Many political about-faces go unacknowledged, both because they are embarrassing to their about-facers and because it's in nobody's interest to point out the obvious. And, to be honest, because lots of times the people making the changes aren't even aware that they've changed directions.
But for those of us who have long argued that the "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe" mentality that has (mis)guided U.S. foreign policy for most of the 21st century is a gigantic mistake, it's worth calling attention to a fundamental shift in Republican thinking.
"The Republican Party is no longer the party of regime change, no longer the party of wars of liberation," writes Eli Lake at Bloomberg View. This is an amazing and important change and it's one that's easy to miss amidst all the calls to increase defense spending, kick dirt on China, and refuse to even talk with Vladimir Putin. But Lake is right: The insanely ambitious rhetoric about not just nation-building but region-building from the Bush era has crumbled to dust as surely as Ozymandias' might works. Notes Lake:
Today Republicans are content to intimidate America's enemies, but not necessarily end the regimes.
Even Marco Rubio, the candidate with the most developed hawkish worldview, doesn't propose to end evil regimes. He has identified threats from Russia, China, Iran and radical Islam. But his main point is that U.S. power should be used to blunt these powers and strengthen the allies most threatened by them. Rubio is not promising liberation, so much as he is promising deterrence.
Lake provocatively argues that for the most part, the Republican presidential field is actually calling signals directly out of Barack Obama's playbook: With the exception of Carly Fiorina, most of them are talking about negotiating one way or another with Putin and Russia and even Iran (to get a better deal than the weak one they say Obama negotiated). Most of them are not talking about widening the Iraqi front into Syria either (which Obama also failed to do after his push to bomb Syria a couple of summers ago was attacked by Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz).
Whether the would-be presidential candidates are or are not inadvertently echoing elements of Obama's chaotic foreign policy (the president has not been shy about troop build-ups, drone strikes, extra-constitutional bombing runs, and underwriting torture at arm's length even as he has failed to deliver any meaningful victories), this much seems irrefutable:
The Republican field for 2016 has also begun to acknowledge, indirectly at least, the limits of American power to remake the world in its image. It's the kind of insight Senator Obama brought to the campaign trail in 2008. Today it lurks in the background of the Republican Party's approach to statecraft as the candidates audition for the presidency.
On the main debate stage earlier this week, only Rand Paul dared to openly admit as much. But I think Lake is absolutely on target with this and it may mean that discussions of U.S. foreign policy can start to revolve around a truth very much at odds with the rhetoric about America's ability to call all the shots all over the world.
Indeed, the sooner we as a nation begin to grapple openly with what we all know to be true—that we are in what Moisés Naím defines as an "end to power," in which all forms of centralized authority are waning—the more we might help increase global freedom and prosperity. This doesn't mean that the United States should shrink from the world, but it does mean that our engagements should be primarily commercial and cultural. And when it comes to military actions, our goals must be narrow, specific, and clearly articulated.