Jacob Heilbrunn

Will Realism Make A Comeback in the GOP?

Politico recently observed that realism is as dead as a Dodo bird in the GOP. Neocons such as Elliot Abrams were quoted as saying that any opposition to democratization abroad in the party was nugatory. The article concluded:

Former Govs. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, have differed largely only in their attempts to outdo one another in committing to what Bush called the “freedom agenda.”

They’re all basically mainstream in their agreement about the [Obama] administration being too friendly toward enemies and too harsh toward allies,” said Randy Scheunemann, who was John McCain’s top foreign policy hand in 2008, has worked for former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and has informally advised other contenders.

Yet recently, Haley Barbour minuted that the Libyan venture was a bad idea. "What are we doing in Libya?" he asked. Barbour denounced the idea of nation-building and said that America has already "been in Afghanistan 10 years." This was enough to incur the wrath of the Wall Street Journal editorial page today, which enforces a kind of doctrinal discipline in the ranks of the GOP. Barbour's views, it essentially said, should be proscribed.

As the Journal put it,

As for "nation-building" in Libya, we have yet to notice a U.S. official who has advocated the deployment of American ground troops, much less a long-term mission rebuilding a Libyan state.

Mr. Barbour's glib resort to this trope of the isolationist left suggests he hasn't thought very hard about foreign policy. It is the kind of politics Americans have come to expect from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid—"this war is lost"—not Republicans who have since Reagan been the party of robust nationalism.

In essence, the line of the neoconservatives, liberal hawks, and the Journal is that the problem isn't that President Obama isn't pursuing the war--oops, I mean "kinetic conflict," as the administration likes to put it--too aggressively. It's that he isn't aggressive enough. But with the American people dubious about the Libyan venture, and Obama delivering a rather lawerly speech last night, full of ambiguities about when he will, and will not, intervene abroad, under the rubric of humanitarian action, it's a tough sell, at least politically, to try and capitalize on damning Obama as lacking martial vigor. The fact is that the man is now mired in no less than three wars. It used to be that one war--Korea, Vietnam--was enough to destroy a president's fortunes. Obama may weather all three.

So it's surprising that there isn't even more ferment in the GOP. Perhaps there will be. Barbour is unlikely to change course, though to claim any foreign policy expertise on his part would be quite a stretch. On the other hand, he could make the argument that the experts haven't done such a great job, either. Rand Paul, who is considering a run for the presidency, will emphatically attack intervention abroad. The likelihood of a true debate over foreign policy in 2012 inside the GOP keeps rising.

If the GOP wants to attack Obama in 2012 on foreign policy, it can't split the difference with him, arguing that that he should be even more vigorous abroad. The party has already tied itself into knots over Libya. This won't suffice if it wants to regain the White House. It will have to attack Obama directly.