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The Ever-Shrinking Republican Foreign Policy Tent

Dan Drezner makes a good observation about the current state of the Republican Party’s foreign policy thinking:

The trouble here is which parts Obama co-opted, and how the GOP has reacted to that. Republicans used to have a pretty big tent on foreign policy — realists, internationalists, and neocons galore. Bush 43’s second term was pretty pragmatic and neocon-free, and that was what the Obama team co-opted. I’m honestly note sure that today’s GOP is as keen on these kinds of foreign policy worldviews….Which means that leading GOP spokespeople on foreign policy no longer embrace the aspects of GOP foreign policy traditions co-opted by Obama. Or to put this another way: ask yourself if any of the viable 2016 GOP candidates for president would appoint someone like Bob Gates to be Secretary of Defense.

There might be one or two possible 2016 Republican candidates willing to consider someone like Gates for Defense, but the political incentives inside the party right now tend to push them in a different direction. If one of the possible candidates considered someone like Gates for such a position, it would probably be in spite of his realist inclinations. If these candidates were perceived to be too realist in their own views, that would most likely hurt their chances at winning the nomination. As we’ve seen in the last few years, realist remains a term of abuse in many Republican circles, and Republican hawks believe that it is supposed to be a mark against Obama’s foreign policy that many realists support parts of it. Obama has successfully co-opted some policies that were formerly identified with the GOP, but in some cases this is because he favors policies that Republicans used to endorse and have since repudiated. This was made possible as many realists and internationalists fled or were driven away from the GOP by the party’s record of failure and ideological inflexibility over the last decade. Partisans normally lament this sort of hemorrhaging of support, but when it comes to foreign policy uniformity is apparently more desirable than the electoral success that could come by including a wider range of views.

The response to this predicament in the last few years has not been to try to expand the definition of what Republicans in good standing are allowed to believe on foreign policy, but instead to constrict it even more. The campaign against Hagel is just the most recent instance of this push to narrow the definition of Republican foreign policy and of Republican partisan identification as well. Hagel’s critics reject his policy views, and they also reject the idea that he is a Republican.

One might think that a wounded, flailing party in need of political revival and policy reform would be eager to claim someone like Hagel as one of their own, but instead the response has been exactly the opposite. Having suffered multiple electoral setbacks and more than a few policy failures, the GOP should be looking to win back all the moderates, independents, and dissident conservatives that they have spent the last decade alienating through incompetence and ideological obsessions, but that isn’t happening. Instead, the willingness of future party leaders to oppose Hagel has become a test of their hawkish credentials, and presumably a failure to oppose him will become fodder in future primary campaigns.

Drezner refers to a more pragmatic second-term Bush administration, and there’s something to that, but this was also the period when the “surge” became an unquestionable litmus test and dissenting from the administration on its conduct of the Iraq war remained every bit as much as unforgivable deviation in 2007 as it had been to oppose the invasion in 2003. One of the reasons that Hagel is being nominated today by Obama is that most Republican Party elites during Bush’s second term turned on him with a vengeance when he objected to the “surge.” The 2006 election was the GOP’s first wake-up call on the Iraq war and foreign policy, but the party’s leaders have never heard it. Hagel was one of a relative few Republicans in Washington who understood that most Americans had turned permanently against the Iraq war and wanted it ended, and that was the main reason that he became persona non grata in his party from then on. As much attention as other issues are receiving in the debate over Hagel, the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war was what divided Hagel and Republican elites, and in that way the Iraq war continues to inflict damage on the party.

Hagel is hardly the only one receiving this kind of treatment. Remember that Jon Huntsman received some of his harshest criticism from Republican hawks because he favored a quicker end to the war in Afghanistan. If there was anyone representing Republican realism in the primaries, it was Huntsman, and most Republican elites held this against him. His position on the war in Afghanistan prompted one of those hawks to label him absurdly as “the furthest left of any purportedly serious candidate for the nomination when it comes to forming a response to Afghanistan.” We see some of the same ridiculous discussion of Hagel’s views as being to “the left” of Obama’s now. Republican hawks seem intent on handing the traditions of Eisenhower internationalism and Republican realism to “the left,” and many in the other party will be only too happy to welcome in the people they are stupidly driving out.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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