The Neocon GOP: By Design or Default?

A review of the Republican candidates' foreign-policy pronouncements. George W. Bush-style policy is alive and well.

With 44,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and another 94,000 in Afghanistan, and with powerful events shaking the international system in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, one might think that the race for the Republican presidential nomination would spawn plenty of discussion and debate on the state of the world and America’s role in it. But no such discourse has emerged. There hasn’t been much engagement on foreign-policy issues.

Still, based on the candidates’ occasional pronouncements and proposals on their websites, we can discern in general where the Republican party stands on foreign policy. A National Interest review of those pronouncements and prescriptions indicates the party isn’t likely to move far beyond the foreign policy of George W. Bush.

It is true that three candidates have put forth foreign-policy prescriptions that depart from the Bush outlook, but none so far seems to be generating a political head of steam. Ron Paul of Texas puts forth a strong anti-interventionist message that veers close to isolationism. This represents a coherent foreign-policy outlook, but not one likely to galvanize the electorate, particularly given his demeanor as a political scold. He wants to bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, end the Libyan adventure and cease all efforts at nation building. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson echoes those sentiments, saying, “America simply cannot afford to be engaged in foreign policy programs that are not clearly protecting U.S. interests.”

Then there is Jon Huntsman, who calls himself a “realist’’ and proves it with a set of policies that represent a fundamental departure from Cold War and post-Cold War thinking. He not only wants a faster drawdown from Afghanistan than President Obama but also believes it is time to begin scaling back America’s military presence in Europe. He would end the incessant preoccupation with the Middle East and focus instead on Asia and U.S. relations with a surging China. He opposed America’s actions in Libya from the beginning and never wavered.

Beyond those three, however, the GOP candidates seem to cling to the general Bush outlook without much coherence of thought. The presumed frontrunner, Mitt Romney, seems particularly lacking in any coherent philosophical framework. He attacks Obama for the speed of his Afghanistan drawdown, for example, without offering a timetable of his own. (He says he would go with the recommendations of his generals.) He supported America’s role in the NATO intervention in Libya but criticized the way it was handled. His website calls for U.S. leadership in creating a “global military alliance of democracies dedicated to ensuring security and protecting freedom.” This scheme, expropriated from Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and the writings of polemicist Robert Kagan (also a Romney adviser), would be a recipe for an expanded American role in the world in the name of humanitarian principles—pure Wilsonism.

But Romney is relentless in his hostility toward China. He says that on his first day in office he would unilaterally slap trade sanctions against that Asian nation in retaliation for its currency policies (likely result: a devastating trade war), and he says Obama “caved” to Beijing by not selling the most sophisticated U.S. fighter jets to Taiwan. In his more general foreign-policy pronouncements, extolling “American greatness” and calling for a new “American Century,” Romney sounds rather like George W. Bush.

Governor Rick Perry of Texas seems to be a work in progress when it comes to foreign policy. When his apparent call for a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan brought a rebuke from South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, Perry quickly backpedaled but studiously avoided putting forth any timetable. In one speech, he talked about “taking the fight to the enemy, wherever they are.” But he immediately added that he opposed “military adventurism” and said Washington should only intervene abroad when its vital interests are threatened. It’s difficult to determine just what these rhetoric flights would add up to if they were to encounter the real world under a Perry presidency.

But on one thing he is entirely clear: his unconditional support for Israel. After a September 20 speech he told reporters that “as a Christian I have a clear directive to support Israel, so from my perspective it’s pretty easy.”