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Is James Baker Too Realist for the Republican Party?

Warhawks are reading out of the GOP anyone whose foreign policy is more sophisticated than John McCain's.
Is James Baker Too Realist for the Republican Party?

In politics, compliments to old men and favors for family friends can get you in trouble.

When Jeb Bush named James Baker an “adviser” on foreign policy, there was likely no more substance to it than when Trent Lott made a boneheaded tribute to Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 presidential campaign on the South Carolinian’s 100th birthday. It was a tribute, like thanking your high school drama teacher while accepting an Academy award.

If anything, Bush’s public record suggests he has even less in common with Baker’s foreign policy than Lott did with Thurmond’s views of the civil-rights movement. Lott did speak to the Council of Conservative Citizens while Bush wouldn’t be caught dead at J Street. The two groups aren’t at all analogous, but the backlash is.

Baker’s Republican bona fides are incontestable. He ran Gerald Ford’s 1976 presidential campaign, served as White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury under Ronald Reagan, and was most notably secretary of state under George H.W. Bush. He has been a Bush family consigliere for decades, came to George W. Bush’s aid during the 2000 recount debacle, and was talked about as a Republican presidential candidate in his own right as recently as 1996.

His stance on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was already falling out of favor among Republicans back then, as the Clinton administration picked up where Bush 41 left off. Yet my great-grandmother—a Republican and evangelical Christian who was a devoted supporter of Israel—still gave me Baker’s book The Politics of Diplomacy for Christmas in 1995.

So it is bizarre that, as Reason‘s Jesse Walker put it, “Jeb Bush’s association with James Baker is starting to spark the sort of Republican reaction ordinarily reserved for an association with Bill Ayers.”

Bizarre, but not entirely surprising for reasons not limited to Israel (an angle that has been done to death). “The fact that I have people that I might not agree with on every subject advising me shows leadership, frankly,” the former Florida governor insisted to Fox News Radio. “I don’t think we need monolithic thinking here.”

The people attacking Bush over Baker do think the Republican Party needs monolithic thinking on foreign policy. Note the firestorm that accompanied Robert Zoellick joining a Mitt Romney foreign-policy advisory team thoroughly dominated by neoconservatives and hawks. Or the fact that far fewer Republicans voted to confirm Chuck Hagel, a former GOP senator, as secretary of defense than John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, as secretary of state.

Jon Huntsman was staunchly pro-Israel and yet was still tagged as an “isolationist.” Though in fairness, many of Huntsman’s problems with the conservative base were self-inflicted. His mild realism, like Colin Powell’s, might have been the least of them.

The GOP’s most hawkish national-security hands want to maintain a monopoly on foreign-policy advice for Republican presidents and other elected officials. As the James Bakers age out of government service, they don’t want any younger realists trying to replace him in the GOP.

The purpose of this is two-fold. The hawks don’t want as much competition as they had even during George W. Bush’s second term (by which time the “axis of evil” president was reportedly mocking “the bomber boys”). Benevolent global hegemony begins at home.

Moreover, as realists migrate toward the Democrats (note which president Hagel and Huntsman both served), realism will acquire a reputation for being liberal and naive rather than prudent and conservative. A school of thought represented on the foreign-policy teams that won the Cold War will have the same brand identity as Jimmy Carter—and Barack Obama.

Right now, the peace constituency inside the GOP is mainly the noninterventionists and libertarians inspired by Ron Paul. While even this is too much for the hawks, noninterventionists and libertarian Republicans aren’t numerous enough to shift the party’s center of gravity by themselves. Even if one of their fellow travelers was elected president, he would have to tap his foreign-policy advisers from the talent pool from which John Bolton was drawn.

Forget Robert Taft. The result of this “monolithic thinking” is that the default Republican position is now a lower threshold for the use of military force than prevailed under Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Bush 41.

Republican realists have numerous faults, including their tendency to reluctantly support and then regret wars like Iraq rather than oppose them (with the significant exception of Brent Scowcroft). But their track record of winning wars certainly exceeds their successors’ by a wide margin because they understood both how to use power and respect its limits.

If the bomber boys have their way, such people need not apply to the next Republican administration.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of the Daily Caller and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?



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