John Hulsman, contributing editor for The National Interest and now the first von Oppenheim-Scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, has been saying for months that if the Republicans did poorly in the 2006 midterm elections, the "civil war" in the Republican Party over foreign policy would begin today.
Over the next two years, Republican presidential hopefuls will have to decide whether to run on the basis of or in opposition to the Bush legacy in foreign policy. The election results will strengthen the case of those who have argued that it was a mistake for the president to depart from the realist sentiments he expressed during the 2000 campaign. Of course, in recent weeks leading figures who have been associated with the neoconservative camp have validated a second Hulsman prophecy-that failures in Iraq, the Middle East and elsewhere around the world have been attributed not to any flaws in the world view that posits that, if only for the proper amount of will, American power can be used to fundamentally reshape entire segments of the world at little cost or danger to vital U.S. interests, but to personal incompetence. Perhaps a Weimaresque version of the "stab in the back" thesis is already being drafted; that success in Iraq was snatched away by a motley crew of traitors and weaklings unable to properly handle a "muscular" foreign policy.
But any such view is likely to be vigorously contested by what we might term the Midwestern pragmatic realists of the Republican Party and their stalwarts in the Senate. And the battle for the legacy and mantle of Ronald Reagan will continue to be the barometer. I expect a continued tug of war over the WWRD (what would Reagan do) answers. Which is a better guide to true "Reaganism" for the foreign policy questions of the day? With regard to Iraq, the Reagan of Grenada or the Reagan of Lebanon? (And, on a related note, will there be a religious factor? Will a moderating impulse be generated from the low church Episcopal-Methodist-Lutheran segment of the party which in the past two decades was displaced to some extent by the rise of the extra-denominational megachurch movements and the migration of Southern Baptists from the Democrats to the Republican fold?)
While a low level civil war may engulf the Republicans, it won't be smooth sailing for the Democrats, whose "Orange Revolution meltdown clock" has also started ticking. I compare America's Democrats to Ukraine's Orange coalition-which in opposition was a masterful and powerful political force-but proved unable to hold itself together once electoral victory was achieved in December 2004. Anti-Bush sentiment held together a quite fractious and diverse coalition, but really, can there be a cohesive position on issues that Casey and Webb Democrats, Lieberman, Clinton and Biden Democrats, and Pelosi, Dingell, and Conyers Democrats can all agree on? It is not simply about how to move forward in Iraq; what to do about Iran may just as easily rip wide open any tenuous unity that has been achieved among Democrats. Moreover, what happens, say, if President Bush asks for and accepts the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld and then nominates Joe Lieberman a la Bill Clinton bringing Bill Cohen on board during his second term-making an appeal to disinterested bipartisanship for the sake of the national interest? So many Democratic congressional candidates ran on an anti-Rumsfeld platform-but who they would want to see replace him was left unsaid. Would that be sufficient? How would a Senator Clinton react, for example, to such a proposal?
This raises a final observation. Opinion polls demonstrate that many Americans want a foreign policy that, while not grounded in amoral Metternechian realpolitik, is none the less firmly rooted in realism of a more ethical variety. Will divided government produce a new alignment toward a realistic foreign policy-or will idealistic interventionists of left and right, particularly in the Senate, forestall the "return of realism?" Remember Joe Biden and John McCain's warning about the dire consequences two years ago if the "realists" come back? Will Joe Lieberman's victory be spun to the tune that a more "moderate" version of the current Bush approach can win the "vital center" of the American electorate?
Americans want a more focused, pragmatic foreign policy based on a morality of results, not intentions. Whether this election will deliver change in this direction, however, remains to be seen.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.