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January 07, 2013

The Incipient Republican Foreign Policy Re-Think
Posted by David Shorr

6227047853_f3326d97c9The Republican establishment is getting all introspective on foreign policy, particularly in response to two major pieces by Danielle Pletka and Dan Drezner. Along with the rest of the GOP, the party's foreign policy brain trust is wrestling with the question of what went wrong last November.

As a progressive counterpart and close observer of Republicans offering themselves as stewards of American power, I could just sit back and watch them grope for answers. But that wouldn't be any fun. 

Reading the panel of Rebpublican expert responses that ForeignPolicy.com assembled to react to Pletka's, a few lines from Will Inboden's contribution cuts to the heart of the matter:

An unappreciated but essential part of foreign policy is accurately reading the state of the world and the tides of history.

then further down:

[T]he question for the future of Republican foreign policy should begin not with where we think the Democrats may be wrong, but with what we think the state of the international system is today and how it can be shaped in ways favorable to U.S. interests and consonant with American values.

This is an even bigger blind spot than Inboden's critique acknowledges. Republicans have become too wrapped up in their notions of American omnipotence to notice how those ideas clash with international realities. By my own reading of the foreign policy debate in 2012, this myopia rendered the GOP unable to recognize President Obama's underlying strengths or present a viable alternative. As I highlighted frequently on this blog, the Republicans' case was remarkably thin and impractical. Based broadly on the assumption that greater shows of American strength and resolve would cause everyone else to snap into line, it basically boiled down to a new twist on TR: yell loudly and carry a magic wand.

Not to say Pletka ignores the problem altogether. For me, the most interesting passage of her piece straddles the fourth and fifth sections:

But it's up to the Republican Party -- and particularly its leadership -- to articulate how it would do better than Obama, how a robust American presence can make a difference in the Middle East, how victory should be the goal in Afghanistan, and how U.S. leadership in the Pacific can constrain Chinese predations. Republicans need to explain how much can be done consistent with America's dearest principles but without the use of force, without threats, without protectionism, and without breaking the bank. They need to work to bring along the many even within the party who doubt the imperative of success against al Qaeda, who doubt the value of friendly governments, and for whom each penny spent on a new fighter for the Air Force or aircraft carrier for the Navy is a penny wasted. You cannot hope to persuade the country if you cannot persuade your own party.

and

The other objection, of course, is that the last decade of war has drained not only Americans' emotional reserves but their country's treasury, giving America little choice but to retrench. Recognizing the "limits of our power" has been one of the resurgent themes of the post-Bush years. But where has it left the country? Leading from behind -- an absurd notion that itself must be left behind. After all, neither France, whose presidents have led on both Libya and Syria, nor the U.N. Security Council can solve the thorny problems we now face.

These grafs are interesting because they reflect both insight into the Republicans' difficulty as well as continued denial. Pletka is correct that the GOP's main failure in 2012 was that they presented no plausible case for how their approach would yield better results. Yet these very passages show why it's so hard for them to do so.

When Pletka talks about the "doubts" within her party, the beam in her own eye is magical thinking about the effectiveness of those approaches. It is the height of irony that Pletka's impulse to tag others with going weak on Al Qaeda, allies, and defense spending is exactly the thing that short-circuits constructive policy discourse of the kind she called for just a few lines above.

And it's her misreading of the "limits of power" that leads her astray. For Pletka, all the talk of limits is about the US pulling back from the world because of fiscal constraints. But that is a fundamental misreading of the issue -- and, consequently, of progressive thinking on foreign policy. In the spirit of Will Inboden's comment, progressive sensitivity to limits reflects our assessment of the current international system. Where magical thinking has deluded the Republicans about what can be achieved via chest-thumping and saber-rattling, we progressives make much less presumptuous -- we believe more realistic -- calculations about the practical leverage of a superpower's might. Which is precisely why Nina Hachigian and my "Responsibility Doctrine" article in the new Washington Quartelry highlights the push for international help and support as a major thrust of Obama foreign policy. 

Illustration: Boris Rasin 

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