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.
These polls show realism could be an electoral asset and that neoconservatism is an electoral liability. Moreover, embracing realism would allow GOP candidates to make coherent and responsible critiques of Democratic foreign policy. Compared to the Bush administrations dominated by neoconservatives, the electorate seems to reason, Obama’s foreign policy appears to be a success. He hasn’t gotten us into any disastrous wars, and he even has some achievements, including an arms-control treaty with Russia, crippling sanctions on Iran and hundreds of dead terrorists.
From the realist perspective, however, the story does not end there. The administration alienated both Russia and China so that it could wage an inconsequential war in Libya and take the moral high ground (without doing anything) in Syria; Russian and Chinese anger complicates efforts to manage Iran. Washington continues to spend blood and treasure on a mission civilisatrice in Afghanistan even as a half dozen similar black holes have formed around the globe. The rebalance toward Asia has worried the Chinese without countering them. Obama has largely failed to turn America’s economic might into a source of international influence and domestic prosperity, making minimal progress on opening new markets to American goods while watching as the world swings toward protectionism. Not creating any neoconservative catastrophes doesn’t mean Obama is on track for a second Nobel.
Some realists are migrating away from the GOP, which seems far more in thrall to its neoconservatives than the Democrats are to their liberal internationalists. (The flirtation is requited: the president has been repeating a Jon Huntsman mantra against nation building.) The realists that have stayed with the Republican Party are increasingly elderly. If eventually the Republican realists are all alienated, departed or dead, the party will be left with only the neoconservative albatross around its neck. That could kill even the most comprehensive domestic-policy reorientation and ensure that the GOP settles into second place, contending only when the Democrats perform abysmally. This would damage both parties, foster radicalism and push our nation’s politics deeper into the gutter.
John Allen Gay is program assistant for the Regional Security Program and the Program on American National Security in the Twenty-First Century at the Center for the National Interest.