John Allen Gay recommends that Republicans turn towards realism to regain their squandered credibility on foreign policy. However, he attributes too much significance to Romney and Ryan’s less belligerent rhetoric in the closing weeks of the election:

In the final weeks of the campaign, Romney saw the damage his coterie of neocon advisors was causing him and broke free of their influence. His running mate remarked that the aim of a proposed tougher line on Iran was to prevent war, not provoke it; Romney noted in the final debate that America cannot “kill [its] way out of this mess” in the Middle East. Once unmoored from the neoconservatives, though, Romney had difficulty articulating a coherent alternative to the Obama administration’s policies—and was often perceived to be agreeing with them.

Gay is right to urge the GOP to turn towards a more realist foreign policy, but there shouldn’t be any illusions about the meaning of Romney and Ryan were saying at the debates. Romney didn’t “break free” of his hawkish advisers ahead of the last presidential debate. He employed less belligerent rhetoric while advocating for the same policies that he had been promoting all year long. Romney wasn’t “unmoored” from neoconservatives, but he did try to avoid sounding like a warmonger. His stated positions on Syria and Iran were driven by his desire to placate them. It is a common hawkish claim that an even more aggressive Iran policy, including military action, is intended to prevent war. This is often how warmongers speak in public. Rick Santorum has made this argument most often to shield himself from the perfectly accurate charge that he has been agitating for starting an unnecessary war. Hawks say such things to minimize the political liability of the aggressive policies that they favor.

If Republicans are going to move back to a more realist foreign policy, they’ll need to be able to distinguish between the substance of candidates’ policies and the rhetoric they use to promote them. If proponents of reckless and aggressive policies fall back on the slogan “peace through strength,” for instance, that shouldn’t blind anyone to the reality of what they’re advocating. An advocate of military intervention in a foreign civil war where the U.S. has nothing at stake or a supporter of unnecessary “preventive” war isn’t serious about preserving the peace. If a candidate measures the extent of America’s international engagement by our willingness to launch attacks on other countries or to dictate the outcome of their internal conflicts, the odds are good that he has a misguided, inflated understanding of U.S. national interests and the proper U.S. role in the world.

The public should also consider whether candidates can speak intelligently about both the benefits and limits of cooperation with other major powers or if they are inclined to see relations with other major powers in purely confrontational terms. Realists and all voters inclined towards a more prudent and restrained foreign policy should judge candidates based on how readily they portray every unfriendly state as “an irredeemable and oppressive menace.” If a candidate indulges in threat inflation to justify his preferred policies or tries to portray regional and minor powers as global threats, that should be a clear warning that he endorses an overly activist and ideological foreign policy that isn’t shaped by prudence or restraint.