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What Republican Foreign Policy Reform Requires

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam propose [1] a “cure for Trumpism” for the GOP. The foreign policy section makes some sense, but doesn’t get us very far:

To voters who watched their children bleed in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who have bled themselves, the party hasn’t provided much reassurance that it has learned lessons from those conflicts. With the exception of Rand Paul and the partial exception of Ted Cruz, the consensus critique of President Obama from not-Trump Republicans often seemed to be that he should have kept more troops in Iraq and kept more troops in Afghanistan and sent more troops to Libya and intervened in Syria and sent more arms to Ukraine and expanded NATO’s presence in the Baltics and been more willing to bomb Iran and …

Some of these policy prescriptions are reasonable, but taken together they look like a road map for more quagmires, more Afghanistans and Iraqs. This is the landscape in which Trump’s “America First” language resonated. And the ease with which Trump crushed Jeb Bush, in particular, suggests that it will continue to resonate until Republican leaders become more selective in their hawkishness, more comfortable with five simple words: Invading Iraq was a mistake.

It would be a good start if all future presidential candidates could acknowledge the disastrous and costly folly of the Iraq war, but it would only be a start. Admitting that the Iraq war was a grievous, horrible error is necessary but not sufficient to reform Republican foreign policy. The trouble with the rest of the 2016 field wasn’t just that many of the candidates were Iraq war dead-enders, but that they were so obsessed with the idea of American “leadership” that almost all of them thought that the U.S. needed to be involved in multiple conflicts in different parts of the world in one way or another. Almost none of the declared 2016 candidates opposed the Libyan war at the time, and very few concluded that the problem with intervening in Libya was the intervention itself. The standard hawkish line on Libya for years has been that the U.S. should have committed itself to another open-ended exercise in stabilizing a country we helped to destabilize. Most Republican politicians are so wedded to a belief in the efficacy of using hard power that they refuse to admit that there are many problems that the U.S. can’t and shouldn’t try to solve with it.


Until Republican politicians and their advisers start to understand that reflexive support for “action” (and some kind of military action at that) is normally the wrong response, we can’t expect much to change. Most Republican foreign policy professionals seem to hold the same shoddy assumptions that led them to endorse all of the interventions of the last 15 years without exception, and nothing that has happened during that time has caused most of them to reexamine those assumptions. Until they stop fetishizing American “leadership” and invoking “American exceptionalism” as an excuse to meddle in every new crisis, Republicans will end up in the same cul-de-sac of self-defeating belligerence. Unless Republicans adopt a much less expansive definition of “vital interests,” they will routinely end up on the wrong side of most major foreign policy debates.

Finally, unless most Republican politicians and their advisers overcome their aversion to diplomatic engagement they will end up supporting costlier, less effective, and more destructive policies for lack of practical alternatives. The virtually unanimous opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran is a good example of the sort of thing that a reformed Republican Party wouldn’t do. Opposition to the deal reflects so many of the flaws in current Republican foreign policy views: automatic opposition to any diplomatic compromise that might actually work, grossly exaggerating the potential threat from another state, conflating U.S. interests with those of unreliable client states, continually moving goalposts to judge a negotiated deal by unreasonable standards, insisting on maximalist concessions from the other side while refusing to agree to minimal concessions from ours, and making spurious and unfounded allegations of “appeasement” at every turn to score points against political adversaries at home. Obviously these are habits cultivated over decades and are not going to be fixed quickly or easily, but if the next Republican administration (whenever that may be) doesn’t want to conduct foreign policy as disastrously as the last one did they are habits that need to be broken.

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14 Comments To "What Republican Foreign Policy Reform Requires"

#1 Comment By CharleyCarp On July 19, 2016 @ 9:36 am

Come on, man. None of those policy prescriptions are reasonable.

#2 Comment By icarusr On July 19, 2016 @ 9:45 am

You left out something from the list re the Iran deal (and future such deals): agreeing not to lie outright. See Giuliani, R., Republican Convention:


Or Benghazi for that matter: they are so busy inventing controversies and conspiracies that they have completely missed the scandal at the heart of the intervention that Obama has already owned up to (lack of preparation for the aftermath).

#3 Comment By Fred Bowman On July 19, 2016 @ 10:33 am

Daniel, it not just the Republicans but the Democrats, too. The problem is America IS an Empire and our nation leaders think in Imperialist terms. And unfortunately the Republic suffers. How is this going to change? Only God Knows, but if History is any guide it won’t be pretty.

#4 Comment By Jon Lester On July 19, 2016 @ 11:33 am

The only thing is, both parties seem to be following a program of systematically destroying secular states and installing new Islamic republics. Before Iraq, we had Bosnia and Kosovo, and since then, we’ve had Libya and the apparently unfinished job in Syria.

I think I know part of the answer why. Everyone assumes the people pulling the strings know what they’re doing, but they are in fact no more competent than elected leaders and career bureaucrats. Even if there is something conspiratorial going on, the planning and the net result reflect pure stupidity.

#5 Comment By SteveM On July 19, 2016 @ 11:36 am

Re: “It would be a good start if all future presidential candidates could acknowledge the disastrous and costly folly of the Iraq war, but it would only be a start.”

Daniel, that is a huge barrier. And the sanctification of the military is primary reason why.

