Home/Daniel Larison/Hawks, “Moderates,” and Realists in the GOP

Hawks, “Moderates,” and Realists in the GOP

Conor Friedersdorf ends his Ames debate summary with this remark:

Given the fact that lots of rank and file conservatives are tired of foreign wars and the money they cost, it is bizarre that there aren’t more candidates taking a position that is more moderate on foreign policy than Ron Paul, but quite a bit less hawkish than the bulk of the Republican field.

I suppose it is bizarre, but there are a few reasons why this has happened. The most important factor is that the rank and file conservatives tired of foreign wars and their costs still not do make up a majority of Republican primary voters. On specific interventions, a plurality or majority of Republicans may be opposed, but on the whole self-identifying conservatives still tend to resist a foreign policy of prudence and restraint. There are more skeptical conservatives than there used to be, and there is generally greater Republican skepticism of entering foreign wars than there has been in well over a decade, but they are still a minority. One related factor is that ending these wars is not a high priority even for many Republican voters opposed to specific interventions, and another is that voters may be backing a candidate in the primaries for entirely different reasons and do so despite not sharing his foreign policy views. That infamous exit poll result showing McCain winning the antiwar and anti-Bush vote in New Hampshire was confirmation of the latter. Many Republican voters horrified by the Bush administration’s destructive foreign policy decisions may end up supporting candidates who agree with those decisions for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t mean that these voters aren’t war-weary and sick of meddling in other nations’ affairs, but that other factors prove to be more important in determining how they will vote.

For example, Rick Perry’s foreign policy promises to be a brasher, more obnoxious version of the Bush administration’s, but what Republicans who like him seem to find interesting about him is not the substance of his views on Iran or the “reset,” but rather the combativeness that he projects. A large bloc of Republican voters looks at the Obama administration and inexplicably does not see one of the most interventionist, militarized foreign policies of the last forty years. Because of partisan biases, and because they are in the party out of power, many Republicans are inclined to see Obama instead as accommodating and appeasing hostile states. If Obama “leads from behind,” as the tiresome attack goes, Perry would charge in with guns blazing, and for a large percentage of the GOP the latter is somehow more desirable. Since WWII it has been unusual for the minority party to rail against the incumbent for being too aggressive and too hawkish overseas, and it is even rarer when that attack yields electoral success. This has less to do with the merits of respective policy positions and more to do with the prevalence of American nationalism in shaping the politics of foreign policy, which encourages and rewards confrontational policies (at least until they backfire). As the more nationalist of the two major parties, the GOP is even less likely to attack an incumbent President for excessive hawkishness even when he richly deserves it.

One more factor that is frequently mentioned but not given enough attention is the perceived political “moderation” of foreign policy realists. While Conor was using the word moderate to refer to a position between the poles of Ron Paul’s non-interventionism and Tim Pawlenty’s neoconservatism, the bigger political problem for Republican realists is that many of them are or are perceived to be political moderates on domestic policy questions, and they tend to be weaker in their partisan attachments. Both of these contribute to the movement conservative view that they are “unreliable.” Huntsman occupies a sort of middle ground between Paul and Pawlenty on foreign policy, but he has also very deliberately positioned himself as the relative moderate in the race. In fact, Huntsman is not nearly so moderate as his admirers in the press or his campaign strategist claim, but he is perceived to be running away from the base of the party. Because of that, and because hawks have a vested interest in associating his foreign policy views with those instances when he has broken with movement conservatism, Huntsman’s sensible views on Libya and Afghanistan are treated as more proof that he is a “moderate.”

While realists recognize the enduring importance of nationalism in the world, and they are usually most interested in policies that serve American interests before anything else, they are also less likely to indulge in nationalist self-congratulation, triumphalism, and jingoism. They are unlikely to sympathize with popular anti-jihadism, and generally regard the hyping of foreign threats as demagoguery rather than a rational assessment of real dangers to national security. Because of this, many realists have a more difficult time making their foreign policy vision seem relevant to voters than alarmists. It is easier and more emotionally satisfying to exaggerate a threat, denounce an administration for “failing” to address it, and urge dangerous or counterproductive actions, and the alarmist hawks’ audience has come to expect this sort of thing.

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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