I suppose I must fall under the “exceptions” Larison cites, but I’m uncertain who’s establishing the rule. There’s my co-author Reihan Salam (though his self-proclaimed neoconservatism is highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly), and a few others with more hawkish views in the reformocon tent … but mostly it seems that my friends are being judged primarily on their associations (working at the American Enterprise Institute, publishing in the Weekly Standard) and friendships rather than on anything remotely resembling a hawkish movement line.
Is this judgment fair? Well, no in one sense, maybe in another. No, because internal conservative debates are generally in a pretty unsettled place right now, the wider debate over foreign policy is equally unsettled, and I don’t see any necessary reason why people focused on rebuilding a coherent conservative domestic policy must simultaneously choose sides on national security at a time when it isn’t always clear what the stakes are or even what the “sides” are.
Douthat is right that it isn’t entirely fair to expect people that focus almost all of their attention on other issues to take clear positions on contemporary foreign policy questions. It isn’t all that productive to complain that people that specialize in one area of policy haven’t spent much time working in or writing about another. That said, I still think that reform conservatives would benefit from taking more of an interest in distinguishing themselves on foreign policy, and that could have a salutary effect on Republican foreign policy and on the broader foreign policy debate.
Reform conservatives have a few reasons why they should want to take a more active interest in foreign policy. First, it is in their interest to put as much distance between themselves and the Bush legacy on foreign policy, especially because they are generally more closely associated with Bush’s domestic policy agenda than anyone else on the right. Second, they should know better than anyone just how ruinous the Iraq debacle was for the political fortunes of the GOP, and that has also made their task far more difficult than it would have normally been. Avoiding similar foreign policy blunders in a future Republican administration should be a relatively high priority for those that want to have the opportunity to pursue a domestic reform agenda. That will require challenging the party’s worst instincts on foreign policy with a reasonably coherent alternative, and that will mean taking sides in at least some current debates.
Many conservatives complain that they aren’t represented by neoconservatives or non-interventionists, and they are looking for someone to represent their foreign policy views. That could be the role for at least some reform conservatives. Or they can make the same mistake that they made in the last decade and leave foreign policy to the same people that drove the U.S. into a ditch.
One reason that the omission of foreign policy from the reform agenda seems so notable is that foreign policy is one of the largest, most glaring policy weaknesses that the GOP has. In addition to being responsible for the costly policy failures of the previous administration, Bush-era foreign policy has been politically toxic for Republicans in three of the last four national elections. There is good reason to assume that it will continue to be an important liability in future presidential elections unless the party makes a clear break with at least some of its Bush-era assumptions and positions, and for the most part that isn’t happening at all. Until that happens, everyone outside the party will reasonably assume that the GOP hasn’t changed, that it has learned nothing, and that it still shouldn’t be trusted with the responsibility to conduct foreign policy. It seems unlikely that a domestic reform agenda will even get off the ground as long as the public doesn’t trust a Republican president to carry out some of his most important primary responsibilities.
Douthat acknowledges the importance of restoring that trust:
It’s that trust that was forfeited by some of the Bush administration’s follies, and that needs to be recovered if the G.O.P. is to deserve anybody’s vote. But because it’s a trust, ultimately, in competence and caution, it’s a bit hard to say exactly what this kind of “new realism” or “realist internationalism” or “chastened idealism” (or whatever phrase you prefer) would look like case by case….
If it is hard to say what it would look like in each case, it might be useful to begin by reviewing the “follies” mentioned here and identifying the assumptions and unrealistic goals that produced them and then throwing out assumptions that have been shown to be unfounded or misleading. The next step would be to consider what the U.S. should do in one specific, high-profile case (e.g., Iran’s nuclear program), and then build from there. Obviously, reform conservatives don’t have to do any of this, but to the extent that they stay silent on these questions they make it a little easier for hard-liners to dictate the party’s foreign policy agenda to the detriment of all of us.