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The GOP’s Shallow Bench on Foreign Policy

John Norris notes that Republican foreign policy will continue to suffer from the legacy of the Bush years and a prolonged time out of power:

But what is more problematic for Republicans is that the experienced, senior-level experts who will remain in the game for 2016 carry with them the stigma of Iraq and Afghanistan — just as some of Carter’s people were hobbled by Iran. The next Republican nominee will need distance both from George W. Bush’s foreign policy and from Mitt Romney’s campaign. Even Jeb Bush — particularly Jeb Bush — would have to look like he was taking a very different approach to foreign policy than his brother.

I agree with Norris that this is what future Republican candidates should do, but I am less certain that they will do it. For one thing, many Republican hawks do not think that their views are a liability for the party. They didn’t think they had been repudiated in 2006 or 2008, and they still don’t think that. If anything, some hawks will conclude or already have concluded that Romney was not aggressive enough in his criticism of Obama’s foreign policy record. In short, most Republican hawks don’t think there is anything that needs to be changed, so they certainly don’t see a change as a political necessity. To some extent, Romney tried in the later stages of his campaign to make his foreign policy “look like” something different from the previous administration’s, but whatever the superficial or rhetorical differences the content was depressingly similar. Future Republican candidates may try to repackage the same sort of policies that failed in the past, but until there are significant policy changes they will continue to be vulnerable to the legitimate criticism that they are trying to return to the foreign policy of the Bush era.

Norris adds:

To be fair, disasters are often highly instructive for those willing to learn from them. Most successful businesspeople went through multiple failures before they got it right. Likewise, many of the best political professionals have suffered more than one long, losing election night. But even if they can sell the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan as lessons learned, the Republicans face a double whammy in 2016. Not only will they have been out of power for at least eight years, but Bush’s cadre was notoriously bad at mastering the prosaic duties of managing an effective foreign policy. Many of Bush’s appointees were disdainful of career public servants, allergic to actual expertise, and fond of grand visions built on shaky foundations [bold mine-DL]. It all adds up to a pretty thin bench.

The Republican predicament on foreign policy is that many in the party still don’t fully recognize or accept that any disasters happened on Bush’s watch. Many that do acknowledge that there have been failures pin the blame on poor execution by the Bush administration in the first term rather than on the policies being carried out. Perversely, the incompetence of the Bush administration that compounds Republican weakness on foreign policy also serves as an excuse to explain away Bush-era failures.

An additional impediment to the GOP’s learning from Bush-era failures is the plausible scenario that the public may be tired of Democratic control of the White House by the next election. Just as many Republicans assumed that the weak economic recovery would do most of their work for them this year, Republican hawks may assume that their future candidate will benefit from the public’s desire to reject the incumbent party without having to make any significant changes. Most Republican hawks already believe that major changes are unnecessary, and this would reinforce that belief.

Norris was commenting mainly on the weakness of the Republican policy expert “bench,” but the same can be said of their political leaders. Looking at the Republican “bench” of new political talent, two things stand out. The first is that virtually all of the party’s rising stars have as little foreign policy experience as Romney, and in some cases they have even less. That will make it more difficult for any of them to strike out in a new direction even if one of them wished to do so. The other is that, with the exception of Rand Paul, not one of them has expressed serious doubts or reservations about the Bush foreign policy record or questioned the desirability of an extremely activist and interventionist U.S. role in the world. Those most admired by activists and pundits remain firmly hawkish and supportive of aggressive foreign policy, and they remain convinced that this is one of their party’s strengths. They’re wrong about this, but unfortunately they seem to remain oblivious to that fact.

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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