Since 9/11 a huge propaganda infrastructure celebrating the U.S. military and militarism has been established. It’s the primary backstop for the Neocon model. All of the key propaganda cogs are emplaced; the Pentagon Propaganda directorates, the political Nomenklatura, the Corporate Cronies who parasitically feed off of the message and the MSM that delivers the message without reservations.

So American military personnel are “Warrior-Heroes” who “defend our freedoms”. Think about the related implications if the Global Cop model and the associated interventions then and now is admitted to be a massively flawed policy of human and economic waste.

Under the that rubric, the public would infer that Americans who died in the Middle East, died needlessly. They were not Warrior-Heroes, they were dupes seduced by the Power Elites using the Exceptionalism mantra. And slaughtering natives 6,000 miles away from U.S. shores had nothing to do with protecting American freedoms. And the inference would rightly extend to the realization that the Islamic dystopian sandbox will still be dystopian a decade from now. I.e. all of that American blood and treasure was flushed down to toilet for nothing. Can America handle the truth?

In the great distillation of Iraq as catastrophic quagmire, the propaganda model of a benevolent America as Hegemon rescuing the planet would be revealed to be a tragic illusion. Try to convince the Crony stakeholders producing and feeding off of the quasi-religious celebrations of the American military of that truism. The Elites will simply not allow that recognition to surface. There is simply too much money in the normative model.

A concomitant side effect of Military Exceptionalism is the almost complete deference to the Pentagon Brass both active duty and retired. They are not effectively challenged by either the Political Elites or the MSM when they make policy pronouncements saturated with fear-mongering forecasts and advocate for yet even more over-engineered, hyper-expensive weapons systems. Without effective counters to the Brass as mouthpieces, their dominating messages go unchecked and are passively accepted as being true. BTW, that sanctified generals and admirals are used as fronts for policies that should be advanced by civilian leadership is a structural catastrophe for objective policy discourse and development.

Daniel, we have met the enemy and he is us…

#6 Comment By Crprod On July 19, 2016 @ 12:34 pm

For those who have only one idea, the sole possible response to failure is double down on it.

#7 Comment By An Agrarian On July 19, 2016 @ 12:59 pm

Good policy prescriptions – excellent analysis.

Addendum to CharleyCarp’s response … None of these policies are reasonable, unless the GOP stops taking its talking points from AIPAC, and avoids allowing the military and energy industries to determine America’s “national interest.”

#8 Comment By reid On July 19, 2016 @ 1:06 pm

The bulk of GOP foreign policies are based on fear, looking “tough”, and blaming Democrats. Truth, rationality, and other higher brain functions don’t enter into it much; that stuff is for wimpy liberals.

#9 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 19, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

“Obviously these are habits cultivated over decades and are not going to be fixed quickly or easily, but if the next Republican administration (whenever that may be) doesn’t want to conduct foreign policy as disastrously as the last one did they are habits that need to be broken.”

Unfortunately this entire mindset is full spectrum, not limited to administration. It permeates Congress, industry and media from mainstream network down to fringe “news sites” and blogs. The media was supposed to be the tool used by the others and it worked quite well in the run-up to Gulf War II, but that dog has outgrown the leash; now the former handlers have to treat it carefully lest it bite them.

#10 Comment By Scott F. On July 19, 2016 @ 3:55 pm

@Fred Bowman:

Daniel, it not just the Republicans but the Democrats, too. The problem is America IS an Empire and our nation leaders think in Imperialist terms.

It’s not just our leaders. Far too many in the population have bought into the American Exceptionalism narrative that compels us to “action.”

For reasons why, see the excellent comments from SteveM and Myron Hudson.

#11 Comment By jk On July 19, 2016 @ 4:10 pm

Is not Her Majesty, HRC, filling the space of Trumpism?

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 19, 2016 @ 6:18 pm

The most compelling narrative has not been the US military as heroes.

It’s been to press on the US citizen psyche’ that the planet is a fearful pace and they should be afraid 24/7.

I cannot be but dismayed tat people supposedly as intelligent as visit this sight, certainly more intelligent than myself buy into and promote fear as the reason for the use of force. That around every corner there is a black man, a muslim, a russian, china man, or some other monster that demands we act aggressively regardless pf the carelessness, necessity or consequence.

I am a believer in US exceptionalism. I believe in a strong active military. I think we do have international obligations as members of the larger community. I think in all forms that are enemies threaten domestic tranquility be they theives at home, states or actors abroad need to know that if push comes to shove — the full weight of US might will be applied with little discretion to their concerns of culture, religion and their very lives.

But said force is not a substitute for foreign diplomacy nor a fair hearing and adjudication the laws tat apply to or citizens. I am not a supporter of the use of superior society as cause to transform others.

But I don’t have prescription for reducing the diet of fear mongering by the media, politicians or think tanks. And I don’t know how to transition a more rational citizen who will say no to a call of fear.

#13 Comment By Barry On July 19, 2016 @ 7:17 pm

Daniel, all Republicans are warmongers, and frankly by now Mars-worshippers. They talk some history-denying sh*t now, because That Other Man is in the White House, and gets the glory.

But in the end, they love war.

#14 Comment By AZ Joe On July 20, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

SteveM. You would be an appeaser, a liberal, an America Hater, an apologist, and a cynic, if you weren’t absolutely correct in everything you said. Well done.