No Longer the 'Party of Eisenhower and Reagan'

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Republican opposition to defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel reveals just how far the party's thinking has drifted on foreign policy.

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Jason Reed/Reuters

With exit polls showing that the country trusted him more to conduct U.S. foreign policy than his rival, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama set off a round of commentary about how the GOP could regain its advantage. His nominee for defense secretary, moderate Republican Chuck Hagel, has re-energized that debate [disclosure: Hagel is chairman of the Atlantic Council, the author's employer].

Yours truly jumped on that bandwagon early. Previously, I've argued that Republicans should adopt a humble foreign policy that eschews nation-building -- an idea George W. Bush ran on but never implemented.

The Fletcher School's Dan Drezner kicked off the latest round of foreign policy renewalism with a thoughtful Foreign Affairs essay. In it he asks, "how did the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan get itself into this mess?" The short answer:

GOP leaders stopped being smart foxes and devolved into stupid hedgehogs. During the Cold War, the party of Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Reagan was strongly anticommunist, but these presidents took foreign policy seriously and executed their grand strategies with a healthy degree of tactical flexibility. Since 9/11, however, Republicans have known only one big thing -- the "global war on terror" -- and have remained stubbornly committed to a narrow militarized approach.

Daniel Larison of The American Conservative agrees wholeheartedly with Drezner's diagnosis but is skeptical that a reversal is possible because the Republican leaders who care most about foreign affairs "tend to favor the very absolutist, hard-line, and demagogic arguments that do the party's reputation and its ability to conduct foreign policy competently the most harm." In his view, these people view foreign policy as inseparable from the culture war they're losing at home.

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs has temporarily made available to non-subscribers a 2004 essay from Hagel. Here's a synopsis by the editors that lays out Hagel's worldview and priorites:

Leadership in the Global Economy: "The rule of law, property rights, advances in science and technology, and large increases in worker productivity all have contributed to the United States' leading edge in global markets."

Do Not Ignore Global Energy Security: "Discussions of U.S. energy policy are often detached from economic and foreign policy. The United States has an interest in assuring stable and secure supplies of oil and natural gas."

Security Interests are Connected to Alliances, Coalitions, and International Institutions    : "A Republican foreign policy must view alliances and international institutions as extensions of our influence, not as constraints on our power."

Support Democratic and Economic Reform, Especially in the Greater Middle East: "We cannot lose the war of ideas. In many developing countries and throughout the Muslim world, we are witnessing an intracivilizational struggle, driven in part by the generational challenges of demography and development."

Focus on the Western Hemisphere: "The process of economic integration that began with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) must evolve into a comprehensive program for the entire western hemisphere. Energy, trade, transportation, and immigration, as well as terrorism and illegal narcotics, are all critical to our national security interests."

Work with Allies to Combat Poverty and the Spread of Disease Worldwide: "This is one of the core challenges of governance in the developing world. Avian flu, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other possible pandemics can begin as acute crises in Africa and Asia but quickly acquire global reach and implications."

Strong and Imaginative Public Diplomacy: "The coin of the realm for leadership is trust and confidence, and popular discontent and questioning of U.S. foreign policy intentions will undercut our efforts in the war on terrorism and initiatives in the greater Middle East."

This agenda, frankly, would not have been the least bit controversial had it been offered in the summer of 2000. Indeed, it echoes very strongly Condoleezza Rice's own essay from 2000 that became the first coherent expression of George W. Bush's foreign policy agenda. But as Bush's policy evolved to become more aggressive, such a memo four years later would've been seen as a critique of Bush and his party's foreign policy leadership.

In some ways, Obama's Hagel nomination is a reminder of President Dwight Eisenhower, the great Republican president who exemplifies the leadership style that made the GOP the most trusted party on foreign policy for decades. Indeed, writes David Ignatius, Hagel is a great admirer of Eisenhower: "a war hero whose skepticism toward the military is a model for Hagel's own."

Hagel eventually became perhaps the most staunch Republican critic of the Iraq War, earning bitter enmity from many of his own party's leadership. In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney told the Washington Times , "it's very hard sometimes to adhere to [Reagan's "11th Commandment" against speaking ill of a fellow Republican] where Chuck Hagel is involved."

Susan Eisenhower , Ike's granddaughter and a Republican foreign policy leader in her own right, argues that "the impact of the Hagel nomination could well be about the future of the Republican Party." She reasons:

The Republican Party is now at a crossroads. Over the last decade moderate Republicans have felt increasingly out of place in its ranks. If the GOP confirms Hagel, it could bolster the idea of a 'big tent' Republican Party. A GOP-led rejection of a Republican war hero with impeccable centrist credentials, however, could well be a fatal blow to that concept, along with some of the party's longest and most successful traditions.

She is right.

Lindsey Graham notwithstanding, Hagel's views on most foreign policy issues of the day are well in the mainstream of the professional foreign policy establishment. It's why so many legends of the business -- Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Zbigniew Brzesinski, Robert Gates, Jim Jones, and so many more -- have lauded his nomination.

Problematically, while Scowcroft, Powell, and Eisenhower are admired by professionals in their field, their party's leadership views them as Republicans in Name Only -- if not outright apostates. It's a status they share with Richard Lugar, George H.W. Bush, Jon Huntsman, and, yes, Chuck Hagel.

Either the Republican Party has to re-embrace its traditional foreign policy agenda, or those of us who have been left on the outside looking in will have to conclude that it's no longer our party.

While the transition has been remarkably fast, today's Republican Party is simply not the party of Dwight Eisenhower or even Ronald Reagan. Scowcroft advised Presidents Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush. Hagel and Huntsman both served in the Reagan administration. But, just as the Tea Party is now the de facto domestic policy face of the GOP, the neocons are its foreign policy face.

Unless there's a course correction and soon, those of us who describe ourselves as "Eisenhower Republicans," "Chuck Hagel Republicans," or "Jon Huntsman Republicans" will have to face up to the fact that the modifier negates the noun.

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James Joyner is an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.

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