Lessons are learned slowly in politics, and nowhere is this more true than in foreign policy. Thus the Democratic Party is poised to nominate for president a woman who as a senator voted for the Iraq War and as secretary of state was responsible in large measure for the disastrous U.S. involvement in Libya. The Republican 2016 aspirants, meanwhile, have figured out that claiming the Iraq War was a success won’t help them win even relatively hawkish GOP primary voters—yet most talk as if new confrontations with Iran, one side or another of the Syrian civil war, Russia, or China present no hazards worth worrying about. They are as gung-ho for the next war as any neoconservative was for the Iraq invasion.
But on the margins are signs that change is indeed coming to American foreign policy, however slowly. Among Hillary Clinton’s challengers in the Democratic contest are a former Republican senator, Lincoln Chafee, who unlike Mrs. Clinton actually voted against the Iraq War; a Vietnam veteran and former Reagan administration secretary of the Navy, Jim Webb, who in 2006 was moved to run for and win a seat in the U.S. Senate by his outrage at the Iraq War; and a sitting senator, Bernie Sanders, who opposed the war when he was in the House of Representatives and has voted against the Patriot Act while serving in each chamber.
That two of these alternatives to Clinton come originally from the Republican Party is an indication of just how dramatically foreign policy can reshape the political landscape, even when conventional wisdom holds that voters simply don’t care about world affairs. The Democratic Party is gaining strength, including from people who were until recently Republicans, because of its relatively less interventionist positioning.
Many Republicans understand this, and one, Sen. Rand Paul, has made an effort to devise an alternative to the foreign policy that has led both the party and the country into hardship. That his attempt has been so far unsuccessful goes to show how slowly political change develops—and how closed a party can be to new ideas, even when they are clearly in its self-interest. (The fact that Paul has tried to appeal to some of the most hawkish elements in the party even as he aims to formulate a new kind of Republican realism has only made matters more difficult for him.) Other 2016 hopefuls in the GOP are stranded in a limbo of ignorance: their advisors are drawn almost entirely from the ranks of neoconservatives and other hawks, and even when the candidates themselves feel that there is something wrong with the words coming out of their mouths, they have no alternative script to turn to.
Policies are the end products of a long chain of manufacture, which typically begins with scholars, writers, and other dealers in ideas. The progressive tilt of academia has always provided Democrats with a deeper and wider reservoir of intellectual talent—whatever itsflaws—than Republicans have had access to. The GOP has depended instead on a handful of foundations, think-tanks, and media outlets that have tended to police one another’s orthodoxy. These institutions were hawkish during the Cold War, and by the time that ended they were too invested in ideological conformity to risk a re-appraisal of U.S. foreign policy. When the Cato Institute opposed the first Gulf War in 1991, conservative movement kingpins such as Steve Forbes and William E. Simon cut funding to the dissident libertarian think-tank.
Realists and relative doves on the right have been doubly pariahs for a long time—rejected by a left-leaning academy and a right whose institutional inertia maintains a Cold War mentality. (And worse, freed of the constraints that superpower competition imposed during the Cold War, much of the right has embraced an unabashedly imperial “exceptionalism.”) But as bankrupt policies impose their costs on politicians as well as taxpayers and soldiers, Republicans and Democrats alike start slowly feeling the need to think anew. Our job is to help them do so.