What Republican Foreign Policy Reform Requires
Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam propose a “cure for Trumpism” for the GOP. The foreign policy section makes some sense, but doesn’t get us very far:
To voters who watched their children bleed in Iraq and Afghanistan, or who have bled themselves, the party hasn’t provided much reassurance that it has learned lessons from those conflicts. With the exception of Rand Paul and the partial exception of Ted Cruz, the consensus critique of President Obama from not-Trump Republicans often seemed to be that he should have kept more troops in Iraq and kept more troops in Afghanistan and sent more troops to Libya and intervened in Syria and sent more arms to Ukraine and expanded NATO’s presence in the Baltics and been more willing to bomb Iran and …
Some of these policy prescriptions are reasonable, but taken together they look like a road map for more quagmires, more Afghanistans and Iraqs. This is the landscape in which Trump’s “America First” language resonated. And the ease with which Trump crushed Jeb Bush, in particular, suggests that it will continue to resonate until Republican leaders become more selective in their hawkishness, more comfortable with five simple words: Invading Iraq was a mistake.
It would be a good start if all future presidential candidates could acknowledge the disastrous and costly folly of the Iraq war, but it would only be a start. Admitting that the Iraq war was a grievous, horrible error is necessary but not sufficient to reform Republican foreign policy. The trouble with the rest of the 2016 field wasn’t just that many of the candidates were Iraq war dead-enders, but that they were so obsessed with the idea of American “leadership” that almost all of them thought that the U.S. needed to be involved in multiple conflicts in different parts of the world in one way or another. Almost none of the declared 2016 candidates opposed the Libyan war at the time, and very few concluded that the problem with intervening in Libya was the intervention itself. The standard hawkish line on Libya for years has been that the U.S. should have committed itself to another open-ended exercise in stabilizing a country we helped to destabilize. Most Republican politicians are so wedded to a belief in the efficacy of using hard power that they refuse to admit that there are many problems that the U.S. can’t and shouldn’t try to solve with it.
Until Republican politicians and their advisers start to understand that reflexive support for “action” (and some kind of military action at that) is normally the wrong response, we can’t expect much to change. Most Republican foreign policy professionals seem to hold the same shoddy assumptions that led them to endorse all of the interventions of the last 15 years without exception, and nothing that has happened during that time has caused most of them to reexamine those assumptions. Until they stop fetishizing American “leadership” and invoking “American exceptionalism” as an excuse to meddle in every new crisis, Republicans will end up in the same cul-de-sac of self-defeating belligerence. Unless Republicans adopt a much less expansive definition of “vital interests,” they will routinely end up on the wrong side of most major foreign policy debates.
Finally, unless most Republican politicians and their advisers overcome their aversion to diplomatic engagement they will end up supporting costlier, less effective, and more destructive policies for lack of practical alternatives. The virtually unanimous opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran is a good example of the sort of thing that a reformed Republican Party wouldn’t do. Opposition to the deal reflects so many of the flaws in current Republican foreign policy views: automatic opposition to any diplomatic compromise that might actually work, grossly exaggerating the potential threat from another state, conflating U.S. interests with those of unreliable client states, continually moving goalposts to judge a negotiated deal by unreasonable standards, insisting on maximalist concessions from the other side while refusing to agree to minimal concessions from ours, and making spurious and unfounded allegations of “appeasement” at every turn to score points against political adversaries at home. Obviously these are habits cultivated over decades and are not going to be fixed quickly or easily, but if the next Republican administration (whenever that may be) doesn’t want to conduct foreign policy as disastrously as the last one did they are habits that need to be broken.