Can Mitt Romney Recover the Soul of Republican Foreign Policy?

For these neoconservatives, their seminal professional experience was Reagan's decision to discard détente with the Soviet Union in favor of a more confrontational approach. His foreign-policy ideology could be seen in the largest peacetime defense buildup in American history, support for anticommunist proxies in Central America and Africa, his description of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" and his spirited demand in Berlin that Mikhail Gorbachev "tear down this wall." This neoconservative outlook generally stood for the values-based proposition that U.S. military power should be unsurpassed and largely unconstrained in confronting and defeating (rather than accommodating) evil empires and nations, the better to advance the march of democracy. Neoconservatives also have a famously close affinity for Israel as a scrappy democracy amid autocracies.

In adopting a more confrontational stance toward the Soviet Union and engaging it in an arms buildup that bankrupted Moscow into submission, Reagan was the proverbial "right leader at the right time." A strong case can be and has been made that he deserves much credit for winning the Cold War. Even by his own second term, however, Reagan had moderated his foreign policy to the extent of proposing a world without nuclear weapons to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986 (a suggestion that appalled true neoconservatives such as Perle). Reagan's proxy war also came back to haunt him in the form of the Iran-contra affair, the worst scandal of his Oval Office years.

By the time Vice President George H. W. Bush was elected president in 1988, more moderate internationalists and realists emerged once again in the embodiment of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs who had served as Reagan's national-security adviser. Bush 41 himself had a résumé right out of the liberal-internationalist playbook--northeastern patrician, Ivy Leaguer, successful in business, former envoy to China, head of the CIA and vice president.

The Bush team engineered a peaceful end to the Cold War and a soft landing for a disintegrating Soviet empire; the successful reunification of Germany; and a victorious Persian Gulf War to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. It was an impressive foreign-policy trifecta, and the Bush team used the momentum to pursue a "new world order" in which the twentieth-century scourge of state-on-state aggression would be consigned to history and Israel would be pressured to reach a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians to stabilize the Middle East.

But back home, amid recession, a weary public was looking for a "peace dividend" and listening to an upstart Democrat from the baby boom generation who argued that "it's the economy, stupid." Because the Cold War and opposition to communist tyranny had energized Republicans so intensely, the GOP was set adrift by the disappearance of an overarching Soviet threat. The 1992 defeat of George H. W. Bush by Democrat Bill Clinton, a former southern governor with little international experience, certainly heightened that sense of confusion. Throughout the 1990s, Democrats searching for their own foreign-policy narrative in a transformed world would have the benefit of one of their own in the White House, riding herd over a fractious caucus and controlling the most powerful levers in foreign affairs. Clinton's narrative held that America's role in the world was still that of the "indispensable nation" leading like-minded countries in collective actions against common threats. He led NATO into the Balkans, proposed landmark arms-control agreements and tried to reach a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Camp David.

Clinton's election and Newt Gingrich's counterwave "Republican revolution" of 1994 represented a generational passing of the torch. The World War II generation, bedrock of the Cold War consensus, began passing from the scene. In its place rose the baby boom politicians who never had reconciled deep partisan ruptures over the 1960s counterculture revolution and Vietnam. Deep foreign-policy disagreements soon seeped into the hyperpartisan catfight of Washington politics.

The 1994 GOP revolution also heralded a seismic shift in the domestic political landscape. The party had waned in those areas of the country that represented the liberal-internationalist tradition--the Northeast, West Coast and upper Midwest. The post-1994 party reflected the views of the Deep South and Mountain West, fertile ground for Jacksonian "don't tread on me" nationalism as well as unilateral and isolationist impulses.

Not surprisingly, this younger generation of Republican politicians was committed to shrinking the size of government, even if that meant a smaller role for the United States overseas. Gingrich's poll-tested "Contract with America" hardly mentioned foreign policy or national security, other than supporting a national missile-defense system advocated by Reagan.

For a time in the 1990s, the Republican Party flirted with isolationism, the theme of former Republican presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan's book A Republic, Not an Empire. Echoing isolationists from the 1930s, it argued that the United States need not have been drawn into World War II. Though that made the book controversial, Buchanan's essential argument resonated strongly with many of the new southern Republican leaders who rode Gingrich's revolution to Washington or to the chairmanships of key congressional committees. Arrogant U.S. foreign-policy elites had overcommitted America to wars in regions where it had no vital interests, Buchanan argued, and betrayed U.S. sovereignty by tying its fortunes to agencies of "an embryonic world government" such as the UN, WTO and IMF.

These Republicans thus criticized Clinton's nation-building interventions in Bosnia and Haiti as international social work. After aligning with powerful committee chairmen such as Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Republican revolutionaries pushed for withholding dues from the UN, cutting State Department funding and reducing foreign aid. Republicans also disavowed NATO's air war over Kosovo as "Clinton's war," and in 1999 the Republican Senate defeated the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The dominant narrative offered by the Republican revolutionaries about America's rightful role in the world probably hewed closest to Andrew Jackson's populist nationalism. Philosophically, they were suspicious of the federal government and of multilateral engagement that could impinge on U.S. sovereignty, whether expressed in international treaties or in undue deference to the UN.

