Today, I attended an absorbing yet rather downbeat Nixon Center discussion on “the future of the Republican party and its foreign policy.” Almost all the panelists and attendees agreed, with varying degrees of gloominess, that the chances of the GOP reformulating a coherent foreign policy looked bleak. There was lots of first-class brainpower in the room, and we heard lots of sensible denunciations of ideological internationalist crusades, but nobody seemed able to articulate a conceptually lucid, right-wing realist strategy that might have political traction.
Jacob Heilbrunn, senior editor of the National Interest (the Nixon’s Center’s publication) and a TAC contributor, began by saying that Obama, a formidable political opponent, had pushed Republicans into an impossible position on foreign-policy issues by seizing the realist initiative.
Dov Zakheim, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton and a former official in the Reagan and Bush administrations, tried to be more optimistic. He said that the Republican Party could cultivate a respectable “loyal opposition” center-ground approach, supporting with the Democrats when they supported the national interest and setting them straight when they did not. He agreed, however, that the new administration’s had been “picking off” rational conservative foreign-policy voices from the GOP fold.
Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, focused on the new administration’s mishandled overtures to the East. He excoriated the diplomatic bungling of recent months: Biden’s Israel gaffe; Obama’s snubbing of Russian hospitality; and Hillary Clinton’s “incompetent moralising” towards most of the world. (Simes seemed so outraged at Biden’s folly that he could not bring himself to say his name, referring only to “dis man, der vice president” in his gravelly Russian accent.)
Everybody enjoyed laughing at misguided Democratic do-goodery, and there was a shared sense that Republicans could profit from adopting a realist response whenever the Dems got carried away in their dreamy utopianism. This was the Nixon Center, after all. But nobody seemed certain as to how exactly they might push the party in that direction, or whether, if the party did take such a course, they could sell themselves as realists to the public. It will be very hard – and in the short term impossible — for a party that brought Americans the Bush Doctrine, Iraq, and the wider disaster of the War on Terror to pass themselves off as sober ambassadors of common sense.