Jacob Heilbrunn

God Bless George F. Will

"Republicans who think America is being endangered by `appeasement' and military parsimony have worked that pedal on their organ quite enough." So says George F. Will in his column today. To which one can only respond: Amen.

Will's column amounts to a vivisection of Mitt Romney, who has made a number of ostentatious claims about how he would restore the American preeminence that has allegedly been squandered by the Obama administration. His principal point is this: traditionally, the GOP has held an edge over the Democrats when it came to national security. Democrats were seen as temporizers, unable to face up to the fact that America actually had an adversary (the Soviet Union) that was determined to surpass it. As a result, Republicans, at least since 1972, battened on the public's perception that Democrats were weak and soft and feeble when it came to foreign affairs.

Now, in an attempt to portray Obama as the latest manifestation of Democratic pusillanimity, the GOP has taken to bewailing the exit from Iraq and the looming one from Afghanistan. Those policies may be popular and common sense, but Romney will have none of it. "We should not negotiate with the Taliban," says Romney. "We should defeat the Taliban." Great. But how? Should we stay for several more decades in an effort to create an Afghanistan in America's image?

Will notes,

Do Republicans think it is premature to withdraw as many as 70,000 troops from Europe two decades after the Soviet Union’s death? About 73,000 will remain, most of them in prosperous, pacific, largely unarmed and utterly unthreatened Germany. Why do so many remain?

Since 2001, the United States has waged war in three nations, and some Republicans appear ready to bring the total to five, adding Iran and Syria. (The Weekly Standard, of neoconservative bent, regrets that Obama “is reluctant to intervene to oust Iran’s closest ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”) GOP critics say that Obama’s proposed defense cuts will limit America’s ability to engage in troop-intensive nation-building. Most Americans probably say: Good.

Just because they say it's good, of course, does not mean that this is actually the case. Republicans will argue that they are following in Ronald Reagan's footsteps, and that sometimes it's courageous to take stands that not everyone may be gung ho about but that will be vindicated in time, just as Reagan's tough policies toward the Soviet Union were vindicated (though the history of Reagan's approach toward the evil empire does become somewhat selective, but that is another matter). It's also reasonable to quibble about whether American troops should be withdrawn en masse from Europe. And America's role as a global power is not going to end any time soon, in large part because it redounds to our economic benefit. The costs of not maintaining a global free-trading system would be far higher than any current outlays.

The real problem with the GOP approach is that it maintains the illusion of omnipotence. It leaves behind great-power status for the "I am the greatest" approach. The GOP worships unilateralism. This has less in common with Reagan than George W. Bush. Now war with Iran—and Syria?—is preoccupying the minds of the neocons. But knocking out Iranian nuclear facilities, as the estimable Walter Pincus reminds us today, is no simple task. In pushing for a strike, or even regime change, the GOP, to borrow from Talleyrand, has "learned nothing and forgotten nothing."

The point, to put it another way, is that the policy of bombast but not bluff—which is to say that America really has invaded several countries in the past decade at great cost—has largely failed. If the GOP could point to great successes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would be one thing. Instead, it is a party stuck in default mode. Even though Obama is clearly not a wimpy Democrat on foreign affairs, leading Republicans persist in trying to depict him as dangerously complacent about American national security. Meanwhile, Obama is trimming the size of the military and reorienting it towards Asia, both sensible and overdue moves that will do more to enhance America's prosperity and security than any of the rodomontade about appeasement.