faction in the Republican party may damage President Bush's legacy, imperil the country's fiscal stability and complicate America's ability to exercise global leadership." Since then, all three have come to pass. Bush's tenure has become a byword for incompetence. America's economy is in shambles. And its ability to exercise leadership has indeed been seriously compromised. Now that the idea of America as the redeemer nation has been debunked, it might seem obvious that the Republican Party would embark upon a rethinking of the Bush administration's insalubrious approach to foreign affairs-a toxic mixture of unilateralism and crusading universalism. Ascribing more importance to experience than radical innovation has, after all, been a fundamental conservative tenet for centuries. "I have always understood, absolutely to prescribe," Edmund Burke observed in parliamentary debate in 1774, whenever we are involved in difficulties from the measures we have pursued, that we should take a strict review of those measures, in order to correct our errors if they should be corrigible; or at least to avoid a dull uniformity in mischief, and the unpitied calamity of being repeatedly caught in the same snare. It is an admonition, however, that does not appear to hold much appeal for former-Vice President Dick Cheney and his associates. Rather, as his mephitic speech at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in May and other appearances have shown, Cheney is brazenly unrepentant about the record of the Bush administration. He has also cheered the defection of Senator Arlen Specter and essentially called for the expulsion of former-Secretary of State Colin Powell from the GOP. If the GOP is to challenge President Obama successfully, it must reorient itself. Already Obama, who prides himself upon his pragmatism, has moved to absorb leading realist thinkers into his foreign-policy team such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as moderate Republicans like Jon Huntsman. Obama, you could say, does not have a GOP problem, but the GOP has an Obama problem. Of course, all this could change; as it did in 1994, when Republicans-unified under Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America-took advantage of Democratic intransigence to capture both houses of Congress. To help another such reversal come about, the GOP would do well to launch a reclamation project to recover (and revive) its lost traditions of pragmatic internationalism exemplified by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush and, to a surprising degree, Ronald Reagan. THE CURRENT strife in the GOP is not entirely new. Eisenhower's mission in 1952 was to rehabilitate the Republican Party, which had futilely opposed the New Deal and embraced isolationism. Eisenhower said that the Republican Right was so unpopular that it would have been unable to elect a "man who was committed to giving away $20 gold pieces to every citizen in the United States for each day of the calendar year." In foreign policy, Eisenhower may have endorsed the rollback strategy championed by his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, but he never acted on it. Eisenhower did not challenge the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. And he negotiated an armistice in the Korean War. But the former general was certainly not a pushover. Despite his refusal to intervene in Vietnam to bail out the French in 1954, he lent large amounts of aid and a small contingent of advisers to assist South Vietnam in its struggle against Communism. His was a record of prudent restraint, coupled with the credible threat of overwhelming force. Nixon's record is not all that dissimilar. As congressman and senator, Nixon had been an internationalist, supporting the establishment of the United Nations and the Marshall Plan. As president, he sought to end the illusion of American omnipotence and to secure a stable global order. In July 1969, he enunciated what became known as the Nixon Doctrine, which held that while America would honor its treaty obligations, it would also expect allies to carry the burden of their own defense, most notably in South Vietnam. Nixon made it clear that he did not see the Communist world as a monolith and that Washington needed to balance its ends with its means. In negotiating with Moscow, Nixon alleviated cold-war tensions. But again, this was not restraint absent the credible threat of force. As he was about to meet for the first time with Leonid Brezhnev, American planes continued a furious bombardment of North Vietnam. Nixon further demonstrated a tough-minded pragmatism during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat asked for Soviet help in halting the Israeli advance, Brezhnev wrote Nixon and threatened to unilaterally send a "peacekeeping" force. Nixon responded forcefully, raising the DEFCON level and putting American forces on high alert. He also issued a communiqué to Sadat demanding that Egypt suspend its request for Soviet assistance, and warned that if the USSR intervened, so would the United States. Cowed, Sadat complied, Brezhnev backed off and the crisis was defused. But for all of Nixon's successful pragmatism, these firm and sensible polices came under heavy fire from ideologically motivated neoconservatives such as Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and his aide Richard Perle, who mischaracterized careful calculations and intelligent restraint as appeasement, launching a four-decade-long conflict between the ideologues and the pragmatists. By the end of his presidency, Ronald Reagan, too, was denounced by neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz for reaching out to the Kremlin and signing arms-control treaties more sweeping than anything Nixon or Kissinger had ever envisioned. The Soviet empire, the neocons insisted, would always be with us and it was the Western democracies that were doomed by their pathological impulse to appease it. Next, the neocons switched gears and attacked George H. W. Bush for being too slow to recognize that the Soviet Union was dissolving, charging that the administration was replete with pusillanimous realists who were insufficiently anti-Communist. The neoconservatives also excoriated Bush for allegedly displaying hostility toward Israel, in the form of attempting to curb settlement activity on the West Bank. Nor did they stop there. After the first Gulf War, they declared that Bush was hamstrung by the international coalition he formed to extrude Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The true lesson of the cold war, the neocons now said, was that America could always earn victory by deploying enough military force, whenever and wherever it chose. It was this triumphalist rewriting of history that the neocons brought with them to the White House eight years later. Under George W. Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the neocons were in power-and seized the chance for toppling their old nemesis in Iraq. And for six years they were given near carte blanche. NOW THE GOP is confronted with the prospect of a Democratic president stealing its patrimony. The shift toward realism was haltingly begun by Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates after 2006, which is why Cheney implicitly lashed out at them in his recent talk at AEI. Now Obama is consummating it. He has wisely started to transfer the American military's focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. He has communicated to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he is intent on a two-state solution and views progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front as a precondition to a broader peace in the Middle East. In particular, Obama has indicated that Israel must freeze any and all settlement activity, a profound break with the Bush era. And in dealing with both Iran and North Korea, Obama has made it clear that he favors diplomacy over military action. How successful he will be is an open question. At the moment, five policy areas already stand out as subjects for a thoughtful and important critique. Consider free trade. Unlike Bill Clinton, who insisted on passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, Obama has been lukewarm about its renewal. He has instituted a new subsidy for American dairy farmers, angering Europeans. In addition, the Democratic Congress insisted upon imposing "Buy American" provisions in the economic-stimulus package, which have sent states scrambling to meet those requirements. It is unclear how much pressure Obama will come under from the unions and whether or not he will kowtow to their demands. The GOP should reaffirm its commitment to free trade, which has helped drive American prosperity since the end of World War II. A lurch back into trade wars would have calamitous economic and political effects. Protectionism could lead to Chinese retaliation; the prospect of Beijing selling off its hundreds of billions of dollars in Treasury securities is a daunting one. But what we want too are well-guarded borders. Getting that balance right with Mexico in particular is key. Al-Qaeda is reportedly "casing" the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking opportunities to smuggle deadly pathogens into America. A border that is porous to drug smuggling, and massive illegal immigration, is a dangerous vulnerability. And it is already clear that securing the borders was not a real priority in President Obama's enormous stimulus package. What is essential, however, is to pursue border security pragmatically and without divisive nativist rhetoric. Allowing further damage to our relationships with key partners and key potential challengers would be an error. Russia serves as just another illustration of how easily and perhaps heedlessly Washington risks antagonizing potential allies. For far too long, hostility toward Russia has been the mantra of those seeking a new cold war-ignoring the fact that historically American-Russian relations have, more often than not, been friendly. John McCain's truculence during the Russia-Georgia war was a stark instance of the hankering on the Right for confrontation, not cooperation, with Moscow. And while Obama stated that he wants to reset relations with Russia, NATO still conducted joint maneuvers in May with the Georgian army-an army, remember, with which Moscow had just fought a war. Moscow's hackles are raised, too, by American plans to station Patriot missiles in Poland, a former Soviet satellite eager to reshape its near abroad. America needs to be far more prudent in weighing the costs and benefits of its actions. By abandoning initiatives that needlessly alienate Russia, conservatives could help establish a new tone and perhaps elicit genuine Russian cooperation in curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions. Obama may also be vulnerable on fiscal policy. Both Eisenhower and Nixon tried to maintain some limits on American commitments around the globe. The GOP might do well to link Obama's proposed tax hikes-which would hit the moderately wealthy (as opposed to the rich) disproportionately hard-to the outlays in reconstruction programs throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a good thing for us to spend more on diplomacy, as Secretary Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have suggested, but Eisenhower, for one, always viewed foreign-assistance programs with a wary eye, in contrast to John F. Kennedy, who wanted to remake the third world in America's image. The truth is that fiscal restraint in foreign policy was a Republican credo. What's more, the Democratic Party may succumb to internecine feuding over the war in Afghanistan, as it once did in Vietnam. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey has already indicated that he will not continue to support the war if it does not appear more successful a year from now. Does Obama's policy differ all that much from Bush's? It may well be nation building under another name. Another terrorist attack may also take place in America. But to count on one for political gain, as Cheney appears to be doing, is a declaration of moral and intellectual impoverishment. THE GOP, then, must emancipate itself from mythology about the cold war and the idea that reflexively attacking Obama as soft will serve as the path to renewed electoral success. The GOP should support defense programs that truly protect and advance American interests, but it should resist defining those interests so broadly that almost anything, no matter how trivial, is treated as though it were essential. This is a call for a willingness to use force when and where necessary with a calculated, focused policy to inform those decisions. Republicans would do well to heed Burke's counsel. By studying the past, they can start to prepare for the future. Otherwise, they will be unable to explain convincingly what America should do abroad-and what it should not. Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.