After following Chuck Hagel’s Senate confirmation hearings and reading Daniel McCarthy’s thoughtful post asking “Can a Realist be a Republican?”, I want to remind TAC readers and others that they should not confuse a realist global strategy with a non-interventionist (or anti-interventionist) foreign policy.
In fact, for much of the Cold War and its aftermath, Republican foreign policy was synonymous with realism. It reflected an emphasis on protecting U.S. national interest measured in terms of military and economic power and dealing with the world as it is, as opposed to a preoccupation with transforming the existing international system based on American principles of liberal democracy.
It was never an either/or choice of course, but Republican administrations’ default foreign-policy position has historically been realism, which never precluded military intervention abroad or opposed the formation of alliances with foreign nations. The realists stressed that this extensive involvement in world affairs should be driven more by hard-core nationalism and less by the kind of vague universal principles that Oliver Stone (among others) argues should have guided U.S. diplomacy and national security (like sharing U.S. atomic secrets with the Soviets).
Indeed, as scholar Colin Dueck proposes in his Hard Line: The Republican Party and US Foreign Policy Since World War II Republican and conservative foreign policy post-World War II was very hawkish and nationalist in contrast with the earlier more anti-interventionist approach of Republican Robert Taft.
And I doubt very much that even President Dwight Eisenhower, who is now being romanticized as a prudent Republican foreign-policy president (one whose secretary of state bashed containment and called for rolling-back communism and employing tactical nuclear weapons), would have found it un-American to deploy drones around the world or to allow enhanced interrogation techniques.
Where I disagree with Dueck is his notion that President George W. Bush’s foreign policy after 9/11 fits into the Republican tradition of his predecessors. It does not, and I write this as someone who decided to vote for Bush II after watching him debate Al Gore in 2000, when Bush derided nation-building, arguing that “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be,” and advocated a restrained foreign policy. What followed was anything but.
Even if one agrees that “9/11 changed everything,” much of what Bush did was based on the wishful thinking and fantasies of his neoconservative advisors with their plans to remake the Middle East and advance the Freedom Agenda. My guess is that a President Hagel (or Colin Powell) would have used military force to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and to kill Osama bin Laden but would have continued using diplomatic means to contain Saddam and refrain from giving Israel a diplomatic carte blanche.
Now it’s true that elements in the Republican Party and the conservative movement, including a founder of TAC, have proposed that Washington in the aftermath of the Cold War should have considered adopting the more non-interventionist approach of Robert Taft—based on cold calculations of national interest and not the dreamy idealism of peaceniks on the political left. But realistically speaking, considering the existing political balance of power, there was very little chance that either party would do that.
So the best conservative and libertarian non-interventionists could have hoped for was to try to influence the foreign-policy debate under a realist Republican president a la George H.W. Bush.
Instead, as the Hagel hearing has demonstrated, there is no place anymore in the GOP for even those like Hagel who advocate pursuing a prudent and realist interventionist foreign policy. What one regards now as the Republican foreign-policy establishment is actually the networks of operators in the neoconservative think tanks and media, while the party’s rank-and-file have subscribed to the pro-Likud agenda of the so-called Christian-Zionist agenda (with fiscal conservatives and many libertarians giving them free rein and many traditional conservatives joining forces in what they believe to be a global struggle against Radical Islamism). Hence pushing for a war with Iran is seen as a natural extension of contemporary Republican foreign policy.
I suppose that if you suddenly faint and end up in the emergency room, you hope only to suffer from hypertension and not a heart attack. In that spirit and despite my disagreement with the interventionist policies of the likes of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, or the first George Bush, I hoped that the realists and not the neoconservatives would take charge of Republican foreign policy. But any illusion that this would happen anytime soon vanished into thin air during Hagel’s confirmation hearing.
So I am afraid that McCarthy is right to be concerned that not unlike the neoconservative hawks who deserted the Democratic Party and joined the proto-Reagan Republicans during the reign of the so-called McGovernites in the 1970s, many Republicans who subscribe to realist principles will refuse to accept their party’s foreign policy drift.
And conservative and libertarian non-interventionists will probably continue daydreaming about the reincarnation of Robert Taft in the form of Paul Jr.—who has yet to declare his support for Hagel’s nomination. Dream on.