What would that agenda look like? A short list should include hearings on the Obama defense budget and the impact of the sequester on American forces; energy security; the war on terror; trade; human rights and democracy promotion; and the future of our relationships with China and Russia.
There are precedents for this type of strategic, deliberative exercise. In 1966, Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas held televised hearings on Vietnam that won national attention and influenced his party’s opposition to the war. In the 1980s, Congressman Les Aspin of Wisconsin sponsored wide-ranging seminars on defense planning and budgeting that helped move the Democratic Party’s policies on these issues toward the political center.
Properly structured, a series of Senate hearings would attract national media attention, help rebuild the credibility of Republicans to tackle important foreign-policy issues, and show voters that the party does not reflexively oppose the Obama administration, but has its own, better vision. New ideas would help frame the coming debate and set a new, more forward-looking agenda. They would help inoculate Republicans from Democratic attempts to revisit the Bush years, misbrand the party and marginalize any candidate who discusses national security.
Senate Republicans should also consider identifying issues that can win bipartisan support to demonstrate to a jaded public that the Republicans offer a better pathway for governing should they win the White House in 2016. One low-cost area would be to fast-track confirmation votes for State and Defense Department nominees. If individuals are incompetent, then of course they should be voted down; otherwise, it is simply good policy to get people in positions so they can do their jobs. It is also good politics, as it lays down a marker that can be cashed when the next Republican president submits his or her own nominees.
To be sure, there are dangers with this reframing. It is no secret that there are still serious foreign-policy differences within the Republican Party; exposing these fissures to the public may backfire. More importantly, polling data show that the American people do not really care about these issues. An April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that almost half of all Americans thought the United States should be less active in world affairs, versus 19 percent who said we should be more active. A mid-July poll similarly showed that almost two-thirds of the American people said that the nation’s biggest challenges are domestic ones. Focusing on foreign policy may suggest to voters that Republicans are out of touch with their everyday concerns and needs.
Yet Republicans should not shy away from foreign policy. If differences exist among the potential candidates, it is far better to have this debate in 2015 than to leave it unresolved and fought over during an election year.
Although it has become conventional wisdom that the American people are fatigued after two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to understand why they should be so tired, since they have been asked to sacrifice so little. Only service members and their families have paid the full price for our foreign interventions. It may be more accurate to say that the American people are simply mistrustful of their leaders in Washington. They are skeptical that officials in either the executive or legislative branch can exercise good judgment, make smart decisions and competently execute them. They lack confidence that Washington knows what it is doing.
Polling data support this interpretation. President Obama has given the American people what one pundit described to me as a “Jenny Craig” foreign policy: lower defense spending, fewer international commitments and less support for human rights. Yet it appears that this approach has left a sour taste; polls also show that the American people have not rewarded the president with high marks for his stewardship of foreign affairs.
Further, it should be possible for Republicans to explain to the voters that many of these foreign-policy issues are not so “foreign” after all; many have significant domestic implications and can be placed in the broader context of personal and family security. For example, deep military cuts have led to layoffs in the defense industry. The president’s slow rolling of the Keystone pipeline decision has undermined U.S. energy security and cost American jobs. Foreign jihadists gathering in Syria and Iraq directly threaten the American homeland, according to the Obama administration’s own counterterrorism officials. The president’s lack of an aggressive trade agenda has stifled job creation at home. China’s theft of intellectual property hurts American business competitiveness. Framing the issues this way can help the Republicans better connect with the voters as well as begin to stake out a coherent view of the world and America’s role in it for the 2016 campaign.
IT IS important to communicate a positive vision for what a Republican administration would want to accomplish in the world. No one wins the White House by only playing defense. As Winston Churchill, a man who knew a few things about winning and losing elections, once remarked, “It is no good going to the country solely on the platform of your opponents’ mistakes.”
Churchill would also have agreed that it is essential to avoid making mistakes of your own. In past presidential campaigns, a foreign-policy crisis has often erupted that has tested the Republican nominee. Should that time come in 2016, it will advantage the nominee greatly if he or she has already spoken fluently and with authority about his or her vision for the country.
A more sustained focus on world affairs might have prevented the Romney campaign from committing one of its most serious errors: the mishandling of the Benghazi tragedy, when four American officials, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were murdered by Islamic terrorists. In the pressure cooker of a tight race, the Romney campaign initially rushed to judgment before the situation was clear and many of the facts were known.
The Romney campaign’s misstep was seized upon and intensely scrutinized, while the media overlooked the larger story, which was that the Benghazi attack was one of four assaults by Al Qaeda affiliates on American embassies and consulates across North Africa, the Middle East and the Horn of Africa that day. These attacks not only undermined the president’s major claim to being a competent steward of U.S. national security—that he was winning the war on terror and that Al Qaeda was in retreat—but they also challenged his argument that the United States could reduce its international commitments without any harmful consequences.
The Benghazi tragedy provided a short-term political opening for Romney, but a rigorous examination of the president’s foreign-policy record never came to pass. The campaign was never able to place Benghazi within a larger foreign-policy critique of the Obama years. The narrative had not been adequately set in the minds of either the voters or the media that Obama’s handling of foreign policy was not the ringing success he claimed and that Romney had a better strategy for dealing with the threats facing the United States. More frustrating still was that Romney in fact had a set of core foreign-policy guidelines and principles (dating back to the 2008 election cycle and outlined in his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness), but did not talk much about them during the campaign (he gave a speech at the Citadel in October 2011 and one to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in July 2012). Would a more consistent and forceful articulation of his foreign-policy agenda have made a difference? I’d like to think so, but we’ll never know.
What we do know is that we are now in the second decade of the post-9/11 era, that national-security issues will continue to simmer and boil for the next two years, and that the country will be looking for the Republicans to offer better policies and real leadership. President Obama and his supporters may claim that he has avoided catastrophe, although more than 190,000 people have died in Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State has proclaimed a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Iran’s centrifuges continue to spin, Russia has threatened the post–World War II stability of Europe, and China has aggressively asserted maritime and territorial claims that challenge America’s friends and allies in Asia, to mention just some of the more prominent foreign-policy setbacks that have occurred these past few years. The question Republicans need to be asking is: Can we do better? If we think we can, then we need to persuade the American people that they can once again entrust us with the stewardship of U.S. foreign policy.
Over two hundred years ago, Edmund Burke wrote, “No men could act with effect, who did not act in concert; that no men could act in concert, who did not act with confidence; that no men could act with confidence, who were not bound together by common opinions, common affections, and common interests.” This November, the GOP should tackle the job of developing common opinions, affections and interests in earnest.