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Foreign Policy Opportunities for the GOP

John Norris makes some interesting suggestions for how Republicans could seize the initiative on foreign policy. Here is his first proposal:

If Nixon could go to China, why can’t brave Republicans push for normalizing relations with Havana?

This is a good idea, but one that I doubt Republican hawks would be willing to contemplate. Pushing for normalized relations with Cuba would be a much-needed demonstration that Republican foreign policy thinking isn’t completely inflexible, and it would show that Republicans don’t want to hang on to failed policies indefinitely. It would be a relatively painless change to make politically, and it might even work to the GOP’s benefit in a Cuban-American community that is no longer as reliably supportive of the party as it once was. The main reason that it isn’t likely to happen is that pro-embargo, anti-engagement attitudes are so entrenched among most national Republican leaders that any significant change on Cuba policy in favor of normalized relations would be seen as a betrayal of principle. Hawks and democratists would both throw a fit, and accuse anyone who proposed this as a friend of Castro. This is completely the wrong way to look at it, but it is unfortunately the way that party leaders steeped in moralizing rhetoric tend to view these things.

The case for renewed Republican interest in promoting free trade is less clear-cut. First, it’s not as if Republican politicians and pundits haven’t tried using free trade as a bludgeon against the administration over the last four years. Many of them tried to shoehorn this criticism into the mostly bogus argument that Obama was treating U.S. allies poorly, but even on its own this wasn’t a very effective attack. It hasn’t “worked” because Obama hasn’t been as hostile to trade agreements as his critics have claimed, and because pushing for even more free trade is a political loser. The last thing that Republicans need to be doing is reinforcing the mostly justified view that their party’s agenda prioritizes corporate interests over the interests of workers, and that is the message that a new focus on trade would send. Republicans might “look serious on the economy” in the eyes of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal by doing this, but that is hardly the audience it needs to reach at present. It would be more politically valuable for Republicans if they made some effort to demonstrate that they actually believed the “fair” part of the “free but fair trade” phrase. As it is, when Pawlenty or Rubio has said this in the past it has been little more than a throwaway line, and I think most Americans can recognize it as such.

Norris’ most questionable recommendation is on North Korea. He writes:

With the Korean peninsula ever-more restive, Republicans may be positioned to get some mileage out of the situation if the situation continues to erode and U.S. handling of the crisis looks poor. The challenge for Republicans will be take shots at the White House for its handling of North Korea in a way that doesn’t look crassly opportunistic or overtly bellicose [bold mine-DL]. That might require more discipline in the Republican foreign-policy ranks than we have seen of late.

This seems like a lose-lose proposition for Republicans, and more important it is an undesirable invitation to mischief-making. There is nothing easier than attacking an administration’s handling of North Korea. North Korea defies every kind of American and allied approach, so it’s easy enough to point out that current policy isn’t “working” in the sense that North Korea continues to make threats and act provocatively no matter what anyone else does. For that reason, it’s extremely difficult to criticize any administration’s response without appearing “crassly opportunistic or overtly bellicose.” It’s also a situation that is tense enough that the U.S. and South Korea aren’t going to benefit from more agitation here for “doing more.” I fear that this is the only suggestion that Norris makes that Republican hawks might end up following, because it is the one where the potential for irresponsibility and doing real damage is greatest.

To add to Norris’ suggestions, here is one more that most elected Republicans could agree on that would be both wise and politically savvy. Republicans in Congress should publicly reject any further U.S. meddling in the Syrian conflict. There is no enthusiasm among rank-and-file Republicans for arming the opposition there. Like most other Americans, most Republicans see no reason to do this, and they don’t want the U.S. more involved in the conflict. This is a position that would show that McCain, Rubio, et al. don’t speak for the party on this issue, and it would align the GOP with public opinion while holding a position that is in the best interests of the U.S. This would demonstrate that there are some conflicts that Republicans don’t want the U.S. involved in, and it would put them in a far better position to criticize the administration’s coordination of arms shipments from the Saudis and Qataris. As it is, McCain and Rubio are the public faces of most of the party on this issue, which means that Republicans are identified with policy options that are overwhelmingly unpopular as well as being foolish.

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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