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.”

The man who most starkly sees America as a crusader nation is Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, who would pursue a neocon foreign-policy agenda with even greater zeal than was seen in George W. Bush. He falsely claims Ronald Reagan as the progenitor of his grand view of America as a country than can “spread our vision to the rest of the world and make this country a safer country as a result of it.” He wants to fight in Afghanistan to eventual victory (though there is no hint of how long that might take or what an actual victory would look like). He wants to keep up to 30,000 troops in Iraq beyond the 2011 deadline. He would take what he calls the “War with Radical Islam” to wherever it led. He would deliver an eye poke to Russia by resurrecting the Bush-era idea of installing missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. And he advocates strong actions to counter China’s growing assertiveness in East Asia, though he offers few specifics.

Newt Gingrich, the former Georgia congressman, sees the so-called war on terror in much the same light as Santorum—as a long cultural struggle against “a small minority of Muslims but nonetheless a powerful and organized ideology within Islamic thought that is totally incompatible with the modern world.” But Gingrich, like Romney, has refrained from offering much in the way of specific prescriptions for how, when and where to wage that struggle. At one point he advocated an early exit from Afghanistan, but then two weeks later criticized Obama for wanting to get out too quickly. Likewise, he criticized the idea of leaving 3,000 troops in Iraq after 2011 but never suggested an alternative approach. “We either ought to leave enough troops to defend themselves or get ‘em all out,” he said, without suggesting which option he would favor.

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is an interesting case. She advocated aggressive action against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying, “We must defeat them in their backyard.” And she wants no cuts in the defense budget. But she seems cautious on questions of where and when America should intervene in the world. She says she would confine such interventions to instances when the country’s vital interests were at stake. Hence, she opposed the Libyan intervention as having no relation to the country’s well-being. And she is wary of democracy promotion in general. Indeed, she criticized Obama not for abandoning Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak too soon but for abandoning him at all. “We saw President Mubarak fall while President Obama sat on his hands,” she said. She later suggested the Arab Spring (which she, interestingly, sees as a disaster rather than a trend to be applauded and encouraged) emerged in part because Obama had demonstrated weakness in not being sufficiently supportive of Israel in the ongoing maneuvering between that country and the Palestinians.

Finally, Herman Cain has shown little inclination to put forth many foreign-policy pronouncements of any kind. He has offered no serious plan on Afghanistan, beyond criticizing Obama for his drawdown timetable. He did, however, oppose the U.S. intervention in Libya. On one issue he has been clear— support for Israel. He has said more than once that his “Cain Doctrine” is, “If you mess with Israel, you’re messing with the United States of America.” This leaves a clear impression that he is comfortable giving Israel a powerful influence over American foreign-policy making. In this he is not alone.

What this review suggests is that, to the extent there is a guiding Republican foreign-policy philosophy, it is essentially the neoconservative philosophy—the same outlook that guided Bush during his post-9/11 presidency and fueled John McCain’s 2008 White House quest. There are a few minor departures and nuances along the way, but none of much significance, and the few candidates who are most strongly opposed to the neocon view have gained little political traction so far.

That raises a question: Does this reflect the views of Republican voters out in the country, or is it merely a default position lodged in the party because nobody has emerged as a strong candidate with a coherent and comprehensive alternative that eschews equally Ron Paul’s isolationism and Rick Santorum’s institutional bellicosity? And could such a candidate touch a nerve in the GOP electorate, as Reagan did in the 1976 primaries with his attack on the Panama Canal treaty, by bringing forward a vision of the future far different from the world bequeathed to us by George W. Bush?

It doesn’t appear we will get an answer to that question because no such candidate seems to be on the horizon—at least so far. But that doesn’t mean party leaders and party voters are in sync on crucial matters of foreign policy in this election cycle.

Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Robert Golan-Vilella is an editorial associate at The National Interest.