Dan Drezner offers some explanations for why the Congressional GOP has bungled its handling of foreign policy issues so badly this year. This was one of them:
To get ahead in the GOP, you need to be a disruptor. In the olden days, members of Congress burnished their reputation by putting forward concrete policies and getting legislation passed. But passing bills through Congress is rarer now, and modern-day Republicans are not really rewarded for passing legislation, they’re rewarded for disrupting government. This gives backbenchers like Cotton an incentive to engage in some Schumpeterian “creative destruction” and get rewarded for it with more campaign contributions. The effect such stunts have on foreign policy are secondary.
There is something to all of what he says, but there are a couple other explanations that make more sense of the specific errors that House and Senate Republicans have made recently. The Iran letter was the brainchild of a freshman senator, it’s true, but it was endorsed by the majority leader and the rest of the Senate GOP leadership. If this is a case of a backbencher engaged in “disruption,” he is still doing it with the blessing of his party leaders. The party leaders in the Senate may not be that old, but at least three of them have been in the Senate for ten years or more. They didn’t fail to veto the letter stunt because they lack experience. They chose to sign off on it presumably because they agreed with what Cotton was trying to do, and that reflects the party’s broader problems with foreign policy.
The party’s policy professionals are typically very hawkish, and they are especially so when it comes to Iran. Instead of serving as a brake on demagogic and grandstanding politicians, they are often goading and cheering them on. There may be a few that find these spectacles with Netanyahu or the Iran letter embarrassing or counterproductive, but they are a small minority and they are safely ignored. Meanwhile, the politicians that take the greatest interest in foreign policy are usually inclined toward hard-line policies because this is where the advisers and pundits already are. They are then further encouraged in this by the party’s policy advisers and their “expertise” is praised by pundits in conservative media. Republican officials receive praise as long as they recite the correct lines, and it doesn’t matter very much what the officials actually know. The party’s continuing foreign policy ignorance problem contributes to all of this.
The stunts we have seen in the last two weeks were designed to have an effect on foreign policy, and that would seem to be their primary purpose. As it happens, both the Netanyahu and Iran letter stunts were designed and executed incompetently so that they have created an effect opposite to the one their architects intended. Still, I don’t think there’s any question that they were aimed squarely at sabotaging negotiations with Iran. That is certainly disruptive and destructive, but it’s also in line with the substantive policy preferences of the GOP on Iran.
Like Netanyahu, they claim to want a deal that will never be realized, and most of them are opposed to anything that doesn’t meet their maximalist, unrealistic standard. Their clumsy, off-putting tactics are not incidental to this insistence on maximalist goals, but come from the same mistaken belief that ever-increasing pressure produces capitulation. However, instead of capitulation these stunts have provoked enormous resistance and resentment, which is what the hard-liners’ preferred policy of continuing to increase pressure on Iran would also produce. In short, the foreign policy incompetence we’ve seen in the last two months comes from the flawed assumptions that the party’s hard-liners have about how politics, diplomacy, and international relations all work. They keep trying to ratchet up pressure and force the issue because they think this is what gets results in Washington and in dealings with other countries, and they do this because they have no clue how the other side in any given situation sees the world.