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January 09, 2013

Republicans' Foreign Policy Problems - Part II
Posted by David Shorr

Romney_and_ObamaAll the recent attempts to draw the lessons of 2012 for Republican foreign policy are good grist for the blog (thank you Danielle Pletka). The other day, I wrote about the overall need to offer proposals that are plausibly workable, instead of counting on other international players to bow to Republican adamance. But moving beyond this general diagnosis to unpack the Republicans' problem, there's still so much more to say.

For example Pletka gives such emphasis to the spread human rights and democracy, with President Reagan as their patron saint, that they seem to overshadow the rest of US foreign policy. At the end of the first section, she places "willingness to promote American ideals globally" at the "heart of the GOP" serving as its "moral compass."

In the next section fidelity to those ideals is the basis for the best Republican leaders to style the United States as a revolutionary rather than status quo power -- and contrast themselves with faithless Democrats (that's with a capital 'D'). Pletka goes on to talk about the unfair caricature of Republicans as war-mongers, but also about how military strength caused the downfall of the Soviets, proxy wars vindicated democracy, and the Iraq War set the stage for the Arab Spring. Then comes a discussion of how America-come-home impulses give the world's undemocratic bad guys room to run rampant. The "world's policeman" section is sort of about international peace and the United States as global security guarantor; but then, it's about containing (communist) China and (again) our vindication in the Cold War. In the final two sections of her piece, Pletka focuses on the struggle for freedom in the Middle East and concludes that Republicans in Congress must sieze the initiative -- just as they did during the Clinton years -- and support Middle Eastern freedom fighters, bolster Asian allies against the Chinese threat, defend Russia's neighbors, and generally keep the rest of the world from despairing in American leadership. 

Apologies if that review seems a bit tedious, but I actually needed to check and make sure Pletka's article is as skewed as it seemed in my first couple readings. Set aside the issue of an overmilitarized foreign policy, when every problem looks like the illegitimacy of other governments, then all you have is a policy of resisting, replacing, reforming, or encircling other nations' leaders.

To put it bluntly, this only counts as the outline of a liberal internationalism v. realism debate if you consider it "realism" to be concerned about anything other than democracy and governance. More accurately, it's just obsession with regime character. 

And the other problems with Republican foreign policy orthodoxy -- including those problems identified by Pletka herself -- are fruit from the tree of this idea of a continuing Cold War-like ideological struggle. For instance she makes five references to China as a growing military threat and regional adversary before dropping the following gem toward the end of the piece:

The United States can provide its allies in Asia with the aid and military support they need to face challenges from China, while agreeing that everyone has a shared interest in Chinese prosperity.

Glad we've cleared that up. Here's some free advice: if you want your foreign policy to be taken seriously, don't treat the global economy as an afterthought. It has ceased being useful to say "America can't be strong without a strong economy," if it ever was. Belief in the imperative of restoring strong growth is not a policy -- and won't, you know, restore growth.  Not only do the United States and others have a "shared interest in Chinese prosperity," the fragile recovery from the Great Recession gives us a mutual interest in steps to strengthen the recovery such as Chinese fiscal stimulus, currency appreciation, and shifts from dependence on exports to domestic demand.

The point being that bold assertions about what the US "can provide its allies ... while agreeing..." won't get very far in obtaining what we want from key players like China and therefore doesn't really cut it as a credible foreign policy. Not to mention the challenge of making Iranian energy sanctions work when China, Japan, Korea, and India are all major customers. One more thing, Russia provides the NATO operation in Afghanistan with a major supply route -- aside from the one through Pakistan, that is. 

I'm afraid the Republicans' challenge to present a workable alternative is a bigger job than Danielle Pletka lets on. But don't take it from this progressive blogger, Dan Drezner's new Foreign Affairs piece on "Rebooting Republican Foreign Policy" gives the full bracing dousing of cold water. A sample:

The 2012 election was the nadir of the GOP's decadelong descent. By the time Romney was selected as the nominee, Republicans had come to talk about foreign policy almost entirely as an offshoot of domestic politics or ideology. What passed for discussion consisted of a series of tactical gestures designed to appease various constituencies in the party rather than responses to actual issues in U.S. relations with the world. The resulting excess of unchecked pablum and misinformation depressed not only outside observers but also many of the more seasoned members of the Republican foreign policy community who took the subject seriously.

And American Conservative's Daniel Larison points out that Pletka and her colleagues must look in the mirror if they want to know who's responsible for the sorry state of GOP foreign policy: 

The “painful” and “often incoherent” attempts to attack Obama on foreign policy and national security did not come out of nowhere. In most cases, Romney’s criticisms of Obama’s record were taken directly from common movement conservative arguments. On everything from his obsession with the 2009 decision on missile defense to his mindless Russophobia to his automatic support for Israeli policies to his complaints about Obama’s response to the Green movement, Romney was serving as little more than a conduit for prevailing Republican foreign policy arguments. There’s no denying that these arguments were often painfully bad and incoherent, but the poor quality of these arguments can’t be pinned solely on Romney or his campaign staffers. Many of the people who presume to speak for the party on matters of foreign policy crafted those arguments, and they are responsible for them.

But hey, good luck!


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