But this minimalist outlook was opposed by the neoconservatives. In 1999, Senate Republicans voted to oppose NATO airstrikes in Kosovo, even while the Republican House was impeaching the president. The editors of the Weekly Standard, an influential neoconservative journal, came to Clinton's defense. "As a result of that vote, and of the neo-isolationist arguments that leading Republicans made to support their position, Republican foreign policy is now mired in pathetic incoherence," the editors wrote. "Is this the party of Reagan or the party of [Patrick] Buchanan?"

After the 2000 election, George W. Bush had to confront that question. In building his foreign-policy and national-security teams, Bush drew from each of the party's competing foreign-policy camps. Most prominently standing in for the hard-line nationalists were Vice President Dick Cheney, a Wyoming native whose mild demeanor belied a bone-deep conservatism, and John Bolton, a favorite of Jesse Helms who served under Bush as a top arms-control official at the State Department and later as ambassador to the United Nations. (He was so openly disdainful of both arms control and the world body that the Senate refused to confirm him as ambassador, and he was seated under a recess appointment.) The internationalists were represented at the State Department through Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and State Department policy head Richard Haass.

But the Bush administration also was stocked with leading neoconservative lights, most notably Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, considered an intellectual high priest among neoconservatives; Pentagon number-three Douglas Feith, a former protégé of Richard Perle; National Security Council official Zalmay Khalilzad and Cheney chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby, both former Wolfowitz protégés; and Perle, a member of the Defense Policy Board.

No one knows how Bush might have used the dynamic tension between those camps to forge a new Republican narrative. After the national trauma of 9/11, his foreign policy quickly emerged as an alliance of the hard-line nationalists and neoconservatives with the rapid marginalization of Powell and the internationalists. Bush himself revealed this in his January 2002 State of the Union address, in which he declared that the war on terrorism would be global and go far beyond targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Evoking an image of America anointed by God to confront a spreading evil around the world, preemptively and unilaterally if need be, Bush also put nations seeking weapons of mass destruction (an "axis of evil" that included North Korea, Iraq and Iran) directly in the U.S. crosshairs.

While Bush's speech played well in the U.S. heartland, it struck much of the world as messianic and menacing. The American superpower, fresh from "victory" in Afghanistan, now was brandishing its sword at rejectionist nations, with almost no consultation with allies or coalition partners. The Bush neoconservatives believed that American ideals and the U.S. military would not just contain or deter but decisively defeat Islamic extremism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the radical states that nourished those scourges. From that vision flowed other elements of the Bush doctrine: a focus on coercion and regime change, preventive war and unilateral action masked by ad hoc "coalitions of the willing."

As former national-security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told me at the time, "After victory in the Cold War, a number of 'grand visions' competed conceptually for preeminence in the United States, and one of them was the neoconservative vision. President Bush adopted their worldview."

This worldview yielded a costly and unpopular preventive war in Iraq, the spread of anti-Americanism worldwide and a pronounced decline of trust in the quality of U.S. leadership. For perhaps the first time in the modern era, even close U.S. allies came to distrust American motives. The eventual result was that top neoconservatives and hard-liners who stoked the ideological fires and steered foreign policy in the first Bush term, winning the president to their cause in the process, were shown the door during his second term (including Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby and Donald Rumsfeld).

The second Bush term was driven by the more cautious and moderate vision of Republican realists and liberal internationalists, most notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. They attempted to mend ties with bruised Western allies, engaged in negotiations even with "evil regimes" in North Korea and Iran, and reinserted the United States into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a mediator. This won the derision of neoconservatives. "What we've seen is a real wavering on the principles that were articulated throughout the first term, when Bush seemed to be a truly revolutionary figure," Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank and intellectual home to many neoconservatives, told me at the time.

Now Mitt Romney must reconcile the tensions between these competing foreign-policy camps. That will require, first, the rendering of a verdict on the Bush years. The neoconservatives who dominated Bush's first term, unrepentant about the Iraq War, continue to argue for greater American assertiveness against adversaries such as Iran and military support for democratic revolutions in places such as Libya and Syria. Tea Party hard-liners remain suspicious of entangling alliances, arms-control treaties and institutions of global governance such as the United Nations, while the evangelicals among them have a visceral connection to the Israeli Right.

"The ghost of the Cold War consensus that supported U.S. leadership of a global, commercial order has passed," says Walter Russell Mead, "and that has created disarray in U.S. foreign policy in general and a civil war in the Republican Party in particular." The GOP's populist energy now comes from people who want the United States to stop being the world's policeman and social worker, focusing instead on fixing what's broken at home. Mead sees the party factions competing to enlist the Jacksonian tea partiers as foot soldiers in their particular causes. He adds:

My reading of the popular psychology is that the neoconservatives will win that competition by providing the foreign-policy strategy and political language that attracts very threat-sensitive Jacksonian populists. If I'm right, the Republican foreign policy that emerges from this election will favor global engagement, assertive interactions in the Middle East and a large military budget.

In other words, the tea partiers will back the neoconservative worldview that dominated the first Bush term. What is perhaps most notable about that shift, however, is the degree to which more moderate Republican realists and liberal internationalists feel increasingly marginalized in a party that continues to move markedly to the right.

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James Kitfield is a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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