A Guide To Recognizing Your Candidates

Michael Hirsh, on the GOP field's foreign-policy advisers:

The Republican candidates have the opposite problem: with the president's popularity at Nixonian lows and his foreign policy in broad disfavor with the electorate, nobody is rushing to hire the president's team. Normally, candidates would rush to seek the counsel of high-powered alumni of the president's foreign policy team. But so many of its members—like neocon hawks Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith—are now thought to be tainted, their views are not widely welcomed. (An exception: the highly respected Robert Zoellick, former U.S. trade rep and deputy secretary of state. But Zoellick took himself out of the game when he replaced Wolfowitz as World Bank president in May.) At the same time, the Republicans' conservative base doesn't have much taste for the realists who dominated foreign-policy thinking in past GOP administrations (except for über-adviser Henry Kissinger, who has managed to transcend these divides with the same aplomb he has shown in past campaigns). For Republicans "there's no upside in declaring, 'These are my advisers.' The base hates realists, and neocons are too controversial," says sometime Romney adviser Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. "So the thinking is, don't define yourself by foreign-policy advisers."

This seems about right, although I'm not sure how often candidates do define themselves by their foreign-policy advisers - save when, like George W. Bush in 2000, their lack of foreign-policy experience is so painfully apparent that they need to surround themselves with steady (or steady-seeming) hands to make up for it. But even if none of the GOP candidates are exactly trumpeting the names of their foreign-policy gurus to the skies, we know enough about who's advising whom to indulge in some informed speculation about the current foreign-policy divisions in the field. Sure, all the top-tier candidates may be talking about foreign affairs in the language of Rick Santorum, because that's what the base seems to want, but there are almost certainly real differences, and subtleties, at work behind the scenes.

Rudy Giuliani, for instance, seems to have the most hawkish advisors of any candidate, and the particular hawks he's chosen suggest that a Giuliani administration would drop at least some of the Bush-era democracy-promotion business, and take a view of the War on Terror that's closer to Andy McCarthy, say, than to Reuel Marc Gerecht. John McCain, as befits a candidate who started out hoping to be the consensus GOP choice, is more ecumenical in his choice of advisers, with everyone from Kissinger and Lawrence Eagleburger to Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol bending his ear; his determination to stake his primary campaign on the surge notwithstanding, it seems reasonable to suggest that a McCain Administration would be meaningfully more cautious and multilateralist than its predecessor. Romney's campaign is a bit more of a black box; his chief foreign policy adviser, Steven Schrage, a former Zoellick appointee at the Trade Representative's office, isn't exactly a household name. But - and make of these Washington whispers what you will - I've had a number of people tell me that despite his Santorumesque posturing on the looming threat of an international caliphate, Romney is privately much more friendly to old-school realism, as befits his northeastern-Republican, business class background. (This possibility, one might note, isn't necessarily incompatible with his "double Guantanamo" rhetoric on civil liberties, since I know plenty of self-described realists who wish we hadn't invaded Iraq but take a very hardline stance on detainee policy.)

Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee doesn't have any high-powered foreign policy advisers to speak of, but it's still possible to parse his statements on foreign policy and find some themes that distinguish him from the rest of the field - specifically, a deliberate evocation of George W. Bush circa 1999, thick with comments about the need for the U.S. to be "humble" and not act like a "bully" in world affairs. At times, Huckabee - like Sam Brownback - seems to be groping toward a revision of the "William Wilberforce for the twenty-first century" idealism that motivated so much religious conservatives to throw in their lot with George W. Bush's democracy crusade in general, and the Iraq War in particular. Call it Gersonism tempered by experience, perhaps, in which being concerned about AIDS in Africa and genocide in Darfur and religious freedom in China doesn't mean that you have to be quite so crusader-ish where matters of war and peace are concerned. This is obviously a long way from congealing into something like a coherent foreign policy approach, but it bears watching.

So keeping in mind that all of this is guesswork to some extent, I think it's reasonable to suggest that if you're hoping for a Middle East strategy that involves widening the war's scope (to Iran, and perhaps elsewhere), then you should cast in your lot with Rudy Giuliani. If you're looking for an Administration that resembles the Reagan years or the second Bush term, with a roughly-equal balance of power between realists and idealists of various stripes, then McCain may be your man. If you feel nostalgic for the days of George H.W. Bush, but don't fret all that much about civil liberties, you might consider rolling the dice with Romney, betting that his hawkish primary campaign rhetoric is a slick sales pitch rather than a statement of his deepest principles. (Assuming you're comfortable with that level of phoniness, I mean.) And if you're curious to see whether religious conservatives can come down to earth a bit, and temper their zeal to save the world (and conquer the infidels, in some cases) with a dose of realism, then Mike Huckabee is the guy to keep an eye on.

You may notice I've said nothing about Fred Thompson. Frankly, with only four months left till the primaries, I think it best to restrict my commentary to Presidential contenders who have given the public some reason to take their candidacies seriously.