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The GOP’s Foreign Policy Fantasy Problem

Illustration by Michael Hogue

Jonathan Bernstein comments on the negative reviews of the Republican candidates’ foreign policy statements at the debate:

They’re not saying the Republican candidates are promoting foolish policies; they’re saying the entire debate, with only a handful of exceptions, was an exercise in fantasy.

The critics are right about the debate, but it’s not as if this is unusual for a presidential primary debate among mostly hawkish candidates. It certainly isn’t unusual for Republican foreign policy arguments over the last six years. It’s correct to say most of what the candidates said on Tuesday night was divorced from reality, but then most hawkish attacks on the administration’s record have been no different. Ever since it became popular to accuse Obama of going on an “apology tour” or to assert that he doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism (both of which date to his first year in office), Republican hawks have been railing against a mostly imaginary record. Even when there are genuine policy failures and horrible decisions that could and should be used against the president, hawkish critics have opted for the least credible and most preposterous lines of attack based on the fantasy record they have concocted. That makes them a fairly useless political opposition, and it guarantees that the real failings of our foreign policy don’t receive the scrutiny they should.

We can this most clearly in the complete failure to hold Obama accountable for his illegal war in Libya while being obsessed with the 2012 Benghazi attack that followed from that war. Hawkish interventionists couldn’t object to Obama’s decision to start a war (and many Republicans supported that war), but they were desperate to portray him as indifferent to terrorist threats, which is itself an extension of their need to see Obama as “retreating” from the world and blind to the dangers of jihadism. Many other examples are available. Almost all Republican presidential candidates fault Obama for withdrawing residual forces from Iraq and blame the growth of ISIS on the withdrawal. They always ignore that there was no way that U.S. forces could have stayed in Iraq without being put under Iraqi jurisdiction, and they definitely ignore that the original status of forces agreement was negotiated by the previous administration. They also ignore that Iraqis opposed a U.S. military presence and a new insurgency would probably have started if the hawks had had their way. If our reality doesn’t validate their “Obama chooses decline” and “weakness is provocative” beliefs, they have to imagine another one that does.

The reaction to the unobjectionable, modest New START may be the most telling example. Despite broad support for the treaty from the military and arms control experts, there was almost no Republican support for it in the Senate, and the critics used the most nonsensical arguments to justify their opposition. They latched on to a non-binding preamble as proof that the treaty limited missile defenses when the actual treaty contained no provisions related to this, and they complained that a strategic arms reduction treaty didn’t include tactical nuclear weapons. Mitt Romney went out of his way that year to make a fool of himself by repeating a number of ridiculous and discredited arguments against the treaty, which led Fred Kaplan to dub his attack on New START as “shabby, misleading, and thoroughly ignorant.” But this wasn’t just Romney demonstrating how little he knew. Romney was repeating the bogus objections that other hawks in his party were already making against the treaty. Besides, Obama wanted the treaty ratified, so Romney must have thought that he had to denounce it as one of the biggest sell-outs of all time. If that required making up silly reasons to oppose the treaty, so be it. The response to all this from his own party was to applaud, and later after Romney had lost the election the response was to pretend that Romney’s bad foreign policy arguments had been vindicated. A party that encourages the belief that “Romney was right” about anything important on foreign policy is one that has chosen not to take these issues seriously nor to deal with the world as it is.

I could go on for a while, but I’ll offer just one more example. Republican hawks treat is as an absolute certainty that Obama “missed an opportunity” for regime change in Iran during the Green movement protests. They are certain of this despite the fact that the protesters weren’t seeking regime change and couldn’t have achieved it even if they had been. The “opportunity” they claim that Obama missed never existed, but they insist that it was there for the taking all the same so that they can accuse Obama of “allowing” the Iranian regime to remain in power. It is one thing to complain that Obama didn’t respond to the protests as vocally as the hawks would like, but it is something else entirely to pretend that it was within Obama’s power to hasten the toppling of a foreign government by offering rhetorical support to protesters that didn’t want to overthrow their government. That is where the usual opposition carping about supposed presidential foreign policy failure crosses over into the realm of make-believe and absurdity. Unfortunately, that is where most Republican foreign policy arguments end up these days. That problem didn’t just start this cycle, it isn’t limited to the “outsider” and demagogue candidates, and it goes much deeper than most people in or out of the GOP would like to admit.

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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