The Republican Party suffered a severe blow on November 6, losing the presidential election and several key Senate races and provoking an intense discussion about the party’s future. Most of the changes will come in domestic policy—according to some, this is the root of the party’s worsening position in key minority groups and its inability to beat the incumbent in spite of a fragile economic situation. But changes in the foreign-policy arena will be just as vital for a GOP that can win again.
After many years in which the Republicans were the trusted party on foreign policy, exit polls showed that voters would trust Obama in an international crisis by several points more than Romney; voters that rated foreign policy as the most important issue facing America favored Obama nearly two to one. Undecided voters thought Obama won the foreign policy debate in the same ratio. This is a product of the extraordinary cost of the neoconservative project in Iraq. Its architects have remained unapologetic and unchanged at the top of the GOP, urging war with Iran in 2007 and into the present, calling for an indefinite U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and pushing new interventions in Syria, Mali and who knows where next.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Romney saw the damage his coterie of neocon advisors was causing him and broke free of their influence. His running mate remarked that the aim of a proposed tougher line on Iran was to prevent war, not provoke it; Romney noted in the final debate that America cannot “kill [its] way out of this mess” in the Middle East. Once unmoored from the neoconservatives, though, Romney had difficulty articulating a coherent alternative to the Obama administration’s policies—and was often perceived to be agreeing with them.
Identifying an appropriate path in today’s complex global situation will require a robust debate within and between the parties. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have developed a truly strategic model of America’s interests and abilities in the post-Cold War world.
The neoconservatives that dominate on the right suggest that every unfriendly state is an irredeemable and oppressive menace, a Soviet Union on a smaller scale. The liberal internationalists influential on the left see a world where great-power politics are irrelevant and soldiers are just particularly well-armed policemen. Both factions have a knack for identifying good guys, bad guys and a vital role for the United States in even the most ancient and intractable conflicts. Neither operates with a sense of history or of the ease with which national might dissipates.
The public has come to realize how counterproductive and costly these approaches are. Six in ten Americans (and six in ten swing voters) back a quick withdrawal from the strategically inconsequential nation-building project in Afghanistan. Only one in four saw a U.S. responsibility to stop the fighting in Libya, and only one in four see a U.S. responsibility to stop the fighting in Syria. Six in ten Americans, and seven in ten independents, want less involvement in political changes in the Middle East, and a majority favors stability there over democracy. The public is deeply concerned about a rising China, but only three in ten are more concerned about Chinese military power than they are about Chinese economic power.