Foreign Policy

The Republican Neocon Consensus Has Collapsed

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Writing in The New Republic, the inimitable Eli Lake compares and contrasts the foreign policy ideas (though not necessarily credentials) of GOP presidential candidates, and the shift that's occurred since 2008. Short version: Concerns about Muslim integration, foreign policy realism, and an isolationist streak have replaced nation building and gun-point democratization as the GOP obsessions du jour. Points of conflict between candidates include whether the U.S. should be encouraging revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East (Michele Bachmann says no, heaps praise on Mubarak; Tim Pawlenty says yes), and whether our rush into Libya was a wise one, or whether it happened too slowly (again, Pawlenty and Bachmann are opposites on this question as well). Here's the gist:  

With the cantankerous exception of Ron Paul, most of the 2008 candidates didn't deviate much from the hawkish, democracy-promoting, nation-building foreign policy vision of George W. Bush. John McCain stood squarely with the president. Rudy Giuliani, too, made clear that he hoped to remake the world in America's image. Of all the major candidates, Romney's views were probably the least well-defined and the most complicated. But, to the extent that he had misgivings about Bush's foreign policy, he mostly kept it behind closed doors—and, in public, largely toed the Bush line.

In the last few years, however, new insurgents began to emerge within the party, and new ideas moved to the center of the debate. The result is not simply that Republican candidates are, on the whole, less inclined to support democratization and nation-building this time around. It's that the very terms of the GOP foreign policy discussion have changed—or rather imploded entirely, leaving in their wake a difficult-to-parse ideological brew of policy disagreements and competing instincts.

But there is one ring that binds them all: 

[I]t is important not to exaggerate the differences between the major GOP candidates. There are some things they do agree on. All are staunch supporters of Israel. And all seem eager to contrast their own patriotic rhetoric with what they see as Obama's self-effacing style of speaking about America. Romney captures this idea in his book No Apology, when he writes, "President Obama, always the skillful politician, will throw in compliments about America here and there. But what makes his speeches jump out at his audience are the steady stream of criticisms, put downs, and jabs directed at the nation he was elected to represent and defend." Pawlenty and Bachmann have both made versions of this argument, and you can expect to hear more of it as the campaign unfolds: In an era in which the Republican Party is trying to figure out what it stands for on the world stage, contempt for Obama is one thing that can still keep it together.

Earlier this month, Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy profiled some of the same FP advisors working on various GOP presidential campaigns.