Jacob Heilbrunn

The GOP Foreign Affairs Debate

National-security adviser Thomas Donilon spoke at the Brookings Institution yesterday on nuclear-nonproliferation efforts. Iran, he said, is no longer on the ascendant. He concluded, "Rather than looking to Iran, people in these Arab countries are looking in the opposite direction—towards universal rights, towards democracy."

Are they? As Benny Morris regularly observes on this website, Egypt is all over the map when it comes to democracy and its future. One prospect is that Islamists will take over. So much for democratic aspirations. But whether or not that happens—and it may not be happening for a while—is almost irrelevant. The perception is that democracy is sweeping across the Middle East and that the Obama administration has terrorists on the run. Obama has, willy-nilly, become a foreign-policy president.

As the Republican party candidates for the presidency debated last night, the majority tried to zing President Obama for being too soft on America's adversaries. But this dog won't hunt. The two candidates who recognize that are Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Unfortunately, Mitt Romney, as he tries to fashion himself into a conservative, a laborious process that hasn't quite taken yet, sounds like he is stuck on automatic pilot. Writing in the Daily Beast, Peter Beinart has observed that breathing fire on foreign policy has become the GOP's "Muzak." The danger with Muzak, however, is that it lulls everyone into a somnolent sleep. How often can the GOP thunder about appeasement before it starts to lose credibility? That point may already have arrived.

Romney, for example, attacked Huntsman for stating that the funds being wasted on the war in Afghanistan could more profitably be used back at home. "Are you suggesting, Governor, that we just take all our troops out next week or what—what's your proposal?" In reality, Huntsman said he simply wanted to reduce the number. But with the Washington Post reporting today that al-Qaeda has largely been demolished by Predator missile strikes in its redoubts in Pakistan, it seems hard to argue, as Romney appears to suggest, that Washington should continue its eleemosynary efforts in Afghanistan in perpetuity. There remains a peculiar disjunction between the GOP's condemnations of social welfare at home and its readiness to lavish such benefits on hostile foreign populations. Romney also appeared to call for what amounts to a higher gas tax on Americans in the form of acknowledging that further sanctions on Iran could drive up the cost of oil—"I know it's going to make gasoline more expensive," he said. For his part, Newt Gingrich, who made some conciliatory noises about immigrants, also tried to sound reasonable by stating that he would only bomb Iran "as a last resort." Good to hear. Presumably this is supposed to count for a concession.

The more pertinent question is whether America can afford the imperial burdens that Donilon and Obama appear to be extending. Their true focus is on Asia, which is fine, and on increasing America's military presence in the region, which may not be. Who is going to pay for it? Japan? Once again, America may be running the danger of what Yale historian Paul Kennedy many years ago called "imperial overstretch."

Still, there are rumblings in the GOP about the extent of America's commitments abroad. For now, Huntsman and Paul are their most eloquent exponents. In contrast to Paul, however, Huntsman is anything but an isolationist. His worry is that America can no longer compete economically, particularly with China. What this debate showed, then, is that the GOP candidates are genuinely debating what the party should stand for in foreign affairs.